It’s no secret that credit card rates are on the rise due to several rate hikes by the Feds this year, including one as recently as mid-September.
While one or two rate increases usually aren’t too devastating when it comes to how much consumers pay in credit card interest (or finance charges), several rate hikes in a relatively short time frame – especially aggressive hikes like have occurred lately – can create financial distress for consumers.
Economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict the overall impact of Fed rate increases will result in credit card rates increasing around 3.5% by the end of this year (in comparison to where rates were at the beginning of the year). It’s not year-end yet, but according to Fox Business, card rates haven’t reached this level since 1996.
While this may not sound earth-shattering, the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) recently gave a practical example of how much consumers are now paying in interest. According to the CFPB, interest rates on cards are now so high that cardholders with a $5,000 balance could pay an extra $1,000 in interest over the course of a year! Wow.
These stats, coupled with record high inflation, should alarm people who revolve a balance on their card(s). Now, what are the options consumers have to best deal with this challenge.
An unconventional, yet effective, way to lower your credit card debt
Increasing interest rates mean consumers should take steps as soon as possible to adjust their finances and minimize the personal impact of Fed rate hikes. One suggestion for reducing existing credit card debt is the popular 0% balance transfer option, which allows you to essentially “lock that 0% rate in” for the length of the introductory period, often anywhere from 12-21 months (you can comparison shop for the best transfer offers). Keeping the 0% rate, of course, assumes that you make the minimum payments on time for the duration of that period.
But what if you don’t have debt right now, but do have some purchases coming up that could benefit from a 0% intro period?
That’s where this article can help as it reveals tips for taking advantage of 0% or low introductory rates on new purchases.
While it may require a bit more planning, there are distinct advantages to this approach, one of which is that it doesn’t cost a balance transfer fee – typically 3%-5%
It is my hope that the following “insider tips” can assist you in determining whether a low introductory rate offer on purchases is a good fit for you.
How does a 0% or low intro rate purchase offer work
You’ve probably at least heard of 0% or low introductory (such as 1.99% or 2.99%) purchase offers. You may have even signed up for one or more; however, many consumers still don’t understand the basics of these offers.
These promotional offers are typically limited to new purchases only and last for a limited length of time, which is sometimes called the promotional period or term. The length of these offers normally ranges from six to 18 months.
As you might expect, the term you may qualify for depends largely on your credit score.
The best offer you can qualify for will depend on your creditworthiness and other factors explains Beverly Harzog, a consumer finance analyst with U.S. News and World Report and author of “The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself from Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free.” People with excellent credit will more easily qualify for cards with better perks overall, including longer 0% intro APRs periods.
These offers often accompany a balance transfer offer; however, there are purchase offers that don’t include a balance transfer promotion.
The key is to verify if the promo offer is for purchases, balance transfers or both. Most solicitations clearly tell you to what the promo rate applies, but review the offer’s fine print to understand the full terms.
How to best leverage intro 0% APR offers
There are several techniques to help you rethink how you approach 0% purchase offers.
For starters, conventional wisdom says you should avoid taking advantage of a 0% offer primarily because you are enticed by the rewards the card advertises. Focus on saving money, not on earning rewards if you’re in a position to possibly need to spend more than you can pay off in a billing cycle. Put simply, don’t allow rewards to lead to excessive spending.
That said, you can still double-dip if you’re disciplined and “Have your cake and eat it too,” as they say.
“When both of my kids were in college, we needed a new roof,” Harzog remembers. “I had an emergency fund but didn’t want to let it go below a certain amount. So, I decided to use a 0% APR card and to get an interest-free loan for a few months.
“I also reaped a ton of rewards by using that card and it’s one I still use today,” she continues. “That’s the sweet spot! You want to get a short-term interest free loan with a 0% credit card, but also earn rewards on your purchases.”
Another clever way to leverage 0% APR offers is to not just focus on buying “big ticket items.” It’s no secret that such offers are a savvy way to buy pricey items, such as laptops, appliances and furniture, and then spend some time paying off those more expensive items interest-free.
However, these offers can also help with smaller purchases, and you can still realize the same interest savings and possibly even greater savings since small purchases tend to add up quickly.
A great example is using such an offer for all your Christmas spending. Such spending will likely include a lot of smaller purchases, but the beauty of 0% purchase offers is that there is no limit on how many purchases you can make (as long as you don’t exceed your credit line of course).
“These offers can also be helpful for smaller purchases,” Harzog explains. “If your offer is for 12 months, you basically get an entire year interest-free, so take advantage of it. Be sure you pay your bill by the due date, though, so you don’t lose the introductory rate.”
As Harzog notes, you can lose the 0% rate if you make a late payment, so do whatever it takes to pay your minimum payment each month on time. Set up email and text reminders. Also, personal finance apps such as Mint can be helpful, as well as convenient.
And, importantly, make absolutely certain you can pay off the full balance before the 0% intro period expires.
Sometimes the best offers come to existing cardholders
Consumers wanting to take advantage of a 0% or low rate offer on purchases usually begin by comparison shopping for a new 0% intro APR card. While this isn’t necessarily a bad idea, a first step is to look at your existing card(s) to see if they have any good promo offers on purchases for existing cardholders.
Shan Demel has always been a savvy card user. Demel recently took advantage of a 0% purchase offer for nine months from Bank of America’s Free Spirit® World Elite Mastercard®. Information about this card has been collected independently by CardRatings and has not been reviewed or provided by Bank of America
He’s had this card for a few years and used the offer to purchase several things, including restaurant and travel bookings and to buy an Apple computer for his nephew entering college (what a smart way to buy a more expensive gift and what a nice uncle!).
“It’s been great experience without any hiccups,” Demel says, “and I’m about to pay the balance off before the promotional rate expires.”
I have also personally have taken advantage of a 0% purchase offer from an existing card. The offer was for about nine months as well, but please note there are several intro 0% offers out there that last for 15 months or longer if you need more time.
I ended up not getting any tangible benefit out of the offer as I paid my balance in full each month during the nine-month period, but I’m still glad I signed up for two reasons:
- It only took me a few minutes to do so. Even more recently, I received a new offer in the mail for my Citibank card that offers a 1.99% promo APR until April 2023. I can conveniently activate this offer via a QR code.
- More importantly, I was nervous about my finances at the time I signed up for the 0% offer, so I looked at it as more of “safety net” that gave me some much needed peace of mind. My thinking was that in case I wasn’t able to pay off my balance in full in a given month during the promo period, I would still not pay ANY interest or finance charges since I was enjoying 0% on all new purchases.
My strategy didn’t hurt my credit at all and only cost a few minutes of my time. However, the peace of mind it gave me was, as the Mastercard commercials says, priceless.
Hate junk mail? Well, we all do, but if you’re interested in a introductory rate offer from your existing card(s), don’t be so quick to send what appears to be junk mail from your card company to your shredder. While getting such mail can certainly be annoying if you aren’t looking for a promo offer, it can also be a “hidden gem” if you are looking.
There are some offers that are only sent through the U.S. Postal Service. Translation: You won’t get these offers online, via email and in any other digital format!
Potential downsides and final thoughts
To effectively use these offers, you must “cross your ts and dot your is.” These offers are legitimate and have repeatedly proven effective at saving on interest charges. They can also improve your cash flow.
Having said this, the card issuers are for-profit companies, and they do realize that, to their benefit, not everyone will take advantage of these offers without incurring fees and interest.
We’veve already discussed a few things to be careful about – such as making on-time monthly payments (setting up auto monthly payments can help with this). Still, even if you make all your monthly minimum payments by the due date, you can end up losing money on these deals.
You may know that if you don’t pay your balance off in full by the end of the promo period, your rate will suddenly jump to the regular purchase APR. This can be quite a jump as the average rate for new cards recently hit 21.4%,according to Consumer Reports.
It can also be tempting for some consumers to overspend (beyond their monthly budget) since you know you don’t have to pay any interest during the promo period. It’s a real trap.
“If you overspend, you could possibly have a balance to pay off when the 0% rate ends,” Harzog explains. “At that point, you’ll pay interest on the balance at the go-to rate, which is your new APR for purchases.
“Be sure you track expenses and stick to a budget with your card,” Harzog advises “Don’t risk getting into debt and having to pay it off at a much higher interest rate.”
Lastly, before applying for a new card, you may also want to consider if it’s a card you’ll use going forward (beyond the promo period).
It’s a good idea to ask yourself questions like, “Do the rewards match up with my normal spending patterns?” “Is the ongoing purchase APR attractive?” and “Are the fees reasonable?”
The best scenario, according to Harzog, is to get a 0% rate with a lengthy intro period that also happens to be a card that’s a good fit for your wallet. That’s a win-win.
I sincerely hope these insider tips are helpful to you and would love your feedback on how you’ve been able to leverage low intro purchase rate offers to your advantage. Who knows, I may include a tip from you in a future article!