UK consumers added an extra £862m to their credit card bills and put less money away in bank accounts in November, according to new data that adds to evidence of an early pre-Christmas splurge.
The Bank of England figures showed the biggest monthly increase in credit card borrowing since July 2020.
Overall consumer credit, which also includes car finance and personal loans, rose by £1.23bn in November – also the highest for 16 months.
It was a stark difference with November last year when households reduced their credit card balances by paying off a net £915m of outstanding debt.
The data comes after official figures showed a bigger than expected bounce in retail sales in November helped by earlier than usual Black Friday discounts and shoppers making purchases earlier to try not to be caught out by supply chain woes.
Debt advice charity StepChange said the surge in credit card borrowing “may be an indicator of increasing underlying financial stress among some households” as living costs rise sharply
The new Bank of England data showed the year-on-year growth rate for all consumer credit was 0.4% – the first increase since March 2020.
During the pandemic, households have been squirrelling away record levels of savings and paying off outstanding loans.
Experts said the latest data seemed to show consumer financial behaviour returning to normal though this was likely to have been disrupted by fresh uncertainty last month created by the advent of the Omicron COVID variant.
The BoE figures also showed households put away £4.7bn in bank and building society deposits and NS&I accounts in November, down slightly from October and less than half the average £11.2bn they had been putting away each month over the past year.
They also showed that mortgage approvals were little changed from the previous month at just under 67,000 – the lowest since June 2020 after the stamp duty holiday ended, though similar to pre-pandemic average levels.
Bethany Beckett, UK economist at Capital Economics, said of the consumer credit figures: “It appeared that households were well on their way towards a return to more ‘normal’ borrowing and saving behaviour as the economy picked up some momentum.
“But the strong November data are old news now.
“We suspect that surging virus cases will have knocked borrowing since then.
“And with households facing a squeeze from higher inflation and taxes in the coming months, consumer spending may struggle to make much headway over the next few quarters.”
Samuel Tombs, chief UK economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said that with inflation surging “households will have to save much less this year merely to sustain their current level of expenditure, given the outlook for falling real disposable income”.
He said: “A consumer boom led by a rapid run-down of pandemic-related savings continues to look very unlikely.”
Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “The price of everything from energy bills to filling up the car or supermarket trolley has soared.
“We also flashed the plastic more in November as we shopped early for Christmas – for fear that shortages of everything from toys to turkeys could scupper the festivities.”