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Say No To Credit Card 0% Balance Transfer Arbitrage

I usually save Devil’s Advocate posts for more big time personal finance advice but with the recent spat of 0% balance arbitrage posts (of which I’ve wrote several), I felt that I should write a post arguing the potentials risks of 0% balance transfer arbitraging because you don’t see many of these out there. For those who aren’t familiar with the practice, basically you apply for a bunch of credit cards with 0% balance transfer offers [3], request a balance transfer check, and deposit it in a high yield savings account [4] – pocketing the interest.

Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t do 0% balance transfers:

Universal Default = Death
Universal default is the keywords you should look for in your credit card agreement (don’t bother looking, I guarantee its in there) and what it means is that if you miss a payment, any payment on any account, you could see your 0% balance transfer offer interest rate spike up to rates as high as 30%. So if you miss a cell phone payment or a water bill payment or anything anywhere, you could see your 0% rate disappear.

Oh, and if your card does two cycle billing, you could get creamed the last two months as your 0% balance disappears but the “two cycle” math keeps it on the books. It’s a ridiculous thing but it does happen. No one has ever complained of this, I don’t have a card with two-cycle billing, so I’m not 100% sure this is true but it should be.

Your Credit Score Will Plummet
When you apply for credit cards, the bank will do a hard pull inquiry of your credit history to assess your credit worthiness. As you accumulate more and more of these inquiries, your credit score will fall lower and lower. As you request balance transfers from these new lines of credit, your credit utilization will increase tremendously and your credit score will fall lower and lower. Plus, when you pay off these debts, your credit score isn’t going to recover immediately – it takes a little while before you get back to normal. So, if you’re planning on any big purchases, this drop in your credit score will likely result in loans with a higher interest rate that will make your interest earnings look meaningless.

The Payoff Is Miniscule
Let’s say you get $10,000 in debt at 0%, you put it in a 5% high yield bank account, that means at the end of the year you’ll get about $500 for your trouble. Now, take out a fat chunk for taxes and you’re really talking about very very little (at 25%, you only keep $375, or $31.25 per month). Is that really worth all the trouble of setting up an automatic bill pay (or paying it manually) every month, double checking when the offer expires so you pay it off, and then sending a big payment?

Anyone else have any good reasons why you shouldn’t be doing 0% balance transfers just to make a few extra bucks?