April 13, 2016

Are Balance Transfers Worth it?

Simple. Thrifty. Living.

When you have several credit cards, all with balances due, it can be a struggle to pay everything on time. Even when your continuing balance is fairly low on each card, forgetting to make a payment can come at a high price after fees are added on. Balance transfers allow you to put most of your revolving debt into a single payment, but they don’t always make financial sense.

Balance transfers can be deceptive. Some lenders offer a no-fee transfer option when you open a new line of credit, but after that grace period, any new transfers come with a fee. If you don’t want to get a new credit card, the average fee for a balance transfer is 3 percent. On a small balance, that won’t add up to much, but if you have a balance of $15,762, the average household credit card debt in America, the fee would be $472.86.

Even taking a new credit offer to make a free balance transfer comes with hidden costs in the form of a possible credit score hit. Since your credit score considers the average age of your accounts and the amount of credit you have available, you could be looking at a lower number on your next report. A lower credit score translates into higher interest rates on any major purchase and can even affect employment status.

You might want to transfer balances for many reasons. If you have one credit card with a very high interest rate, you could pay less after a transfer. Credit card interest rates can go as high as 29.99 percent (down from the incredible 79.9 percent once offered by First Premier), but the average is around 15 percent to 16 percent, depending on the type of card. Doing a balance transfer to get away from a penalty rate can make a lot of sense over time. When you can’t pay the balance in full, and you’re paying the maximum interest rate, that one-time fee may not look so bad.

Before jumping at the chance to clear some of your credit cards, get on the phone with your banks. There is often some wiggle room on that original 3 percent fee. Ask about any specials the credit card company may be offering or if there is any way they can waive the fee. You may not get a completely free transfer, but you can often shave off some of the cost. Be sure to ask about a fee cap, as well. If the cap is $50, that works out to a lot less than 3 percent on a big balance.

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