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10 Things You Should Know About Credit Card Balance Transfers

Be sure to read the fine print before signing up for these offers

Person holding a credit card. Balance transfer offers usually aren't free. (Image Source/Alamy)

Credit card balance transfer offers aren't typically free. Read the fine print. — Corbis

En español | Many folks trying to reduce their credit card debt turn to credit card balance transfers to achieve their goal. But while such transfers can be effective when used judiciously, they do have potential pitfalls.

Before you accept any new credit card deal, consider these 10 issues.

THE GOOD

1. You could save money

The major benefit of a credit card balance transfer is that it offers you the opportunity to save big bucks. Balance transfers featuring zero percent offers are especially nice, but even a low-rate balance transfer can save you money if your current credit card interest rates are moderate or high. Consider this: If you have $10,000 in credit card debt and are paying 15 percent interest annually, a 12-month, zero percent credit card balance transfer could save you $1,500 over the course of a year.

2. You could get out of debt faster

If you're chipping away at credit card debt, you're likely paying for the privilege of having that plastic in your wallet, as well as the convenience of carrying a balance over time. That convenience comes at a price. The interest you're getting charged is the bank's way of making a profit off you, month after month, year after year. Transferring one or more current credit card balances to a zero percent interest rate card can help you more quickly pay off your creditors. That's because your entire monthly payment will be going toward the principal, not the interest, helping you become debt-free faster.

If consolidating your credit card debt onto a zero percent interest card frees up some cash flow in your budget each month, you may be able to make "extra" payments on your debt and get rid of your credit card bills at a more rapid pace.

3. You can get additional credit card perks

One advantage of doing a credit card balance transfer is that you can apply for a credit card that rewards your spending or gives you perks for shopping that you were going to do anyway.

For example, travel cards, rewards cards and airline cards all frequently offer hotel discounts, cash-back awards or free flights. If you have a plain-vanilla credit card with no perks attached, finding a balance transfer deal that also offers perks is worth considering.

Free websites such as CardRatings.com allow you to search for cards in multiple categories, including cards that offer cash back; low introductory rates; balance transfers; gas rewards; credit card deals; miles and points.

4. You can simplify your finances

Another selling point of balance transfer offers is that they provide a way for you to streamline and simplify your finances. Instead of making multiple payments to several credit card companies, it may be easier to combine or consolidate your debts onto one card. This way, you only have to worry about paperwork and payments for a single account.

THE BAD

5. You'll pay a fee

Unfortunately, credit card balance transfer offers aren't typically free. Most of the time, you will have to pay a fee based on the amount of the credit card balance you transfer. Fees can range from 2 percent to 5 percent. On most balance transfer cards, there is no cap, meaning that the more you transfer, the bigger the fee.

"A typical fee in 2013 is 3 percent, so if you transfer a $10,000 debt from another card, you'll pay a $300 fee right away," says Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and consumer research for CreditCards.com. "Even if you have the cash to do so, it might or might not be worth it, depending on how much money you'll save on interest over the life of your debt."

You might want to crunch the numbers first. CreditCards.com features a balance transfer calculator that allows you to see what the costs are.

6. Not everyone qualifies

Another drawback about balance transfers is that not everyone will qualify for these deals. Banks and credit card issuers usually approve balance transfers only for people with good credit ratings. So unless your FICO score is in the 700 range or better, you might have a tougher time taking advantage of a balance transfer. Another problem for those with average credit profiles: Even if you do get approved, the credit line may not be as large as was initially advertised or as big as you'd hoped.

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PAYING OFF DEBT: Are you on the hook for your spouse's credit card or medical bills if you divorce? AARP Pay Down Your Debt Challenge host Lynnette Khalfani-Cox says it depends on whose name is on the loan or where you live.

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