Should You Do A Balance Transfer?

A friend of mine recently asked me about doing a balance transfer, which is a common question I receive. After all, you may get offers in the mail for credit cards with rates that look quite enticing compared to what you’re currently paying. There are definitely some pros and cons, and here are a few other things to consider:

How’s your credit? Depending on your credit score, you may not qualify for the best deals or even any new credit at all. To make matters worse, if your application gets turned down, that will hurt your credit score even more. You can get a free credit score at sites like Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, NerdWallet, and Quizzle to see what balance transfer offers you might actually qualify for before applying. (keep in mind that those sites use their own formula and may not be exactly the same as the credit scoring system the credit card company uses)

What are the fees and how long does the balance transfer rate last? You want the interest savings to outweigh any fees you may have to pay to transfer your balance. Be aware that you may end up with a higher fee once the promotional rate ends. You may be able to find a better long term deal from peer-to-peer lending sites like Lending Club and Prosper.

Can you borrow from your 401(k)? If you can’t qualify for a new credit card or if the balance transfer rate is still higher than 4-6%, you may want to pay off your credit card debt with a 401(k) loan instead. There’s no credit check and you pay the interest back to yourself. But you should also be aware that there are potential downsides to this option as well.

Do you have equity in your home? Another option is using a home equity loan or line of credit to pay off your credit card debt. If you have a good credit, you can qualify for a pretty low rate that’s also tax-deductible. If you’re in the 25% tax bracket, a 4% loan would really be a 3%, which is much less than you can expect to earn by keeping your 401(k) money invested. The big downside is that you can lose your home if you default so this is not a good option if you might have trouble making payments.

Is this part of a strategy to pay down your debt? No matter which of the above options you choose, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to do a balance transfer or otherwise refinance their debt and then run the debt right back up on the old credit card. Make sure any balance transfers you do is part of a wider plan to pay down your balance faster rather than get deeper in debt. That starts with getting control over your spending so you’re living within your means. See some relatively painless ways to save money here and here.

Like with most financial questions, the answer to whether you should do a balance transfer is,“it depends.” Know the pros and cons of your different options. Regardless of your decision, make sure it’s an educated one.

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