Do all those zero percent credit card offers mean free money?

Detroit Free PressMay 12, 2013 

Credit card companies are once again offering free money — or it sure looks free when you see a huge 0 percent plastered on the envelope.

Open that new plastic, buy now and get 0 percent until August 2014? Yes, you're not imagining things. Credit card experts say we're seeing the best promotions for plastic ever since the Great Recession.

"It was free money to me in some sense," said Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan.

Grimes jumped at a 0 percent deal that runs 18 months to buy an Apple laptop. But he plans to pay off the purchase before an 18 percent annual percentage rate kicks in, retroactively on this deal, if the purchase is not paid off in 18 months.

"I've played that game and I know how to do it," Grimes said.

The latest run of 0 percent offers — including 0 percent financing deals at stores and 0 percent introductory-rate major credit cards — is one more sign that the worst is over for the economy.

"The economy is definitely coming back and the credit card industry is definitely making a bet on that," said Tim Chen, CEO of NerdWallet.com, which compares everything from credit cards to checking accounts to airline fees.

More jobs mean more people can pay their credit card bills. Credit card issuers are able to offer 0 percent rates to a significant group of consumers now because the expectation is that interest rates will remain low and the unemployment rate won't climb dramatically through the end of 2014. If that's correct, economists say, it would be a while before rates increase appreciatively.

Banks also have so much in additional reserves that they have a good deal of money to lend, as well.

Yet do all those 0 percent deals mean we're heading back to the oh-too-easy credit days when borrowers basically went on a bender? Not there yet, economists and credit card experts say.

The latest 0 percent offers are going to people who have good credit and are likely to make their payments, according to Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.

The deals aren't just for six months any more — again, indicating more optimism that the worst may be behind us. Some 0 percent rate deals can be strung out for 15 months, 18 months or even 21 months, depending on the offer.

But Grimes said he is concerned about potential problems ahead after seeing the personal savings rate drop to 2.6 percent in the first quarter, compared with 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter last year.

Consumers could be stretching more, he said, to deal with a 2-percentage point increase in the payroll tax that began Jan. 1. Will some be tempted to borrow too much?

Right now, though, 0 percent could be a great deal for those who want to borrow and pay down old debt sensibly.

Better deals for consumers include:

■ Slate from Chase is offering a 0 percent introductory rate until Aug. 1, 2014, on both purchases and balance transfers. More important, for a limited time, Slate also is offering a $0 introductory fee for balance transfers during the first 60 days the account is open.

■ The Citi Simplicity Card had a 0 percent introductory rate for 18 months for purchases and balance transfers. The balance transfer fee is $5 or 3 percent of the amount of each transfer.

■ Capital One Prestige Card is offering 0 percent on balance transfers and purchases through August 2014. Balance transfer fee is 3 percent.

■ The Discover "it" card offers an introductory 0% rate for 14 months from the date of opening the account.

What's the best deal for you?

Will you be going out to buy new patio furniture with that 0% card? If taking on new debt, consumers would want to know what the payments would be each month so that they would be able to pay off their debt at 0 percent before the offer ends in 15 months or 18 months.

Simple math: Take the amount of the debt and divide by the number of months you have at 0 percent. So if you spend $6,000 on the card, you'd want to pay $400 a month to have that debt paid off in 15 months.

Are you struggling to take care of some old debt? If so, how much will you pay to transfer a balance?

"The balance transfer fee plays a big role," said Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub.com.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stomporfreepress.com.

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