NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As holiday shopping season hits high gear, the number of retail credit cards in use out there is also high -- at 183 million, the most in use since 2009, according to credit analysis firm Equifax.
Consumers aren't shy about using them, either. Equifax says the total balances on those cards stands at $56 billion, up 6.4% from last year.
As retail card write-offs and late payments are down, card carriers have become open to issuing more credit to consumers, and that could be a win-win for shoppers and retailers.
"Retailers are eager to capture the hearts and wallets of the American consumer," Equifax chief economist Amy Crews Cutts says. "Retail cards are a great way to do both. Retailers can leverage these cards to drive traffic to their stores through special offers to cardholders and can encourage larger purchases by offering favorable interest-rate promotions for big-ticket items."
"As long as consumers resist the urge to overspend, these cards can be a great way to save money when holiday shopping," Cutts adds.
Consumer finance experts say it's all a matter of discipline and diligence.
"There are ways to use these credit cards and even get the 'instant discount' at the checkout without going into debt," says Beverly Harzog, a consumer advocate and author of the book Confessions Of a Credit Junkie, which was released this month.
By and large, consumers should be wary of the heavy payments linked to store-based credit cards.