Much as economic analysts had expected, the Federal Reserve announced at the close of its two-day meeting on Wednesday that it was raising the target federal funds rate by a quarter of a percentage point to between 0.5% and 0.75%, marking the first time the Fed has raised rates since December 2015 and only the second time in a decade. The Fed also indicated it expects to make more rate hikes in 2017.
The federal funds rate is a benchmark interest rate that determines how much it costs for financial institutions to lend to one another. When the rate rises, so does the cost of borrowing for banks. They may in turn pass their higher costs to consumers in the form of increased interest rates on credit cards, auto loans, mortgages and other types of financial products.
So why would the Fed raise rates? In a nutshell, it means that the country's central bank sees signs of a strengthening economy. When times are tougher, the Fed lowers the rate in order to make it easier for consumers and businesses to borrow and spend, thus pumping more money into the economy (which is why the Fed kept rates near zero during the recession). But when the economy shows improvement, the Fed may choose to raise rates in order to keep inflation in check.
There's a lot more economic theory involved in understanding the impact of Fed rate hikes, but what you're probably most interested in is the effect on your personal finances. If you're concerned about what the Fed's announcement could mean for you, here are a couple things to keep in mind.
Remember that even with a rate hike, interest rates are still historically very low. Case in point: Back in December 2006, before the height of the recession, the federal funds rate was above 5%. Back in the mid-to-late 80s, it hovered closer to 10% and in the early 80s, it was in the teens.
Talk of the Fed raising rates isn't new news, so you may have already felt some effects without realizing it. "This interest rate hike has been widely expected, so most consumer interest rates have already climbed in anticipation," says Matt Shapiro, CFP®, a financial planner with LearnVest Planning Services. For instance, mortgage rates have been rising in recent months in part because of the likelihood of the rate hike.
So you probably won't experience some immediate sharp spike based on the Fed announcement; in reality, you may have been dealing with it already within your budget. Plus, any loans for which you previously locked in a fixed rate won't be affected by the Fed announcement. But if you are concerned about how the rate hike could affect your loans or credit cards, keep tabs on any interest-rate changes from your lenders to see if you need to make adjustments to your debt payoff plans or monthly payments.
Also, remember that an interest rate hike isn't always about paying more. You may notice a slight increase in interest you earn on savings, certificates of deposit, money-market accounts and other types of financial accounts as a result of the Fed decision.
Yes, you might see an uptick in your credit card annual percentage rate or other loans with variable interest rates, but having a strong credit score is still the larger determinant of what type of interest rate you might pay, according to Shapiro. "For credit card debt, I would be more concerned with credit scores than with the Fed," he says. "An individual's credit score has a much larger impact on their interest rate."
So focus instead (as you may already have been) on keeping your credit healthy by making on-time payments, keeping your total debt low and making other credit-strengthening moves.