Getting even more out of your balance transfer credit cards
In addition to ways you can use your balance transfer credit cards effectively, we also have tips on ways you can maximize your rewards. Take some time to learn more about how you can get the most out of these credit cards.
Access to Discover Deals
Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer cardholders can take advantage of the Discover Deals online bonus mall. Discover Deals is home to more than 200 online retailers where cardholders can earn an extra 5% to 20% cash back. There are also in-store coupons you can access for even more bonuses. Discover’s dollar-for-dollar cash back bonus also applies to purchases made in the Discover Deals online mall making it very easy to rack up the rewards. Now it’s even easier to pay off your outstanding balance while earning some much-needed cash back rewards.
While the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express can earn you some great cash back rewards on U.S. supermarket and U.S. gas station purchases (in the United States), the specific rewards categories could be limiting. For that, we recommend pairing this card with a decent, flat-rate cash back credit card. That way you can continue to earn valuable rewards in the categories that are most relevant to your regular spending habits.
The same is also true for the HSBC Platinum MasterCard® credit card which, unfortunately, does not come with a rewards program. In this case, it might be worth your while to look in a rewards credit card to pair with this balance transfer card. By pairing these two, you will have the best of both worlds when it comes to having a year and a half of 0% APR along with the ability to earn some great rewards.
Shop through Chase
If you’re a Chase cardholder, then you should consider making your purchases via Shop through Chase. By utilizing Chase’s online shopping portal, you can earn up to 15% cash back on purchases with your Chase Freedom® card. That’s even more than the 5% cash back you can get through purchases made in activated categories.
Leverage access to free FICO® Score
If you have a Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® and you aren’t taking advantage of the free FICO® Credit Score service, then you’re wasting money! Believe it or not, having access to a free FICO® Credit Score and monitoring service is a great value. Not only does this help you better manage your expenses and effectively alter your spending, it’s a value of more than $300. To give you an idea of why that’s so important, services like myFICO can charge you more than $300 a year just to track and monitor your comprehensive credit history.
Two problems, one potential solution
Problem: Compounding interest
Carrying a balance from month to month can lead to compounding interest. By not paying the principal balance down to zero, you wind up paying interest on the interest. This effect is a great thing when the interest is compounding on an investment or savings, but it can be extremely costly when applied to debt.
Problem: High credit utilization
Carrying a balance also affects credit utilization, a measure of how much of your credit limit you’re using and one of the most influential factors in determining credit scores. Ideally, your credit utilization ratio should be low, an indication that you’re not stretching the bounds of your credit limit. High balances on credit cards and loans will increase your credit utilization and can have a negative effect on your credit score.
Solution: Zero-interest balance transfer
Fortunately, transferring your credit card balances to a zero-interest balance transfer card can address both of these pitfalls. A balance transfer to a card with introductory 0% intro APR means that interest stops piling up and compounding during that introductory period. If you gradually pay off your balance in this kind of interest-free environment, your credit utilization should go down as you retreat further from the edge of your credit limit.
The best way to use a balance transfer card
Balance transfer cards extend the 0% APR offer to balance transfers and purchases. These cards simply offer more flexibility to manage your cash flow and pay down debt without donating your money to high interest payments. So, you can use a balance transfer offer to make a large purchase at 0% APR, then use the promotional period to pay it off over time. The best 0% balance transfer cards will usually offer 0% on new purchases for at least 6 months.
This is obviously to incentivize people to keep spending on the cards, but if you’re not in debt, you can take advantage of it. Maybe you want to buy a couch, pay a medical bill, or tackle a home renovation project.
Other reasons to get a balance transfer card:
- Consolidate your debts or get rid of cards with fees
- Upgrade your credit card to earn more rewards
- Add a card with great service and amenities
Research more balance transfer credit cards
Our team also created a directory of the most popular balance transfer credit cards available today. This directory was used as a starting point for my research and analysis. It is updated weekly to reflect any new changes to balance transfer offers, to add new cards, and to remove any expired deals.
The balance transfer credit cards directory is customized to highlight the most important features for balance transfer credit cards. It includes every credit card that has a 0% intro APR on balance transfers and rates each offer based on a number of key factors.
Balance transfer credit card directory
In order to value each of these cards, certain features were balanced accordingly based on overall importance to the prospective cardholder. The most relevant features for balance transfer credit cards are Balance Transfer Fee, Introductory Balance Transfer APR, Ongoing APR, and Annual Fee.
Obviously the biggest feature is having a 0% intro APR. You can also use the directory to filter by signup bonus or ongoing rewards if those are features that are more important to you.
Rewards Tier Level
Great Signup Bonus
Great Ongoing Rewards
Balance Transfer Fee 3% or lower
Intro Balance Transfer APR 0% 12+ Months
Only Fair Credit Score Needed
To come up with a list of top balance transfer credit cards, I used the information shown in the directory above in addition to other data gathered on each credit card. For a better explanation of what was analyzed, I’ve included additional details below. Sometimes the terminology in the credit card world can be a bit confusing, so take a look if you’re unsure of anything.
Balance transfer fee
Credit card companies usually charge a fee of up to 3% when you transfer a balance to a new card. This means that if you transfer a $10,000 balance, you will pay an extra $300 to the credit card company. Even some of the best balance transfer credit cards on this list charge this fee.
The balance transfer fee carries high importance because it can likely cost you a decent amount of money. However, depending on the card you choose, the fee may be worth it to get a few extra months of zero interest.
Balance transfer intro APR
The balance transfer intro APR refers to the promotional interest rate charged for transferring a balance or making new purchases. The Intro APR is 0% for the best balance transfer credit cards. Nothing higher should be considered unless you can’t get approved.
Intro APR holds a high importance level when ranking all the top balance transfer cards simply because the main reason to transfer a balance is to stop paying interest for a period of time by taking advantage of a 0% APR.
Many times, the intro APR is also extended to new purchases, not just balance transfers. This way, you can take advantage by purchasing items and paying them off over the introductory period without accruing interest.
Balance transfer intro period
The balance transfer intro period is the time frame for which the Intro APR or other promotion is valid. As I mentioned earlier, the best balance transfer credit cards will run a 0% Intro APR on a combination of balance transfers or new purchases for at least 12 months, with some offering up to 18 months.
The intro period is of high importance because it controls the amount of time you can start paying down a high balance without accruing interest.
Ongoing APR is the interest rate charged on your balance after the Intro Period. The key determinant of your ongoing APR is your credit score and history. Note that there is no limit on the interest rate that can be charged by credit card companies.
Balance transfer cards have ongoing APRs that range as low as 10.99% and go beyond 20%. If you have good credit, the APR rate for you will be on the lower end. APR differs from Intro APR because it is the permanent rate. Once you get beyond the designated time period for any introductory APR offers, the credit card will default to the ongoing APR rate.
As I mentioned many times, you shouldn’t get a credit card if you plan on carrying a balance. But, if you must carry a balance after the Intro Period, look for the lowest APR possible.
Rewards rate refers to the actual rate at which you can earn rewards on a credit card. Several of the best balance transfer cards do offer rewards on new purchases and some do not. Rewards rate carries a low importance rating because the main purpose of a balance transfer card is to pay down debt and not earn rewards. Rewards rate is not included as a main feature in the balance transfer credit cards directory, but it does have a slight impact on some of the card ratings and you can filter by great ongoing rewards.
Top balance transfer cards, like the Discover it® 18 Month Balance Transfer Offer and Chase Freedom®, will offer rotating categories that enable you to earn 5% cash back on a variety of common purchases each quarter. The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is also a solid card for balance transfers, as it offers 3% at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). Again, you should only be concerned with these rewards after you pay off your balance and start to consider using one of these cards long-term.
The truth about balance transfer credit cards
- Look at the most important details to find the right card for your situation.
- Transfer a balance if you are facing late payment fees on a high balance.
- Consider the long-term features of the card after the balance transfer.
- Know your credit score to apply for the right card so your transfer is not delayed.
What To Do Before Getting a Balance Transfer Credit Card
Review the most important details of each card
Most cards offer a low introductory APR on balance transfers. However, it’s critical to look at the whole deal first to get an idea if the card fits your unique situation. Again, some of the most important factors to consider are:
- Introductory Balance Transfer Rate
- Introductory Balance Transfer Length
- Balance Transfer Fee
Often, it’s the balance transfer fee that goes undetected until you’re already signed up and about to transfer your balance. You then see there are a few hundred dollars missing. This fee is charged as a percentage of the balance you are transferring over. Rates can vary by company, but they’re generally around 3%.
The introductory balance transfer rate should always be 0% on any balance transfer card you consider. Never transfer a balance to any card that does not have a 0% intro rate on balance transfers.
Depending on the card you get, the 0% intro balance transfer rate will vary. Remember, you want to get a card that has a 0% balance transfer intro period for at least 12 months or longer. This gives you ample time to pay off your balance.
Check your credit score
Getting a 0% balance transfer used to be a piece of cake. Since the financial crisis, the availability of this great offer has tightened up. The best terms are available to those who have good or excellent credit. It can pay to check your credit score ahead of time and make sure it aligns with the new card to qualify. If you don’t check and are denied, this could negatively impact your credit score.
You should also be mindful of credit score changes. Keep an eye on your old accounts and know how many credit cards you have open. I’ve heard stories of people going to buy a house and realizing an old credit card has dinged their credit report. You can check out our review of credit report sites for more info on how to get your score (for free).
There are various schools of thought but, generally speaking, making changes to your credit card accounts will impact your credit score. You do have some control over whether those changes are positive or negative. For some more insight into this topic, check out these tips for cancelling a credit card.
Consolidate multiple cards and other debt
In many circumstances, you can stay current on payments by taking several of your cards with high balances and consolidating them into one balance. You can avoid keeping up with multiple payments each month by tracking just one card.
Additionally, you may be able to move loans for cars, appliances, furniture, and other monthly installment payments to a low- or zero-interest balance transfer credit card. You can do this because credit card companies often issue paper checks drawn on your new credit card account. You can use these checks to pay off your installment loans (if they’re small enough) when you open a new credit card account.
Come up with a plan to pay off your debt
There’s no use in getting a balance transfer credit card under conditions of complete panic. Gather yourself and come up with a plan to use a balance transfer credit card as a tool to help your financial situation.
The worst thing you can do is repeat the same issue and end up not paying off your balance again on the new card you transferred your balance to. By having a plan in place on how to attack your debt, you’ll be ready to use a balance transfer credit card the right way.
The plan: How to gain control of your high-interest credit card debt
Without question, the number-one reason people seek out the best balance transfer credit cards is to help get a handle on their high-interest credit card debt. There are many reasons for accumulating credit card debt, and many of these situations involve some sort of emergency spending. Regardless of the reasons for accumulating credit card debt, getting control over your debt takes the right tools and a plan.
I’d recommend the following to get started:
- This guide (to find the best balance transfer card for your situation)
- A way to analyze your expenses
- Credit score & credit monitoring
Rule #1: Stop digging
The first rule for getting out of a hole is to stop digging. I first heard that saying as a high-school basketball player and it’s stuck with me ever since. Odds are, if you’re reading this guide you’ve somehow found yourself in the hole of credit card debt.
It doesn’t matter how you got here. All that matters are the next steps you take, and your first step is to stop adding to your credit card debt. Get it under control.
You don’t need to cut up your existing cards or put them in the freezer as some people say. Drastic measures may be needed in extreme cases, but most people who are serious about trimming their debt can continue using a credit card without getting behind. Treat it like cash!
Rule #2: Stop paying interest
To stop paying interest on your credit card debt, you need to do two things:
- Find a solid balance transfer card.
- Consolidate as much as you can onto that card.
Understand your credit score
You want to apply for a card that you can get approved for. While there is no way to know for sure without applying, knowing your credit score will give you a general idea of how likely it is you’ll be approved. If you’re in credit card trouble, is a good idea to sign up for a credit monitoring service so you can keep track of your score and other important changes to your credit report.
For the most part, balance transfer cards are good credit cards for people with decent credit who are trying to avoid damaging their credit and making high interest payments. If you have lower credit, there won’t be many great offers for you because most balance transfer cards won’t want to take on high risk consumers who already have a history of not paying off credit card debt.
Select the best balance transfer card for you
My recommendation for those who seriously need to pay down debt is to go with the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard®. You won’t earn any rewards if you continue to use the card for new purchases, but this card offers the best combination of features to help you have more of your money go toward eliminating your debt.
The Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® offers 0% intro APR on balance transfers. (Note: you’ll need to transfer your balance within the first 45 days of account opening to get the intro APR.) This feature alone can save you hundreds of dollars.
A good option for balance transfers while earning cash back on new purchases is Discover it® because it has a 0% intro period of 18 months and earns up to 5% cash back in rotating categories. Keep in mind, however, this card does have a balance transfer fee and isn’t as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard.
Consolidate and transfer your credit card debt
Once you’ve selected the proper card, gather all of your credit card debt and transfer as much as possible to the new card, starting with the highest-rate balances first. This will help you take advantage of that 0% introductory period.
Then, divide your entire balance by the number of months on your introductory period. This gives you the monthly payment you need to pay off all of your debt by the end of the intro period.
Example: Balance transfer in action
You have three credit cards with a total combined balance of $7,000. You sign up for the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® and transfer all of the $7,000 to the new card. Your new balance is still $7,000 because Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard® does not have a balance transfer fee.
In order to have the entire $7,000 paid off in 15 months, you’ll have to come up with an extra $466.67 per month. An insurmountable debt that was going to continue to grow sitting on your other cards is now somewhat manageable. The key is to find a feasible number that makes a huge dent in that debt while taking advantage of the 0% intro APR period.
Rule #3: Create the payoff plan
Now that you’ve selected the right tool to knock down your interest rate, it’s time to lock in a solid plan to pay off the balance.
Step 1: Understand your spending
Your first objective is to free up cash flow you can put toward paying down your debt. To do this you need to understand your spending. Most credit card companies have online monthly statements where you can go back and see every transaction you’ve made. You can begin to see patterns and hone in on areas where you spend more than you should.
Many credit cards also provide a year-end breakdown with your spending by categories. The best cards have great online analytics that help you visualize your spending in near real time.
If your card doesn’t have any of these options, another great option is to use a free web service like Mint.com. Mint helps you expand your spending analysis outside of credit cards by linking in your bank account debit transactions, checks, and other expenditures.
Step 2: Free up cash
Once you know how you spend, you can figure out where to pull back. This is, of course, easier said than done. If you’re looking for some creative ways to cut spending, spend some time in the archives of The Simple Dollar. Trent, the founder of this site, shares tons and tons of useful “frugality” tips he used to get himself out of debt and still applies today.
A particularly useful starting point is Rule 9: Do It Yourself. I also recommend Trent’s advice for things to do on a money-free weekend, which will keep you entertained while you save money at the same time.
The key is to be brutally honest about the money you spend and the true value of the services you use. Take cable TV for instance. With cheap streaming services, websites, and devices, cable TV is becoming less relevant. I would save at least $150 per month if I cut it out of my budget.
Younger generations are also getting rid of their cars and moving closer into central city districts. They prefer walking to work and not having to deal with high car payments, gas, and maintenance. Car sharing services like Zipcar make going carless a reality.
Consider a few of these changes to free up cash and pay down your debt more quickly. Some of them may fit your situation while others may not, but there are options out there.
Step 3: Create a systematic payment plan
Once you’ve made some changes to free up cash each month, you need to match the freed-up cash on a monthly basis to the intro period. As I did in the example above, you will take your new balance and divide it over the number of months in your introductory period, which is 15 months for the Barclaycard Ring™ Mastercard®. This will give you a nice, smooth “payment” that you can make each month to lower your debt.
You will want to systematically siphon off that money for debt payments before it can go anywhere else. Set up automatic payments to your credit card if you can, or set up auto transfers to a different bank account you’ll use to pay your credit card bills each month. You can easily set up a free checking account or online savings account for these purposes.
Exceptions to the rules
Exception to rule #1: Stop digging
This rule is not meant for extreme circumstances. Sometimes, high credit-card spending is simply unavoidable. Job losses, medical bills, and other emergencies are examples of situations where reliance on credit cards may be warranted if all other options have been exhausted.
Exception to rule #2: Stop paying interest
This rule assumes you can take advantage of a 0% balance transfer credit card’s features. There are a few instances where you can’t completely stop paying interest:
- Some people may not be able to qualify for a balance transfer card.
- You may not qualify for high enough of a limit to consolidate all of your credit card debt.
- You cannot pay off all of your debt by the end of the intro period.
If you don’t qualify for a balance transfer card, creating a systematic payoff plan is even more crucial because you won’t have the safety net of 0% interest for a period of time. You will want to tweak the plan to be more aggressive in paying down your balances on the higher-interest rate cards first, then move on to lower-interest cards down the line.
If you can’t consolidate all your debt on a 0% card, you will end up paying some interest. I would transfer the highest-rate balances to the new card, then target your free cash at whatever balance could not be transferred over while maintaining your minimum payment on the new balance transfer card. Once this is paid down, you can shift the free cash to the new balance to get that under control.
If you can’t pay everything down by the end of the intro period, you will also pay some interest on the remaining balance. I recommend reviewing your spending plan at the end of the intro period to see if you can free up more cash to apply to the remaining balance. Continue your systematic payment plan as long as it takes.
Exception to rule #3: Create the payoff plan
There really are NO exceptions to this rule. You will never pay off your debt without a solid plan. The only caveat is in a situation where a person might have have large lump payments instead of creating smooth monthly payments. Salespeople often encounter this situation because their pay is highly variable. Inheritances also create a situation where someone would have a lump payment.
Regardless of how you pay, you must still have a plan and understand the costs and benefits of your approach.
For instance, the key is to make the payments as quickly as possible on interest-bearing debt. If you have interest-bearing credit card debt, you never want to “save” money in a bank account to make later payments unless you have to. This is because your interest rate is higher than anything you will earn in a bank account, so making frequent payments is more effective.
By following these rules, and understanding if any exceptions apply to your situation, you will be well on your way to tackling your credit card debt and liberating your financial future in 2017 and beyond.