“Would you like to apply for a store credit card today? You can get [insert number here] months free financing.”
We’ve all heard it before when checking out at a retail store. Chances are, you’ll be hearing it a lot more over the holidays as you ramp up your holiday shopping.
It can be tempting — you can make a large purchase today, and pay it off over time interest-free. Some companies will even throw in a gift card or a discount if you apply for their credit card. But before you say “yes” to the cashier, there’s one hidden trick that these companies often use. If you’re not aware of it, your “free financing” might end up backfiring in a big way. (See also: Should You Sign Up for That Store Credit Card?)
What is a “deferred interest” credit card?
There are two types of credit cards that offer free financing: 0% Intro APR cards, and deferred interest cards.
You see ads for 0% APR cards all the time — you get 0% APR for a limited time. After that, the standard interest rate goes into effect. When stores offer a “deferred interest credit card” you might reasonably assume they work the same way. But they are very different.
With a deferred interest card, you must pay off the charge in full before the promotional free financing period is over. If you don’t, you’ll have to pay the full amount of interest charges, as if that interest rate was in effect the whole time. All that “deferred” interest comes rolling back the moment the promotional period is over, not just on the balance you have left, but on the entire purchase amount.
And it’ll be a heck of a bill too: the interest rates on these types of credit cards are often sky-high, running upward of 25% APR. As a comparison, the current average interest rate for all credit cards combined is 13.08% APR, according to the Federal Reserve.
Let’s look at an example of how much a deferred interest credit card might cost you. A store credit card offers 12 months deferred interest financing, with a standard 27.99% APR. If you make a $1,500 purchase and only make the minimum payments during those 12 months (about $45), you’ll owe a walloping $321.63 in interest at the end of it — and still owe over $950 on your purchase.
How do you spot a deferred interest credit card?
Your first clue is who is offering the card. Most deferred interest credit cards are offered by retail stores. If a store employee is trying to get you to sign up for the card, ask them: “what happens if I don’t have the purchase paid off by the end of the financing period?”
But the best way to find out if the card you’re interested in really is a deferred interest card or not is to simply look at the Terms and Conditions disclosure. Here’s a snippet from a store credit card’s disclosure to give you an idea of what the language will look like:
“If the balance is not paid in full by the end of the promotional period, interest charges will be imposed from the purchase date at the purchase rate on your account which is 26.24%.”
See how the charges are imposed “from the purchase date?” Other words to look for are “deferred” or “financing” or “no interest if paid off in X months” which is different from just 0% APR during the promotional time. A credit card that offers 0% APR for 12 months mean that there are no interest charges on your balance for 12 months, then at the end of the 12 months, the standard APR will start, and will only be applied to the current balance, not the entire purchase. (See also: Same-As-Cash Store Offers vs. 0% Intro APR Credit Cards — Which Is Right for You?)
Come up with a game plan to tackle your debt
Despite all of this, deferred interest cards aren’t necessarily something you always need to avoid. In fact, they can really help you out — as long as you have a game plan to deal with them.
Setting up a plan is simple. All you have to do is take the amount of your purchase and divide it by however many months you have to pay off the charge. If you want to play it on the safe side, you can even subtract a month or two to give yourself some space if something comes up. That way, you’ll have it paid off with plenty of time to spare.
Here’s an example. Say your child’s old computer died, and you want to buy them a new $1,100 computer for Christmas. Luckily, your local electronic store chain offers a 12-month deferred interest credit card, which you use to purchase your new computer.
If you want to have it paid off early, divide the purchase price ($1,100) by 11 months, to give you a monthly payment of $100. You can further boost your chances of having it paid off by setting up that payment on autopay, so then you don’t even have to worry at all about making payments. (See also: The Best Store Credit Cards)
When you should choose a store credit card over a 0% APR card
A 0% APR credit card will give you the safety net in case you don’t actually pay off the entire balance within the promotional time frame. Even if you leave a $10 balance on a store credit card, you’ll get charged all the interest from the purchase date. It’s pretty brutal.
It can also be of use to you even after the promotional period. Perhaps it’s a very good travel rewards credit card that can fund your next vacation.
But there are times you might end up choosing the store credit card instead.
You have bad credit
I won’t remind you that if you’re in this position, you should be considering ways to build back your credit which doesn’t include adding more debt. But assuming you’ve already thought this through, getting approved for a 0% APR card might not be in your cards. So if you really need this buffer to pay off the purchase, and you are committed to the payoff goal, then go ahead and sign up for the card. Store cards generally have a lower threshold for approving customers, because their regular APR is so high, and their credit limits usually low.
You will benefit from the rewards
Stores can be generous to their credit card holders, offering big rewards and discounts that will save you loads of money. If you’re a frequent shopper there, and the store card can offer you much better deals and rewards than you’d get from a typical cash back card, for example, then it can be worth it to be a loyal card holder. Just don’t ever leave a balance because the APR will always destroy any savings or rewards the card would have offered.