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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

How a Balance Transfer Credit Card Can Help You Pay Off Debt

Taking on debt is often unavoidable, whether it’s student loans, medical bills, or everyday expenses that add up over time. For many people, credit card debt is the biggest financial burden, especially when high interest rates make it seem nearly impossible to pay down balances.

The average credit card interest rate is currently around 16% to 17%. At that rate, if you only make minimum payments, it can take years to eliminate debt. Worse, up to half your monthly payments end up going toward interest costs rather than paying down principal.

Fortunately, balance transfer credit cards provide an effective way to slash interest expenses so more of your payment goes toward actual debt. Used strategically, they can help you pay off balances faster and take control of runaway debt.

How Balance Transfers Work to Save on Interest

Balance transfer cards offer introductory 0% APR periods typically lasting between 12 and 21 months. During this time, you pay no interest on transferred debt.

For example, if you transfer $10,000 of credit card balances to a new card with a 0% rate for 21 months, you can pay off that $10,000 without racking up any interest charges for nearly two years.

Without a 0% intro APR, you’d accrue nearly $2,000 in interest at a 16% standard rate over 21 months. So balance transfers provide substantial savings.

Transfer Fees vs. Interest Savings

Most balance transfer cards charge a one-time balance transfer fee between 3% and 5% of the amount transferred. For a $10,000 balance, that equates to $300 to $500.

At first glance, transfer fees seem high. But by eliminating interest for 12 months or longer, you still save much more than you pay in fees.

In our example above with a $10,000 balance transfer, you’d pay either $300 or $500 upfront but slash $2,000 in interest charges — a net gain of $1,500 to $1,700.

Fees are a small price to pay for 0% intro APR savings, but there are rare cards with no fees that maximize savings further.

3 Tips for Getting the Most From Balance Transfers

While balance transfers seem like “magic loans” that erase debt, success depends entirely on your financial habits after transferring a balance. Follow these tips to ensure you pay off debt completely.

1. Stop Using Credit Cards

It’s crucial you stop charging purchases once you transfer balances to a new 0% card. The goal is paying off debt, and buying stuff with credit works against that.

Stick to cash, debit cards, or buy only what you can afford outright for now. Using other credit cards can also undermine your progress if you rack up new balances.

2. Calculate a Payoff Timeline

Figure out how long it will realistically take to pay off your balance transfer under the 0% term.

For example, if you transfer $15,000 and plan to pay $500 monthly, you’ll eliminate that debt in 30 months. As long as it falls within your card’s 0% intro period (usually 12 to 21 months), you’re on track.

If the math shows you can’t fully pay off transfers during the 0% term, explore ways to increase monthly payments so you can.

3. Commit to a Debt Repayment Plan

Create a formal debt repayment plan with set payment amounts transferred automatically from checking each month. Having a structured system makes you accountable and less likely to waver on payment consistency.

If you have multiple debts, consider debt avalanche or snowball methods to systematic prioritize repayment based on factors like balances and interest rates.

Having a plan and structure is key to ensuring you ultimately pay off transferred balances.

Which Balance Transfer Card Is Right for You?

All balance transfer cards include alluring 0% intro APR offers, but terms and features vary significantly across issuers. Compare all options carefully to identify the best fit.

Intro 0% APR Length

Aim for cards offering at least 12 months 0% financing, but cards with regular 15-, 18-, or 21-month intro periods better accommodate large debts that require longer to fully repay.

Some outliers even offer nearly two years interest-free, but plan conservatively since you probably can’t transfer again once the period ends.

Balance Transfer Fees

Cards with short 0% terms sometimes charge no fees, but it’s more common to pay 3% to 5% upfront. Compare fees across a few top contenders.

Also watch out for cards charging balance transfer fees plus separate cash advance or annual fees on top.

Credit Requirements

While balance transfers don’t require pristine credit, you’ll likely need fair to good credit (690 score or higher) for approval. Those with very good or excellent credit get better terms and fee waivers.

Check eligibility pre-approvals before formally applying to avoid credit score damage from application declines.

Weigh all these factors — 0% length, fees, and eligibility odds — to choose your best realistically approved balance transfer card match.

Things to Remember After the Balance Transfer

Once you open a new 0% balance transfer card and shift over existing debt, don’t forget these key tips to stay on track:

  • Make payments on time. Payment history impacts 35% of your credit score.
  • Pay at least the minimum due monthly, preferably much more.
  • Create payment alerts so you never miss deadlines.
  • Avoid additional card charges to maintain zero balances whenever possible.
  • Pay down highest-rate cards first if splitting the transfer across multiple cards.
  • Check your balance and progress often to catch and address issues before they balloon.

Staying vigilant ensures you methodically eliminate debt during the 0% intro period rather than accruing new debt that sticks around at high interest rates later.

Consistently paying on time and curbing spending is mandatory for balance transfer success. The 0% offer sets the stage — your commitment seals the deal.

After the Balance Transfer: Don’t Go Back to Old Habits

Perhaps the most common balance transfer pitfall is completing payments but then quickly racking balances back up on old cards or new ones. Maintaining zero balances after becoming debt-free requires ongoing restraint and smart money habits.

Here are tips to avoid the frantic balance transfer cycle playing out again and again:

Shun Credit Card Spending

Stick to cash, debit cards, or paying outright once you’ve paid balances down. Don’t go back to charging everything on credit now that interest isn’t looming. That’s how debt starts accumulating again.

Prune Unused Cards

Keep one or two old credit cards open to maintain credit history, but cancel newer cards or old ones you won’t realistically need post-payoff. Having fewer open cards lowers temptation to overspend.

Set a Low Credit Limit

For cards you keep open, ask issuers to decrease your credit limit to $500 or $1,000. This prevents going hog wild on available credit if you do overspend in the future.

Budget Diligently

Create and stick to a household budget that aligns spending with income and steers clear of debt-driving habits again. Using budget apps/tools helps significantly.

Building sustainable habits is crucial because ultimately credit cards and balance transfers are short-term tools — not lifelong debt management solutions.

Frequently Asked Questions – FAQs

What is a balance transfer credit card?

It’s a credit card offering a 0% APR for a specific period, allowing you to transfer and pay off existing debt without accruing interest.

How do balance transfer fees impact overall savings?

While fees may seem high, the elimination of interest during the 0% APR period often results in substantial net savings.

Can anyone qualify for a balance transfer card?

While not requiring pristine credit, fair to good credit (690 or higher) is typically necessary for approval.

What happens if I continue using other credit cards after a balance transfer?

Continuing to use credit cards can undermine progress and lead to accumulating new debt, hindering the payoff plan.

How can I maintain zero balances after paying off transferred debt?

Shun credit card spending, prune unused cards, set low credit limits, and budget diligently to avoid falling back into debt.

Are balance transfer cards a long-term debt management solution?

No, they are short-term tools. Sustainable financial habits are crucial for long-term debt management.

The Bottom Line

Wielding a balance transfer credit card correctly can eliminate expensive credit card interest so you pay off debt far faster. But you must use them strategically, transition to cash habits post-payoff, and commit to financial discipline that sticks long term.

Ultimately, balance transfer cards buy you invaluable time — a debt-free horizon brought closer thanks to 0% intro APR savings. Whether you reach that goal line depends on your focus and follow-through after transfers. Use the flexibility deliberately, brace yourself for sacrifice, and run hard toward freedom from debt.

Thumbnail Source: Anete Lusina

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