When debt accumulates on a high-interest card, interest starts to add up as well, making it harder to pay off the total debt — which, in turn, can become a credit card debt spiral. If you end up with mounting debt on a high-interest credit card, a balance transfer is one possible way to get out from under the interest payments.
A balance transfer credit card allows you to transfer your existing credit card debt to a card that temporarily offers a lower interest rate, or even no interest. This can provide an opportunity to start paying down your debt and get out of the red zone. But before you make a balance transfer, it’s important that you fully understand what a balance transfer credit card is and have carefully read the fine print.
How Balance Transfers Work
The basics of balance transfer credit cards are fairly straightforward: First, you must open a new lower-interest or no-interest credit card. Then, you’ll transfer your credit card balance from the high-interest card to the new card. Once the transfer goes through, you’ll start paying down the balance on your new card.
Generally, when selecting to do a balance transfer to a new credit card, consumers will apply for a card that offers a lower interest rate than they currently have, or a card with an introductory 0% annual percentage rate (APR). Generally, you need a solid credit history to qualify for a balance transfer credit card.
This introductory period on a balance transfer credit card can last anywhere from six to 21 months, with the exact length varying by lender. By opening a new card that temporarily charges no interest, and then transferring your high-interest credit card debt to that card, you can save money because your balance temporarily will not accrue interest charges as you pay it down.
But you need to hear one crucial warning: After the introductory interest-free or low-APR period ends, the interest rate generally jumps up. That means if you don’t pay your balance off during the introductory period, it will start to accrue interest charges again, and your balance will grow.
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What to Look For in a Balance Transfer Card
There are a number of different balance transfer credit cards out there. They vary in terms of the length of no-interest introductory periods, credit limits, rewards, transfer fees, and APRs after the introductory period. You’ll want to shop around to see which card makes sense for you.
When researching balance transfer credit cards, try to find a card that offers a 0% introductory APR for balance transfers. Ideally, the promotional period will be on the longer side to give you more breathing room to pay off your debts before the standard APR kicks in — one of the key credit card rules to follow with a balance transfer card.
You’ll also want to keep in mind fees when comparing your options. Balance transfer fees can seriously eat into your savings, so see if you qualify for any cards with $0 balance transfer fees. If that’s not available, at least do the math to ensure your savings on interest will offset the fees you pay. Also watch out for annual fees.
Last but certainly not least, you’ll want to take the time to read the fine print and fully understand how a credit card works before moving forward. Sometimes, the 0% clause only applies when you’re purchasing something new, not when transferring balances. Plus, if you make a late payment, your promotional rate could get instantly revoked — perhaps raising your rate to a higher penalty APR.
Should I Do a Balance Transfer?
Sometimes, transferring your outstanding credit card balances to a no-interest or low-interest card makes good sense. For example, let’s say that you know you’re getting a bonus or tax refund soon, so you feel confident that you can pay off that debt within the introductory period on a balance transfer credit card.
Or, maybe you know that you need to use a credit card to cover a larger purchase or repair, but you’ve included those payments in your budget in a way that should ensure you can pay off that debt within the no-interest period on your balance transfer card. Again, depending upon the card terms and your personal goals, this move could prove to be logical and budget-savvy.
Having said that, plans don’t always work out as anticipated. Bonuses and refund checks can get delayed, and unexpected expenses can throw off your budget. If that happens, and you don’t pay off your outstanding balance on the balance transfer card within the introductory period, the credit card will shift to its regular interest rate, which could be even higher than the credit card you transferred from in the first place.
Plus, most balance transfer credit cards charge a balance transfer fee, typically around 3% — and sometimes as high as 5%. This can add up if you’re transferring a large amount of debt. Be sure to do the math on how much you’d be saving in interest payments compared to how much the balance transfer fee will cost.
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Balance Transfer Card vs Debt Consolidation Loan
Both a personal loan and a balance transfer credit card essentially help you pay off existing credit card debt by consolidating what you owe into one place — ideally at a better interest rate. The difference comes in how each works and how much you’ll ultimately end up paying (and saving).
A debt consolidation loan is an unsecured personal loan that allows you to consolidate a wider range of existing personal debt, including credit card debt and other types of debt. Basically, you use the personal loan to pay off your credit cards, and then you just have to pay back your personal loan in monthly installments.
Personal loans will have one monthly payment. Plus, they offer fixed interest rates and fixed terms (usually anywhere from one to seven years depending on the lender), which means they have a predetermined payoff date. Credit cards, on the other hand, typically come with variable rates, which can fluctuate based on a variety of factors.
Just like balance transfer fees with a credit card, you’ll want to look out for fees with personal loans, too. Personal loans can come with origination fees and prepayment penalties, so it’s a good idea to do your research.
How to Make a Balance Transfer
If, after weighing the pros and cons and considering your other options, you decide a balance transfer credit card is the right approach for you, here’s how you can go about initiating a balance transfer. Keep in mind that you’ll need to have applied for and gotten approved for the card before taking this step.
In some cases, your new card issuer will provide you with balance-transfer checks in order to request a transfer. You’ll need to make the check out to the credit card company you’d like to pay (i.e., your old card). Information that you’ll need to provide includes your account information and the amount of the debt, which you can determine by checking your credit card balance.
Online or Phone Transfers
Another way to initiate a balance transfer is to contact the new credit card company to which you’re transferring the balance either online or over the phone. You’ll need to provide your account information and specify the amount you’d like to transfer to the card. The credit card company will then handle transferring the funds to pay off the old account.
Whether you should consider a balance transfer credit card largely depends on whether the math checks out. If you can secure a better interest rate, feel confident you can pay off the balance before the promotional period ends, and have checked that the balance transfer fees won’t cancel out your savings, then it may be worth it to make a balance transfer.
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