A military member’s guide to balance transfers

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December 17, 2019
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New year, new financial you?

Almost everyone sets new resolutions on January 1, but that’s the easy part. Your resolutions might be job related, like scoring higher on your PT test. Or maybe it’s financial, like staying within budget and paying down debt. When it comes to debt, have no fear – there are great financial offers and tools available to help pay off credit card debt and get you back on track.

We all know the best way to get out of credit card debt is to pay it off as quickly as possible. Start small by paying more than your minimum monthly credit card payment. But there’s also a top-secret tip you might not know about – you can also lower your monthly payment by using a balance transfer.

How can I use a balance transfer to pay off debt?

Many financial institutions offer attractive balance transfer offers, especially around this time of year as they know consumers have holiday debt to pay off.

“A balance transfer gives you the opportunity to shift your current credit card balance to a new card, usually with a lower rate,” said Justin Zeidman, manager of credit card products at Navy Federal Credit Union. “A lower rate means lower interest charges, which can help you to pay down your debt faster.”

If your credit card has an interest rate between 15 to 25 percent, you may be paying more in interest each month than you have to. The goal is to find a new card that works with your spending habits, offers a lower interest rate than your current card and has low to no fees.

A typical balance transfer offers a low APR anywhere from 12 to 15 months. Make sure that allows you enough time to pay off your balance before the variable Annual Percentage Rate (APR) kicks in.

“If possible, set up automatic payments along with text alerts on your mobile device to ensure payments are made on time,” said Zeidman. “Not only do missed payments negatively affect your credit score, but you could risk losing the low introductory rate as well.”

What are things I should consider when looking at offers?

Know the pros and cons before taking action, just as you would a successful military operation plan. Consider interest rates and fees first when looking at available offers. Once you pay off your debt or the introductory period expires, you’re still responsible for that new card and its new interest rate. Make sure when that time comes it’s still valuable for you. Also consider secondary benefits when opening a new credit card using a balance transfer, such as rewards programs or credit limit. And remember to read the fine print before opening a new card.

Will my credit score fluctuate after making a balance transfer?

In general, when you apply for credit, you’ll see a small decrease in your credit score. It’s not a major factor in determining your overall score, so the decrease from a balance transfer should be temporary. However, if you plan on making a large purchase in the very near future, such as a car or home, weigh the pros and cons before opening a new credit card. It might not be the best option for you at this time.

What’s the deal with fees?

The good news is it’s possible to find balance transfer offers with no fees. For example, some financial institutions, like Navy Federal Credit Union, never charge a balance transfer fee.

Along with watching out for fees, beware of the zero-interest rate offers. At first they appear attractive, but they could cost you more money in the long run. You may be paying zero interest on your balance month to month, but the upfront charge of 3 or 5 percent on your total balance is more costly than a 2.99% introductory APR offer with no fee. You do the math.

What if I can’t pay my balance before the intro rate period is over?

The goal of a balance transfer is to pay off your debt in full before the introductory rate ends. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have a considerable amount of debt. Your APR will increase when the intro rate expires. That’s why it’s important to know the card’s standard APR before making that balance transfer.

If your New Year’s resolution is to pay off holiday debt or that looming credit card balance, a balance transfer offer might be a good option. Be sure to read the offer’s fine print before you transfer your balance and speak to your financial institution to ensure you’re making the right decision for you.