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With the holidays fast approaching, many consumers are getting ready to stretch their budgets to the breaking point and beyond. And for some, opening a new store credit card will help bridge the gap to afford those extra special presents under the tree. Unfortunately, this veritable annual ritual for some consumers can result in a post-holiday debt spiral that is hard to conquer.
To confirm this, CompareCards conducted a deep dive into LendingTree data — specifically, the anonymous credit histories of 130,000 consumers with 780,000 credit cards — to discover which months of the year they opened new accounts. Unsurprisingly, November and December lead the way.
However, the data showed that consumers aren’t necessarily opening traditional bank, credit union or finance company cards, but they are opening cards at department stores (including places like Target and Walmart), as well as jewelry, electronics, clothing and sporting goods retailers to fill those stockings.
All of that holiday swiping can then lead to a New Year hangover, with the first two months of the year showing the lowest rate of card openings, from both retail and financial institutions.
- The allure of those on-the-spot discounts. That initial discount offered to new cardholders by some retailers could be the reason that store cards had a much higher application rate between pre-holiday and post-holiday account openings: 23% of them are opened in November and December, while only 13% are opened in January and February.
- Department stores lead the way. With armfuls of merchandise for everyone on their holiday list, it’s no wonder that department and variety store shoppers open 26% of their cards in the last two months of the year; in contrast, only 12% are opened in the first two months.
- His-and-hers wish list items drive new accounts. Jewelry and electronics stores sign up more than 25% of their cardholders during the holiday season, but take a big step down to just 16% in January and February.
- For the rest of the shopping list… Sporting goods, furnishings and clothing retailers each sell a fifth of their cards after Halloween, but before the ball drops.
- Regular bank cards have a different busy season. The biggest months for opening bank cards are March and April (18%), possibly related to tax season or summer vacation booking. Otherwise, openings are relatively even throughout the year, with a slight dip in January and February (15.5%).
- Seasonal shops are the exception. Some retailers, such as garden, farm and building suppliers, open more card accounts in the spring (when people are most likely to get to work on home and garden projects) and hardly any during winter months.
Think before you apply (and buy)
The bottom line is that people are taking on extra debt going into the holidays with store cards acting as one of the most popular channels for doing so. While store cards can sometimes offer attractive benefits (i.e. apply today and save 15% off your entire purchase, or the offer of a 0% deferred interest period), many people find themselves grappling with debt when they can’t pay the bills come January.
Store cards have notoriously high interest rates and, often, not paying off the balance before a deferred no-interest period ends might result in interest getting tacked on from the date of purchase. What’s more, some consumers this past year who were relying on using their tax refunds to pay off their holiday debt suffered a rude awakening when their returns didn’t meet their expectations.
The bottom line: it’s never advisable to take on more debt than you can handle just to celebrate the holidays. But if you do decide to use credit cards to help you cover some extra expenses, it’s wise to research your best options before you apply.
See our top picks for Best Store Credit Cards
What you shouldn’t do? Sign up for retail cards at every checkout register you hit simply because the cashier offers you a discount. For starters, every application you put through will ding your credit store. And the more debt you take on using multiple cards, the harder it will be to meet those obligations when the bills start arriving.
Once the holiday decorations are put away, if you still find yourself with credit card buyer’s remorse — and a large, high-interest balance — it might be worth considering transferring the debt to a low- or no-interest card. Of course, you should only do that if you have a solid payoff plan in place and can commit to a cash-only lifestyle for a while. At least until next November rolls around, that is.
In the meantime, make it a resolution next year to sock away a few bucks into a savings account that’s earmarked for holiday 2020 purchases, or save up those credit card rewards all year long to help fuel your holiday shopping.
CompareCards analysts reviewed the origination dates of over 780,000 credit cards held by over 130,000 anonymized My LendingTree, as of June 5, 2019. The average number of past and present credit cards was 5.9 per user. These cards were categorized as bank-, credit union- and retail-based on the issuer. Issuers labeled as government or health were excluded.
My LendingTree is a financial intelligence platform available to the general public, regardless of their debt and credit histories, or whether they’ve pursued loans on a LendingTree platform. My LendingTree has over 12 million users. CompareCards is a wholly owned subsidiary of LendingTree.