Credit-card interest rates are soaring to new highs and, experts say, consumers should start to rethink their debt repayment strategies.
The national average minimum annual percentage rate (APR) for credit cards was 17.07% on Wednesday, up from 17.01% a week earlier, according to a report from CreditCards.com. A year ago, the average minimum interest rate was nearly a full percentage-point lower at 16.15%.
Similarly, the average maximum APR charged by credit-cards issuers is now 24.44%, up from 24.39% last week. The increases are a direct reflection of the Federal Reserve’s move to raise interest rates for the third time this year in late September, said Ted Rossman, industry analyst for CreditCards.com.
The average minimum credit-card interest rate, which is charged to consumers with the best credit, could move above 18% over the next year.
The APR that credit-card issuers charge is calculated using the benchmark prime rate, which is itself based on the federal funds rate set by the U.S. Federal Reserve. With the Fed signaling that more interest-rate hikes are to come, including one possibly in December, credit-card rates are likely to continue moving higher.
Rossman estimated that the average minimum credit-card interest rate, which is charged to consumers with the best credit, could move above 18% over the next year.
That’s no relief to many consumers though. “As high as 18% sounds, some people are already paying considerably more than that,” Rossman said. The average APR for credit cards geared for consumers with poor credit is 24.30%. Credit cards offered by retailer can offer rates at or above 30%.
Read more: American Express plans major changes to its popular Gold Card
Consumers should explore balance transfers
With interest rates likely to continue increasing over the next year, those who have sizable amounts of credit-card debt should strongly consider balance transfer card offers, which allow consumers to transfer their balance to a new card with a lower interest rate.
“Zero-percent offers still exist,” Rossman said. “Anyone with credit card debt should jump on them.”
Not too long ago, consumers could easily find credit-card offers where they would pay no interest and no transfer fees for the first 21 to 24 months. Although these offers are less common now, they’re still available. The Chase Slate JPM, -1.54% and American Express Everyday AXP, -0.54% cards have 0% interest for the first 15 months without a fee for a balance transfer.
These offers can present significant savings. As of 2016, households with credit-card debt were carrying an average balance of $5,700, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, and consumer debt has only ballooned since then.
But if a household with $5,700 in credit-card debt could manage to pay that all off all in a 15-month period, they could stand to save nearly $1,000 in interest by taking advantage of a balance transfer.
What to avoid
Not all deals are created equally. Check the credit limit on the balance transfer cards before signing up, in case the limit is significantly smaller than their outstanding debt. Some zero-interest cards do charge balance transfer fees, which can reduce the benefits of using one.
Consumers should also steer clear of deferred-interest offers. Deferred-interest cards, which are often offered by retailers to help finance large purchases, appear similar to 0% interest balance transfer cards because the issuers typically doesn’t charge interest for a set period of time.
If there’s still a balance at the end of that period, they often will charge interest retroactively on the card’s full balance at the start. Balance-transfer cards, on the other hand, just charge interest on the remaining balance on a going-forward basis after the introductory period.
Also see: This common bank fee has increased 53% over the last decade
Credit-card issuers are charging less in fees
As interest rates have been rising over the past year, many credit-card issuers have opted to get rid of certain fees. A recent CreditCards.com survey of 100 cards found that only 52 cards charge foreign transaction fees in 2018, down from 77 three years ago and 56 last year. “Issuers are really trying to win over those high-value international travelers,” Rossman said.
Overall, the survey found that the number of fees per card has trended downward to 5.5 from 5.9 a year ago. That trend could change if credit-card issuers reach a ceiling in terms of the interest rates they can charge. “If we get to a tipping point where consumers say enough is enough on rates, we might see a situation where fees start to go up,” Rossman said.
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