Try holding your credit card up to your ear, real close. You might hear the soft tick, tick, tick of your interest rate going up.
Back on May 4, average U.S. credit card interest rates clocked in at 16.41%, according to financial information site Bankrate. By July 6, 17.01%. By August 17, 17.67%.
In fact, such rates are at a record high since CreditCards.com started compiling data 15 years ago. And more Federal Reserve rate hikes are expected down the pike, in an ongoing effort to rein in inflation, putting upward pressure on lending rates across the board.
“Credit cards were expensive before, they are more expensive now, and they will be even more expensive by the end of the year,” says Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com.
This is obviously bad news for consumers, who were busily stacking up debt in the year’s second quarter.
National credit card debt rose $46 billion for the quarter, and $100 billion compared to the same time last year, according to the new Household Debt and Credit Report from the New York Fed. That 13% year-over-year increase is the largest jump in over 20 years.
Bigger debts, paired with bigger interest rates, are putting some household balance sheets in the danger zone.
“Credit-card interest rates seem to always go up and never go down,” says Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program for advocacy organization U.S. PIRG. “The banks are getting away with it, and have been for a long time. They raise rates whenever they have an opportunity.”
Often a hike is because of variable-rate cards that are tied to the prime rate, so when that rate goes up (currently 5.5%), it is passed through to borrowers. Other times a rate boost might be because of a late or missed payment, which violates the original contract and allows lenders to reset at a higher percentage.
This rising tide of credit card interest rates may be difficult to push back, but you are not powerless. Here are tips from the experts.
ASK FOR RATE REDUCTION
Call up your lender, and see if they are amenable to a lower rate – something they are more likely to do if you are a longtime cardholder in good standing, and not someone who makes late payments or is bumping against credit limits.
When U.S. PIRG once tried this out with a sample group of consumers, 56% got a reduction – with successful candidates getting rates cut, on average, by more than a third.
DO A BALANCE TRANSFER
There is one elegant way to slash those double-digit interest rates right away: Arrange a balance transfer onto a new card. Obviously you still have to pay the sum back, but at least you can enjoy an extended introductory period of 0% interest.
Prominent offers right now include Wells Fargo Reflect, Citi Simplicity, and Citi Diamond Preferred. Just try to be prudent with balance transfers, says Mierzwinski, since frequently closing old accounts and opening new ones is not ideal for your credit score.
PAY MORE THAN THE MINIMUM
When getting a monthly statement, many cardholders simply send back the minimum amount due. But you are playing right into lenders’ hands – leading to interest income that makes the banks about $100 billion a year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
As an example, a $10,000 debt on a card with a 20% rate, making a small monthly payment of $200, will cost you an additional $11,000 in interest alone over time (and take 106 months to pay off). So go as far above the minimum as you can, and ideally do not carry a month-to-month balance at all.
LOOK AT ALTERNATIVES
There are other loan options that can be preferable to getting soaked to the tune of 20-25%. A personal loan from your bank is one solution – those currently average around 10%, says Rossman. For someone with good credit, rates can be more like 6%. Or nonprofit credit counseling firms like Money Management International can also help place you into a single loan at a lower rate.
USE REWARDS CAREFULLY
Cash back, points and other programs only make sense if you are paying off the card in full every month.
“If you are getting a 1-2% reward, that’s completely offset by cost of carrying a balance at an interest rate like 15-25% or even higher,” says Mierzwinski. “People are being manipulated into using their cards more and more — and the credit card companies are laughing all the way to the bank.”