2023 Canadian Consumer Credit Card Report
By Shannon Terrell
May 8, 2023
Amid some of the highest inflation rates in decades, Canadians have turned to their credit cards for relief.
Nearly half of Canadians (48%) say their credit card habits have changed over the past 12 months; among them, the top reason for this change is because prices for goods/services were higher (68%), according to a new NerdWallet survey. As prices for essentials continue to rise, swiping a credit card to cover the cost has become prevalent: Seven in 10 Canadian adults (70%) have used a credit card to pay for essential purchases in the past 12 months.
NerdWallet Canada’s 2023 Consumer Credit Card Report analyzes the credit card landscape and its impact on consumer finances. In April 2023, NerdWallet Canada commissioned a survey conducted online by The Harris Poll among over 1,000 Canadian adults in which we asked about credit card usage, including how credit card habits have changed over the past 12 months — and why.
- Majority of Canadians have used credit cards for essential purchases: Seven in 10 Canadian adults (70%) have used a credit card to pay for essential purchases in the past 12 months, with about 1 in 5 (19%) saying they did so but did not pay all of those balances off in full each month.
- Rising costs have changed the way Canadians use their credit cards: Nearly half of Canadians (48%) say their credit card habits have changed over the past 12 months; among them, the top reason for this change is because prices for goods/services were higher (68%).
- Many Canadians do not regularly pay their credit card balance in full: Among Canadians with a credit card, just 58% say they always pay credit card balances in full each month.
- Canadian credit card debt is common: More than 2 in 5 Canadians (43%) currently have credit card debt; among them, 40% think it will take them six months or longer to pay off all of that debt, and 11% are not at all sure how long it will take them to pay it off.
- Some Canadians cover the cost of essentials with their credit card rewards: One in three Canadians (33%) have redeemed credit card rewards to pay for essential purchases in the past 12 months.
- Many Canadians pay close attention to their credit card balance — but not all: Among Canadians who currently have a credit card, 89% say they check their balance at least once monthly, although 5% say they check less than once a month.
Inflation is a major factor in shifting credit card habits
The pandemic’s perfect storm of economic conditions led to record-breaking rates of inflation. In 2022, Canadians saw annual inflation rise to a 40-year high of 6.8%. And this pressure cooker of increased prices changed how Canadians used their credit cards.
Of Canadians whose credit card habits changed over the past 12 months, the most cited reason for the change was higher prices for goods and services (68%). But other factors also influenced changes in credit card behaviour, including major unexpected purchases (23%), changes in employment resulting in reduced income (20%), living situation changes (16%) and rent or mortgage payments requiring more monthly income (16%).
Millennials more likely to change credit card habits in response to increased rent and mortgage payments
Between January 2022 to January 2023, the Bank of Canada raised the policy interest rate from 0.25% to 4.5%. And while the rate hikes have helped temper inflation, rent and mortgage costs rose to new heights — though higher prices may not have impacted all generations equally.
Nearly one in four (23%) Millennials (ages 27-42) whose credit card habits have changed over the last 12 months attribute the change to mortgage payments or rent that required more of their income each month.
Rising housing costs also impacted the credit card habits of other generational cohorts, but to a lesser degree: 16% of Gen Xers (ages 43-58) and 8% of Baby Boomers (ages 59-77) whose credit card habits have changed over the past 12 months say it is because mortgage payments or rent required more of their income each month.
Canadians use their credit card for essential purchases
A majority of Canadians say they used a credit card to cover the cost of essentials (like groceries or utilities) in the last year. Seven in 10 Canadian adults (70%) used a credit card to pay for essential purchases in the past 12 months, but only half (51%) say they did so and paid all of those balances in full each month.
A swipe or tap at the register wasn’t the only way Canadians funded essential purchases: One in three (33%) say they redeemed credit card rewards to pay for essentials in the past 12 months. Other credit card-related actions taken by some Canadians in the past 12 months include opening a new credit card (15%) and using built-in buy now, pay later options to pay for essentials (9%).
“Using a credit card to pay for everyday expenses can be a great way to build credit and earn points, but don’t forget that it’s borrowed money,” says Georgia Rose, personal finance expert at NerdWallet Canada. “Think about your credit card as being tied to your chequing account; If you don’t have the cash to cover the bill in full, pause before using it.”
Gen Zers least likely to swipe their credit card to cover the cost of essentials
Most Canadians have used credit cards for essential purchases in the past 12 months, but one generation was less likely to do this than others.
Fifty-three percent of Generation Z (ages 18-26) say they used their card to pay for essential purchases in the past 12 months, compared with 76% of Generation X 74% of Baby Boomers and 68% of Millennials.
More than 2 in 5 Canadians carry credit card debt
Credit card debt is common. According to the survey, 43% of Canadians currently have credit card debt. As for how long Canadians with credit card debt expect it will take them to pay back what they owe, nearly half (48%) say it will take them less than six months to pay off all their credit card debt.
But many see a much longer road ahead: 40% say it will take six months or longer to clear their credit card balance, while 11% are unsure how long their credit card debt repayment will take.
It can be challenging to stay on top of your credit card bill, especially in the face of rising costs for goods and services. Among Canadians who currently have a credit card, 58% say they always pay credit card balances in full each month. Another 14% each say they sometimes or often pay their balance in full, and the same proportion (14%) say they rarely or never pay their balance in full.
Carrying a balance on your credit card isn’t the end of the world, so long as you consistently keep up with the minimum payment. That said, making only minimum payments has its drawbacks as a long-term strategy: you’ll pay more interest, and your credit utilization ratio will remain elevated — neither of which are healthy for your finances. Failing to pay the minimum payment may result in late fees, penalty interest rates, and your credit score may suffer.
Not all credit cardholders pay close attention to their balance
Routinely reviewing your credit card balance helps you notice your spending patterns — and it’s a financial habit most Canadian credit cardholders practice.
Among Canadians who currently have a credit card, almost nine in ten (89%) say they check their balance at least once per month, although 5% say they check less than once a month. Only 6% of Canadian credit card holders report never checking their credit card balance.
4 ways credit card holders can get more value from their credit card
These tips and tricks can help credit card holders maximize their card’s value.
1. Consider your credit card options
No credit card is one size fits all. If your current credit card isn’t strengthening your financial situation, it may be time to trade up.
Do you travel frequently? A credit card with travel rewards may be beneficial. Do you typically carry a balance on your card? A low-rate credit card could save you money and help you pay off your debt faster.
Take a look at your lifestyle, finances and spending habits. If your circumstances have substantially changed from when you first got your current card, you may benefit from a different card type.
2. Explore balance transfer credit cards
Balance transfer credit cards often offer a low introductory interest rate on amounts moved over from existing credit cards. Rates as low as 0% may be available for a limited period — typically 12 months.
A balance transfer credit card offers a window of time to pay down your credit card balance while accruing low or no interest. When the introductory interest rate period is over, the card’s rate reverts to the standard purchase rate for the card (which will likely be closer to 20%). But in the meantime, you might be able to make a serious dent in what you owe.
3. Put rewards points to use
If your credit card earns rewards, familiarize yourself with the rewards program. Check for any caveats, exclusions or redemption blackout periods. Your points or miles may be worth more depending on how and when they’re redeemed.
4. Exploit your card’s earn rate
Many cards that earn rewards offer a higher earn rate for spending in specific categories, like groceries, gas or travel. Outside these categories, the card may offer a base earn rate for all other eligible purchases.
Maximize spending in your highest earning categories to get more value from your credit card.
This survey was conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from April 3-5, 2023, among 1,025 Canadian adults ages 18 and older. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 3.8 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Mauricio Guitron at [email protected].
“Essential purchases” refers to purchases made to cover the cost of essential goods and services, like groceries, utilities, etc.
“Gen Z” refers to Canadian adults aged 18-26.
“Millennials” refers to Canadian adults aged 27 to 42.
“Gen Xers” refers to Canadian adults aged 43 to 58.
“Baby Boomers” refers to Canadian adults aged 59 to 77.
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