Credit card balance transfers can be a gift or a nightmare, and it all depends on a couple factors. First, you have to determine whether it makes financial sense for you to transfer the balance. Second, you have to choose the right card for you and your debt situation. Finally, you have to develop a sustainable repayment plan.
At best, a balance transfer allows you to repay your debt faster, saves you a significant amount of money, and boosts your credit score. However, it can also cause your credit score to drop and dig you deeper into debt.
Here’s what you need to know about credit card balance transfers before deciding to do one.
What is a Credit Card Balance Transfer?
It is when you transfer outstanding debt from one credit card to a new one, typically provided by a different bank or credit card issuer. Balance transfers can be a strategy for paying off debt faster if you transfer to a card with a promotional interest rate. Like cashback or rewards cards, there are credit cards designed specifically to help you get the most out of your balance transfer. Popular ones include the Wells Fargo Platinum Card, US Bank Visa Platinum Card, and several offered by Citibank.
The APR on balance transfers, which is very low or 0%, is usually an introductory rate, meaning that after a certain amount of time the interest rate will increase. The introductory period often lasts anywhere from 6-18 months.
Issuers typically require you to have a good or excellent credit score — this is a 670-850 FICO score — in order to qualify for a balance transfer.
How Do You Do a Balance Transfer?
Banks and credit card issuers continually reach out to potential customers about promotional credit card offers. These promotional offers can include incredibly low interest rates on balance transfers and purchases, points, or cashback. An example offer could look something like zero interest for 18 months on purchases and qualifying balance transfers.
To take advantage of promotional offers on balance transfers, there are a few steps you should follow.
- Assess your current balance, interest rate, and repayment timeline. Debt repayment calculators can help with this. If you have $10,000 in credit card debt at 23.22% APR and make monthly payments of $1,240.64 (the average Cushion user’s monthly payment), you can expect to pay off the debt in 9 months.
- Shop around for a balance transfer card with the lowest possible interest rate and an introductory period that makes sense for your repayment plan. Ideally, you’ll find a card with 0% APR. By paying off $10,000 at 0% APR with monthly payments of $1,240.64 each month, you’ll pay off the balance in 8 months and save more than $1,200 that would’ve gone toward interest charges and an increasing principal balance.
- Read the fine print and apply for the card. The fine print could include fees associated with the transfer or a post-introductory APR that’s even higher than the interest rate you were paying before the transfer. You’ll also want to make sure the credit limit on the card is high enough for the balance you need to transfer. Once you’ve decided which card to go with, apply online or via mail and wait for the issuer’s response.
- Transfer your credit card balance. The transfer may need to be initiated within a certain amount of time after opening the account, so don’t delay the process. Contact your issuer via phone or online, and continue making payments on your original account until the balance is successfully transferred.
- Develop a repayment plan. It’s time to put that number-crunching into action. To ensure timely and successful payments, align your payment dates with when your paychecks hit your checking account or set up auto-payments if you’re comfortable with the money being automatically withdrawn from your account.
What Costs Are Associated with Balance Transfers?
If used correctly, balance transfers are meant to cut down on the amount of money that goes toward both your principal balance and interest, but there are still inherent costs associated with a transfer.
Issuers often charge a fee, which is about 3-5% of the amount of each transfer. According to Cushion’s analysis of more than 130,000 balance transfers, the average balance transfer fee is $112.32. However, you can find fee-free balance transfer credit cards.
You should also take the card’s interest rate into account. While issuers run promotions for low or 0 interest, those interest rates will increase after the introductory period; if the post-introductory APR is higher than the rate that you paid before the transfer, you could end up owing even more.
Provide cushion when estimating your repayment timeline. Things happen unexpectedly, so finding a card with a longer introductory period can be beneficial.
Pros of Balance Transfers
With the right card, balance transfers can enable you to pay off debt quicker while saving money in the process. With a lower or 0% interest rate, little to no money goes toward interest during the introductory period, so paying off debt is just a matter of chipping away at your principal amount.
Balance transfers can also be a good way to consolidate your debts if you have several credit cards, personal loans, student loans, or other debts. By consolidating, you streamline the time and resources normally spent repaying your debts through several different companies.
In the long run, a credit card balance transfer can boost your credit score. It decreases how much you owe and can improve your payment history and credit utilization.
If you have both credit card debt and student loan debt, now could be an ideal time for a balance transfer. With student loans in forbearance, interest is not currently accruing on federal student loans and you are not required to make payments until at least September 30, 2021.
For some, this money may need to go toward necessary expenses, such as rent, utilities, and groceries. But for others, this temporary extra cash can go toward paying down your credit card debt. If you do a balance transfer, your money will make a larger dent in your balance over the next several months.
Cons of Balance Transfers
A successful balance transfer requires careful planning and diligent payments. If you slip up, there could be serious financial consequences. While a balance transfer could aid your credit score eventually, your score will initially drop a few points due to the hard inquiry by the issuer.
With balance transfer cards that have promotional introductory APRs, you should pay attention to the increased rate after the initial period. It could be higher than your original rate, and if you fail to pay off your debt during the introductory period, you could end up paying more than you would have if you had kept your balance on the original card.
There is also a fee associated with balance transfers. Considering these fees are a percentage of the total amount that you are transferring, you could end up paying several hundred or even thousands of dollars to transfer a credit card balance. In the end, it may not be that beneficial to transfer a balance just based on how high of a fee you have to pay for it.
Balance transfers can be beneficial by allowing you to pay off your debt quicker and save hundreds or thousands of dollars in the process. But in order to transfer a credit card balance successfully, you have to be responsible, diligent, and wary of the negative consequences. Before transferring, take a look at your balance, the terms and conditions of the new credit card, and the downfalls associated with your new plan.