Transferring a high interest credit card balance to one with a better interest rate and/or better overall terms and features is usually a good way to reduce the amount of money you pay back on your existing debt. Depending on the “better” credit card you select, you may also be able to benefit from a rewards program or gain other features you didn't already have – including travel accident insurance coverage or an extended warranty program for new purchases made with the card. There are a few instances when a balance transfer is not the great deal it appears at first glance though, so it's important to do your research before moving your accounts around.
If you want to take advantage of a balance transfer offer, use this guide for a smooth transition from one card to the other, and avoid costly or time consuming mistakes:
Step One: Find a better credit card with a balance transfer offer.
There is no point moving money from one credit card to another unless you are going to benefit from it in some way. Sometimes people are mislead by the introductory rates and promotional offers – so it is important that you dig a little beneath the surface to see what sort of rates you'll be charged once the promotional period ends.
When looking at possible cards to replace your existing credit card, make sure you find out the following information in order to make an accurate comparison between your existing card and the new card:
What is the introductory rate and when does it end? Does the introductory rate apply to new purchases only? Does it apply to balance transfers? What is the cards APR (annual percentage rate) once the introductory offer is over? Does the card have an annual fee? How much is it?
This is an important consideration when looking at a card to move your existing balances to - What does the card charge for a balance transfer fee? Many cards charge 3-4% fees for transferring balances. If you've got a $4,000 balance on your card that you're moving to a new card, you're looking at a fee between $120 and $160 just to move the balance. If you're going to pay a balance transfer fee, you're going to need to save a whole lot of money in interest over the life of the balance on the new card in order to make that fee worth it.
Step Two: What are your chances of getting approved for the new card?
Just because a credit card offers a 0% or 2% interest rate on balance transfers does not mean that you will be approved for that offer. Cards always put their best foot forward; but sometimes people are approved for the cards under different terms, based on their credit scores and payment histories. Take a close look, because often the credit card you apply for will tell you that if you don't qualify for the terms of the offer they will issue you a credit card with higher interest rates or different overall terms. If this happens, will the higher rates be beneficial to you, or will you just end up with a second credit card that charges a fortune in fees and interest and the temptation to spend more because you have a new credit line available?
Step Three: Apply
If you find a card with a great offer that you've compared closely to your existing card and feel that you will save money through the new, lower interest rate and/or through the rewards program the new card offers – AND you've considered your realistic chance of being approved for that card and all seems ready to go; it's time to apply.
When applying for the new card, make sure to fill out the balance transfer portion at the time of application. The reason for this is sometimes the balance transfer offers are only good for immediate balance transfers that occur at the time of account opening. Balance transfers that are initiated later may be considered a cash advance and do not enjoy the same promotional terms your initial transfers do.
Step Four: Stop Using Old Card
If you've transferred the balance to a new and improved credit card, stop using your old credit card. Cut it up or put it away so you aren't tempted to charge on it. If you transfer the balance and then continue to use your old card, you've completely defeated the purpose of moving the money and now have TWO credit cards to pay off!
How Balance Transfers Affect Your Credit Score
Transferring balances with high interest rates to a credit card with a lower interest rate (or a 0% interest balance transfer offer) is a great way to pay your debt off faster and save money in the process. It's not as cut and dry as transferring the money from one place to another though, there are some other considerations to work out before you rush into the next balance transfer offer you qualify for: primarily, how does a balance transfer affect your credit score?
Balance Transfers and Credit Scores – What's the Connection?
Due to the formula used to calculate an individual's credit score, moving money from one credit card to another can actually cause some negative issues with your credit score that you may not have even realized.
Credit scores are calculated with a top-secret formula, but we do know how much weight each component of our credit carries in the calculation:
# Payment History – 35%
# Outstanding Debt – 30%
# Established Credit – 15%
# New Credit – 10%
# Type of Credit - 10%
As you can see, the two biggest factors contributing to your credit score calculation involve how well you make your payments and how much debt you currently have. When considering balance transfers and how it will affect your credit score, first you should realize that most people mistakenly close out the old credit card once the balance has been moved to the new card – this is bad because it lowers the average age of your accounts and this accounts for 15% of your credit score. If most of your credit is recent, and you close your old account(s) as you transfer balances, you've suddenly decreased the average length of time you've had credit and your credit score will decrease as a result.
In addition, if you close out your old credit card account after transferring the balance, you've lowered your debt to credit ratio, which accounts for a whopping 30% of your credit score. Closing the account gives you less credit available to you, which means you are suddenly using more of your available credit even though you haven't spent any more money.
It's also true that opening a credit card account – like the one you want to transfer your higher interest balances to, will result in a lower credit score. New accounts make up 10% of your FICO credit score, so it's possible that opening the new account will take a hit on your account, but since it's only 10% of your overall score calculation, it shouldn't be as big of a factor as closing out the older account.
If you transfer a balance to a new card, and leave the old card open – it will actually appear as if you owe less money because you have a higher available credit amount. You may experience a bit of a credit score increase from this which can counteract the decrease from opening a new account.
Goals for Balance Transfers
Your goal is to have less than 30% of your available credit (all cards included) utilized. You should always look to transfer balances to cards that give you the best rates, and leave your old accounts open. In the meantime, don't charge any more money until your total balance is well below the 30% utilization, and you'll soon see your credit score affected positively for these responsible financial decisions.
In order to get a better understanding of where you stand with your credit score, don't forget you're entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies annually. With the report, you can see how much credit you're using, and whether or not looking for a new balance transfer offer might help you raise your score and save money on interest.