Picture of Credit Cards and Cash underneath
Posted by: Howard Dvorkin, CPA
Date of post: October 22, 2018

They're actually awesome, except when they destroy you.

Do you know what I do for a living? Do you know what all personal finance experts like me do for a living? We tell you how to take risks without going broke.

That’s a blunt job description, but it’s true. Just two examples…

  • We show you how to build your credit score, but that requires taking out loans you have to pay back — and if you don’t, that’s trouble.
  • We point you to credit cards that offer rewards and no annual fees — but if you carry a big balance, you face impossible interest rates.
  • And so on and so forth.

Nothing captures this conundrum quite like credit card balance transfers. That’s not just my opinion, Listen to these financial experts Debt.com interviewed at FinCon, the annual conference that teaches all things saving and investing…

Learn from the experts: Is a balance transfer a good idea?

Stacey Johnson, Money Talks News: The first thing you gotta do, you have to figure out why you’re in debt in the first place.

Adam Sosnick, SOSTalksMoney.com:  You’re just trying to make little money moves; you’re saving money here, you’re saving money there but at the end of the day you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot.

Steve Rhodes, Get Out of Debt Guy: You need to look at what exactly a balance transfer is. It’s a marketing tool to attract you to transfer your debt from one card to another.

Ryan Inman, Physician Wealth Services: If you do a balance transfer and continue to rack up more debt somewhere else — that’s a horrible idea. You really need to take control over your finances. Don’t let it take control over you.

Jasmine Watts, Miss Millennia Magazine: You put a plan in place as soon as you do that balance transfer.

Leanna Haakons, Black Hawk Financial: You need to change your mindset and change your life.

Brandon Neth, FinanceBuzz.com: A lot of people try to take advantage of these. They get charged 3-5 % up front and they don’t pay it off and they get hit with these huge interest rates at the end.

Jason Steele, Credit Card Expert: You have to look at the end date. Be it 12, 15, 18 months out as the finish line, and divide those numbers of months and that should be the amount you’re paying plus whatever you’re charged that month.

Cortlon Cofield, Cofield Advisors: Set a reminder in the calendar when the balance transfer is coming up.

Marcus Garrett, Paychecks & Balances: They’re banking on you not paying it off by the end of that balance transfer. So, keep that in mind that it seems like a great deal. But they’re hoping that you don’t pay that off by the time that balance transfer is due because it’s going to be a higher interest rate. That’s why they’re offering you that 18-24 months.

Adam Sosnick, SOSTalksMoney.com: Credit cards are not your friend. They’re there to lure you in and then BOOM! Jack the rate up. Right? and that’s how credit card companies make their money.

Steve Rhodes, Get Out of Debt Guy: The game is played by letting you think that it’s free money when in fact, it’s set up so that you don’t pay the balance off before the 0 % rate expires.

Gerry Detweiler, Credit Expert: When you use a balance transfer, be smart about it.

Of course, the video makes little sense if you don’t know what credit card balance transfers are. So let’s define them.

The short version

Credit card companies let you roll your high-interest balances from other cards onto their lower interest cards. Sometimes, “lower” actually means “zero.”

That’s right, you don’t pay any interest at all on the hefty balances you have on your other cards, and you’ll no longer pay interest rates of 16, 18, or even 20 percent. What a deal, right?

The long version

If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not. The catch is: There’s more truth you don’t know about. For instance: There’s a time limit.

Many of these transfer offers expire after a year or 18 months. I’ve heard of some that last a mere six months. What happens then? That zero percent jumps up to a higher percentage than you had on your original cards.

That’s what many of the experts are talking about in the video above. These balance transfer offers are like hammers.

Hammers are wonderful tools, but like all tools, they can be used to build something impressive — or they can be used to inflict pain and suffering. When you use a balance transfer, you can save huge sums in interest charges and roll those savings back into your monthly payments.

All too often, though, people get lazy and/or greedy. They tell themselves, “I’m saving big, so why not buy that shirt I always wanted? Or take my friends out for a drink? Or my family out for dinner? I still have a few months to pay things off.”

Alas, it seldom works that way, and many Americans end up back in debt.

Good for many, terrible for some

Debt.com and Money Talks News recently polled more than 4,400 Americans and asked specifically about balance transfers. To my pleasant surprise, two-thirds of those surveyed had paid off the consolidated balance before the teaser interest rate expired.

Of course, that means a third didn’t. Still, I was expecting the results to be 50-50, so that’s good news. Not so good: “Half of the people who use balance transfers keep charging.” That’s disappointing because they could easily fall back into the debt trap. The idea isn’t to keep using balance transfers. It’s to get out of debt for good — and stay out.

If you’re a disciplined person who feels physically uncomfortable with debt, then I recommend seeking the best balance transfer offer you can find.

If you’re honest with yourself and know you’ll more than likely run up even bigger bills, I recommend another course of action: credit counseling. It’s free, and it’s an easy first step on the path to financial freedom. In a nutshell, you call a nonprofit credit counseling agency for a free debt analysis from a certified credit counselor. You not only get solid advice, you also get an accurate snapshot of your financial strengths and weaknesses.

Unlike everything else in the financial world, credit counseling is the only tool that can help you without hurting you. Try it.

After reading this and you feel a balance transfer does fit your personality, check out Debt.com’s How to Transfer Credit Card Balance Guide.