With the holiday season approaching, consumers are gearing up for gift purchases. People have started their shopping as early as August, according to a recent Bankrate survey of holiday shopping habits for 2022.

The Grinch of inflation, which is at a 40-year high, is a factor weighing on consumers’ minds this year. This year’s inflation epidemic means you will likely pay more for your holiday shopping. That leads consumers to seek deals. Bankrate found that 95 percent of consumers are actively looking for ways to save money, causing 52 percent to seek out coupons, discounts and sales.

In the quest for such deals, you may come across a deferred interest offer from a retail store. You should think twice before taking on such offers. While this sort of promotion might seem to be the answer to your inflation-influenced cutbacks, you might end up paying a high price for your purchase.

How deferred interest offers work

When you sign up for a deferred interest credit card promotion, it means you won’t pay interest during a specific period, typically from six to 12 months. If you pay off your entire balance during this period, you won’t owe any interest on your purchase.

Getting away without paying any interest may seem like a good deal, but that’s not always the case. The lender will continue to tally the interest during this promotional period, and if you still carry even a part of the balance at the end of this period, you will have to pay the interest that has built up as well.

For instance, if you buy a $2,000 laptop on a deferred interest promotion and have paid off $1,900 at the end of the promotional period, you would still be on the hook for the accrued interest on the amount you have already paid off. And you would continue to pay interest on the $100 remaining balance as well as the accrued interest.

A deferred interest promotion is different from a 0 percent promotional interest card in that no back interest accrues with the latter. When your 0 percent promotion ends, you will only pay interest going forward on the balance you owe. Interest will not apply on a retroactive basis.

Pitfalls of deferred interest

You may take on a deferred interest promotional offer, based on the assumption that you will pay off the entire balance before the promotional “no interest” period ends. An offer might be along the lines of “no interest if paid in full within 12 months.” That’s a big “if” though, and that’s where the card issuer can cash in.

For instance, with all the speculation about recession, what if you lose your job and can’t pay off your balance before the promotion ends? Or, what if you have an unexpected car repair or medical expense that you have to prioritize instead?

If you read the fine print of the offer, you may find the promotional offer ends if you miss a monthly payment. You will not be able to avoid interest in such situations either. Your high interest rate could even get higher in this case.

And if you carry other balances, such as purchases or cash advances on your credit card, payments you make above your minimum payment are not necessarily applied to your deferred interest balance.

The Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act states that when you make more than your minimum required monthly payment, the issuer should apply the excess amount to the balance with the highest interest rate.

That means, for example, that if you’ve taken out a cash advance with a punishingly high interest rate, the issuer would apply that excess payment toward the balance. There is an exception for deferred interest payments, but you would have to talk to your lender to avail of it. When you do, mention that you want your excess payments to be applied to your deferred interest balance.

For the two billing periods before the promotion ends, though, the law requires your lender to automatically apply your excess payments to the deferred interest balance, even if you don’t specifically choose that option.

Tips to better manage your deferred interest promotion

Before you go for a deferred interest promotion, make sure you will be able to pay off the entire balance by the end of the promotional period. Calculate how much your monthly payment should be to pay off the amount. Just making the minimum payment means you will still have a balance when the deal period ends.

If you carry other balances, contact your card issuer and let them know you want any excess payments above the minimum to be applied to your deferred interest balance.

You could also set up automatic payments from your bank account so you never miss a monthly payment. And be sure to read the fine print of your offer to find out what you need to watch for.

What if, even with the best of intentions, you still find yourself saddled with a balance at the end of the deal period? You would then be better served by finding other ways to better manage the balance.

For one, you could apply for a 0 percent interest balance transfer card, and aim to pay off the balance during its promotional period. Another financing option includes taking out a personal loan to pay off the balance. Homeowners could also contemplate paying off the deferred interest balance with a home-equity loan.

The bottom line

If you’re gearing up for the holiday season and looking for deals to combat inflation, don’t jump too fast at deferred interest promotions. You can avoid paying interest if you pay off the entire balance before the promotion ends, but there are pitfalls if you don’t. If you do go for such an offer and find you’re carrying a balance when the promotion ends, look for alternative financing to avoid hefty interest charges.