How a Credit Card Can Actually Help You Get Out of Debt

By Holly Johnson. Last updated 16 November 2020. 0 comments

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If you have high-interest credit card debt, you may believe another credit card is the last thing you need. Another card would only leave you with more open credit after all, and that just means more temptation to spend and rack up even more debt.

But a certain type of credit card debt could help your situation — if you use it the right way. This type of card is a balance transfer card.

How balance transfer cards work

Each balance transfer credit card has its own unique introductory offer you can use to your advantage. Most offer 0% APR from 12 to 21 months, meaning you won't pay interest on transferred balances during that time. However, some balance transfer cards charge a balance transfer fee that typically works out to 3% or 5% of the balance you transfer over.

To illustrate, let's imagine for a moment that you have $10,000 in credit card debt at 19% APR and you're currently making a payment of 5% of your balance, or $500 per month. At this rate, it would take 25 months to pay off your debt, and you would fork over $2,120 in interest over that time.

Now, let's say you apply for a balance transfer card that gives you 0% APR for 21 months in exchange for a 5% balance transfer fee. Once you transferred your entire balance over and added in the fee, you would start repayment owing $10,500 ($10,000 plus a $500 balance transfer fee).

However, the fact that you're not paying interest means you could continue paying $500 per month and pay off your entire balance with zero interest in 21 months. In other words, your balance transfer card could shave four months off your repayment timeline and save you $2,120 in interest. (See also: Here's What a Balance Transfer Does to Your Credit)

Tips for a successful balance transfer

The example above shows why balance transfer cards are so popular. Sure, some of them charge balance transfer fees, but having 0% APR for anywhere from 12 to 21 months can help you get out of debt faster, and lead to thousands of dollars in savings.

According to estimates from Experian, Americans conduct $35 to $40 billion in balance transfer activity each year. This is good news for consumers who are taking advantage, but it's also troublesome since many people get stuck in a situation where they're transferring the same debts to new balance transfer cards every few years.

If your goal is using a balance transfer credit card to get out of debt and stay out of debt, you'll want to set yourself up for success. Here's how you can do that.

Compare offers

Because balance transfer cards each have their own introductory offers, you need to check out more than one. Ideally, you'll settle on a balance transfer credit card that grants you 0% APR for as long as you need to pay down all (or most) of your debt.

Other factors to consider with balance transfer cards include any fees they charge, consumer perks and protections, and rewards programs. However, beware of signing up for balance transfer cards with rewards programs if you worry they'll entice you to spend. The goal with a balance transfer card is paying down debt — not racking up more.

Look for cards that don't charge a balance transfer fee

Keep your eye out for balance transfer cards that don't charge a fee. While most charge a fee to transfer balances upfront, there are several that skip over this fee for balances transferred in the first 60 days. Avoiding this fee will normally save you 3% to 5% of your balance amount, which can help you start paying down your balances right away.

Stop using credit cards

No matter what you do, stop using credit cards once you've transferred your balances to a card that offers zero interest for a limited time. You won't want to use your new balance transfer card for purchases since the goal is paying off your debt, but you should also steer clear of using other credit cards since you could easily rack up more debt and eliminate any progress you've made.

While you're in debt-repayment mode, you should stick to a cash budget or use your debit card instead of credit. That way, you won't "accidentally" rack up new credit card balances you can't afford to repay.

Create a debt repayment plan

Finally, don't forget to create some sort of debt payoff plan for how you'll pay down debt during your card's introductory offer. You should estimate how much you can afford to pay each month and figure out how much debt you'll ultimately pay off if you stay on track. If you can manage to pay off your entire debt over your card's 0% APR offer with a specific payment amount, you should determine if that figure is possible with your monthly income and expenses. And using a good debt repayment calculator can help a lot.

You may also want to look for ways to cut your spending and bills so you can throw more money toward your credit card's balance each month. Start with the low-hanging fruit in your budget — things like grocery spending and dining out, entertainment spending, or regular trips to your favorite department store. Also consider uninstalling any apps on your phone that regularly cause you to spend money, whether it's Instacart, DoorDash, or Amazon. Make spending money more difficult and you're more likely to save over time. And those savings can be allocated toward your debts until they're paid off.

The bottom line

Another credit card may seem like the last thing you could possibly need if you're in debt, but a balance transfer card could help you save money with the right mindset. Consider a 0% Intro APR credit card to pay down debt faster, but don't forget that you'll have to change your spending if you want to get out — and stay out — of debt.

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