Struggling to pay bills, more Americans turn to credit cards and loans

Highlights

  • Credit card interest rates are set rise as the Fed raises rates
  • More Americans who are struggling financially are using credit cards
  • A year ago, fewer struggling Americans paid for everyday expenses with a credit card

Inflation in the U.S. is more than three times higher than it was last year, straining Americans' finances.

Without stimulus checks and a lapse in monthly Child Tax Credit payments, Americans in dire financial circumstances are swiping credit cards more frequently compared to a year ago. But they continue to hold back from dipping into savings and retirement accounts relative to last year.

Some 13% of U.S. households found it very difficult to pay for their usual expenses from March 30 to April 10, according to data from the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. Within that cohort, 44% of respondents said they're using credit cards or loans to meet needs, while 34% said they're using money from savings or retirement accounts.

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Americans struggling financially are paying for necessities with credit cards at a higher rate compared to last year, according to Census Bureau data

Last year when inflation was rising at a 2.6% annual rate, some 9% of households surveyed then found it very difficult to pay for usual expenses, according to data from a prior Household Pulse Survey. That survey also found that 34% of households used credit cards or loans to meet spending needs and 31% dipped into savings.

"Even in the face of inflation, if you have steady cash flow coming in, there may be less need or inclination to withdraw from savings," said Mark Schrader, a financial planning strategist at the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America.

The U.S. unemployment rate is just a 10th of a percentage point above the pre-pandemic level and average hourly earnings are up more than 5% compared to last year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Indeed regardless of financial circumstances, the majority of American households are using "regular income sources" to pay for everyday expenses, according to Census data.

Paying off credit card debt will be more expensive 

But in the face of more interest rate hikes this year, Americans may want to think twice about turning to their credit cards. 

Compared to last year, credit card debt has gone up 16% among 64 million Credit Karma members. The average amount of debt they currently hold is $5,221, up from $4,896 in April 2021.

When the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, which it plans to do six more times this year, the interest you'll have to pay on credit card debt also rises. 

Average credit card rates currently hover at 16.36%, according to data from CreditCards.com. Rates began rising after the Fed raised its key interest rate in March for the first time since 2018.

That's why Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com and Bankrate.com., recommends people use most of their tax refund money to pay off credit card debt.

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But if you don't have ample emergency savings it's best to prioritize building it up over paying off credit card debt so you don't "find yourself in a position where you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul," Rossman previously told USA TODAY.

Elisabeth Buchwald is a personal finance and markets correspondent for USA TODAY. You can follow her on Twitter @BuchElisabeth and sign up for our Daily Money newsletter here