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Twenty years ago, the phrase “surfing the web” became a popular way of describing how millions of Americans were starting to use the Internet by quickly browsing from one website to another. Today, this is pretty much how we all use our computers and even smartphones. Lately, the term “credit card surfing” is becoming a popular way to describe a different kind of behavior.

The Basics of Credit Card Surfing

It can be extremely difficult to pay off credit card debt, and as unsecured debt, your outstanding balances will likely incur a higher interest rate than mortgages, student loans or car loans. To avoid interest payments on their credit cards, some people turn to 0% annual percentage rate (APR) promotional financing offers from credit card issuers. These offers allow them to avoid interest charges by transferring a balance from one piece of plastic to another, typically for as little as six months and as long as 21 months.

With these promotional financing offers so commonly available, some cardholders attempt to take the next step towards avoiding interest charges by “surfing” from one offer to another. When an existing 0% APR balance transfer offer is about to expire, they will apply for a new credit card with another interest-free promotional balance transfer period. Furthermore, some credit card users hope to continue this practice indefinitely.

Reasons to Avoid Credit Card Surfing

Credit card surfing might seem like it could be a sustainable practice, but it has many potential problems. First, those who use 0% APR balance transfers will almost always have to pay a balance transfer fee equal to 3% to 5% of the amount transferred. And while this fee can be worth it to avoid paying a much higher amount in interest charges in the short-term, credit card surfers should never convince themselves that these promotional financing offers allow them to sustain their debts for free forever.

In addition, credit card surfers may be constantly utilizing a large percentage of their available credit limit as they continue to carry debt. Doing so will raise their debt-to-credit ratios, which could lower their credit score. Furthermore, their minimum payments will still be reported to the major credit bureaus, and that amount could impact the size of any new loans they might apply for, such as a mortgage. Each credit card application generally generates a hard inquiry on your credit report, which can ding your credit score, so applying for too many new balance-transfer credit cards in a short-time frame can damage your credit in that way as well.  (To see where you currently stand, you can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com.)

Credit card surfing is also a risky strategy because it presumes that interest-free balance transfer offers will continue to be available in the future, and that the applicant will qualify for them. These offers are common now, but could easily go out of style next year, or become more heavily restricted to those with the best credit scores.

Finally, procrastinating is a questionable idea when it comes to paying off your debt. While you might be able to qualify for a new credit card with a 0% APR offer now, there’s no telling whether circumstances outside of your control such as illness or job loss could hurt your credit in the future, and put these offers beyond your reach. And credit card debt adds up quickly. (You can calculate the lifetime cost of your current debts here.)

The Best Ways to Use Promotional Financing Offers

Credit cards that offer 0% APR financing on balance transfers are a great way to save money on interest charges, but only when used strategically. The best way to leverage these offers is to use them as an incentive to pay off your existing balances sooner, not later. Consider the end of your card’s promotional financing period to be the finish line in your race to eliminate debt. (Keep in mind, too, some cards have caveats that make you liable for retroactive interest if you don’t pay the balance you transferred off in full by the time the offer expires.)

Each payment you make during your promotional financing offer will go 100% towards paying off your principle balance, not interest payments. And if you succeed in paying off your debt before interest is incurred, you can avoid increasing your balance by another 3% to 5% when you transfer it to another credit card.

Surfing can be tremendously fun when it occurs on the Internet or the ocean, but credit card surfing is a risky proposition. By taking a look at the bigger picture when it comes to your credit card debt, you can use an interest-free promotional financing offer to retire your debt, rather than perpetuate it.

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