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If you're among those consumers who start the New Year with a debt hangover from holiday purchases, now's the time to take those retail credit cards out of your wallet.
"Retail store credit cards have always been more expensive than your average credit card, and they're only getting more and more expensive," said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.
A new analysis from the site found that the average retail card carries a rate of 23.84 percent, versus an average 15.22 percent for all credit cards. The card with the highest rate in the study was Big Lots, at 29.99 percent.
(CreditCards.com assessed 68 store-branded cards for the study, including all of those on offer from the 100 largest retailers by 2015 sales.)
"That is basically the penalty rate for most general-purpose credit cards," Schulz said.
Store cards can offer valuable discounts for shoppers who are able to pay the balance off in full each month. But with such high rates, interest can quickly eclipse the value of any discounts applied or rewards earned.
Be particularly wary of special financing offers such as no interest on purchases if the balance is paid off in a set period, said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Nearly half of major retailers have such deferred-interest plans, according to a 2015 CardHub.com study.
"Not everybody wins that game," McClary said.
If you fail to meet all the terms, he said, the fine print usually allows the retailer to charge interest retroactively on the original balance. That's an expensive lesson, especially on a big-ticket purchase over a long financing period.
Shoppers' best option heading into the holiday shopping season is to weigh the merits of the store card before heading to the mall, McClary said. That gives you an opportunity to review the terms before the clerk pitches you at checkout.
"It can save you a lot of money in the long run," he said.
Even if you pay off your balance in full each month, a store card might not be your best bet, Schulz explained. Some general rewards cards now have sign-up bonuses topping $1,000.
"The bonuses offered by these store cards can't necessarily match up to that," he said.