Treasurer Joe Hockey has encouraged us all to “go out there and spend” over the holidays for the good of the economy, but money experts warn that a silly season splurge on credit can trigger a serious debt hangover in the new year.
Thirty credit cards have hiked their interest rates in the past 12 months to November by an average of almost half a percentage point, says a leading financial comparison site, despite the Reserve Bank keeping the cash rate steady at 2.5 per cent for 16 months.
One credit card – Citibank Clear Platinum Visa – has increased its rate by a whole percentage point only four months before Christmas, according to RateCity (although it remains one of the lowest).
RateCity product director Peter Arnold tells The New Daily that Christmas spending on credit cards can be “really dangerous”.
“There’s a huge chunk of us out there for who credit cards will always make it too easy to spend more and that’s just amplified at Christmas,” Mr Arnold says.
“Not only do Australians spend more on credit at Christmas, they do struggle to pay it off in those couple of dangerous months after.”
ME Bank confirms that Christmas Eve and the six days prior are a “danger period” for overspending on credit cards, and cautions consumers to “be careful” when using them to shop.
A recent analysis by the bank has found that consumers spend an average of $623 on credit during the last week of Christmas, a 136 per cent increase on the standard weekly spend of $263.
“The closer it gets to Christmas, the more likely you are to panic buy and break your budget,” says ME Bank spokesperson Rebecca James.
“Buying on credit isn’t necessarily always bad. You just need to ensure you view it as a short-term loan that you can pay back during the interest-free period,” Ms James says.
Here’s how to avoid a holiday debt and deficit disaster, and the best ways to nurse a credit hangover in 2015.
Get in early
ME Bank recommends shopping early and developing a Christmas budget to ensure you don’t need to put too many purchases on credit at the last minute.
“It’s not just playing Santa and buying gifts that make Christmas expensive. Food, drinks and travel are also key expenses over the festive period, so make sure you include these items in your budget to avoid surprises,” Ms James says.
“Try to be measured in your approach to spending – do your research and plan gifts in advance to avoid impulse buying.”
Many Australians fail to do this.
New research commissioned by Origin Energy predicts that nearly a quarter (22 per cent) will buy gifts in the last 24 hours of Christmas shopping.
Men buying electronic gadgets and appliances, such as iPhones, are the worst offenders of eleventh hour shopping. Twenty-six per cent will shop for these gifts at the last minute, the Origin Energy report finds.
Comparison shopping, especially online, can be an easy and effective way to keep costs low, ME Bank says.
Finding a cheaper price by searching in Google might help you avoid overspending on credit. Every dollar spent on cash or debit could save you cents in interest next year.
“It’s a cinch to do online,” Ms James says.
Click here for more tips on buying clothes and shoes – the most popular Christmas gifts, according to Origin Energy – on the web.
Wait for the Boxing Day sales
If you’ve left your shopping too late, consider delaying your purchase if at all possible for a week or two.
“Alternatively, hold off gift-giving until New Year and buy gifts during the post-Christmas sales,” Ms James suggests.
Make tackling debt your New Year’s resolution
If you do find yourself starting the year burdened with debt, Ms James warns against simply ignoring the problem.
“Make getting your finances in order one of your New Year’s resolutions,” she says.
Consider a consolidation
A balance transfer or unsecured personal loan are two possible debt hangover cures, says RateCity’s Peter Arnold.
Consolidating debt from one or more cards at a lower interest rate “for a lot of people is going to be an easier way to pay it off”, Mr Arnold says.
Just be sure you read the fine print of your new loan, and stop using your newly purged plastic.
Make sure it doesn’t happen again
Credit card interest rates currently vary anywhere from 8.9 per cent up to around 24 per cent, says RateCity’s Peter Arnold – nearly three times as much.
If you do intend to keep using your credit cards, see if a better rate is on offer. Or kick the plastic habit for good.
“If you know you’ve struggled in the past and you’ve had credit card debt … leave your card at home,” says Mr Arnold, who recommends cash or a debit card instead.