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Balance Transfers

Bad Credit? Here’s What You Need to Know About Balance Transfers

It's hard to get approved for a traditional balance transfer credit card with bad credit. Issuers of balance transfer cards typically require a good or excellent credit score to qualify, which is 670 or higher on the 850-point FICO credit scoring scale.

But there are ways to get a lower interest rate if you're hoping to pay down credit card debt. You can look into secured credit cards that allow balance transfers, build positive credit habits to improve your score, or use payoff methods that don't require a transfer.

You're smart to look into balance transfers as a way to get debt under control. Here are the options available to you.

Can You Get Approved for a Balance Transfer Card With Bad Credit?

When you're approved for a traditional unsecured balance transfer credit card, you'll generally receive an annual percentage rate (APR) of 0% for a period of time, letting you pay off credit card debt interest-free. One caveat: You'll usually pay a one-time fee, generally 3% of the transferred amount.

Credit card companies offer deals like this because they want your business. You typically can't transfer a balance between cards issued by the same financial institution, so a balance transfer is a way for issuers to take on new customers. It's most beneficial for them, however, if you have a history of on-time payments and are likely to pay off the debt as agreed.

In turn, you generally must have a high credit score to get a balance transfer card. With bad credit, or a score of 669 or lower (and especially 579 or lower), you likely won't qualify.

What to Do if You Can't Get a Balance Transfer Credit Card

You have several alternatives if a balance transfer card isn't an option for you:

  • Look into secured credit cards with low introductory balance transfer offers. You'll pay a deposit that typically becomes your credit limit, so you'll need to feel comfortable paying cash upfront. If you are, you may be able to take advantage of a balance transfer offer like the one offered by the Discover it® Secured card: 10.99% interest on transfers within the first 6 months. That may be lower than what you're paying now. Plus, making timely payments on a secured credit card can help you build credit. If you stay consistent with your payments, you'll generally be able to transition the card to an unsecured version.
  • Transfer a balance to an existing card with a lower interest rate. This option lets you avoid applying for new credit—and the associated hard inquiry, which can affect your credit score briefly. Instead, contact your current card issuers to see if they have any balance transfer offers available. Make sure to ask when the promotional period ends, and what APR you'll be charged after that point. It's crucial to pay off balances before your APR jumps, potentially making it more difficult to get rid of debt.
  • Improve your credit score and apply for an unsecured balance transfer card later. Pull copies of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax), which you can do for free once a year via AnnualCreditReport.com. As you reduce your debt, and avoid adding to it, your credit utilization ratio—your debt relative to your credit limits—will decrease. Since your credit utilization plays a major role in determining your credit score, reducing it might help put you into the good to excellent score range. At that point, you may qualify for a 0% APR offer to pay off the rest of the balance.

How to Pay Down Debt Without Transferring a Balance

You may choose not to transfer a balance to a new credit card at all. Perhaps you'd like to avoid adding a new card to your wallet, or your credit score disqualifies you.

If you'd like to attack debt on your own, consider looking for ways to add to your income or reduce expenses so you can apply more resources toward your balances. You can also try these alternatives:

  • A debt consolidation loan: This method also transfers a credit card balance, but it's shifted to a personal loan instead of another credit card. You can combine other types of debt within the loan too. If you qualify for an interest rate that's lower than what you already pay, you could see savings similar to a balance transfer credit card, but you'll still need to apply and get approved for the loan. You likely won't get an APR of 0%, but make sure the rate you're quoted is low enough to save you money.
  • Call your credit card issuer and ask for a lower interest rate: Your issuer is particularly likely to agree if you've made all your payments on time and you've been a customer for a while. Try again in a few months if you're not successful right away.
  • Work with a nonprofit credit counseling agency: These organizations can offer a free initial consultation on your debt situation and suggest payoff strategies. Search for a certified counselor through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling when you're ready to get started.

The Bottom Line

Bad credit shouldn't keep you from making strides toward debt freedom. In fact, lowering your balances and consistently making payments toward debt could bolster your credit score. So instead, if you have a credit score you'd like to improve, you should feel even more motivated to get credit card debt under control.

If a traditional balance transfer isn't in the cards for you, stay open to other options. Seek out help from a professional—particularly a credit counselor—if you're unsure where to turn. With organization, motivation and a plan you follow through on, you can pay off debt with or without a balance transfer—and with bad credit or good.

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