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Fixed vs. Variable Credit Card Interest Rates: Key Differences

By Brian O'Connell · May 24, 2022 · 6 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Fixed vs. Variable Credit Card Interest Rates: Key Differences

Anyone who’s ever had a credit card knows they have an interest rate, which represents the cost consumers pay for borrowing money. What you may not know is that interest rates come in two forms: fixed and variable interest rates.

Fixed interest rates stay the same over time and are generally tied to your creditworthiness. Variable interest rates, on the other hand, may change over time and are connected to economic indexes. Read on to learn how to determine if the interest rate of a credit card is fixed or variable, as well as why it’s important to know.

What Is Credit Card APR?


A credit card’s annual percentage rate, or APR, represents the cost a consumer pays to borrow money from credit card issuers, represented as a yearly cost. When a cardholder doesn’t pay off their credit card balance in full each month, they’ll owe credit card interest charges on the remaining balance, with the rate based on their APR.

Credit card APRs vary among credit card issuers, individual cardholders, and credit card categories. However, the average credit card interest rate stood at 16.44% APR as of November 2021.

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Types of Credit Card APRs


Your credit card payment is impacted by what type of APR your credit card has. Let’s have a look at how a fixed rate credit card and a variable rate credit card may affect your credit experience.

Fixed Interest Rate


Fixed rate credit cards have an interest rate that generally doesn’t vary over the course of your credit card contract. Rather than being tied to economic indexes, fixed interest rates are generally determined based on payment history and creditworthiness, as well as any ongoing promotions.

However, just because the term “fixed” is used, doesn’t mean a fixed interest rate can never change. While a fixed rate credit card’s interest rate won’t change based on factors like the prime index, increasing credit card APR can occur if payments are late or missed or if your credit score dips. If that occurs, the credit card company must notify the cardholder at least 45 days before the adjusted rate takes effect.

While fixed rate credit cards offer the benefit of predictability, one downside is that their rates are, on average, higher than variable credit card rates.

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Variable Interest Rate


A variable rate credit card offers interest rates that can shift over time. There’s a reason for that, as variable card rates are tied to major benchmark interest rates, like the U.S. prime rate.

Since major benchmark rates change, so will variable interest rates. That’s why banks and other major financial institutions often shift rates for things like credit cards, home mortgages, auto loans, and student loans. When major interest indexes change, the rates for loans change with them.

What does that mean for a cardholder? For starters, there’s more risk with variable interest rates. Rates can go up, and credit card payments increase when interest rates rise. Conversely, variable rates may go down, which works in favor of the credit cardholder, who will then pay less in interest.

Credit card consumers should check their credit card contracts for the specific conditions that can trigger a variable rate change. Credit card issuers don’t have to notify you of interest rate changes with variable rate cards, so it’s up to the consumer to keep a sharp eye out for changing interest rates.

When Do Variable APRs Change?


As mentioned, the interest rate on a variable rate credit card changes with the index interest rate, such as the prime rate. If the prime rate goes up, so will your credit card’s APR. Similarly, if the prime rate goes down, your APR will drop.

How often your interest rate changes will depend on which index rate your lender uses as a benchmark as well as the terms of your contract. As such, the number of rate changes you may experience can vary widely, often multiple times a year.

Details on how a card’s APR may fluctuate over time will appear in a cardholder’s agreement, which you can generally find on the card issuer’s website. If you’re unable to locate it, you can request a copy from your card issuer.

Differences Between Fixed and Variable Credit Card Rates


Both fixed and variable credit card rates have pros and cons. Here’s a look at the major differences with a credit card with a variable or fixed interest rate.

Fixed Interest Rate Variable Interest Rates
The interest rate usually remains the same Variable rates change on an ongoing basis
Fixed rates are calculated with payment histories in mind Rates are based on a benchmark index, like the U.S. primate rate
The card provider is required to let you know when the rate does change (usually for late or missed payments) The credit card issuer is not required to let you know when rates shift

How Credit Card Interest Rates Are Determined


Credit card interest rates are generally determined based on your creditworthiness — meaning, your payment history and credit score — as well as prevailing interest rates and the card issuer and card type. For instance, a bare bones card may have a lower rate than a premium rewards card. Additionally, credit cards can have different types of APRs, such as an APR that applies for credit card charges and another rate for cash advances or balance transfers.

Another factor that can impact credit card rates is promotional offers. Sometimes, credit card issuers may offer low or no interest periods. After that period ends, the card’s standard APR will kick in, and the card’s rate will go up.

Once determined, how and why a credit card’s interest rate changes over time depends on whether the interest rate is fixed or variable. A fixed rate will generally stay the same, though it may increase if payments are late or missed, or if the cardholder’s credit score takes a dive. Meanwhile, variable rates fluctuate depending on current index rates.

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Reducing Interest Charges on Credit Cards


Perhaps the easiest way to reduce interest charges on credit cards is to pay your statement balance in full each billing cycle. By doing so, you’ll avoid incurring interest charges entirely.

Of course, this isn’t always feasible. If you may end up carrying a balance and want to decrease how much a credit card costs, there are ways to do so. For one, you can call your credit card issuer and request a lower rate. Of course, for this to be successful, you’ll likely have needed to stay on top of payments and have a history of responsible credit card usage.

Perhaps the surest way to secure a better interest rate on your credit card is to improve your credit score. In general, lower interest rates are awarded to those who have higher credit scores and follow the credit card rules, so to speak. You can improve your credit score by making your payments on time, every time, and by keeping your credit utilization ratio (how much of your available credit limit you’re using) well below 30%. You might also avoid applying for new credit accounts, which results in hard inquiries and temporarily lowers your score.

And if you simply feel in over your head with credit card debt and a skyrocketing APR, you may choose between credit card refinancing or consolidation as potential solutions.

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Fixed vs Variable Interest Rate Cards: Which Is Right for You?


In a word, choosing between a fixed rate or variable rate credit card comes down to whether you prefer stability or risk versus reward.

A fixed rate credit card offers a known quantity — a rate that stays the same over time, as long as you pay your credit card bill on time. On the other hand, a variable rate credit card offers an element of risk and reward. If the rate goes up, the cardholder usually spends more money using the card. If card rates go down, however, the cost of using the card usually goes down, too, as interest rates are lower.

Of course, cardholders can largely negate the impact of credit card interest rates by paying their bills in full every month. Of, for those who don’t quite feel ready to tackle the responsibility, there’s always the option of becoming an authorized user on a credit card of a parent or another responsible adult.

The Takeaway


As you can see, it’s important for a number of reasons to know whether a credit card is fixed or variable. Fixed interest rates offer more predictability (though there’s no guarantee they’ll never change), but rates also tend to be higher compared to variable rates. With variable rates, your interest rate will fluctuate over time based on market indexes.

As you shop around for credit cards, interest rate is critical to pay attention to. With the credit card offered by SoFi, for instance, you can secure a lower APR by routinely making on-time payments. Learn more about getting a credit card with SoFi today.

FAQ

Do all credit cards have fixed interest rates?


No, actually most credit cards come with variable interest rates tied to major interest rate indexes. That connection to interest rate changes enables card companies to keep rates competitive on a regular basis.

How do I get notified of an interest rate increase?


By law, credit card companies must notify cardholders in writing at least 45 days ahead of an interest rate change taking effect. Card companies are not allowed to change interest rates during the first year an account is open.

Can I control whether I have a fixed or variable interest rate?


Yes, you can opt for a fixed or variable rate credit card, but know that most credit cards come with variable rates. It’s tougher to find a fixed rate card, but banks and credit unions, which are more likely to offer both, are a good place to start your search.


Photo credit: iStock/AlekseiAntropov

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.
Disclaimer: Many factors affect your credit scores and the interest rates you may receive. SoFi is not a Credit Repair Organization as defined under federal or state law, including the Credit Repair Organizations Act. SoFi does not provide “credit repair” services or advice or assistance regarding “rebuilding” or “improving” your credit record, credit history, or credit rating. For details, see the FTC’s
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The SoFi Credit Card is issued by The Bank of Missouri (TBOM) (“Issuer”) pursuant to license by Mastercard® International Incorporated and can be used everywhere Mastercard is accepted. Mastercard is a registered trademark, and the circles design is a trademark of Mastercard International Incorporated.
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