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The Ultimate Guide to Budgeting

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In a consumer culture where we are bombarded with opportunities to spend money, whether it’s picking up a latte on the way to work, or splurging on a favorite retailer’s online sale, it’s easy to lose track of our money.

While creating and maintaining a budget is rarely how anyone wants to spend their free time, it is foundational to managing money.

“Everyone, no matter their financial situation, should have a budget in place,” said Rachel Kampersal, a marketing communications and program associate with American Consumer Credit Counseling.

Budgeting your monthly income can help you with everything from setting financial goals to making sure that you pay your bills on time and in full.

When you don’t budget your money, you are likely to overspend, said Melinda Opperman, executive vice president of Credit.org.

“A lot of people feel they simply don’t have enough money and think budgeting would be a waste of time, but budgeting helps people break even or even come up with extra money for savings and goals,” she said.

Those savings goals could be long-term, such as retirement, or for upcoming expenditures such as a new kitchen appliance, a down payment on a house, or a big vacation.

Budgets don’t have to be complicated, and there are plenty of tools to help you get started. The key is to find a budgeting strategy that works for you and stick with it.

5 budgeting tools to keep handy

An important component of any budgeting system is planning and keeping track of your expenditures, whether you are entering them into an app or spreadsheet, writing them on a paper calendar, or saving your receipts in a shoebox and tallying them on the weekend.
“Be sure to write a ‘receipt’ for everything you spend, including things like vending machines,” Opperman said.

“This is an individual process, so it’s important to try multiple tools until you come up with something that works for you,” she added. “A lot of people today might benefit from specialized budgeting apps, but there are still many who might prefer to keep track of their spending in a written journal.”

One convenient way to keep track of your budget is through an app or online budgeting tool that can help you manage your earnings and spending. Here are five to consider:

1. Mint

This free app, which is owned by Intuit, provides users with a comprehensive overview of their finances. Like many budgeting tools, Mint allows you to connect to your bank account from your mobile device and manage bills, build a budget with detailed categories, track spending, and analyze cash flow.

One of Mint’s best features is that it allows users to pay their bills — including credit card and utility bills — directly from the app. This adds another level of organization to a budget, as users can see what they owe, pay it, and see how the payment has affected their cash flow, all in a few clicks. For those who like a detailed analysis of their monthly spending and saving, Mint also provides charts and graphs and additional financial information, such as the current value of your house and your credit score.

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2. Pocketguard

This app, which is free, is marketed as a simpler approach to budgeting, and it does a lot of the initial set-up work for you. After you provide information for PocketGuard to sync up with your bank accounts, it analyzes your transactions and divides them into “pockets” based on repeated bills and charges it finds (you can manually correct any miscategorized items). After you enter spending limits for each category, the app lets you know how much money you have left in each category — a helpful feature when you need to know whether a purchase is within your budget.

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3. You Need a Budget (YNAB)

While this app is fee-based, many find it worth the price — it’s one of the most highly rated budgeting apps on the market. It asks users to set up a budget by “giving every dollar a job,” or assigning all of your income into categories that you create. YNAB encourages users to be intentional with their money and create categories for recurring and occasional large expenses. That way, when a large bill comes in for a car repair or a vacation, the money already has been allocated for it.

You can try YNAB for 34 days for free, and after that it costs about $5 per month, or $50 per year. Along with the app, the fee will give you access to helpful personal finance videos and resources, as well as an online community.

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4. HomeBudget

When budgeting is a family affair, HomeBudget is a great app to keep track of an entire household’s spending. Through its unique Family Sync feature, each family member’s income and expense transactions can be synced from their devices into one budget.

The app also allows you to track bills and payments due and correlate categorized transactions with your bank and credit card accounts. As of the date of publishing, the app currently costs $5.99 on Amazon App Store and has a monthly fee of about $1.66. You also can download a trial version before committing.

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5. Spendee

This easy-to-use app keeps it simple. It connects with your bank accounts to automatically enter expenditures into your budget (you can enter transactions manually, too), and then it creates infographics to help you understand and keep track of your spending and income.

The app costs $1.99 per month as of the date of publishing.

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How to create a budget in 5 simple steps

You do not have to have a college degree in accounting to set up a personal budget. You’ll need to collect some personal financial information first, and then figure out which budgeting strategy is best for you.

1. Determine your monthly income

This first step is short simple: Find out how much money you bring in each month. Track down your paychecks from the past few months for a more accurate picture.

If you are married or sharing expenses with a partner, you’ll need to work together to figure out your joint income.

2. Track your expenses for a month

This should include everything from big expenses, such as your mortgage or rent payment, to your “fun” money for eating out or spur-of-the-moment purchases.

“If you sit down today and start planning your spending, you will miss all sorts of small expenses and you will be frustrated when your budget doesn’t line up,” Opperman said. “But if you diligently track all of your spending for a full month, then you will know all of the monthly expenses you can expect to face, and your budget will be more realistic.”

There are many ways to track spending; choose what fits with your lifestyle. Anything from a spreadsheet to a notebook will work.

3. Decide how much you want to save each month

Savings shouldn’t be only for known expenses, such as a wedding or planned home improvement. You’ll want to consider incorporating other “emergency” expenses into your savings calculations, such as replacing appliances or costly car repairs — that way, when the expense comes, you’ll be prepared.

There are several ways to figure out how much you’d like to save. You can decide on a percentage of your income or a dollar amount that you’d like to put aside each month.

4. Work in some ‘wiggle room’

No matter how carefully you track and forecast your spending, you will never spend the same amount each month — and you need to be prepared. “You might have particular months where you always spend more, like holiday gift shopping or back-to-school expenses,” Opperman said. “You have to plan for those variances in advance.”

In these situations, you may need to make sure that your budget is flexible enough to allow for extra expenditures when needed.

5. Choose a budgeting strategy

Once you’ve compiled your income and spending data and thought through your saving goals, it’s time to choose a budget style. Keep in mind that there is no right way to budget — any method that helps you manage your spending and save money will benefit you financially.

“A budget should be personalized and tailored to fit an individual’s or family’s needs,” Kampernal said.

Here are some strategies for budgeting:

Penny tracking

While the most detailed (and the most eye-opening), this method will show you exactly how much you are spending and leave no question as to whether you are living within your means.

To start, choose an amount for each category in your monthly budget. You can determine this from your month of tracking your spending or use financial experts’ guidelines. According to Kampernal, professionals’ guidelines include:

  • Transportation: 20%
  • Investments/savings: 20%
  • Housing: 35%
  • Debt: 5%
  • Other expenses: 20%

Once you’ve allocated your income into categories, you can begin entering each expenditure on a spreadsheet or online budget tracker. For example, if you bring home $3,000 every month and allocate $75 for eating out, you’ll mark every restaurant visit expenditure in this category — even that $1.69 soda you bought at the gas station. As the month progresses, you’ll be able to see whether you are on track to overspend or are staying within your “eating out” budget.

This method forces you to be accountable for your spending and provides a real-time picture throughout the month of where you are with your budget. If the consumer above has spent $60 on eating out by the 15th of the month, for example, he knows he’ll need to rein in the restaurant spending for the next two weeks to stay on budget.

Penny tracking can be tedious and doesn’t have to be a lifelong practice, but if done consistently, it will show you where you tend to overspend and how to realistically allocate your money. It can help you pay off debt, build savings, and develop realistic spending habits that could provide a lifetime of financial benefit. And if you ever wondered where all your money went, now you’ll know.

‘Leftovers’ budgeting

This type of budgeting is a little more relaxed than penny tracking, allowing you to lump your discretionary money into one category while still providing enough accountability to keep you from overspending.

Leftovers budgeting requires you to first pay your essential bills. Here’s an example of a budget for someone with a monthly take-home income of $2,700 (this is after taxes and a 401(k) contribution):

  • Rent/mortgage: $850
  • Utilities (power/water/sewer): $120
  • Cell phone: $75
  • Student loans: $250
  • Vehicle (monthly payment/insurance/gas): $250
  • Groceries: $400
  • Savings: $300

Your total monthly bills are $2,245. When expenses are subtracted from your income of $2,700, that leaves $455 for eating out, clothing purchases and any other spending you choose. Any discretionary funds leftover at the end of the month can be rolled into savings.

The envelope method

With this system, consumers assigned expenses to three categories of their budget following a 50/20/30 rule: Fixed bills (50%), savings and other financial goals (20%), and flexible spending (30%). You then monitor your spending within those categories.

For someone with a $2,700 monthly take-home income, that means fixed bills should total no more than $1,350 and savings and other financial goals should be allocated $540, leaving $810 for flexible spending — including groceries, entertainment and purchases.

The idea is that “when the money runs out, spending should stop,” Kampernal said. While you don’t have to literally put cash in envelopes for each category every month (the practice this style of budget is named after), you can imagine that when you’ve spent down a category to $0, the envelope is empty until it’s replenished next month.

Staying on track with your budget

No budget system will work if you cheat or stop paying attention to your spending — even for a few days. Here is some advice from budgeting experts on how to stick to your budget.

Keep it flexible: Unexpected expenses will crop up, which likely means you’ll need to re-evaluate your budget. Or, you may find yourself spending more in one category than you anticipated, and you’ll need to reduce another category to make up for it. “Stick to the process for a few months, making adjustments until you get the budget into a comfortable place for you,” Oppenheimer said.

Pay your debts off first: Debt payment can command a lot of your budget, and the faster you pay them off, the more quickly you’ll free up room in your budget for other spending.

Focus on paying off your debts up front. As you eliminate those obligations, you’ll have an easier time with the rest of your budget.

Automate your payments: Setting up automatic bill payments through your bank’s website for as many monthly payments as you can will ensure that those bills are paid on time and keep that part of your budget on track.

Consider going cash-only: Opperman said that many Credit.org clients benefit from living on a cash basis. “If people are struggling to stick to their budget, we suggest leaving the debit card at home,” she said. “This takes away the ability to afford unplanned purchases.” If you really want to buy something, you’ll be forced to think about it until you can return with your card.

An alternative strategy to limit impulse buying is to give yourself a pre-paid credit card or gift card with a small limit, Opperman said.

Be careful with credit cards: Credit card spending can sink even the most well-intentioned budget, especially if you are paying off debts.

Oppenheimer recommends making it a priority to end borrowing with credit cards, as you’ll only accumulate more debt — and throw off your budget.

“If you do use credit cards, you have to make it part of your budget that you pay off the balance in full every month — before the grace period, so you don’t add interest charges to your spending plan,” Opperman said.

Knowing how you are spending your money eliminates risk and allows you to take charge of your finances. Keep the long-term game in mind — disciplined spending now equates to more savings, and, thus, more financial freedom, in the future.

Give yourself a little freedom: If you stray from your budget, don’t give up or punish yourself, Kampernal said.

“Sometimes, life happens,” she said. “Allow yourself to make mistakes and aim to do better in the future. Budgeting is now an ‘all or nothing’ mentality.”

Give yourself a reward if you have a little space in your budget at times. Get that take-out meal or buy that small item you’ve had your eye on.

“That way, you don’t feel trapped within your budget, but know that discretionary spending is accounted for,” Kampernal said.

The most important factor in budgeting is that you do it. Take the time to organize your financial information, track your spending, and personalize a budget style to fit you or your family’s needs.

“No two budgets are equal, so make yours realistic and livable so you are more likely to follow it,” Kampernal said.

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Marty Minchin is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marty here

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Before you read on, click here to download our FREE guide to become debt free forever!

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Updated – March 20, 2019

Digging out of credit card debt can feel frustrating, intimidating and ultimately impossible. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be any of those things if you learn how to take control.

Paying down debt is not only about finding the right financial tools, but also the right psychological ones. You need to understand why you racked up credit card debt in the first place. Perhaps it was a medical emergency or a home repair that needed to be taken care of immediately. Maybe you’d already drained your emergency fund on one piece of bad luck when misfortune struck again. Or maybe you’re struggling with a compulsive shopping problem, so paying down debt will likely result in you accumulating more until the addiction is addressed.

You also need to understand what motivates you to succeed. Do you want to pay down your credit card debt in the absolute fastest amount of time possible that will save more money or do you want to take some little wins along the way to keep yourself motivated?

Here’s a couple strategies consider as you learn the best way to handle credit card debt — and pay it off quickly.

2 common credit card debt repayment strategies

These repayment strategies can help you pay off credit card debt quickly. Keep in mind, you can use these strategies even for non-credit-card debt:

  • Debt avalanche: Focus on paying off the credit card with the highest interest rate first. Then, work your way down. This strategy can save you money on interest and get you out of debt sooner.
  • Debt snowball: Pay off your smallest debts first. Doing so can motivate you to continue making payments as you climb out of debt.

You don’t necessarily need to pick the repayment strategy that gets you out of debt the fastest. After all, if your repayment strategy doesn’t keep you motivated, you may not stick to it.

Using a personal loan or balance transfer credit card

As you seek to repay your debt, you could consider a personal loan or balance transfer credit card with a lower interest rate than on your existing debt. Transferring your debt to one of these financial products could help you reduce long-term interest costs.

But you’ll first need to learn whether or not you’re eligible. Your credit score will play a big role in determining your eligibility for a personal loan or balance transfer card. Use our widget below to figure out if a personal loan or a balance transfer is the best option for you!

What’s the best option for me?

Please enter information below and we’ll provide the best option to consolidate your credit card debt!

If you have a credit score above 640, you have a good chance of qualifying for a personal loan at a much lower interest rate than your credit card debt. With new internet-only personal loan companies, you can shop for loans without hurting your score. In just a few minutes, with a simple online form, you can get matched with multiple lenders. People with excellent credit can see APRs below 10%. But even if your credit isn’t perfect, you might be able to find a good loan to fit your needs.

Not sure what your credit score is? Click here to learn how and where to find out. If you know your credit score needs some work but not sure of what can be done, click here.

If you have a score above 700, you could also qualify for 0% balance transfer offers. We will talk more about balance transfers below but this option is the best way to pay off credit card debt if you’re able to qualify for a 0% APR balance transfer credit card.

A credit score of less than 600 will make it difficult for you to qualify for either option. If you have a credit score less than 640, struggling to make monthly debt payments and would like to explore your options to reduce your debt by up to 50%, then please click our option below to customize a personal debt relief plan.

Custom Debt Relief Plan

Now let’s talk about the financial tools to add to your debt repayment strategy in order to dig out of the hole.

Let’s say you have $10,000 in credit card debt, and are stuck paying 18% interest on it.

You already know that putting as much spare cash as you can toward paying down your debt is the most important thing to do. But once you’ve done that, so what’s next?

Use your good credit to make banks compete and cut your rates

You could save $1,800 a year in interest and lower your monthly payments based on several of the rates available today. That means you could pay it off almost 20% faster.

Here’s how it works.

Option One: Use a Balance Transfer (or Multiple Balance Transfers)


If you trust yourself to open a new credit card but not spend on it, consider a balance transfer. You may be able to cut your rate with a long 0% intro APR. You need to have a good credit score, and you might not get approved for the full amount that you want to transfer.

Your own bank might not give you a lower rate (or only drop it by a few percent), but there are lots of competing banks that may want to steal the business and give you a better rate.

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MagnifyMoney regularly surveys the market to find the best balance transfer credit cards. If you would like to see what other options exist, beyond Chase and Discover, you can start there.

promo-balancetransfer-halfIt also has tips to make sure you do a balance transfer safely. If you follow them you’ll save thousands on your debt by remaining disciplined.

You might be scared of a balance transfer, but there is no faster way to cut your interest payments than taking advantage of the best 0% or low interest deals banks are offering.

Thanks to recent laws, balance transfers aren’t as sneaky as they used to be, and friendlier for helping you cut your debt.

Sometimes the first bank you deal with won’t give you a big enough credit line to handle all your credit card debt. Maybe you’ll get a $5,000 credit line for a 0% deal, but have $10,000 in debt. That’s okay. In that case, apply for the next best balance transfer deal you see. MagnifyMoney’s list of deals makes it easy to sort them.

Banks are okay with you shopping around for more than one deal.

Option Two: Personal Loan

If you never want to see another credit card again, you should consider a personal loan. You can get prequalified at multiple lenders without hurting your credit score, and find the best deal to pay off your debt faster.

Personal loan interest rates are often about 10-20%, but can sometimes be as low as 5-6% if you have very good credit.

Moving from 18% interest on a credit card to 10% on a personal loan is a good deal for you. You’ll also get one set monthly payment, and pay off the whole thing in 3 to 5 years.

Sometimes this may mean a higher monthly payment than you’re used to, but you’re better off putting your cash toward a higher payment with a lower rate.

And you’ll get out of debt months or years faster by leaving more money to pay down the debt itself. If you want to shop for a personal loan, we recommend starting at LendingTree. With a single online form, dozens of lenders will compete for your business. Only a soft credit pull is completed, so your credit score will not be harmed. People with excellent scores can see low APRs (sometimes below 6%). And people with less than perfect scores still have a good chance of finding a lender to approve them.

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A Personal Loan can offer funds relatively quickly once you qualify you could have your funds within a few days to a week. A loan can be fixed for a term and rate or variable with fluctuating amount due and rate assessed, be sure to speak with your loan officer about the actual term and rate you may qualify for based on your credit history and ability to repay the loan. A personal loan can assist in paying off high-interest rate balances with one fixed term payment, so it is important that you try to obtain a fixed term and rate if your goal is to reduce your debt. Some lenders may require that you have an account with them already and for a prescribed period of time in order to qualify for better rates on their personal loan products. Lenders may charge an origination fee generally around 1% of the amount sought. Be sure to ask about all fees, costs and terms associated with each loan product. Loan amounts of $1,000 up to $50,000 are available through participating lenders; however, your state, credit history, credit score, personal financial situation, and lender underwriting criteria can impact the amount, fees, terms and rates offered. Ask your loan officer for details.

As of 28-Feb-2019, LendingTree Personal Loan consumers were seeing match rates as low as 3.99% (3.99% APR) on a $10,000 loan amount for a term of three (3) years. Rates and APRs were based on a self-identified credit score of 700 or higher, zero down payment, origination fees of $0 to $100 (depending on loan amount and term selected).

If you don’t want to shop at LendingTree, you can see our list of the best personal loans here.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Brian Karimzad
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Brian Karimzad is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brian at [email protected]

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Are Balance Transfers the Best Way to Pay Off Debt?

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When you’re buried under a pile of debt, you’ll need to go beyond making the minimum payments if you hope to get debt-free as quickly as possible. And with interest rates on an upward swing, it may not be something you can afford to ignore.

This is where balance transfer credit cards come into play. Once you understand how they work, they can be a powerful tool that lets you temporarily pause your interest payments — and chip away at your principal balances faster.

MagnifyMoney tapped the experts to unpack everything you need to know about balance transfers. Here’s how to master the ins and outs of one of the most effective debt repayment options available.

What is a balance transfer?

It’s all in the name. A balance transfer involves taking one or more credit card balances and transferring them to a different card that has a lower interest rate. The ideal situation is to roll everything over to a card that has a 0% APR promotional period. This essentially eliminates the interest for a set period, giving you a chance to catch your breath and, if all goes according to plan, pay off the balance before the interest kicks in.

To pull off a balance transfer, you can either open a new low- or no-interest credit card, or look to your existing cards that you’ve already paid off to see if there are any deals to be had. According to David Metzger, a Chicago-based certified financial planner and founder of Onyx Wealth Management, it isn’t uncommon to find 0% interest rate promotions on your existing cards.

“If you’ve got multiple cards, chances are you get offers like that all the time,” he said.

If not, don’t be afraid to reach out to your credit card companies to see if they have any deals up for grabs. If they don’t, or you don’t have the credit capacity on your existing cards, you can shop online for a balance transfer card.

As for the promotional introductory period, it varies from offer to offer, with the best rates and terms generally going to those who’ve got excellent credit. Those with a minimum credit score of 680 can expect transfer periods that last anywhere from 12 to 21 months. Keep in mind that some offers tack on a balance transfer fee to the tune of 0% to 4%, so it pays to read the fine print.

How balance transfers can save you money

Temporarily eliminating your interest rate can translate to pretty significant savings. Let’s say you have the following open balances, and you pay $100 per month on each:

  • $1,000 with 18.00% APR
  • $2,000 with 16.00% APR
  • $800 with 20.00% APR

If you stay on this path, you’ll shell out $500 in interest and get out of debt in 24 months. But a balance transfer with 0% APR for 15 months will keep that $500 in your pocket. Your monthly payment won’t change, and you’ll also pay off the balance nine months faster. From a numbers-and-sense perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

“You can save a ridiculous amount in interest payments, but the name of the game is to more or less come close to paying the balance off completely before that transition over to that higher interest rate,” Lucas Casarez, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based certified financial planner and founder of Level Up Financial Planning, told MagnifyMoney.

Applying for a balance transfer credit card

As Metzger mentioned, turn first to any existing credit cards that can absorb some new debt. Are there any balance transfer offers available? If not, the best place to search and compare balance transfer offers is online. According to Casarez, the following factors play the biggest role in the kinds of deals for which you’ll be eligible:

  • A good credit score: You won’t qualify for much if your credit score is below 680. At the time of this writing, the longest promo periods with 0% interest were reserved for this bunch. Why? A lower credit score is a red flag to credit card companies that you may be a risky borrower.
  • Reliable income: Your credit score doesn’t stand alone. “You could have the best credit score in the world, but lenders still want to know that you have the ability to pay your bill,” Casarez said.

He adds that folks in retirement, for example, may have a tougher time qualifying for a worthwhile balance transfer since their money may come more from retirement accounts rather than Social Security or pensions. Casarez does clarify, however, that credit card companies typically want to approve you.

“These banks make a lot of money the longer that your current balance is at a higher interest rate,” he said.

Discover it® Balance Transfer

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Rates & Fees

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Discover it® Balance Transfer

Regular APR
14.24% - 25.24% Variable
Intro Purchase APR
0% for 6 months
Intro BT APR
0% for 18 months
Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon.com and more up to the quarterly maximum, each time you activate, 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
Balance Transfer Fee
3%
Credit required
good-credit
Excellent/Good

Barclaycard Ring® Mastercard®

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Annual fee
$0
Regular Purchase APR
14.24% Variable
Intro BT APR
0% intro APR for 15 months on balance transfers made within 45 days of account opening. After that, a variable 14.24% APR will apply.
Balance Transfer Fee
Promotional Balance Transfers that post to your account within 45 days of account opening: Either $5 or 2% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Credit required
good-credit
Excellent/Good

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The information related to Wells Fargo Platinum Visa Card has been collected by MagnifyMoney and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Wells Fargo Platinum Visa Card

Intro Purchase APR
0% for 18 months
Intro BT APR
0% for 18 months on qualifying balance transfers
Regular Purchase APR
13.74%-27.24% (Variable)
Annual fee
$0
Credit required
good-credit
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3 questions to ask before transferring your debt

If you’re looking to save money and get out of debt faster, balance transfers are a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal — if you know how to use them wisely. Here’s what to consider before giving it a go.

1. Do you understand why you’re in debt?

This strategy won’t work if you don’t get to the root of why you’re in debt to begin with. What kinds of purchases make up the bulk of your existing credit card statements? Whether they’re living expenses, splurges or surprise pop-up bills, it’s time to revisit your budget to prevent falling into the same patterns again. After your balance transfer is complete, seeing $0 balances on your old credit cards can create serious temptation.

“If you don’t have a plan, balance transfers may be something that allow you to spend even more money, so it could put you further into the hole,” Casarez said. “It’s like a hot potato you’re passing around, but there’s going to come a day when you have to pay up.”

Having emergency savings on hand provides an additional safety net because you won’t need a credit card to see you through your next unexpected bill. Our insiders recommend building a $1,000 mini-emergency fund while you’re paying off debt.

2. Can you pay off your debt before the introductory period ends?

Once your budget and emergency fund are in shape, it’s time to shop around online for balance transfer offers. Ones with the lowest transfer fees and longest 0% introductory periods are the best, but here’s the catch: This strategy only makes sense if you can pay off the balance before that period ends, at which point you’ll be slammed with interest charges on the remaining balance.

Standard interest rates after the introductory promo period ends are generally higher than other credit cards. And if you miss a payment, the credit card company may cancel your promo period.

3. Are you OK with taking a short-term credit hit?

Opening a new balance transfer card requires a hard credit inquiry, which will result in a short-term dip in your credit score. Your score may also take a small hit if the transfer itself uses up more than 30% of your new credit line. (How much you owe accounts for 30% of your FICO score.) But Metzger said it may be worth it if you’re ultimately eliminating high-interest debt faster.

“Your score will improve much faster than it would have had you not engaged in the strategy,” he said. “You take a small step backward for a huge step forward, if you’ve got the discipline to do it.”

Metzger does suggest using caution with balance transfers if you plan on financing a big purchase, such as a mortgage or car, within the next month or two. Depending on your financial health, slight fluctuations in your credit score could prevent you from getting the best interest rates on these purchases.

3 alternatives to a balance transfer

If a balance transfer isn’t in the cards for you right now, there are still plenty of viable ways to get out of debt as quickly as possible. Here are a few tried-and-true debt repayment methods you can put to use today.

1. Debt snowball method

The debt snowball approach prioritizes your lowest balance first, regardless of your interest rates. You make the minimum payments on all your debts while hitting the lowest balance the hardest with any extra income you can spare. Once it’s paid off, you take whatever you were spending there and roll it over to the next lowest balance. Keep on chugging along until all your balances are paid off.

“The nice thing about the debt snowball, and the reason that it tends to be the most effective way, is that you start to have those wins a lot faster when you’re focusing on those smaller balances,” Casarez said.

“You start to build up some momentum and confidence,” he added. “As you do that, you start to get a little bit more swagger and feel like you’re actually making progress and have more control over your financial situation than you thought.”

2. Debt avalanche method

This strategy puts your highest-interest balance above all others. When you compare it to the debt snowball method, it’s the fastest and cheapest way to get the job done, which is why Metzger said it makes the most sense.

“With that being said, people are quirky,” he added. “If paying down the lowest balance and snowballing it that way works for you, then by all means do it. The outcome is far more important than the path you take to get there.”

3. Debt Consolidation loan

Another way to tackle your debt is to consolidate it using a personal loan. Once you receive the loan amount, you use the funds to pay off all your debt, at which point you’ll have one new balance and monthly payment. This strategy is ideal for those who can lock down a lower interest rate. What’s more, personal loans often have fixed rates, monthly payments and repayment timelines, so it makes budgeting a whole lot easier.

And since it’s a lump-sum installment loan — not a revolving credit line in which you can charge and pay off as you go — using it to eliminate credit card debt should boost your credit score because you’re effectively using less available credit. Some personal loans do come with an origination fee, typically between 0% and 6%, so do the math to see if it’s the right debt consolidation method for you.

When shopping for a debt consolidation loan, it’s best to compare your option to make sure you get the one with the lowest interest rate. LendingTree, the parent company to MagnifyMoney, allows you to compare up to five lenders without affecting your credit score. Use our table below to get the best results!



Compare Debt Consolidation Loan Options

Which is the best way to pay off debt?

It all depends on your situation. If you’ve got a solid credit score and qualify for attractive balance transfer offers, it’s worth exploring — as long as you don’t charge new debt and you’ve got a plan in place for paying off the balance before the introductory period ends. When done right, balance transfers are great shortcuts that could save you a significant amount of time and money in the long run.

The debt snowball and avalanche methods are worthwhile alternatives for those who prefer to get out of debt the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, a debt consolidation loan could pave the way for a locked-in lower interest rate. The main takeaway here is that you have multiple debt repayment options at your fingertips. They’re all, as the old saying goes, “Different paths up the same mountain.”

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Marianne Hayes
Marianne Hayes |

Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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