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Is A Balance Transfer Worth It?

In the last few years, I’ve received a lot of balance transfer emails as people were looking for an edge in battling their credit card debt. A few years ago, most cards with balance transfers didn’t have a transfer fee and with comparable post-promotional interest rates the transfer itself was an easy “yes.” A twelve month 0% period meant a borrower gets a full year to catch up on their debt, as long as they don’t accumulate more.

Nowadays, with balance transfer fees and less favorable post-promo rates, the decision isn’t as obvious. Fortunately, I believe a quick back of the envelope calculation is enough to help you decide whether a balance transfer makes sense financially for you. We will have to ignore the credit score implications of applying for a new credit card, for the balance transfer, because it’s difficult to definitively quantify the impact of a hard inquiry (though we estimate a new credit card costs about 14 points [3]).

Also, before we get into the meat of the post, I want to make the point that you can’t approach a balance transfer as a way to delay payment. It can be used that way but it’s most effective as a tool in paying down your debt. You can’t balance transfer your way indefinitely anymore, the credit crisis made sure of that.

Four Horsemen of Balance Transfers

There are four numbers you need to know when calculating whether a balance transfer is worth it:

From here, you have to determine which scenario you fall within:

Can Pay Off Debt

If you can pay off the debt within the promotional period, remember to account for the balance transfer fee, the balance transfer is usually a safe bet if you get relief on the interest rate. As long as your current interest rate is higher than the balance transfer fee plus the promotional interest rate, it makes sense for you to consider the balance transfer.

Cannot Pay Off Debt

The math becomes a little trickier here if you cannot pay off the debt within the promotional period because now you have to consider the impact of the post-promotional interest rate APR. First, determine your effective promotional interest rate by converting the balance transfer fee into an APR.

If the promotional period is 12 months, then you don’t have to do any math because the balance transfer fee percentage is the “APR” contribution of the fee. Take that and add it to the promotional APR, which hopefully is 0%. This gives you your effective APR over the period (it’s technically a little higher since the fee is assessed all at once, rather than over the period, but this is close enough).

If the effective promotional interest rate is higher than your current interest rate, you will want to pass (this is a no brainer, you’re trying to save money here!). If it is lower, as it should be, set your sights on the post-promotional interest rate and compare it to your current interest rate. If it’s lower, then it’s a no brainer because you’re paying less during the promotion and less afterwards. If it’s higher, you have to calculate whether or not you get ahead by taking the interest rate relief.

Example Calculation

Let’s take an example of the most complicated case: You have a $10,000 credit card debt at 15% and you are able to make, at most, $500 monthly payments. You read a promotional offer of a 0% balance transfer [4] with a 3% fee and an interest rate of 20% after the promotion.

After twelve months, here’s what it would look like (you can use this calculator [5]):

It’s obvious so far that taking the transfer makes sense, 12 months of 0% gives you a lot of time to catch up even if you have to pay an extra $300 (3% on $10,000) at the start. From here, how long will it take to pay off the debt?

In the above case, you come out three months ahead if you take the balance transfer even though the post promotional rate is 5% higher.

The moral of the story is that you need to do the math, there are plenty of calculators online, to know for sure whether or not it makes sense. In my example, I think my gut feeling would be that you should not take the transfer but the math shows you come up 3 months ahead.