Offers from credit card companies to temporarily skirt interest charges can be enticing.
Reducing interest payments by transferring a balance from one card to another is a quick way to lower monthly finance charges. But taking advantage of such a promotion, even one offering a zero interest rate on balance transfers, doesn't always pay off. That's especially true for cardholders who have a tendency to carry a balance.
That's because once the low-rate period ends, interest on any unpaid charges starts adding up again.
"Some of the rates at the end of the promotional period can be quite punishing," said Christina Tetreault, staff attorney at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.
"Consumers who are considering a balance transfer should really take a hard look at the offer, do the math and figure out if they can commit to a payment plan," she added.
Here are some tips on gauging whether a credit card balance transfer offer makes financial sense:
1. WATCH OUT FOR FEES
Card issuers typically will charge a fee of about 3 percent on the amount transferred, but it can go even as high as 5 percent.
Let's say the fee is 3 percent. On a balance transfer of $10,000, you'll be charged $300 up front, usually rolled into your balance.
Some cards don't charge a fee on balance transfers. The Chase Slate card, for example, doesn't charge a fee to new cardholders, so long as they transfer the balance from another card within 60 days after being approved, said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, which track credit card offers.
2. REMEMBER RATES ARE TEMPORARY
Generally, card balance transfer offers include an introductory period to pay off the balance at zero or a sharply reduced interest. The period can last for a year or more. For instance, Discover IT provides as long as 18 months.
If you don't pay off the card before the promotional rate period elapses, you will be charged a higher interest rate on your balance and any transfer fees.
With Chase's Slate card, for example, after 15 months cardholders would move from zero percent interest to a variable rate ranging from 12.99 percent to 22.99 percent. With Discover IT, the interest rate on balance transfers jumps after 18 months from zero to a variable rate ranging from 10.99 percent to 22.99 percent.
In addition, the rules on balance transfers usually require cardholders to make all payments on time. Miss even one, and you may forfeit the low interest rate.