How Do Credit Card Balance Transfer Checks Work?

If you have an unsecured credit card of any kind, you’ve probably received those nifty balance transfer checks in the mail. From a distance, these checks appear harmless, and even helpful. Just write a check to yourself and deposit it in your own bank account. From there, you can use this money to pay off bills, make a purchase, or save up for an emergency.

Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details when it comes to balance transfer or “convenience” checks. While having the ability to write yourself a check for any amount might sound ideal, doing so means taking on more debt. Worse, balance transfer checks tend to tack on fees that make borrowing this money especially expensive.

Keep reading to learn more about balance transfer checks, how they work, and the pitfalls to avoid.

How Do Balance Transfer Checks Work?

While credit card checks tend to look the same, they can come with very different offers. Certain credit card checks you get in the mail come in the form of a true balance transfer offer, for example. When that’s the case, writing yourself one of these checks means scoring 0% APR on those funds for anywhere from 12 to 21 months.

If you read all the details, however, you might find a nasty surprise. Where some balance transfers may be fee-free, others charge a balance transfer fee of up to 5% of your transferred balance upfront. If you write yourself a check for $5,000, for example, you’ll owe up to an additional $250 on top of the money you borrowed.

In certain cases, the checks you’ll receive in the mail don’t come with a 0% APR offer at all. Disguised as helpful balance transfer or convenience checks, they may actually just represent a cash advance. If you read the fine print on the offer, you may find you’re required to pay a cash advance fee of up to 5% to use your checks, then pay a higher interest rate to boot. Worse, credit card checks meant for a cash advance don’t offer a grace period at all. If that’s the case, interest will begin accruing on your balance the moment you deposit the check in your account.

Consumer Warnings Against Credit Card ‘Convenience Checks’

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has warned of deceptive marketing practices with both balance transfer checks and cash advance checks in the past. These warnings are the result of concerns around “the marketing of credit card interest-rate offers such as balance transfers, deferred-interest offers, and convenience checks,” the CFPB says.

“Under these promotions, consumers are often charged a fee to transfer a balance or make a purchase with their credit card in order to receive a promotional interest rate on that amount for a set period of time,” writes the CFPB. “While consumers pay no interest or a low interest rate for balances subject to the promotion, any additional purchases consumers make with the credit card may incur interest charges right away.”

This is why it’s crucial to read the fine print on any offer you’re considering. No matter what, you should remember that 0% APR offers won’t last forever, and that every dollar you borrow must be repaid. In the case of cash advance checks, you’ll want to figure out exactly how much this loan will cost you. A lot of times, cash advances are incredibly expensive when you factor in upfront fees and ongoing interest charges.

Alternatives to Convenience Checks

If you truly need access to cash, a balance transfer check might not be the worst idea out there. Still, it’s important to read the fine print to figure out your interest rate and new loan’s terms before you sign on the dotted line. You should also determine whether you’ll pay an upfront fee to use a convenience check in the first place.

Also consider other loan alternatives that might leave you in a better spot once you factor in all interest charges and fees. In some cases, a personal loan from a bank or credit union might offer a better interest rate and terms.

If it’s a 0% balance transfer offer you’re after, you might do better signing up for a new balance transfer credit card with minimal fees and zero interest for the first year or more — it’s at least worth checking whether the offer you received in the mail is as good as other options out there. As always, you should compare offers, fees, and interest rates to find the best option for your needs.

Final Thoughts

A blank check in the mail might seem like a dream come true, but the charges you’ll pay can easily become a nightmare. Before you fill out a convenience check and cash it, ask yourself if it’s possible to avoid borrowing money altogether. Do you really need this cash, or could you make your finances work some other way?

If it’s possible to get by without taking on more debt, you should steer clear of convenience checks altogether. Remember, there’s nothing convenient about taking on more debt.

Have you ever used a convenience check? Why or why not?

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Holly Johnson
Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

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