The introductory and balance transfer 0% interest rates on some credit cards can be a very enticing benefit. The fact that we see it offered so often proves that it works as a marketing ploy for the credit card companies. Some people take advantage of the offers and do what they call “0% rate arbitrage”. They take the CC company up on their offer and then pull the money out as cash and dump it into a interest bearing account where they can make several percent on the money. It’s like free money. But are the offers worth using if you’re like me and just want to be debt free and live a financially responsible life?
The answer is not a straight yes or no answer. In fact, it isn’t really even a straight “maybe” answer. Much like most financial products, it is very dependent on your personal situation. Make no bones about it, I dislike credit cards. If I can, I will be credit card free some day and use only my debit cards. However, until that day happens, I’m stuck with them. I don’t use them, but merely pay them off. Until they are paid off, I’ve still got a few.
While I have no intention of ever trying the arbitrage that some people try, I have and will use the 0% offers to help with my debt repayment. It’s a free loan. Sure, the rate is temporary, and the rate on expiration is likely just as bad as the card I transferred from. But, for that introductory period, I pay no interest, and every penny that I send as a payment goes towards paying off that balance. Essentially, I’m making 8%, 9%, and in some cases 20+% on my money. The offers can be a great tool while you are repaying your debt.
Once you are done repaying your debt, however, credit cards have little to no use to you. The concept is that a credit card is a way for you to have a open line of credit whereby you can access your “credit” anytime you want from virtually anywhere. However, if you are a financially responsible person and maintain a debt free lifestyle, you’ll likely want to pay cash for nearly everything. Obviously, a debit card or good ol’ cold hard cash is your tool of choice.
One exception that could be argued for is reward cards. These are cards that give you rewards based on the amount of money you spend using your card. If you are responsible and pay off your balance within your grace period, you can make a pretty good argument for the use of a reward card for the sake of the rewards. And some of the rewards can be quite tempting. Airline miles, gas discounts, gift cards, and even cars are among the lists of rewards.
Some folks (like Ramit of I will teach you to be Rich) think that the reward cards are a horrible thing. The possibility of missing a payment or letting your spending get out of control is always there and one slip up can cost you well more than any reward you might get. And unnecessary risk is something you don’t want in your financial life.
Back to the 0% cards though. The bottom line is that if you are already using some self control and not using your cards, transferring the balance to a 0% offer can save you quite a bit of money over those few months that the rate is that low. If you can’t manage the cards you have, though, forget it. The risk of causing more harm to yourself is too great to add more accounts to your portfolio. Also, don’t let a great introductory/transfer rate buffalo you into signing up for what would otherwise be a horrible card. Do your due diligence and read the fine print for annual fees, grace period, other fees, and most importantly the normal rate. I’ve seen several of these offers that are great, until the offer is over and then you’re hit with a 29.99% rate. Obviously, the extra savings of the low rate wouldn’t outweigh the normal rate if you’re transferring a balance from a card that only had a 8.9% rate!
Be careful. Learn what you can and make as educated of a choice as you possibly can. I don’t condone using credit cards because I know first hand the damage they can do to a persons financial life, but I recognize that these offers can be a very valuable tool for the responsible few who have learned to handle their money properly.