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Personal Finance

3 tips to consider when buying essential items during high inflation, according to experts

If your priority right now is buying just what you need, here's the best way to pay for it.

People shop at a grocery store on June 10, 2022 in New York City.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

With the high cost of living these days, Americans have shifted their spending habits to focus on buying only what they need. While things such as gas, groceries and toiletries are considered to be necessary purchases, the next question becomes, what is the best way to pay for them?

In today's economic climate, especially now that most things are more expensive than usual, is it better to use cash, credit or debit to fund your everyday essentials? Here's what the experts have to say.

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Avoid taking on debt to pay for essentials

Rod Griffin, senior director of public education and advocacy for the Experian credit bureau, pinpoints the following as his one universal piece of advice: Consumers should avoid taking on debt to pay for essentials.

With increased interest rates — and the expectation that they are going to climb even higher in the months to come — now is not a good time to take on debt to fund your everyday costs. That means if you can't afford to pay off your credit card bill by the end of its current billing cycle, you should refrain from charging more expenses until you feel better equipped to do so.

As tempting as they may be to turn to when your money is spreading thin, credit cards already charge notoriously high interest rates — and they've gone up even higher since the Federal Reserve's recent rate hikes.

"I would discourage using credit to pay for day-to-day expenses if you cannot pay the balance back on time and in full each month," Griffin says. Carrying a balance is not only costly, but it can also hurt your credit score if your outstanding balance-to-credit-limit ratio, or credit utilization rate, is high.

Bruce McClary, senior vice president of membership and communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, also warns against using a buy now, pay later option at checkout since these are essentially loans, or debt, that can ultimately be costly and eat away at your credit score.

"Many are presented at the moment you are ready to complete your purchase and may not require a credit approval," McClary explains. "These are loans you have to repay, and they may come with interest and fees. There's also the risk you could quickly [go] into more debt than you can manage."

Even if you're making your buy now, pay later payments on time and in full, each purchase that you fund this way shows up as its own separate account on your credit report, meaning multiple purchases can be listed as multiple short-term loans that each close once their balances are paid off. This, in turn, can end up lowering the average age or length of your credit history, which is another important factor in calculating your credit score.

Limit your spending by using cash

Consumers who can't pay their credit card balance in full or who want to steer clear of buy now, pay later loans may want to opt for using cash instead for everyday essentials.

"Unlike credit cards that come with higher monetary limits, most consumers carry a limited amount of cash on them, making it easier to stick to their budget," Griffin says. "Carrying cash can help consumers limit their purchases to the essentials on their list, and eliminate overspending and taking on more debt."

In a similar vein, you can use a debit card. Though you aren't physically limited to what's in your wallet with a debit card, you are limited to what's in your checking account. Since the money comes right out, you don't have to worry about coming too close to your credit limit or being charged interest — this is assuming you don't overdraft.

Consider using a debit card that offers rewards, such as the Discover Cashback Debit Account, which offers cardholders 1% cash back on up to $3,000 in monthly debit card purchases. Those who take full advantage of these rewards can earn up to $30 cash back per month and $360 annually.

Discover Cashback Debit Account

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  • Monthly maintenance fee


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  • Rewards

    1% cash back on up to $3,000 in debit card purchases each month. See website for details by clicking "Learn More".

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In some cases, a credit card can be a helpful tool

The caveat to the above advice is if you actually can afford (and plan to) pay off your credit card balance on a monthly basis, in that case, using credit can be beneficial when shopping for essentials.

Thanks to credit card rewards programs that offer cash back or points and miles with every purchase, cardholders can stretch their money a little further, Griffin explains. For instance, you can use cash-back credit cards to pay your bill when you redeem the rewards as a statement credit.

Consider the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card — which offers unlimited 2% cash rewards on all eligible purchases — and your cash rewards can be redeemed as a statement credit, through a Wells Fargo ATM by using a Wells Fargo debit or ATM card, as a direct deposit into a Wells Fargo savings or checking account or as a paper check. The no-annual-fee card also offers new cardholders a welcome bonus of $200 worth of cash rewards after they spend $500 in the first three months.

Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card

On Wells Fargo's secure site
  • Rewards

    Unlimited 2% cash rewards on purchases

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    Earn a $200 cash rewards bonus after spending $500 in purchases in the first 3 months

  • Annual fee


  • Intro APR

    0% intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and qualifying balance transfers; balance transfers made within 120 days qualify for the intro rate.

  • Regular APR

    20.24%, 25.24%, or 29.99% Variable APR on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

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  • Foreign transaction fee


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See rates and fees, terms apply.

Bottom line

If you're not able to pay off a credit card bill in full each month, it's better to use cash or a debit card to fund your everyday essentials. Otherwise, using a credit card that offers cash-back or rewards points can actually help you maximize your spending in the long run.

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that every consumer is different. A payment method that might be right for your friend or family member may not be what's best for you. At the very least, McClary recommends having a spending plan based on your current financial situation to help cover the basics.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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