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Bankrate’s guide to reducing debt with a balance transfer credit card
Author: Madison Blancaflor
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Debt can easily snowball, especially if you can’t pay off your balance in full each month and face interest charges as a result. It can cause a lot of stress and prevent you from meeting your overall financial goals. If you’re juggling balances on multiple credit cards, a balance transfer offer might be a great option for you. They help you pay down debt so you can focus on your other financial goals. According to the Federal Reserve’s March 2019 Consumer Credit report, American consumers have accumulated $1.05 trillion in outstanding revolving debt. That means the average American owes thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
Table of Contents:
Recap: Bankrate’s top balance transfer offers of 2019
Bankrate’s team of financial services experts have years of experience studying the financial services industry and offering thoughtful, tailored advice depending on your circumstance. We take your financial health as seriously as you do and focus on offering impartial and well-researched guidance for every stage of your financial life cycle. From mortgages to home loans, and personal loans to 0% APR cards, our team covers the spectrum of financial services. We are here to answer all your credit card questions. In the case of balance transfer credit cards, we have evaluated as many credit cards as possible to determine the best cards to suit your lifestyle.
We take into account every element of a balance transfer cards offering: From its introductory APR offer, its fees, and standard APRs, to additional perks and extra rewards. A good balance transfer credit card is one that allows you to consolidate high-interest debt, pay down what you owe at low-to-no interest, thereby saving you on interest and helping to improve your overall financial health. We also know that although a card may seem great on paper, it needs to work well for you, fit your lifestyle and provide the best tool for you to achieve your goals. Our Bankrate Score takes into account a number of factors but we have weighted what we consider to be the most important more heavily:
Balance Transfer Fee
A good balance transfer credit card will offer a low fee on transferred balances and a great balance transfer credit card might not charge a transfer fee at all.
0% Introductory APR Offer
Balance transfer cards should typically have a long period — between 12 – 18 months — of 0% APR.
Regular Variable APR
Regular variable APR is especially important to consider for balance transfer cards because this is the interest rate that you will be charged after the introductory 0% APR period.
Rewards may not be the main motivation behind getting a balance transfer card but we want to help you get the most value from your credit card. Many credit card providers offer rewards as an incentive for becoming a cardholder.
We explore how each of these factors add or subtract from a card’s overall value in our analysis of the best balance transfer options on the market today.
How do balance transfers work?
Balance transfers involve moving debt from one or more credit accounts to another account, typically credit card-to-credit card. Most balance transfer credit cards come with attractive 0% APR intro periods, which help you save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In most cases, you’ll pay a small balance transfer fee (typically between 3% and 5% of each balance transfer) instead of compounding interest. As of June 5, the average interest rate on credit cards is 17.85%, so paying off debt without worrying about high interest charges can be a lifesaver.
Balance transfers can also help you organize your budget and payment schedule. By combining balances, you’ll have just one payment once a month rather than juggling multiple payment due dates.
When you take full advantage of balance transfer offers, they can help you meet financial goals, save money and improve your credit score.
Why use a balance transfer?
If you’re still on the fence about doing a balance transfer, here are some reasons to consider moving forward:
- You can avoid credit card interest for 9 to 21 months, usually with no annual fee.
- Not paying interest on your balance means every cent you pay during your card’s introductory 0% APR offer goes toward paying down debt.
- Balance transfer credit cards let you consolidate debt on a single credit card instead of multiple cards. This can help you simplify your finances and pay fewer bills overall.
- Applying for a balance transfer card online is fairly simple. You can receive your card in the mail in a matter of days.
- Transferring your balance isn’t as difficult as it may seem. You can complete the process with help over the phone or on your card issuer’s website.
Should you use a balance transfer card to pay down your debt?
There are myriad ways to pay off your credit card fees. But the process moves faster when your entire payment goes toward the balance of your debt instead of interest charges. A balance transfer credit card can be a lifesaver when it’s used in the right situation. However, a balance transfer for the wrong reasons or under the wrong circumstances can cause financial stress and hurt your credit score.
Essentially, in order to benefit most, you need to pay down as much debt as you can during your card’s 0% introductory offer. Perhaps more importantly, you need to avoid racking up new debt in the process. Many families who use balance transfers can quickly fall back into old habits. Comforted by the fact that they’re not paying interest on their debt, they may not feel a sense of urgency to pay it off. Worse, they may start using credit cards again and rack up more debt than they started with. This problem is compounded by the fact that some balance transfer credit cards offer a 0% APR on balance transfers and purchases for a limited time.
Perfect for consolidating small amounts of debt
Maybe you got caught up in the “churn and burn” mindset with multiple high-interest travel credit cards when you were younger. Or you could have gone through a rough patch financially last year, and you used credit cards to help you bridge the gap paycheck to paycheck. Now, you might be stuck with $10,000 in debt across 4 credit cards that are charging an average of 20% in interest. With a 15-month balance transfer offer, you would save $1,384 if you paid off the full balance within the offer period.
Consider a personal loan for larger amounts of debt
While a balance transfer can be a great way to streamline your monthly payments and pay off debt, they aren’t right for everyone. If your combined balance is higher than $10,000, you might want to consider other options. You typically can’t transfer a balance higher than your credit limit, and $10,000 is at the high end. (In fact, the average credit limit for a new credit line for an account holder with super-prime credit is $10,300, according to the American Bankers Association’s Q3 2018 Credit Card Monitor report. For other credit rankings, it’s much lower than that.) Furthermore, the larger the balance, the harder it will be to pay it all off within an intro offer period.
If you think a balance transfer isn’t quite right for your personal situation, consider getting a personal loan to help you consolidate debt.
Comparing balance transfer offers
There is a balance transfer card out there for just about every situation — whether you’re just looking for a no-nonsense card to consolidate debt or want a card that you can earn rewards with for years to come. Which one is right for you really depends on what you hope to use the card for, how much you are planning to transfer to the card and what you can feasibly put toward paying it off each month.
Defining your financial goals
The first step is deciding what you hope to accomplish with your balance transfer credit card.
If you want to use the card long-term to earn rewards, you’ll want a card like the Capital One Quicksilver or Capital One SavorOne. These cards offer a solid intro offer, but they also come with some serious cash back earning potential. If you’re more interested in budgeting tools to help you stay on track, a more straightforward balance transfer card like the Wells Fargo Platinum Visa card might be a better fit.
Comparing offer details
Once you have an idea of what type of card you want, you should compare offer details to find the one that works best for your balance and budget. Use our Balance Transfer Calculator to figure out which card offer is right for you.
For example, let’s say you have good-to-excellent credit, and you’re looking to consolidate $10,000 on a balance transfer card. In this example, we’ll assume you aren’t concerned with the rewards rate or extraneous features of the card. Here are two of our top balance transfer credit cards:
||Wells Fargo Platinum Visa
||Citi Simplicity® Card
(not currently available)
|Intro period length
||18 months on qualifying transfers made within the first 120 days
||21 months for transfers made within the first 4 months
||16.24% – 26.24% Variable
|Balance transfer fee
||$300 (3% of each transfer)
||$500 (5% of each transfer)
*Calculations made with the assumption that you will pay the balance transfer fee upfront and pay off a $10,000 balance within the intro offer period.
**Potential savings calculated by comparing how much interest you would accumulate across your other cards with an average variable APR of 20% and takes the balance transfer fee into account.
If there is any chance that you could need longer than the intro period to pay off debt, it might be worth it to pick the card that has a lower APR rate, even if your potential savings aren’t quite as high.
Conversely, if you can’t budget more than $600 a month to pay off your balance, choosing the credit card with a longer intro period (which also means a lower monthly payment) is probably the better option for your specific situation.
Reading the fine print
Keep an eye out for balance transfer cards that come with what is known as “deferred interest.” With this type of situation, your balance would accrue interest during your card’s introductory offer, but that interest would only be charged if you didn’t pay off debt in full before your offer ends. This means you could avoid interest for many months only to be hit with deferred interest on the total balance when your offer runs out.
Fortunately, the most popular balance transfer cards available today do not charge deferred interest. However, it never hurts to review your offer thoroughly, including the fine print
How long is the average balance transfer offer?
The Credit CARD Act of 2009 states that introductory offers must by at least 6 months long, but offer periods range up to 21 months. The average is somewhere in the middle, with common offer periods falling at 12 months, 15 months or 18 months long.
Unless you’re transferring a very small balance (in which case your balance transfer fee might outweigh your potential interest savings), you probably want to have at least 12 months to pay off that balance. Which specific offer length is best for you really depends on your monthly budget.
Using the same $10,000 balance example from earlier, here are the monthly payments you would need to make on a 12-month, 15-month and 18-month balance transfer offer in order to avoid interest payments:
||Necessary monthly payment
|12-month intro period
|15-month intro period
|18-month intro period
What is the average credit limit for a balance transfer?
Typically, issuers will only let you transfer a balance plus fees that are no higher than your credit limit, and how that limit is determined is based on multiple factors. Two of the largest factors that most if not all issuers look at when determining your initial limit are your credit score and annual income. Usually the higher your credit score and income, the higher your credit limit.
If you want to make a balance transfer that exceeds your credit limit, you can call the issuer to ask if they will increase your credit limit. Explain your situation and why you are wanting a higher credit limit. It might help to say that you are trying to lower your utilization ratio. While it’s not a guarantee that they will approve the increase, it’s highly possible. The worst they can say is no, right? In fact, CreditCards.com found in April 2018 that cardholders had an 85% shot at getting a credit limit increase just by asking.
How much money can you save with a balance transfer offer?
If you’re paying down a large balance, a 0% intro offer can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Experian reported in Q3 2018 that the average credit card debt in America was $4,293 per person. Here’s how much you can save by consolidating balances totaling $4,293 with each of our top balance transfer credit cards:
||Balance transfer intro offer period
|Wells Fargo Platinum Visa
||18 months on qualifying
||13.74% – 27.24% variable
|Discover it® Balance Transfer
||14.24% – 25.24% variable
|Capital One Quicksilver
||16.24% – 26.24% variable
||18 billing cycles
||15.24% – 25.24% variable
||13.24%, 17.24% or 21.24% variable
|Chase Freedom Unlimited
||17.24% – 25.99% variable
|Capital One SavorOne
||16.24% – 26.24% variable
|Citi Simplicity® Card (not currently available)
||16.24% – 26.24% variable
If you’re interested in punching in your own credit card numbers to get an indication of your payoff timeline, try this payoff calculator. It can help you with your strategy.
**Potential savings calculated by comparing how much interest you would accumulate across your other cards with an average variable APR of 20% and takes the balance transfer fee into account. Calculations made with the assumption that you will pay off a $4,293 balance within the intro offer period.
Do balance transfers hurt your credit score?
You might experience a temporary dip in your credit score after you complete a balance transfer. Applying for a new credit card involves a hard inquiry into your account and will shorten your average account age, and transferring multiple balances to one card will hurt your credit utilization ratio for that new card. These are all factors that go into the composition of your credit score.
However, consolidating your debt with a balance transfer credit card and successfully paying off your balance within the intro offer period can significantly reduce your overall credit utilization ratio and prove to lenders that you can be trusted to pay back lines of credit issued to you — both of which can drastically raise your credit score over time.
How to complete a balance transfer
Once you’ve applied for and received a balance transfer card, you’ll have a window in which to make qualifying balance transfers. Most issuers who have a balance transfer offer will have a process online or in their mobile app that allows you to make balance transfer requests.
You’ll have to know the account numbers of the cards you want to transfer balances from and the balance amounts you want to transfer from each.
Most issuers also allow you to make balance transfer requests via phone if you would rather not go through their online process.
How long do balance transfers take?
Timelines for processing balance transfers vary from issuer to issuer. On average, balance transfers take between 7 and 10 days, but it could take weeks.
Make sure you’re still making payments on those existing balances until you receive official confirmation that the balance transfer has gone through.
Should you close your old account after transferring a balance to a new card?
It can be tempting to cut up all of your old cards once you transfer your balance, but that can actually damage your credit score. One of the factors in determining your score is the average length of open accounts. If you close multiple accounts that you’ve had open for years, you could seriously reduce that average and subsequently hurt your score. Closing accounts also raises your credit utilization ratio (by taking away multiple lines of credit that factor into your overall average ratio), which can also lower your score.
If you keep those accounts open and use them for small purchases once a year (paying off those balances immediately), you can actually help strengthen your credit score over time.
The exception to this is if you have cards with annual fees. If you’re consolidating debt from multiple rewards credit cards with high annual fees, it might not be worth it to keep those in your wallet long-term if you don’t plan on consistently using them. However, keep in mind that if you close those accounts, the issuer might not let you reapply for the card for a specific time frame.
What types of debt can you transfer?
Balance transfers are primarily used to consolidate multiple balances from different credit cards. However, each issuer has its own rules for what types of debt you can transfer.
For example, Chase only allows customers to transfer credit card balances, but Bank of America and Citi both allow credit card balances, auto loans, personal loans, home equity and student loans to be transferred. Most issuers do not let you transfer a balance from an existing account with that same issuer.
Can you pay off a loan with a credit card?
Some issuers allow you to transfer loan debt to a credit card, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Balance transfer credit cards are meant to help you consolidate smaller lines of credit, so you wouldn’t want to put a $20,000 car loan on a balance transfer credit card.
More importantly, loans often have much better interest rates and lower fees. While balance transfer credit cards often offer a 0% APR period, your balance transfer fee might actually be higher than your loan interest rate. Most of the time, it’s simply not worth it to pay off a loan with a credit card.
There are always exceptions, but make sure you do thorough research and potentially reach out to a financial advisor before you transfer a large loan balance to a credit card — even if the card has an attractive balance transfer option.