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If you're looking for an introductory 0% APR promotion on a credit card, you may not have to open a new account to get one. Some credit card issuers send balance transfer checks—either in the mail or through your online account—to their existing customers, which you can use for more than just balance transfers.
But there are some risks associated with these checks, so it's important to think twice before using one. Here's what you need to know.
What Is a Balance Transfer Check?
A balance transfer check works similarly to a personal check, but instead of being tied to a checking account, it draws from your credit card's revolving line of credit. The check may come in the form of a physical check in the mail or an online offer through your account.
If it's a physical check, you'll fill it out the same way as you would a personal check. If it's an online offer, you may simply request the money be sent to your checking account. Credit card issuers may occasionally send these checks to existing customers, and in some cases, you may be able to request one.
Balance transfer checks typically function like a traditional 0% intro APR promotion. You'll get a low or 0% APR for a set period, and if you pay off the balance before the promotional period ends, you won't have to pay any interest. If there's still a balance after the promotional period is over, your regular purchase APR will apply to the remaining balance.
In exchange for a low or 0% intro APR deal, these checks typically charge a fee between 1% and 5% of the check amount.
That said, you don't have to use your check to pay off another credit card balance as you would with a traditional balance transfer promotion. You can use the money however you want, and as long as there's a promotional APR, it usually won't count as a cash advance.
When you receive the offer, you'll likely notice an expiration date. If you want to use the check, you'll need to do so by that date to take advantage of the promotional offer.
What Are the Risks When Using a Balance Transfer Check?
Balance transfer checks can be a good way to make a large purchase, pay down high-interest debt or cover emergency expenses. But there are some potential pitfalls to watch out for:
- Usage may count as a cash advance. Unless your offer includes a promotional APR, the check may count as a cash advance, which means interest will start accruing from the date of the transaction. What's more, cash advances are typically assessed interest at a higher rate than regular purchases.
- There's an upfront fee. Balance transfer checks almost always come with an upfront fee. Depending on what you need the money for and how much you borrow, the cost may outweigh the benefits.
- It could cause your utilization rate to spike. Your credit utilization rate is the percentage of your card's available credit that you're using at a given time. If you take out too much credit via a balance transfer check, it could have a negative impact on your credit score, especially if you don't pay it off quickly. It's best to keep your utilization rate as low as possible.
- You could end up paying interest anyway. Credit cards charge low minimum monthly payments, which can incentivize you to procrastinate paying off your balance. If you're not disciplined, you may end up with a balance at the end of the promotional period, which will start accruing interest at your card's regular APR.
- It doesn't solve potential money issues. If you're using a balance transfer check to shift around high-interest debt or cover emergency expenses, it can give you the opportunity to improve your finances, but you'll still need to do that work. Consider avoiding balance transfer checks if you'll be using one to essentially kick the can down the road.
Alternatives to Using a Balance Transfer Check
Depending on your situation and current needs, there are several other options you could consider to get the money you need:
- New 0% APR credit card: If you're thinking about using a balance transfer check to make a large purchase, getting a new card with a 0% APR promotion can help you avoid the check's transaction fee. You may also be able to get a credit card with an intro bonus, which can provide even more value.
- Debt consolidation loan: If you're considering a balance transfer check to pay off existing debt, consider a debt consolidation loan instead. While you won't get promotional financing, installment loans can help you avoid a minimum payment trap and pay down your debt on a fixed schedule.
- Debt management plan: If you're considering a balance transfer check to pay down existing debt because your credit score isn't in good enough shape for a new credit card or a debt consolidation loan, consider contacting a credit counseling agency. If your situation necessitates it, you may be able to get set up on a debt management plan, which can help you pay down your debt more effectively.
- Financial assistance: If you have emergency expenses and are thinking about using a balance transfer check to cover them, consider asking a family member or friend to help first. Alternatively, you could apply for financial assistance through government programs or with nonprofit organizations to get the relief you need.
Balance Your Options
As with any financial decision, make sure you take the time to research all of your options. Also, make it a priority to build and maintain a good credit score so that you have more options when you need it. Monitor your credit regularly to keep track of your progress and address potential issues before they get out of hand.