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The COVID-19 pandemic has lasted longer than many initially expected. The U.S. economy may have recovered somewhat in recent months, but unemployment remains elevated and the $600 weekly unemployment boost has long expired. Plus, many people who are employed aren't making as much as they were before the pandemic, especially in hospitality and other hard-hit industries.

As a result, millions of Americans find themselves in tough financial times. Borrowing money to cover a financial shortfall isn't ideal, but a balance transfer credit card could be the least worst option. 

How a balance transfer credit card works and why you might want to use one

Read our guide to the best balance transfer credit cards to learn more about how they work and what offers are out there. Here's the general idea:

A borrower can transfer their existing balance -- or at least a part of it -- to a new credit card with a 0% introductory APR. There is often a balance transfer fee of around 3%-5%, but that balance will not accrue interest for a set amount of time, sometimes a year or more. This will make it easier to pay down and result in significant interest savings.

In addition to the balance transfer benefit, many 0% APR balance transfer credit cards also offer a 0% intro APR on new purchases. The balance transfer itself won't provide you with new funds, and taking on more debt could be risky, but this might help you cover short term costs, interest-free.

Should you use a balance transfer credit card to help you get through the pandemic?

The short answer is "it depends." If you have high-interest credit card debt, a balance transfer card can be a solid financial tool -- pandemic or not. It might prevent credit card interest from eating up your disposable income. But if you're thinking of treating it as a financial safety net -- meaning you plan to use it for your current spending needs -- in addition to consolidating your current credit card debt, it's not such an obvious choice.

If you have money in an emergency fund, for example, you might want to tap into it before you borrow on a credit card -- even one at a 0% APR. After all, that's what an emergency fund is there for in the first place. And, there's no guarantee your income will recover to previous levels before the interest-free period is over.

On the other hand, using a 0% APR credit card is certainly better than covering your costs with a high-interest credit card, or tapping into your retirement savings. These are generally advisable only in situations where there aren't any other alternatives.

Things to consider before using a balance transfer credit card

If you have a strong credit score, a balance transfer credit card can be a great way to consolidate high-interest credit card debt and pay down your debt faster. In addition, it could give you access to additional funding to help you get through tough times since most balance transfer credit cards also have a generous 0% intro APR period for new purchases. 

Before you decide that a balance transfer credit card is right for you during the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few things you should consider:

  1. Have you talked to your lenders? If you're experiencing a tough time financially, the first thing you should do is to call your lenders -- mortgage, auto, credit card, and others. Lenders are more willing than ever to allow borrowers experiencing hardships to postpone their repayments. It's in nobody's best interest to have millions of people defaulting on their debts. If you can suspend payments on your loans, it can eliminate (or at least minimize) the need to borrow money.
  2. Do you have lots of high-interest credit card debt? You'll still have to make payments after you transfer your current credit card balances, but at least the money you pay will be applied toward the principal. If your goal is to stop making payments during the pandemic, your first call should be to your current credit card companies (see above).
  3. Do you have enough in savings? I already touched on this, but using borrowed money to cover a financial shortfall typically only makes sense if you don't have substantial emergency savings. I'm not saying you need to run your emergency fund down to zero before using a balance transfer credit card, but if you have a large sum of money in the bank, that should be your first safety net.
  4. Have you considered your other options? A balance transfer credit card isn't the only way to consolidate debts, lower interest rates, or borrow money to get through a tough time. A personal loan can do this too. You won't get a 0% APR, but you can get a lower interest rate than you'll find with most credit cards, as well as a manageable monthly payment and several years to repay the debt.

The bottom line on using a balance transfer credit card to get through the COVID-19 pandemic is that it could be a solid way to reduce your interest expense and give yourself some financial flexibility. But only if you're confident you'll be able to pay off any balance before the promotional period expires.