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4 Balance Transfer Credit Card Mistakes

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Opening a credit card with a 0% financing offer or low fees when you transfer the balance from a different card can help you save money when working to pay down credit card debt, particularly if you have a lot of it. Getting a balance transfer card and using it wisely requires careful thought, and if you don’t exercise discipline, you may end up hurting your finances instead of helping them.

Here are some common mistakes you want to avoid when using a balance transfer credit card:

1. Mixing Balances

You may have received offers from your credit card issuer about transferring a balance from another card to the one you have with them. If you use the card that’s offering the balance transfer, keep in mind that the promotional financing will only apply to the transferred balance — the interest rate on your existing balance still applies.

“Now you have balances at two different interest rates, which can get confusing fast,” said Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com’s director of consumer education, in an email.

If you pay more than the minimum payment, credit card issuers are required to apply the excess payment to the balance with the higher interest rate, meaning you may not be paying off that transferred balance. There’s an exception: If you made a purchase under promotional financing, you can ask the issuer to apply payment to that balance before applying money to a balance with a higher interest rate. Keep in mind that if you don’t pay off the balance with promotional financing — whether it was a transferred balance or a new purchase — within the timeframe of the promotion, you’ll end up paying interest on it.

Like Detweiler said, it can be very confusing.

“It’s best to use a card exclusively for a balance transfer if possible,” she said.

2. Overlooking the Cost

Transferring a balance from one card to another usually carries a 2% to 4% transfer fee, Detweiler said, so you have to do some math before committing to the transfer.

“It may still be a better deal than the interest you were paying, but you have to take it into account,” she said.

Jason Steele, an expert on credit cards and frequent contributor to Credit.com on the topic, said a common mistake people make is transferring a balance they could pay off in the next billing cycle. Part of the problem there is that people aren’t paying close enough attention to the terms of the card, but these cards aren’t always easy to understand.

“There’s not much information that the card issuers give on these subjects,” he said. “They’re just marketed as a 0% balance transfer.” You have to understand exactly what that means and how much it might cost you.

3. Failing to Plan

Steele said another common mistake he sees is people failing to use the card as an instrument for repaying debt. That’s the point of a balance transfer in the first place: Put the balance on a card with a lower interest rate so you can save money while paying it down. Because the interest rate will expire, you have incentive to pay the balance off faster. If you’re not doing that, what was the point of paying a fee to transfer that balance to the card in the first place?

Additionally, Steele said a lot of people think they can just get another balance transfer card if they don’t pay off the first one in time, but that’s not necessarily a reliable (or affordable) strategy. Getting a new credit card requires a credit check, and if you’ve opened a lot of credit cards recently or carry high balances, your credit may not be in good enough shape for another card approval.

Perhaps you’re sensing a theme: It’s really important to pay attention to the details with these products. You also need to watch the transition very closely, because it can get confusing to have been paying one issuer and now have to pay another, and you definitely don’t want to miss a payment during the switch. Late payments can knock a lot of points off your credit score and can hurt your credit for years. (You can see how your credit history affects your credit scores by checking them regularly — which you can do for free through numerous sources, including Credit.com.)

4. Procrastinating

Both Detweiler and Steele stressed the importance of the financing timeline.

“Either [they] don’t keep track of when the transfer period ends or they are overly optimistic that they can pay it back before it does. Then they can’t, and the real interest rate — which is much higher — kicks in,” Detweiler said.

Getting a balance transfer is just the first step of a months-long process of paying down debt and, ultimately, improving your credit. (This calculator can show you how long it will take to pay off your credit card debt.) As long as you don’t continue to rack up charges, are realistic about what you can accomplish and commit to your plan, you could see a drastic improvement in your debt and credit situation after using a balance transfer.

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