Best 0% balance transfer credit cards and other smart tricks to saving money while paying off debt

A man holding his phone and a 0% balance transfer credit card over his laptop

Borrowing is back in the United States: Americans now have more outstanding debt loads than they did before the financial crisis, and many people are still struggling with student loans, car payments, mortgage balances — and yes, credit cards.

If your credit card debt in particular is giving you trouble — and you wish you could essentially hit "pause," stopping the clock on that ballooning debt as you hustle to pay it off — switching to a 0% balance transfer credit card might be right for you, even helping to improve your credit score if you do it carefully.

These cards essentially allow you to refinance your debt: a.k.a. lower the interest rate you're paying by moving to a credit plan with an introductory APR of 0%. That can save you hundreds of dollars. NerdWallet has a clear explanation of how this works: You move your debt from one credit card with a high interest rate to another that has the lower (or zero percent) rate. While this doesn’t reduce what you currently or already owe, it does mean you can lower — or, with a 0% card, totally stop — additional interest from adding up fast. You'll owe 0% new interest on your debt for as long as the term lasts.

"For example," NerdWallet writes, "let’s say you’re carrying a balance of $10,000 on a card that charges 15% interest and your goal is to pay it off in the next 12 months. By transferring it to a card that’s offering 12 months at 0%, you’d save $831 in interest."

Now, there is almost always an upfront fee — usually 3% or more of the balance you’ve transferred — that you must pay to switch cards. In the example above, the fee would be $300, meaning you'd only be saving $531 at the end of the day. While that's far better than nothing, it's a helpful reminder to shop around. Below, we'll discuss different kinds of cards available, as well as some apps and tricks that might be able to save you even more money.

Best balance transfer credit cards

Let's start with credit cards. Which card is best for you? The right card for you depends on what you're looking for. If you need to save money immediately, then you'll want a card with no transfer fee (at least not right away). If you can afford to pay a little more upfront, you can potentially snag a longer period of 0% interest.

And if you want something that offers the best overall value, there's a card for that, too. There are a host of guides breaking down top-rated balance transfer cards; here are some recurring favorites.

Best credit card for no transfer fee

Looking for a card with no transfer fee? NerdWallet recommends Chase's Slate Card which has no transfer fee for 60 days, and no annual fee: "This card wins the balance-transfer triple crown," NerdWallet says, offering 0% balance transfer for 15 months, no introductory fee for transfers made during the first 60 days of the account opening, and no annual fee. And you can get it even "with fair or average credit," they write.

For ValuePenguin, this is the best-overall card on the market. "As of 2017, there are very few credit cards out there that combine a $0 introductory transfer fee benefit with a long 0% APR period."

Among the drawbacks? No rewards, and you cannot transfer existing Chase balances. There's also a $15,000 cap on what you can transfer.

Best credit card for a long 0% APR grace period

Maybe you're willing to sacrifice a transfer fee for a longer 0% APR period. For the card with the longest 0% APR, NerdWallet recommends Citi's Simplicity Card, which has a 0% promotion period for 21 months. This card also allows for any kind of balance to be transferred, "including student loans and auto loans, as long as the account number is at least five digits long and doesn’t include any letters," NerdWallet says. But there is a fee of 3%.

ValuePenguin also recommends this card, especially if you can get it with no late fees. "Unlike the Chase Slate, the Citi Simplicity card ... comes with a balance transfer fee, 3% or $5, whichever is greater," they write. "Even though it charges a fee, the six additional months of 0% APR the card provides over the Citi Simplicity card can more than make up for that difference."

Best overall balance transfer credit card

These two cards above all offer specific promotions. For the card with the absolute most features, NerdWallet recommends the Discover It card. "Most balance-transfer cards don’t give you much of a reason to keep using them after the 0% period expires," they write.

Discover It's rewards program sets it apart, NerdWallet says, thanks to paying 5% cash back for various purchases, for up to $1,500 each quarter, and 1% on everything else. You'll have to be careful with this card, though. "If you’re still carrying a balance when the 0%... APR runs out, you’ll have to pay interest on your purchases starting from the date of each transaction," NerdWallet notes.

TheSimpleDollar also rates this as best overall: "The Discover It does double duty as a balance transfer card and a cash back rewards card, with no annual fee," they write. "You could find yourself keeping this card for the rewards program long after you’ve used it to pay off a balance."

Best apps to help you pay down debt

Besides cards, there are a few apps that are designed to help better manage your debt load. One of these is Tally, a financial management app that became available to the public June 20. It helps you save you money on interest by analyzing your credit cards and history to optimize card payments, getting you better interest rates and avoiding late fees. If you have a balance transfer card, Tally can help you pay it off before your promo rate expires. The app is free to download; the company makes money only through interest on what amount you borrow from them — and only if they can save you money.

"Tally helps you stay on top of your 0% transfers so you can pay them off before the promo rate expires," CEO Jason Brown said in an email to Mic. The app "makes it easy avoid late fees, save money on interest, and pay down balances on all your other cards."

EarnUp is another financial management app — costing $9.95 per month — that specifically targets debt management. Its platform allows you to "manage all your loans in one place including your mortgages, student loan, auto loan, credit cards, and personal loans," according to the company. EarnUp creates a budget that allows your loan payments to be made on time, breaking monthly loan expenses "into bite size withdrawals on the days you get paid."

Finally there's Albert, which works like both of the above-mentioned apps, but also looks for opportunities for you to make moves like open a savings or retirement account at competitive rates.

Other solutions to help you pay down debt

Ryan Falvey, managing director of the Financial Solutions Lab at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, said he prefers apps to credit cards when it comes to managing debt. "It's important to pay attention to other fees that might be associated with [cards]," he said. "One reason why is [many] charge a balance transfer fee, and those can be not insignificant themselves."

If you're going to get a card, he says, you should also use an app or set up an alert through your card company that can remind you when a fee or due date may be approaching.

And there are also more traditional ways of reducing your debt, including simply picking up the phone, as points out: "You may be able to lower your interest rates or negotiate a reduced settlement on some debts by speaking with the customer service department," they write. "It is especially easy to negotiate the terms of debts that are charged off (dismissed) by the creditor or in collections already."

For more advice, check out Mic's guide to wiping out debt — no matter how much you owe — plus secrets to the most effective psychological trick to help you pay back all the cash you've borrowed.

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