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You may be surprised to receive a blank check from your credit card company.
These are called convenience checks, and while they make it easier for you to write a check against your credit limit, you could end up owing more money and going deeper into debt. Before you use a convenience check, you’ll want to learn about the potential drawbacks and other factors involved.
What is a convenience check?
A convenience check is a check issued by your credit card company that can replace cash or a credit card. “You use it to withdraw money tied to your available credit limit,” says Bola Sokunbi, certified financial education instructor, bestselling author, and founder of Clever Girl Finance.
It is different from a bank check, which is drawn from the money you have in your bank account. When you use a convenience check, you’re basically taking a cash advance from your credit card issuer. But it’s similar in that “you can use the money for pretty much anything,” says Sokunbi.
This includes rental or other situations where you can’t use a credit card. “You can even use a convenience check as a way to pay for a credit card with a credit card,” says Gina McKague, owner and founder of McKague Financial. In most situations, issuers won’t let you pay for one card directly with another card, but a convenience check makes it possible. It can be complicated, so be sure to consider each card’s APR, as well as other fees and interest rates associated with this transaction.
For example, you’ll typically pay a higher interest rate for using a convenience check than for carrying a balance on your card. “They typically include higher up-front fees or possibly higher interest rates and stricter repayment penalties,” says McKague.
Can you order convenience checks from your credit card company?
If your credit card company issues convenience checks, you may receive them in the mail with your statement or as part of a promotional offer. “Other credit card companies will only offer them to cardholders with certain levels of creditworthiness based on their credit score,” says McKague. “But you can always call the number on the back of your credit card and request them.”
If you order them, ask if there’s an initiation fee to send them, says McKague. You also want to ask about the fees associated with using the checks, beyond the interest rate, says McKague.
Disadvantages of convenience checks
Even with benefits, using a convenience check can leave you with more debt than you can handle. “If you’re not careful how you use it, you could end up owing a hefty amount of interest,” says Sokunbi.
While checks make it easy to access your credit, fees and interest rates can add up quickly. The interest rate “is usually significantly higher than your regular credit card interest rate,” Sokunbi says. The typical cash advance APR can range from 25% to 30%, which is significantly higher than the average interest rate on credit cards at 14.51%.
You will usually pay a transaction fee, which is normally around 3% to 4%. Also, convenience checks generally don’t come with a grace period between the time you use the check and the time you pay it. So while you may have a few weeks to pay off your credit card balance before interest accrues, a convenience check could start charging interest right away.
If you’re writing a convenience check, make sure you can handle any fees and high interest rates you may incur.
Also, your cash advance limit may be less than the card’s overall limit. If you ignore that restriction, you could exceed it and incur a penalty from your credit card issuer.
Your credit score also comes into play here. “Although convenience checks don’t directly affect a person’s credit score, using a credit card convenience check could increase your credit utilization rate,” says McKague. A high credit utilization ratio, in which you use a large portion of available credit, can negatively affect your credit score.
Benefits of convenience checks
You can use a convenience check to buy something at a retailer that doesn’t accept credit cards, for example, if you can’t pay your rent. You can also use it to withdraw cash at a bank, with the money coming from your line of credit instead of your bank account.
Sometimes you’ll get a special offer with a 0% interest rate for six months or even a year, says McKague. Keep in mind that when this period ends, you must pay your debt immediately or it will accrue interest.
Using one of these checks to pay off a high-interest credit card could save you money in the long run, but only if all the factors line up, says McKague. “If you’re doing the math, it might make sense to transfer the balance for that 0% interest rate, as long as you know you can pay off the balance within that time frame,” she says.
Are convenience checks safe?
If you’re aware of the APR and terms, convenience checks can be safe to write, McKague and Sokunbi say. However, there are some issues to be aware of:
- Possibility of Identity Theft: Many convenience checks do not require signatures. If they end up in the hands of a scammer, they can be used to fraudulently withdraw money from your line of credit. Be sure to write VOID on your unused convenience checks and tear them up.
- No dispute process: If you make a purchase with a credit card and it turns out that the retailer is fraudulent or fails to provide the product or service you paid for, you can often dispute the purchase with your credit card issuer. But if you use a convenience check, you’ll need to request a refund directly from the merchant.
- Penalties for exceeding the limit: If you use a convenience check to withdraw money beyond your credit limit, you will likely incur an over-limit penalty from your credit card issuer.
- Accept a convenience check: Accepting a convenience check may not be safe, because the issuer may be over your credit limit. “So if you’re someone who accepts a convenience check, be very careful,” says McKague.
With the pitfalls and costs of convenience checks, it would be wise to use them only when you really have no other choice. If you need quick cash, you can also consider getting a low-interest personal loan. If a convenience check is your only option, be sure to return it as quickly as possible to avoid costly interest charges.