When Making a Balance Transfer, Look for 0 Percent APR First

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Q: I have around $10,000 in credit card debt spread out over a few different cards. Should I transfer all the balances to a low-interest card I already have, or apply for a new low-interest card?

A: First off, give yourself a pat on the back for taking steps to strategically pay down your large credit card balances. When you have a five-figure debt, the lower you can get your interest rate, the more money you'll save in the long run. But you should also recognize that the two choices you've laid out for yourself are not your only options -- or necessarily your best ones. I know from personal experience -- paying off $12,000 in credit card debt interest-free -- that it's possible to do better.

A regular low-interest credit card can certainly save you money when paying off debt, but a card with a 0 percent APR on balance transfers would save you even more. With such a card, you can move your debt from another account and pay it off interest-free over several months, which is how I ended up saving about $5,000 on interest. You can -- and should -- look for the best terms available, regardless of your debt and credit situation.

Multiple credit card issuers offer new cardholders an introductory 0 percent APR period on balance transfers for up to a year or more. But you're smart to ask whether applying for an entirely new card is the best solution for you. There are four situations in which it might not make financial sense for you:

 

  1. You have a 0 percent APR offer on one of your current cards. Many issuers regularly offer 0 percent APR balance transfers for existing cards -- it seems like my Discover card sends me one every other month -- so keep your eyes open. If you're already carrying a card with an active 0 percent APR offer for balance transfers, you could move your debt to that card rather than going through the hassle of applying for another and taking the short-term hit to your credit.
  2. Your credit is poor, or you already have too many hard inquiries on your credit reports. Most 0 percent APR balance transfer deals require you to have good or excellent credit. If you can't qualify because of your credit score or credit inquiries, consider transferring a balance to a low-interest card you already have, assuming the savings on interest outweigh the balance-transfer fee. Such fees typically are 3 percent to 4 percent of the amount transferred. For example, if your debt is on a card with 20 percent APR and the balance transfer fee is 3 percent, then you'll need to transfer to a card with an APR below 17 percent to be better off.
  3. You can't qualify for a limit that's high enough. If your chances of qualifying for a new card with a credit limit above 10,000 are slim, you may be better off paying down the cards you already have as quickly as possible. Tackling the highest-interest debts first saves you more money.
  4. You have trouble controlling your spending on credit cards. Certainly, if you've had trouble controlling your credit card spending in the past, and another card in your wallet is too much of a temptation, I wouldn't advise you to apply for a new one. If you struggle to keep your finances under control, getting a personal debt-consolidation loan at a local credit union or community bank may be a better alternative. The relatively low interest rates could save you some money, and the structured payments may encourage more discipline.
For many, though, a new balance transfer credit card is the most cost-effective way to pay down debt. In some cases, getting a balance transfer credit card and moving a debt over may even
slightly.

 

So if you decide to apply for a balance transfer card, which one should you get?

 

If you can pay off your debt within a year or so, you may opt for a card that offers a shorter 0 percent balance transfer APR period but gives you other benefits. The Chase Slate, for example, waives balance transfer fees on transfers made within 60 days of opening the account. That would save you hundreds of dollars when transferring $10,000 in balances. And the Discover it card offers generous cash-back rewards and a sign-up bonus along with its 0 percent balance transfer APR.

 

Otherwise, you may want to look for the longest 0 percent balance transfer APR period available. Right now, the Citi Simplicity and the Citi Diamond Preferred both offer 21 months of 0 percent balance transfer APR, the longest available in the United States.

 

Remember, moving your debt to a 0 percent balance transfer credit card is just the first step to becoming debt-free. When I was paying off my credit card debt, I did everything I could to maximize my income and minimize my spending to pay down the debt as quickly as possible. If you really want to avoid paying credit card interest, you need to develop a debt payoff plan and stick to it. It may take months or years to chip away at your balance, but with steady progress, you can pay off all of your debt without shelling out a penny of interest.

 

Sean McQuay is a credit cards expert at NerdWallet. A former strategist with Visa, McQuay now helps consumers use their credit cards more effectively. If you have a question about credit, shoot him an email at asksean@nerdwallet.com. The answer might show up in a future column.

 

This column originally appeared on NerdWallet.

 

Photo of Sean McQuay, courtesy of NerdWallet.