Interest sucks. And it sucks because its effects are both material and psychological. Each month it deftly diminishes the significance of your payments, siphoning hard earned dollars meant for the principal. And while you understand logically that this is how it works, that this was the bargain, it still sucks and you can’t help be anything but sad.
As I look down the long road of debt repayment, I have spent countless hours scouring the internet for debt repayment hacks to help me pay off my massive debt more efficiently. The most ubiquitous suggestion is to refinance. Unfortunately, despite having very good credit (FICO 791) I didn’t qualify for a refinance because my debt to income ratio (DTI) is too high. That sucked. It really sucked because I was not attempting to refinance the entire balance but just the non-university private loans (~$40,000.00); and, ultimately, the minimum payment for the refinanced loan would have been less than I currently pay on the individual loans. So I kept reading and kept looking for things I could do. Another strategy I came across was called the “self-refi” or “balance transfer strategy.”
While there are countless other blogs that will explain this method in greater (and better) detail, essentially, you accept a balance transfer offer that allows for a direct deposit into your checking account and then use that amount to pay off your student loan. (Note: Because student loans are not bankruptcy eligible but credit cards are, some credit card issuers will not allow you to use balance transfer funds to pay off student loans. Fortunately, some do).
There are two rationales for me using the balance transfer strategy: 1) Saving on interest and 2) the psychological benefit of seeing every dollar I save or hustle for go towards a principal payment reduction. I will return to these rationales in a bit, but first, the nitty gritty of my balance transfer.
First, I accepted a balance transfer offer from two of my creditors (Discover and Citi). While it would have been preferable to transfer the balance to one creditor, at present, I do not have a credit line large enough to accomplish this. So two creditors it is. Financially, there is no real impact to using two creditors, it’s just less convenient. Both creditors offered me a pretty standard balance transfer 0% for 12 months and a 3% transfer fee (this really is the pretty standard offer, although I have seen 15 months offered at account opening and USAA apparently occasionally floats a 0% balance transfer fee to some of their members).
I forgot to grab a screenshot for Citi but it looked quite similar…
Total Transfer Amount: $6500.00
Total Transfer Fee: $195.00
Remaining Credit: $605.00
So the total amount for the balance transfer requested was $9,850.00. I will use this to payoff Private Student Loan 1, which currently has a balance of -$9,812.49 at 9.74%; I was worried about how long I would have to wait until I could pay it off, but the August statement posted this morning so as soon as I receive the funds from Citi I will pay it off. This process has happened pretty quickly. I pulled the trigger and made the balance transfer request on Saturday and as of today, Monday morning, Discover has already deposited the money into my checking account.
Now, before I return to the rationales, let me address some of the concerns any reasonable person reading this post might have…
Objection 1: An accelerated, adjusted repayment schedule might result in no savings using the balance transfer strategy.
This is true. Assuming I paid off Private Loan 1 in December, which was my midyear revised goal, I would actually lose money on interest. According to the Student Loan Amortization Calculator I used, if I paid off the loan in December, I would lose $56.00 in interest, which is the difference between the interest I would have owed the student loan lender ($239.00) and the balance transfer fee I paid Citi and Discover ($295.50).
But I am a very reasonable woman, and despite my intent to hustle my tush off over the next few months, I figured it was probably unlikely that I would get this done by December. So I calculated what the interest would be if I paid the loan off in March 2020. The difference this time, of $64.50, is interest saved doing the balance transfer over continuing to pay the student loan lender.
And, just as a thought exercise, if I were to extend repayment over the full period of the balance transfer, I would save $226.50 in interest.
It should also be noted that the interest savings assume that I pay the same amount each month. If I paid less (or more) the interest would also fluctuate accordingly. The balance transfer fee is not subject to such fluctuations so whether I pay it slowly over the full term or more quickly, the amount of the transfer fee stays the same.
Objection 2: Student Loan interest is tax deductible whereas credit card interest is not.
Also true. However, the amount I pay in student loan interest always exceeds the tax credit. This might be of greater concern in the future as my student loan balances decrease, however, as my DTI improves, I would like to apply for a traditional refinance.
Objection 3: If you don’t pay the amount off during the balance transfer period, the balance will be subject to a much higher rate of interest than the original student loan.
Also true. But don’t worry. I got this. I kid, I kid. While I do like the idea of a hard deadline and a bit of pressure to pay this off, I would like to payoff far more than just this loan by next year at this time. Additionally, the amount that I would need to pay each month to have this loan paid off by the end of the balance transfer period is rather reasonable ($857.00) and at the very least, I expect to be able to pay that each month, especially now that I am a bit more settled and can begin to hustle.
Objection 4: FICO doesn’t weight installment debt and credit card debt the same. Your FICO score is going to take a hit.
Absolutely true. The transition of this debt from installment debt to credit card debt is pretty big. My credit utilization is going to go way, way up (it’s currently 0-1% depending on when the statement cuts) and I expect my score to drop, at least temporarily, by between 50 and 100 points (the swing could be that large because I am still relatively young with a relatively shorter credit history). I would never have embarked on this strategy if I knew that I would need credit in the near future. As I do not, and the hit will be temporary, this was not a huge consideration for me.
Now, those initial objections at lease cursorily addressed, let us return to my rationales for the balance transfer…
1) Saving on interest. – This was addressed extensively above. As long as I pay off the amount after December 2019, I will likely save a tiny bit on interest.
2) The psychological benefit of seeing every dollar I save or hustle for go towards a principal payment reduction. – As you might have expected, the largest benefit to this strategy for me is psychological. I can’t speak about the experience of anyone else, but when I am targeting a debt, as I am targeting Private Student Loan 1, I log into the dashboard and look at the debt frequently. It is disheartening to see the balance gain interest every day and to not actually see the fruit of my sacrifice. (Skip buying a new pair of shoes so that you can make an extra $30 student loan payment, watch the loan gain that amount in little over a week in interest). With the balance transfer, every dollar I save or earn will chip away at the amount I owe. While I know that it would be better to be motivated by the interest that accrues each day, I’m not there yet. And as my journey will be a long one, anything I can do to keep myself happy and focused is worth its weight in student loan debt.
3 thoughts on “Debt Psychology: The Balance Transfer Strategy and Private Student Loan 1”
As it happens, I did a big retrospective analysis of the one time I seriously played the balance transfer game:http://thesingledollar.com/was-playing-the-balance-transfer-game-dumb/And concluded that even if I lost a little money on the deal, it was way worth it to just pay a set fee and not worry about increasing interest after that. I found it psychologically helpful, indeed.
Haha, of course you did! Okay, this is fantastic. Now I have something to read over my sad dinner. AND, the fact that you did it makes me feel less stupid (read: reckless) for doing it. Even though you had significantly less debt than I do. – AP
Something else I just realized after reading your post (and comment again) is that this also doesn't take into account that the interest can rise. That is, as it has in the past, my private loan student interest rate can get even higher.At worst, if I somehow managed to pay it off in December, I would lose ~$56.00. However, if I somehow managed to pay it off in December I would be so damn happy that I really would not care about ~$56.00.