The cost of borrowing is getting more expensive for American households.
With Wednesday’s 0.75-percentage-point interest rate hike, the Federal Reserve has raised benchmark short-term borrowing rates 225 basis points, or 2.25%, since March in an effort to curb unrelenting inflation.
The federal funds rate, which is set by the U.S. central bank, is the interest rate at which banks borrow and lend to one another overnight. Although that’s not the rate consumers pay, the Fed’s moves still affect the rates they see every day on things such as private student loans and credit cards.
Here’s what borrowers should know about how federal funds rate increase four of the most common types of debt Americans carry, and what they can do soften the pain.
1. Credit cards
Since most credit cards have a variable rate, as opposed to a locked-in fixed rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark. As the federal funds rate rises, the prime rate does, as well, and your annual percentage rate could rise within just a billing cycle or two.
Average credit card rates are currently just over 17%, significantly higher than nearly every other consumer loan, and they may go as high as 19% by the end of the year — which would be an all-time high, according to Ted Rossman, a senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.
“There’s a lot that we can’t control, such as high inflation and rising interest rates, but there are steps that you can take to reduce your debt load and the interest rate you’re paying,” he said.
Pro tip: The best thing to do is pay down debt before larger interest payments drag you down.
If you’re carrying a balance, switch to 0% intro APR credit card, Rossman advised. “You can still get up to 21 months with no interest on some balance transfers,” he said, such as the Wells Fargo Reflect, Citi Simplicity or Citi Diamond Preferred.
“They all have transfer fees, but I think that’s well worth it,” Rossman said. “That ability to avoid interest for almost two years is huge.”
“If you have good credit, you might be able to get 6% over five years,” noted Rossman.
Another option is to take a loan from your 401(k), although that can put your retirement savings at risk. Still, it can be worth it for some if they have a high credit card balance and rates keep rising.
2. Mortgage rates
Mortgage rates are fixed and tied to Treasury yields and the economy, so they’ve actually come down from recent highs, largely due to the prospect of a Fed-induced economic slowdown.
”ARMs and HELOCs will become more expensive,” said Jacob Channel, senior economist at LendingTree.
“Borrowers should not only be sure that they can handle their payments potentially getting higher over time before they get an ARM or a HELOC, they should also be sure to shop around for a lender in order to get the lowest rate possible,” he added.
Pro tip: If you’re concerned about your payment going up, then you may want to consider a fixed-rate mortgage or a home equity loan, instead of an ARM or a HELOC, Channel advised.
“While fixed-rate loans typically have higher introductory rates than their adjustable-rate counterparts, the stability that they offer can be well worth the extra initial cost,” he said. “Beyond that, once you have a fixed-rate loan, you don’t need to worry about your rate rising over time.”
3. Auto loans
Most car loans have fixed rates, so existing borrowers shouldn’t be impacted by rising rates, Rossman said.
Auto loans tend to track the 5-year Treasury rates, he added, which are influenced more by investor expectations than the Fed’s rate hikes.
“With recession worries looming, there’s a good chance that most of the run-up in car loan rates is behind us,” Rossman said.
Pro tip: Even if auto loan rates aren’t at historic highs, there’s no question inflation has hit vehicle prices hard. Experts say now might not be the best time to buy a new car, while some may want to consider a used car to save on costs.
When it comes to auto loans, “the best thing consumers can do to save money is to get their own financing before ever stepping foot into a car dealership,” said Erin Witte, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America.
To pad their profits, car dealerships sometimes mark up their interest rate above what a lender has agreed to accept, Witte said.
“Arranging your own financing can save you money by taking the secret markup out of the equation,” she said.
4. Student loans
Borrowers with existing fixed-rate federal student loans will not experience an increase on their interest rates, said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz.
However, interest rates for federal student loans taken out next year will be higher, with a rate of at least 5.75%, Kantrowitz said.
Meanwhile, those with variable-rate private student loans will see their rates increase because of the Fed’s moves, he added.
Pro tip: Borrowers with existing variable-rate private student loans can refinance them into a fixed-rate private student loan, Kantrowitz said.
“The interest rate will be higher than on the variable-rate loan, but it won’t increase like the interest rate on the variable-rate loan will,” he said. “Given that the interest rate increases have had no impact on inflation, the Federal Reserve is likely to implement several more.”
More generally, students and families should try to borrow less as education loans get pricier, Kantrowitz added.
“Focus on free money first, like scholarships and grants,” he said, recommending families fill out the the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, and search for scholarships on websites such as Fastweb.com and the College Board’s Big Future.
And some good news: While borrowing will become more expensive, those higher interest rates will reward savers. Rates on online savings accounts, money market accounts and certificates of deposit are all poised to go up.