For the first time in years, Americans are in a period of rising interest rates.
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday raised its benchmark rate a half-point, to cool down inflation that’s the highest consumers have seen in 40 years. In addition, Fed Chair Jerome Powell signaled more half-point increases are on the table for all remaining meetings this year.
As rates increase, there are some key money moves financial experts recommend consumers make to put themselves in a better financial situation. These broadly include paying down debt and shoring up personal budgets to be able to withstand any sudden shocks to the economy.
“If your New Year’s resolution was to build a household budget, it may need a refresh and a review,” said Cathy Schaeffer, a certified financial planner, vice president and family advisor manager at Baker Boyer in Walla Walla, Washington. Now is “a chance to really look at your personal budget and identify some ways to pay down your debt more aggressively as these rate hikes are expected to continue.”
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Pay down variable-rate debt
Certain borrowers should be especially careful right now.
That includes anyone looking to buy a home, is shopping for a car or is carrying credit card debt, according to CFP Lauren Anastasio, director of financial advice at Stash.
“If you are shopping for a home, you might want to ask your lender if you can lock in your rate now,” she said. “Sometimes the lender, for a flat fee will allow you to lock in today’s rate even if you’re not going to close for another few months.”
Some borrowers are considering adjustable-rate mortgages, which offer lower initial rates but eventually revert to market conditions. People who had ARMs and are nearing the end of that period may want to consider refinancing to a fixed rate.
Car shoppers may want to stick with newer models and avoid the used car market, where prices have jumped the most. Taking time to shop for the best deal you can find is also in your best interest.
“There’s still a lot of value out there,” said Jacqui Kearns, chief brand and strategy officer at Affinity Federal Credit Union in New Jersey, adding that while rates are rising, they’re still historically low.
People carrying credit card debt may also want to contact their lenders to see if they can strike a deal.
“I always recommend that folks actually call their lender and see if they’re able to lower their interest rate,” Anastasio said.
It may also make sense to consolidate credit card debt into something with a fixed rate, as this kind of debt is the most sensitive to rate hikes and often has the highest interest – right now, the average interest rate on a new credit card is nearly 20%, according to LendingTree.
Paying off debt entirely is also a good idea, if possible. Kearns recommends tackling those cards have relatively low balances.
“If you have that nagging $200 or $300 [debt] out there, just pay it off,” she said.
Prepare for the future
Paying down debt is just one way to set yourself up for financial success in the future, something that’s especially important as people weigh the risk of a recession.
“This is a very delicate dance that the Fed is conducting,” said Anastasio, adding that while the central bank will do their best to tamp down inflation without halting the economy too much, there’s a lot of factors that are out of their control, such as uncertainty stemming from the war in Ukraine.
Financial experts recommend taking time now to review your spending and saving to strike a solid balance.
“Be smart about spending the money you do have,” Kearns said. This may mean cutting back on discretionary purchases or budgeting more for items that have gone up in price. Americans should also make sure they have robust emergency savings to counter increased prices.
As people plan for future spending, such as an upcoming vacation, they may also want to budget more than they usually would, Anastasio said.
“The reality is we may see a taper off in the rapid rise of costs but that doesn’t necessarily mean that when I go into the grocery store to buy baby formula that all of a sudden the manufacturer is going to go back to what they were charging two years ago,” she said.
To be sure, there are some benefits to rising interest rates. In time, savers may start seeing better rates on savings accounts, Schaeffer said. Investors also have opportunities to gain from market volatility, said Kearns.
“It’s a great time to invest if you have the appetite for it,” Kearns said. “Literally just a few dollars a day on the volatility we’re seeing can pick up a lot of value if you stay in for the long-term.”
Those that are struggling to manage their money or are feeling stressed about the current environment may want to enlist professional help for better budgeting or future planning.
“It’s the right time to really take a good look at your goals, your risk tolerance and your financial plan,” said Schaeffer, adding this is especially important for those in transitional periods such as nearing retirement or getting ready to send a child to college.
“Have a plan and work with someone to set that plan up,” said Kearns, adding that there are a lot of resources that span price points from digital tools, platforms to in-person advisors.
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