If you have a credit card – and chances are, if you’re an adult in the United States, you do – you’ve probably been sent blank checks for your card. They look a lot like a regular check and have all the same elements, but they’re nothing like the checks you get for your bank account. What exactly are they? What are they used for? And should you use them?
What is a Convenience Check?
A convenience check is just that – a check that’s drawn on your credit card account. Instead of swiping your card, you write a check against your credit account. If you write it to a merchant, the credit card company usually counts it as a charge on your credit card. If you write it to yourself and cash it, it is considered a cash advance. For some banks, any use of a credit card convenience check constitutes a cash advance.
It all sounds pretty convenient – hence the name. What you might not know, however, is that credit card convenience checks can make your available credit disappear very quickly, leaving you with extra fees and a sky-high interest rate. If the check you write pushes you over your credit limit then you can get into even more trouble, because you’ll be assessed more fees and a higher interest rate called a penalty APR.
Why Use a Convenience Check at All?
Consumers can use the checks for things like transferring a balance; if you have an existing balance on another card you might sign a check to pay that balance off, effectively transferring it to a card with a lower interest rate to save money. You might also use a check if you find yourself in a financial emergency while traveling, such as needing to purchase something from a merchant who doesn’t accept credit or debit cards. You might even use one because you simply need cash fast – they’re sometimes used at casinos, race tracks, and other gambling venues.
Even though using a convenience check isn’t your best option, there are situations when using a convenience check is preferred or even necessary. Before you sign that check, however, you should understand the bigger picture of what you’re signing and how it can affect you, even for months and maybe years to come.
The Cost of a Convenience Check
Credit card companies want you to use those checks; they are often sent out with a new credit card. Sometimes they have a zero percent APR deal attached to them, or some other promotion that promises cheap or even free balance transfers. Using a check in that situation can be a smart move – as long as you have a repayment strategy in place. Gail Cunningham, vice president of public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, says you should have a plan as to how and when you’ll pay back the balance before you sign on the dotted line, calling it “a contract with yourself.”
Far too often, consumers transfer a balance to a new card to save money, but then keep using the old card. Since many card companies apply payments to purchases first, as long as you keep using the card, that balance transfer or cash advance you used the check for will never get paid off. Some cardholders plan to pay the balance transfer off quickly, but then have an emergency later that makes it impossible. At that point, convenience checks become decidedly inconvenient as the fees and interest start to increase very quickly.
Credit is never free, and when you use a convenience check for cash you’ll be charged the cash advance interest rate – typically around 25 percent APR. That means on a $1,000 check you’ll pay back $1,250. With cash advances also come fees – three to five percent of the check amount – that can add up quickly as well. It’s not unheard of to end up having to pay back almost twice or even three times the amount of the original check by the time it’s all over.
Each bank and credit company are different in how they handle their credit card convenience checks, and if you think you’ll need to use them, you’ll want to shop around before deciding on a credit card. Let’s look at some of the major financial institutions and see how they handle convenience checks.
Financial Institutions and Their Credit Card Convenience Checks
According to Capital One’s cardholder agreement, they “may provide you with Access Checks,” which can be used against your card. They also state that they will “tell you at the time” if they will consider the checks as cash advances, special transfers, or purchases – which means you may not know which rates or fees you’ll be charged until you use the check, depending on what you use it for.
If Capital One decides that your check will be classified as a balance transfer, you will pay between 13.99 and 24.99 percent APR. As a cash advance, it’ll be a 24.99 percent APR rate, depending on the Prime Rate at the time. Their cash advance fee of $10 or 3 percent will be added as well.
You can request checks by calling their customer service at 1-800-CAPITAL, or by visiting their website at http://capitalone.com.
Bank of America
This major bank offers access checks as well – for a high price, of course. If you make the check out to yourself, Bank of America will consider it a cash advance and charge both the fee and the higher APR. The fee is currently 3 percent with a $10 minimum, and the current APR is between 13.74 and 25.74 percent depending on the Prime Rate and your creditworthiness.
If you use the check to make a balance transfer, you’ll see a fee as well – 3 percent of the total transfer amount. The interest rate on a transfer isn’t much better; it currently runs from 12.99 to 23.74 percent APR. Whatever you do – don’t miss making your payments; the penalty APR is 29.99 percent and will be effective indefinitely. Checks can be requested by visiting a local Bank of America branch, or on their website http://bankofamerica.com.
Convenience checks at Wells Fargo are called “Superchecks,” and according to the standard card agreement on the Wells Fargo site, anything a Supercheck is used for other than a balance transfer is considered a cash advance. The bank will also apply any payments to lower APR balances before higher APR cash advance amounts, which means any payments will be applied to your purchases first – resulting in more interest charges on the advance balance. The mounting interest will eat away at your available credit if you can’t pay the advance off quickly.
The fee for using the checks is $10 or 5 percent, whichever is greater. Interest rates on the advance currently range from 24.99 to 26.99 percent APR depending on your credit rating. To contact Wells Fargo, you can call 1-800-869-3557.
This company made its name offering charge cards – a card with no preset spending limit that require you to pay the balance in full each month. While they’ve now expanded their offerings to include standard credit cards, they do not offer credit card convenience checks, according to their cardmember agreement. They do, however, offer traveler’s checks, which can be purchased and used like cash – at the cash advance rate.
Citi offers a wide variety of cards, including backing many store credit cards. They do not, however, currently offer convenience checks on their accounts. They do, like American Express, offer traveler’s checks instead.
The Discover card does offer convenience checks, and much like other banks, the checks may be seen as cash advances regardless of whether you use them for purchases. The Discover cardmember agreement differs based upon your creditworthiness; someone with excellent credit will likely pay a 5 percent fee per check, with an APR of 25.99 percent. Cardholders can request checks by calling 1-800-DISCOVER.
Chase may send its members checks for balance transfers or cash advances; the rate for cash advances is currently 25.99 percent; balance transfers range from 16.99 to 23.99 percent APR if done by check. That same transfer will also come with a fee of 5 percent; cash advances are also 5 percent with a $10 minimum. All rates vary with the current Prime Rate and may change after you use a check. Cardholders can visit http://chase.com to request checks on their credit account.
Since US Bank offers cards from all brands, including American Express, not all cards have credit card convenience checks available. For those that do, the default card agreement states that the checks are only considered cash advances – even if used to perform a balance transfer.
The interest rate for check advances is currently a variable rate between 24.49 and 26.99 percent APR; the fee for using checks is between $5 and $10, or 3 to 5 percent. For more information, visit http://usbank.com.
PNC Bank does offer convenience checks, but you must specifically request them by calling 1-888-PNC-BANK. The fee for using the checks is $10 or 4 percent of the check amount, and you might not be able to use your entire available credit amount by check. There is no grace period on balances transferred or cash advances taken if a convenience check is used, according to the cardholder agreement. The APR on checks is currently 23.99 percent but can change with the Prime Rate.
Any checks used by a Citizens Bank cardholder will be counted as a cash advance, and are available up to your total credit limit. Those cash advances will come with a fee of $10 or 3 percent of the check amount, whichever is greater. The APR on a convenience check is currently 23.24 percent, and is based upon the LIBOR rate instead of the Prime Rate. Customers can call 1-800-922-9999, or visit http://citizensbank.com for more information.
Barclaycard is a British credit card now operating out of Delaware; they offer convenience checks that could be used for balance transfers or cash advances. The bank, however, reserves the right to decide how it will view your check use on a case by case basis.
Cash Advance checks can be ordered by calling customer service at 877-523-0478; the bank warns, however, that you may have to wait up to 10-15 business days before receiving them. Once you do, the rate for using them currently ranges from 9.00 to 28.24 percent APR, depending on your credit and the current Prime Rate. Each check also incurs a fee of $10 or 3-5 percent of the amount. For more information, visit http://barclaycardus.com.
Alternatives to Credit Card Convenience Checks
After seeing how expensive using checks can be, you’re probably wondering if there are any other options out there that aren’t quite so costly. Instead of using a convenience check, if the situation is not an emergency, you may be better off talking to your bank about a small personal loan. If your vehicle is paid off, you could use that to secure the loan. If you own your home or have some equity in it, you might see a home equity loan or line of credit as a better option. Depending on your individual situation, you may even find better long-term financial stability in borrowing the money from family or friends.
If you’re in the middle of a financial emergency – especially one that is time-sensitive – a convenience check may be the only way you can get the funds you need in the necessary time frame. The best time to look into convenience checks and what they’ll cost you, however, isn’t in the middle of an emergency. Take the time, as part of your regular financial planning, to see what your bank charges to use convenience checks, what the rates are, and how long it takes to get them once you request them.
Financial experts agree that using a convenience check should be one of your last resorts. If you know what you’re getting into, however, you’re already several steps ahead – and much more likely to use them responsibly.
Author: Jeff Gitlen
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