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Rate hike risk: 40% of consumers would spend less

One day ahead of what's widely expected to be the first interest rate hike in nearly a decade, a new study has found that more than half of American households fear an increase would be bad for their personal finances. What's more, nearly 4 in 10 said they would trim their spending — even if it's just by a little — if rates go up.

The bearish findings come despite the fact that the market is calling for just a quarter-point hike, and as consumers continue to reap the benefits of lower gas prices.

But according to the survey, which was conducted by retail research firm Conlumino, a majority of Americans are worried that a hike could be just the start of a series of raises.

Shoppers carry bags while walking through the Cherry Creek Shopping Center in Denver.
Matthew Staver | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Shoppers carry bags while walking through the Cherry Creek Shopping Center in Denver.

The survey, which polled 3,604 consumers, was done between Nov. 24 and Nov. 30.

"A small rise will probably have a negligible impact on the finances of most households, especially when set against the backdrop of falling gas prices," said Neil Saunders, CEO of Conlumino.

"But the reality matters less than the perception. Many people perceive a rate rise as a bad thing and fear it will be the start of a series of increases. That may well dampen propensity to spend as people prepare for tougher times ahead."

According to Conlumino's study, 55.8 percent of respondents are concerned that an interest rate rise in the next month would signal the start of a series of increases. Coming in a close second, 54.9 percent said they are worried it would weaken economic growth. Other concerns were that it would result in higher credit card and mortgage payments.

Conlumino's findings put its proprietary consumer sentiment index at its lowest level since May.

Although James Russo, senior vice president of global consumer insights at Nielsen, said the potential impact from a rise in interest rates likely wouldn't trickle through until 2016, the retail industry is already on fragile footing. Economic issues including higher health-care costs and rising rents continue to outweigh savings from a decline in average gas prices, which are now near $2 a gallon.

The National Retail Federation is calling for 3.7 percent sales growth in November and December, compared to 4.1 percent growth during the same months in 2014, as price competition and prolonged warm weather also weigh on sales.

"[Cheaper gas is] a positive factor but it's not the only factor," said Russo. "Put it in the positive column for consumers but there are other dynamics."