Published in: Credit Cards | Nov. 4, 2019

Only 13% of Americans With Credit Card Debt Have Tried This Smart Payoff Method

By:  Lyle Daly

We are committed to full transparency as part of our mission to make the world smarter, happier, & richer. You should know that offers on The Ascent may be from our partners - it's how we make money. That transparency to you is core to our editorial integrity, which isn’t influenced by compensation.

It's the cheapest way to pay off credit card debt, and most consumers are missing out.

Credit card debt is one of the most frustrating and difficult types of debt to pay off. Every month, you'll incur interest charges that cut into any progress you've made. And unless you pay much more than the minimum, it could be years before you're debt-free.

Although getting out of credit card debt ultimately depends on your financial habits, there are tools out there that can help you pay it off more quickly and without paying so much interest. One such option is a balance transfer credit card that includes a 0% introductory APR.

Woman on sofa sitting on laptop beaming in celebration.

Image source: Getty Images

Many debtors haven't even tried this method, despite the amount it could save them. But if you have credit card debt, then it should be the first payoff method you consider.

Most consumers don't bother with balance transfers

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling recently released its 2019 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey, and the results weren't promising for those who are carrying credit card debt.

It found that 60% of consumers had credit card debt, but only 8% of consumers had transferred balances to a credit card with a lower interest rate. That means that of all the consumers who had credit card debt, only 13.33% had tried a balance transfer.

Why would so few consumers attempt to get a lower interest rate this way? There are three potential reasons:

They're satisfied with their current interest rate. With the average credit card APR reaching 17.35% as of October 2019, this is unlikely. And even if your cards have lower rates, nothing beats 0%.

They can't qualify for a balance transfer card. Although this may be true for some consumers, the average credit score reached 704 last year, and it's possible to get a balance transfer card with a score of 670 or sometimes less. Even among consumers with credit card debt, many have a high enough credit score for a balance transfer card.

They haven't thought about it. For most consumers, this is the likely reason. Unfortunately, not looking at all your debt payoff options can be costly.

How credit card balance transfers work

There's nothing complicated about a credit card balance transfer. You just apply for a balance transfer card, and then transfer over the balances from your current credit cards. Some cards limit the total amount you can transfer, so make sure to check the card's terms and conditions before you apply. You also can't transfer over an amount that is greater than your credit limit, but you won't know that limit until you're approved for the card.

The most important part of the process is picking a card. To decide which of the many available balance transfer cards is right for you, look at:

  • The introductory period -- Longer is better, because you want the 0% intro APR to last for long enough to pay off all your credit card debt or as much of it as possible.
  • Balance transfer fees -- Lower fees will keep your costs down. These are usually anywhere from 0% to 5% of the amount you transfer.
  • Balance transfer limits -- As mentioned above, some cards cap how much you can transfer. If you your new card's transfer limit will not cover your credit card debt, then you should probably go with a different card.


Once you've picked a card, the next step is to apply. Depending on the card, there may be an option to set up your balance transfers during the application process. If not, you can do so after you're approved, either through your online account or by calling the number on the back of the card.

How much you can save

If you're dealing with thousands in credit card debt, then a balance transfer card can be very valuable. Let's say you have $6,000 in balances, which is about the average credit card debt. Here's a comparison of what you would pay with a balance transfer card against what you will pay if you keep your balances on cards with an average APR.

Payoff Method

Starting Balance

APR

Monthly Payment

Time to Pay Balance

Total Paid

Keeping balances on original cards

$6,000

17.35%

$400

18 months

$6,812

Balance transfer

$6,180 (includes 3% balance transfer fee)

0% for 18 months

$400

15.45 months

$6,180

Data source: Author's calculations.

You save more than $600 this way -- $632, to be exact.

You'll also be out of debt about 2 1/2 months sooner. And because you're consolidating your debt onto one credit card, you're less likely to miss a payment than you would with balances spread across multiple cards.

There's one thing to remember with this method. Don't make the mistake of thinking you can relax just because your credit card debt is interest-free for the time being. Balance transfers are only effective if you use that interest-free period to pay off as much of the principal as you can. 

A better way to pay off credit card debt

A balance transfer card won't magically eliminate your credit card debt, but it can help you pay a lot less in the long run. If you haven't tried one yet, it's a route that's well worth your time.

Our #1 cash back pick has a surprise bonus

This may be the perfect cash back card! That's because it packs in $1,148 of value. Cardholders can earn up to 5% cash back, double rewards in the first year, and avoid interest well into 2020. With such a deep bench of perks you'll wonder how this card packs in a $0 annual fee. Best yet, you can apply and get a decision in two minutes. Learn more with our in-depth review.

Find the right card for you

Balance Transfer