Personal finance

The Federal Reserve holds interest rates steady — here’s what that means for your money

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Chris Wattie | Reuters

The Federal Reserve announced Wednesday that it will leave interest rates unchanged. Fresh inflation data issued earlier in the day showed that consumer prices are gradually moderating though remain above the central bank’s target.

The Fed’s benchmark fed funds rate has now stood within the range of 5.25% to 5.50% since last July.

The central bank projected it would cut interest rates once in 2024, down from an estimate of three in March.

For consumers already strained by the high cost of living, there is an added toll from persistently high borrowing costs.

“It’s not enough that the rate of inflation has come down,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “Prices haven’t, and that is what is really stressing household balances.”

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Inflation has been a persistent problem since the Covid-19 pandemic when price increases soared to their highest levels since the early 1980s. The Fed responded with a series of interest rate hikes that took its benchmark rate to the highest level in decades.

The federal funds rate, which is set by the U.S. central bank, is the 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 borrowing and savings rates they see every day.

The spike in interest rates caused most consumer borrowing costs to skyrocket, and now, more Americans are falling behind on their payments.

From credit cards and mortgage rates to auto loans and student debt, here’s a look at where those monthly interest expenses stand.

Credit cards

Since most credit cards have a variable rate, there’s a direct connection to the Fed’s benchmark. In the wake of the rate hike cycle, the average credit card rate rose from 16.34% in March 2022 to nearly 21% today — nearing an all-time high.

“Consumers need to understand that the cavalry isn’t coming anytime soon, so the best thing you can do is take things into your own hands when it comes to lowering credit card interest rates,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at LendingTree.

Try calling your card issuer to ask for a lower rate, consolidating and paying off high-interest credit cards with a lower-interest personal loan or switching to an interest-free balance transfer credit card, Schulz advised.

Mortgage rates

Although 15- and 30-year mortgage rates are fixed and tied to Treasury yields and the economy, anyone shopping for a new home has lost considerable purchasing power, partly because of inflation and the Fed’s policy moves.

The average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage is just above 7%, up from 4.4% when the Fed started raising rates in March 2022 and 3.27% at the end of 2021, according to Bankrate.

“Going forward, mortgage rates will likely continue to fluctuate and it’s impossible to say for certain where they’ll end up,” noted Jacob Channel, senior economist at LendingTree. “That said, there’s a good chance that we’re going to need to get used to rates above 7% again, at least until we start getting better economic news.”

Auto loans

Even though auto loans are fixed, payments are getting bigger because car prices have been rising along with the interest rates on new loans, resulting in less affordable monthly payments. 

The average rate on a five-year new car loan is now more than 7%, up from 4% in March 2022, and that’s not likely to change, according to Ivan Drury, Edmunds’ director of insights.

“Until we hit summer selldown months in the latter half of the third quarter, we should expect rates to remain relatively static during the foreseeable future,” Drury said.

However, competition between lenders and more incentives in the market lately have started to take some of the edge off the cost of buying a car, he added.

Student loans

Federal student loan rates are also fixed, so most borrowers aren’t immediately affected by the Fed’s moves. But undergraduate students who took out direct federal student loans for the 2023-24 academic year are paying 5.50%, up from 4.99% in 2022-23 — and the interest rate on federal direct undergraduate loans for the 2024-2025 academic year will be 6.53%, the highest rate in at least a decade.

Private student loans tend to have a variable rate tied to the prime, Treasury bill or another rate index, which means those borrowers are already paying more in interest. How much more, however, varies with the benchmark.

For those struggling with existing debt, there are ways federal borrowers can reduce their burden, including income-based plans with $0 monthly payments and economic hardship and unemployment deferments

Private loan borrowers have fewer options for relief — although some could consider refinancing once rates start to come down, and those with better credit may already qualify for a lower rate.

Savings rates

While the central bank has no direct influence on deposit rates, the yields tend to be correlated to changes in the target federal funds rate.

As a result, top-yielding online savings account rates have made significant moves and are now paying more than 5% — above the rate of inflation, which is a rare win for anyone building up a cash cushion, according to Bankrate’s McBride.

“Savers are sitting back and enjoying the best environment they’ve seen in more than 15 years,” McBride said.

Currently, top-yielding one-year certificates of deposit pay over 5.3%, as good as a high-yield savings account.

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