As the average interest rate on retail store credit cards near 30%, many holiday shoppers could be in for even more financial strain this year if they carry a balance.
The average annual percentage rate for merchant cards reached 28.93%, a new record high, up from 26.72% last year, according to new data from Bankrate.
“We’ve seen all types of credit card rates go up in recent years, but store cards have been increasingly notable,” said Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate.
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In the past, 29.99% interest rates were listed on credit cards of all kinds as so-called penalty rates, or the rate an issuer would charge a consumer who was late with payments, said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree.
“It’s becoming way more common for many credit cards to have that as a possible standard rate,” Schulz told CNBC in a previous interview.
While retail store credit cards can be easier to qualify for, especially for those with lower credit scores or little credit history, experts say consumers should be careful when deciding to open such a high-rate line of credit.
When to avoid retail credit cards
Retail credit cards can help shoppers save money on purchases and gain early access to sales, which can be valuable benefits as long as you pay the card in full. However, you may want to avoid them if you’re going to carry a balance, warn experts.
“With such high interest rates, these purchases could cost you more than double what they originally were when you first bought the item, if you carry that debt for a long time,” said Sara Rathner, credit cards expert and writer at NerdWallet.
Holiday debt does have a way of sticking around. About 52% of Americans incurred credit card debt while holiday shopping last year, and as of mid August, nearly a third have yet to pay off their balances, according to NerdWallet’s 2023 Holiday Shopping Report.
Yet, about 74% of 2023 holiday shoppers still plan on using credit cards to buy gifts this year, NerdWallet found.
For holiday shoppers who may consider opening a retail credit card for holiday purchases, it can be smart to do so if a sizable discount is offered or if the purchase is something you or the gift recipient will benefit from in the long-term, said Bankrate’s Rossman.
Otherwise, shoppers may want to question what effects the transaction will have on their financial future, added Rathner.
‘These 0% promos are very dangerous’
Retail credit cards will oftentimes offer a 0% interest promotion described as “deferred interest.” However, if the cardholder misses a payment by mistake or does not pay the balance in full, “these 0% promos could be dangerous,” said Rossman.
Consumers might see deferred interest offers more commonly in stores where they are more likely to make major purchases, like appliances or furniture, said Rathner at NerdWallet.
With a deferred interest deal, cardholders are given a set amount of time to make payments with 0% interest. If they have not paid off the purchase in full by the end of the period, not only will they earn interest on the remaining balance, they will also retroactively incur interest on the original purchase price, she added.
“If you bought a couch for $2,000 and you still owed $500 by the time the promotion ended, you don’t just owe interest on the $500, you owe interest on the $2,000,” Rathner said.
It’s a “very sneaky” and common tactic on retail cards that’s often buried in the fine print, added Rossman.
Don’t make financial choices at the register
Take your time when deciding whether to open a new line of credit — but don’t make your mind up at the cash register.
“People make bad decisions because they don’t think it through or they don’t realize what’s going on,” said Rossman.
Ask for a brochure you can take home, and then research the credit card and its terms online. See what other offers are available and perhaps weigh competing products against each other to find the best option that suits your needs, Rathner added.
“Don’t make that decision in a crowded store during the holiday season, when everybody behind you is yelling at you to finish,” said Rathner.