Personal Finance

Your credit card debt is about to get a lot more expensive

Key Points
  • Credit card debt is creeping up as consumers face rising prices almost across the board.
  • The Federal Reserve's next rate hike will only make it more expensive to carry a balance.
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Consumers are putting more purchases on plastic — and paying more for the privilege.

Rising prices have caused many Americans to feel suddenly cash-strapped and more dependent on credit cards to make ends meet.

After consumers paid off a record $83 billion in credit card debt during the pandemic, helped by government stimulus checks and fewer opportunities for discretionary purchases, credit card balances are creeping back up amid higher prices for gas, groceries and housing, among other necessities.

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Overall, credit card balances rose by $52 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021, notching the largest quarterly increase in the 22-year history of the data, according to the most recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

Now, total card debt is on track to surpass pre-pandemic levels and hit an all-time record as soon as this summer, according to Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com. 

"After the Great Recession, it took years for credit card debt to find the bottom and then years again to get back to an all-time high," Rossman said. "Everything about Covid feels like it's been in fast forward."

At the same time, the Federal Reserve has committed to raising interest rates to tame inflation, which is now running at its fastest pace in more than 40 years

Since most credit cards have a variable rate, there's a direct connection to the Fed's benchmark. As the federal funds rate rises, the prime rate does, as well, and credit card rates follow suit. Cardholders see the impact within a billing cycle or two.

That means anyone who carries a balance on their credit card will soon have to shell out even more just to cover the interest charges.

If the Fed announces a 50 basis point hike in May, as expected, consumers with credit card debt will spend an additional $3.3 billion on interest this year alone, according to a new analysis by WalletHub.

The average consumer has a credit card balance of $5,525, according to Experian, and pays an annual percentage rate of roughly 16.38%, which is cheap by historic standards but significantly higher than nearly every other consumer loan.

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With several rate hikes on the horizon, credit card rates could be as high as 18.5% by the end of the year, another all-time record, Rossman said.

If the APR on your credit card rises to 18.5% from 16.38% in 2022, it will cost you another $885 in interest charges over the lifetime of the loan, assuming you made minimum payments on a $5,525 balance, he calculated.

"People really need to focus on knocking down that credit card debt as soon as possible, because it's only going to get more expensive and it's going to get a good bit more expensive in a hurry," said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst for LendingTree.

If you're carrying a balance, try calling your card issuer to ask for a lower rate, consolidate and pay off high-interest credit cards with a lower interest home equity loan or personal loan or switch to an interest-free balance transfer credit card, Schulz advised.

Zero-percent balance transfer offers are considered the best tool for paying down debt and saving hundreds or thousands of dollars in interest while you can, the experts said.

Cards offering 15, 18 and even 21 months with no interest on transferred balances "are still out there, but assuming rates go up as fast as we expect them to, there's only so long those offers are going to stay as good as they are now," Schulz added.

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