(CNN) — As retail sales took a bit of a breather in December, so did the credit cards.
US consumers’ outstanding credit grew by $11.56 billion to end the year, according to Federal Reserve data released Tuesday. It’s the lowest monthly gain since January 2021 and well below economists’ expectations of $25 billion.
For much of 2022, consumer debt levels grew at record rates as pandemic-induced pent-up demand ran up against a period of rampant inflation.
However, as the year drew to a close — and the Federal Reserve jacked up interest rates to combat inflation — that bullish spending activity was curtailed.
“Long story short, we’re seeing a more cautious consumer,” Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst with Bankrate, told CNN.
“Consumer spending certainly isn’t falling off a cliff, but we are seeing ample evidence that Americans are becoming more reluctant to make certain purchases, especially larger expenses and acquiring physical goods,” he said. “Services spending has been more robust, perhaps still owing to pent-up demand that stacked up during the pandemic for things like traveling and dining out.”
Revolving credit balances, which is mostly credit cards, grew by 7.3% in December, according to Tuesday’s report. That’s the lowest month-on-month increase since the summer of 2021, Rossman noted.
Still, those balances growing in a month when spending was down likely shows the toll taken by higher interest rates, Rossman said.
The average credit card charges a record-high 19.95%, Rossman said, citing Bankrate data that also showed that 46% of card holders are carrying a balance from month to month. That’s up from 39% a year before.
“Even if spending may be tailing off a bit, high inflation and higher interest rates are making balances harder to pay off,” he said. “More people are putting necessities on credit cards and financing these expenses over time.”
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