Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Live on the cheap.
I once had a friend who bragged about never paying interest because she mixed up her credit card balances every time she had a 0% balance transfer offer. What she didn’t realize was that by not repaying the debt, she was actually wasting time (and money) because a balance transfer fee was added every time. The result was a few more lines of credit with the potential to cause him more trouble.
Of course, balance transfers can be a smart credit move if you do the math and then get the debt paid off before the introductory rate expires. Here’s how to decide whether to accept or reject the next offer you receive.
1. See if the 0% interest period is long enough for you to pay off the balance.
Some offers may be valid for six months; others for 18. Regardless of the number of months, divide your balance by that and see if you can reasonably vary that monthly payment. Don’t forget to tack on the balance transfer fee, which is usually around 2% to 3% of the total balance.
2. Take a closer look at your current situation. Is your interest rate exorbitant?
Can you redeem the card if you really tried, or are you having trouble making the minimum payments? If you feel like you’re on a road to nowhere because your principal never moves, then a balance transfer might be a good decision for you. But you must be disciplined in your winning plan.
3. Know what will happen if you don’t pay the bill before the end of the introductory period.
Make sure you understand the interest rate and other terms of the new card. You don’t want to open a new account that won’t benefit you in the long run, so stay away from cards that have a high interest rate or annual fee after the introductory period.
4. Consider what will happen if you plan to apply for a mortgage or car loan in the near future.
If so, you should refrain from opening new lines of credit, as this will temporarily lower your credit score. A lower score could affect the interest rate you’re offered on the loan, which will translate to a lot more money over time than you’d save with a balance transfer.
5. Use an online calculator to properly calculate your decision.
If you left the balance where it is, how much interest will you end up paying over the same period as the balance transfer offer? Then, compare that amount to the principal plus the fees required for the transfer. If the fees are more than what you would pay in interest, it’s not a good deal.
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