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Consumers Hit Pause on Revenge Buying as Variants Spread

Despite jumping in early 2021, credit card spending on travel, dining and retail fell with the emergence of Omicron and Delta.


January 12, 2022

  • Travel spending rebound started and stopped in 2021. As more Americans grew comfortable flying, cruising and staying in hotels, total credit card spending on travel made up 8.4% in 2021 – up from 6.2% in 2020. However, many people pulled back in the fall when the Delta and Omicron variants started to spread. This likely kept spending well below pre-pandemic levels, when travel spending made up 10.5% of all credit card expenses in 2019.

  • Restaurant spending jumped, while grocery purchases eased. As expected, dining out expenses and groceries correlated strongly with stages of the pandemic lockdown. Following shelter-in-place orders that kicked off in 2020, credit card spending on groceries was 11.4% – up from 8.5% in 2019. As the country began to reopen, grocery spending slowed, but still made up 10.4% of all credit purchases in 2021.

  • Revenge shopping drove a spike in retail spending in the spring, but dipped amid Delta concerns. As a spending category, retail purchases made up the largest share of credit card transactions in 2021 at 21.7%. There was a notable surge in clothing purchases starting in April slowing in August. This roughly lines up with the widespread distribution of vaccines and spread of the Delta variant. The share of spending on electronics - which was the dominant sub-category for retail in 2020 - dipped to 11.8% from 13.1% in 2020. 

This edition of the Tally Credit Card Spending Index examines the spending habits of Americans carrying credit card debt in 2021 compared to 2020 and 2019. Instead of a monthly snapshot, this analysis looks at a full 12-month worth of anonymous credit card purchases at retailers and merchants in categories, including entertainment, groceries, personal care and fitness, shopping, restaurants and travel.

Following a year of stay-at-home orders and economic shutdowns, many Americans started 2021 feeling optimistic and eager to reclaim a “lost year” through revenge spending — from treating themselves to vacations to buying new clothes for various delayed social events. 

The month of April is an important bellwether of credit card shopping trends as it marked the near one-year anniversary of the peak of the pandemic-driven economic shutdowns in the U.S. The increasing availability of the vaccines and roll-out of the third stimulus checks may have been factors that made April a milestone month for top categories as explored in this post.

However, by September, the Delta variant began to shift consumer sentiment and many people began to pull back their spending on non-essentials once again. This repeated in late December, most notably in East Coast states, when the more contagious Omicron variant began to spread. Many businesses were closed and schools decided to resume distance learning in the new year. 

Travel spending rebounded starting in the spring, but there are signals it may wane once more in early 2022

After a year-long lockdown, the travel bug hit many hard, as Americans became more bullish and comfortable with flying and staying in hotels due to more people getting the COVID-19 vaccine and restrictions easing across the country. In April 2021, credit card spending in the travel category jumped up a whopping 438.7% year-over-year from 2020, when only 26.5% of credit card expenses were travel-related. 

Spending on travel continued to see gains over the following seven months heading into the end of the year. Despite this growth, the share of total credit card spending on travel was still well below pre-pandemic levels at 8.4% in 2021 compared to 10.5% in 2019 and 6.2% in 2020.

The new Omicron variant, unpredictable weather and ongoing nationwide worker shortages may have driven many to (once again) stay closer to home and cancel their holiday travel plans towards the end of 2021. Holiday shopping also returned in full force this year, with credit card balances rising $17 billion in the third quarter of 2021, according to recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This increase in credit card debt early on in the new year, in addition to ongoing concerns with the Omicron variant and inflation-related costs, may temper appetites for travel in early 2022.

Tally Tip: Beware of hidden costs when it comes to travel. Plan for your entire trip door-to-door- not just the flight. This means looking at the cost of getting to the airport, parking and how you plan to get around once you’ve reached your destination, on top of airfare, lodging and car rentals. Consider that food costs may be higher, so you may want to make meal reservations in advance or research local supermarkets if you will be making your meals. 

Spending on dining out and groceries correlated strongly with phases of the pandemic lockdown

Similarly to travel, many Americans were eager to return to their former routines, including social engagements at restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other dining establishments. Restaurants made up 17.1% of total credit card purchases in 2021, up from 15.1% in 2020. Following shelter-in-place orders that kicked off in March 2020, year-over-year credit card spending on restaurants grew 92.3% in April compared to 155.7% in April 2021 as some parts of the country began to re-open and dining outdoors became available. 

During this same period, grocery-related purchases in April 2020 grew by 210.5% compared to April 2021 where it dipped to 90.5%, perhaps a sign of spending shifting as more people saw travel and dining out options emerge again. Since the start of 2021, spending in the restaurant category steadily climbed as vaccination rates increased and social distancing restrictions eased. In contrast, credit card spending on groceries declined slightly, particularly during the summer months as more people ventured away from home. 

As 2021 wrapped up, rising food prices likely affected both restaurants and grocery stores, experiencing more costly inventories and ongoing supply chain challenges. For the time being, higher prices for groceries may put pressure on many Americans' grocery budgets, forcing them to change how they shop for food and essentials.

Tally Tip: Make a plan for your money, aka a budget. Not budgeting = spending and hoping for the best. Get intentional and start telling your money where to go when it comes to groceries, food delivery, or dining out. List out your monthly income along with all of your monthly expenses. The first line item on your budget should be to pay yourself first. Next, set aside part of your paycheck to cover your living expenses in order of importance. It should look something like this: rent, food, insurance, cell phone and WiFi service, etc. If you have any debts, allocate part of your budget to repay those, prioritize the debts with the highest interest rates, such as credit cards. 

Making up for lost time, “revenge shopping” prevails for majority of 2021

After a year of having no one to see, nowhere to go and no events to attend, people were ready to “avenge” what they had lost. Americans shopped en masse to update their wardrobes in anticipation of upcoming vacations and social gatherings. 

As a spending category, retail purchases made up the largest share of credit card purchases in April at 21.6% as well as for the whole of 2021 at 21.7%. However, not all retail purchases were made equally. Spending on clothing-specific retailers made up 7.1% of all credit card transactions in April. There was a notable surge in clothing purchases beginning in April ahead of peak vacation season and lasted through August, fueled by back-to-school shopping and the anticipation of returning to offices.

After last year’s pandemic-driven buying of tech gear while stuck at home, the share of electronics purchases began to dip starting in the spring as more Americans opted to return to social engagements and travel. There was a small uptick in electronics spending in September following Apple’s annual event, likely driven by iPhone 13 pre-orders. Overall, the share of credit card spending for electronics declined year-over-year with 13.1% in 2020 and 11.8% in 2021.

Amid ongoing supply chain challenges and inflation hitting its highest point in more than 30 years, retail spending is likely to continue to ease in the near term as pandemic-specific challenges continue to drive costs up.

Tally Tip: Reassess non-essential expenses. If your budget is stretched, be honest about your financial circumstances and prioritize your non-essential spending. Don’t overspend on something because of a scarcity mindset. Rising prices are real, but that doesn’t mean you should not get the best price possible. Put off buying or find a less expensive alternative if you don’t need that specific item. Also, look for monthly expenses that you can either scale back or cut out all together. Comb through all your spending for the last three-to-six months by printing out your credit card and bank statements and take a hard look at each expense. Maybe take out a highlighter or a sharpie to flag things you have not used in many months, such as recurring digital subscriptions and consider canceling them.


The Tally Credit Card Spending Index ranks the share of purchases made each month in several categories: entertainment, groceries, home improvement, personal care and fitness, pets, restaurants, shopping (includes electronics and clothing), travel, transportation and other. The “other” category includes unspecified transactions and categories that are too small to be ranked separately.

This annual report offers a 12-month summary of American spending habits in 2021, compared to 2020 and 2019. Each month included in this report is based on a statistically significant sampling of approximately 200,000 anonymized credit card transactions in a given month made by Tally members, many of whom carry credit card debt. The index has been tracking credit card transactions since January 2019. All historical transaction data has been normalized to the most current year.

Share of the spend measures the proportion of total dollars spent in each category relative to total credit card expenses within a month. Percentage changes are calculated using the total dollar amount spent in each category on a month-over-month, quarter-over-quarter and year-over-year basis.