Ask Stacy: Should I jump on balance-transfer offers?

Everyone wants a 0 percent credit card, but what's the catch? Here's a simple checklist you can use to uncover potential flies in the ointment.

By MSN Money Partner Feb 18, 2014 12:47PM

This post comes from Stacy Johnson at partner site Money Talks News.


Money Talks News on MSN MoneyIf you live in America, have a decent credit score and can fog a mirror, you've probably received promotional offers for very low or 0 percent credit cards.


Woman with mobile phone and credit card, smiling © Pando Hall, PhotographerA $5,000, 0 percent credit line for a year or more can be mighty tempting, especially if you're laboring under the burden of high-interest debt elsewhere. That brings us to today's reader question.

I would really appreciate some advice about whether it is a good idea for me to take advantage of the 0 percent balance transfer promotion with one of my credit cards.
I recently came into some unexpected expenses and thought that maybe this might be an opportunity to limit the high interest I am currently experiencing with my credit card, which has more than $8,000 on it and an interest rate of 15.24 percent.
I would have till August of 2015 (at 0 percent), then the interest would increase to 11.99 percent with this promo offer. But I don't have enough of a limit on the 0 interest card to transfer the whole balance. Should I do it anyway? Or should I try to get my credit limit increased, then transfer it all? Any other suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely -- Struck by offer but don’t want to make it a financial mistake

The short answer to your question, Struck, is yes. If you can pay zero interest on all or part of an existing balance, you want to. And if you can get the credit limit raised to accommodate your entire balance, you want to do that as well. It doesn't hurt to ask.


That being said, there are things you need to know about credit cards, especially the 0 percent interest kind.


It's possible you won't get it

Zero percent card offers are normally made to those with good credit -- scores of 700-plus. While card companies typically pre-screen prior to making offers, if your credit score changes before you submit an application, they could turn you down.


Offers made by credit card companies are just that -- offers. They aren't guarantees.


Mess up once and you could lose the 0 percent rate

Be sure to read the fine print. Many cards will include conditions, such as paying on time, to retain the 0 percent rate. Make a payment that's one day late, and you could lose it.


You'll probably pay a fee

This is the biggest drawback to transferring a balance to a 0 percent card. The vast majority of issuers charge a fee ranging from 2 to 5 percent of the balance to transfer to their 0 percent card.


For example, if you transfer $8,000 to a card that charges a 4 percent fee, you'll be paying off $8,320.


Do the math

That's why, before transferring any balance, you always have to figure out how much it's going to cost you. There are calculators that can help determine just how much you'll save by transferring balances. For example, CreditCards.com has one here.


I used that calculator to find out what you'd save by transferring an $8,000 balance to a 0 percent card for 18 months, after paying a 4 percent fee. It says you'll save $1,509 in interest over the life of the 18-month promotional period, then $22 a month thereafter, assuming that you make only minimum payments. Not bad.


Granted, you've said you can't transfer the entire $8,000 balance, and I don't know the transfer fee you’ll pay to transfer it. So, although the math will probably work out to your benefit, you need to do it yourself.


Check the rate for purchases as well as transfers

Some cards offer a 0 percent rate on balance transfers but charge a different rate on new purchases made on the card, as well as for cash advances. Since the amount you're transferring will devour your entire available credit line, this probably won't be a concern to you, but it's still best to know the terms.


Have you shopped it?

Since applying for credit is a hassle, when you do it, make sure you’re getting the best bang for the buck.


Like many consumer sites, we have a full list of balance transfer credit cards. Some have longer 0 percent interest promotional periods than others, and some have lower post-promotional rates, better rewards, lower fees, etc.


You obviously want a 0 percent promotional rate, but decide on other features you'd like, then take the time to make sure you're getting the best deal.


Are you using a Band-Aid when you need stitches?

There's an elephant in the room with any balance transfer: namely, the reason you're juggling debt in the first place.


As justification for carrying a balance, Struck says, "I recently came into some unexpected expenses." One-time, nonrecurring expenses are the perfect problem to solve with 0 percent credit offers. But if you're habitually living beyond your means, a 0 percent card is simply postponing the inevitable day when you reach the end of your credit rope.


Obviously, whatever the source of your debt, paying less interest is better than paying more. But as you make these transfers, take some time to evaluate what got you here and what it's going to take to get you out. Then, if you need help, get it.


More on Money Talks News:

VIDEO ON MSN MONEY

4Comments
Feb 19, 2014 4:07PM
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Yes do it. Anytime you can not pay interest is a good thing. Also, opening a new line of credit will increase your overall available credit and assuming you don't increase your balances, you are reducing your usage percentage. That can increase your credit score.

Don't cancel the card your transferring from. Age of credit history is also a factor in your credit score.

Most importantly, look for a card that offers cash back on purchases. 1% cash back doesn't sound like much, but think of it as a 1% discount on everything you buy. Mine gives 3% back on gasoline purchases. I think of that as around ten cents off per gallon. Plus some cards offer incentives like, "spent $500 in the first three billing cycles and get $100 cash back bonus". That's free money.  Pay your bills with the card for a couple months and get paid the hundred dollars plus the 1%.  Use those to help pay down the balance. It works if you keep pay down the balance.

Feb 19, 2014 12:52PM
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If you do transfer your balance, do not max out the new card.  That will hurt your credit score.  There is a factor of your credit score that is related to balance utilization.  The more of your limit that is used up, the lower your score.  This lower score could continue to hurt you until the balance is paid below certain thresholds.  IMO.  
Feb 19, 2014 3:18PM
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If you live in Utah, or some neighboring states, Mountain America Credit Union is actually giving you 3% for transferring a balance to one of their cards. There are no fees, and you get 3% cash back on the balance immediately. The cards interest rate depends on your credit.

I would love to see more banks and credit unions move to this. If someone had a 12% rate and $10,000 in debt. They could get a quick $300 knocked off that, and if their credit wasn't terrible, maybe lower the rate a little. 
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