A credit card balance transfer can be a beautiful thing. By transferring existing high-interest debt to a credit card with no or low interest, you can save money and make it easier to pay off your debt. It can also have an impact on your credit score.
How, exactly, does balance transfer affect your credit score? A balance transfer can affect your credit score either positively or negatively — though the upsides are likely to outweigh any adverse effects in the long-term if you manage the balance transfer responsibly.
How Does a Balance Transfer Work?
A balance transfer is the process of consolidating existing high-interest debt to a different credit card. In other words, you’re effectively paying a credit card with another. Usually, you transfer the balance to a new credit card, but some cards allow you to do a balance transfer to an existing card.
Balance transfer credit cards often offer a low, or even 0%, annual percentage rate (APR) for a promotional period. This temporarily lowers the credit card interest rate, potentially allowing you to save on interest and more quickly pay off your debt. The length of the introductory APR offer varies by card, usually lasting anywhere from six to 21 months, after which the standard purchase APR will apply.
There is usually a fee required to make a balance transfer. This fee is either a flat rate or a percentage of the balance you’re transferring, such as 3% to 5% of your balance.
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When to Transfer the Balance on Your Credit Card
There are two key things to look for in order to identify an opportune time for a balance transfer. First, you’re approved for a balance transfer card that offers a 0% APR introductory period. Second, you’re in a place where you can focus on paying off the balance you transfer to your new card before the promotional period ends.
It’s important to work aggressively on eliminating your balance during this period. Otherwise, once the promotional APR kicks over to the usual APR, the interest rate could potentially be as high — if not higher — than the APR of your old card.
How a Balance Transfer May Hurt Your Credit Score
If you’re contemplating a balance transfer, you might be wondering: Does a balance transfer affect my credit score? While a balance transfer itself won’t directly impact your credit score, opening a new balance transfer card could have a ripple effect on your credit. A balance transfer to an existing credit card may not affect your credit score as much as opening a new account.
Let’s take a look at a couple of the ways a balance transfer could cause your credit score to drop:
• Applying for new credit results in a hard inquiry. Whenever you apply for a credit card, the credit card issuer will do a hard pull of your credit, which usually lowers your score by a few points. Hard inquiries stay on your credit report for two years. That being said, when compared to what affects your credit score on the whole, hard inquiries don’t impact your credit as much as, say, your payment history or credit utilization.
• Getting a new card will lower the average age of your credit. Another way that opening a new balance transfer credit could hurt your credit score is by lowering the average age of your credit. The length of your credit history makes up 15% of your score. A longer credit history is an indicator that you’ve taken steps toward establishing credit.
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How a Balance Transfer May Impact Your Credit Score
Now, let’s take a look at how a balance transfer can impact your credit score:
• It can lower your credit utilization rate. As credit usage makes up a significant chunk of your credit score — 30%, to be exact — a balance transfer could give your credit score a lift. When you open a new credit card account, it will add to your total credit limit, which, in turn, can lower your credit utilization. As a credit card rule, the lower your credit utilization, the better it is for your credit score.
Here’s an example: Say you have two credit cards, and they each have a $10,000 credit limit, for a total credit limit of $20,000. You’re carrying a $10,000 balance. In turn, your credit usage is 50%.
Now, let’s say you open a new balance transfer credit card that has a credit limit of $10,000. Combined with your other two cards, you’ll now have a total credit limit of $30,000. With a $10,000 balance, your total credit usage is lowered to about 33%.
• You may be able to pay down debt faster. As you’re paying less interest — or perhaps no interest at all — during your card’s promotional period, you can more easily whittle away at your outstanding debt quicker. That’s because more of your payments will go toward paying down your principal. Plus, lowering that outstanding balance also feeds into lowering your credit utilization ratio — another positive when it comes to building credit.
• A balance transfer can make it easier to stay on top of payments. A balance transfer allows you to consolidate multiple balances into one monthly payment. This can make it easier to stay on top of making on-time payments, as you won’t have numerous due dates to juggle. In turn, this can have a positive impact on your payment history, which makes up 35% of your credit score.
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Steps to Take After a Balance Transfer
So you’ve decided to do a balance transfer. Congrats! Now, here are the steps to take to make the most of it.
Stop Using Your Other Credit Cards
If possible, put a halt on spending with your other credit cards. That way, you can focus solely on paying off the outstanding balance you’ve transferred.
Still, you’ll want to keep your other cards open. You might consider using a credit card to make a small purchase every so often to keep those accounts active.
Know When the Introductory Period Ends
Make sure you’re aware of when the introductory APR for your balance transfer card ends. Also take time to note what the balance transfer card’s standard APR is. When the promotional APR ends, that rate is what your new APR will be.
Devise a Payoff Plan
A balance transfer is really only worthwhile if you aim to pay off your outstanding debt — or as much of it as possible — during the promotional APR period.
Let’s say you have $6,000 in debt, and you’ve secured a 0% APR that will last for 12 months. Aim to pay off $500 every month, or $250 twice a month. That way, you’ll have your debt paid off before the higher APR kicks in.
Make Shifts in your Spending
To ensure that you’re paying off the outstanding amount on your balance transfer card at a steady clip, look at ways you can scale back on your spending. Doing so will free up money that you could throw at your debt payoff efforts instead.
Along the same lines, see if you can increase your cash flow. Perhaps you can take on more hours at work or get a side hustle.
Is a Balance Transfer a Good Idea?
A balance transfer can be a solid move to make if you’re prepared to knock off the debt before the introductory APR period ends. Otherwise, you’re left with a mountain of debt — potentially with a higher interest rate than you currently have.
When deciding whether a balance transfer is right for you, you’ll also want to take into account any balance transfer fees you’ll pay. Do the math to ensure the amount you’ll save on interest will more than offset the cost of these fees.
Also note that, before you worry about balance transfer effects on your credit score, you’ll need to consider whether your credit is even strong enough for you to qualify. The most competitive balance transfer offers generally require at least good credit (meaning a FICO score of 670 or above), further underscoring the importance of good credit.
If you’re not sure of where you stand credit-wise, don’t worry about taking a peek: here’s how checking your credit score affects your rating (spoiler: it doesn’t).
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Balance Transfers and Credit Scores: The Takeaway
A balance transfer can both hurt and help your credit score. Your credit score could temporarily suffer after applying for a new balance transfer card. However, a balance transfer has the potential to help your credit score, as it can lower your credit utilization rate and make it easier for you to stay on top of your payments.
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Do balance transfers hurt your credit score?
Balance transfers can either hurt or help your credit score. Making a balance transfer can hurt your credit score if you apply for a new card to do so, which requires a hard pull of your credit. It can also ding your score because it may lower the average age of your credit lines.
Will I need a credit credit score for a balance transfer?
To qualify for a balance transfer card with a zero or low interest rate, you’ll need a strong credit score. A good credit score is generally considered in the range of 670+.
Will I lose points with a balance transfer?
You will not lose rewards points with a balance transfer. That’s because your old creditor will generally consider the balance transfer as payment.
What are the negatives of a balance transfer?
Getting a balance transfer credit card can bring down your credit score if it requires a hard inquiry on your credit report. Plus, it can lower your average credit age. Another downside of a balance transfer is that you’ll need to pay a balance transfer fee, which is either a flat rate or a percentage of the outstanding amount.
Photo credit: iStock/Roman Novitskii
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