I used a 0% APR credit card to pay unexpected bills with no interest

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Nothing can derail your finances like getting hit with a large, unexpected bill.

This is what happened to me at the end of 2020. A trip to the dentist revealed that I needed to have about $4,000 in dental work done — an expense I hadn’t planned for.

Of course, this came up in the middle of a pandemic, right before the holidays, when finances are already stressful enough. Luckily, I have a decent emergency fund saved up for times like this. 

However, I’d finally just finished replenishing my emergency fund after having drawn money from it for several months at the beginning of the pandemic when I lost work, and I wasn’t too keen on tapping into it again already. After all, we’re still in a recession, and with so much economic uncertainty, I prefer to keep some cash reserves on hand just in case.

I have about six months of living expenses saved up and didn’t want to dip below that if I could avoid it. So, I came up with another way to pay.

Finding a low-interest credit card to cover my dental bills

I’d been thinking about getting a new rewards credit card that aligns better with my current spending habits, and that’s when it hit me: with the right credit card, I could pay off these bills over time interest-free and use the unexpected expense to earn some extra rewards.

Lots of credit cards come with 0% intro APR offers. You usually have to have good credit to qualify, and if you do, you’ll get a 0% APR on your purchases for the entirety of the promotional period, as long as you make your minimum monthly payments on time. These 0% intro APR cards do have some pitfalls though. It’s crucial to make sure you can pay off the card before the promotional period ends, or you’ll end up paying the ongoing APR on your remaining balance, which is usually quite high.

What I needed was a credit card with a decent 0% intro APR offer (at least 12 months, to give me enough time to pay off the $4,000 balance) and rewards I’d actually use. The cherry on top would be a good welcome bonus so I could use my dental bills to meet the minimum spending requirements.

How I earned $390 in credit card rewards on my dental bills

I ended up going with the Chase Freedom Unlimited® card. While it doesn’t have the longest 0% intro APR offer out there — you get 15 months of 0% interest on purchases (then a 14.99%–23.74% variable APR) — it’s long enough for me. I set up automatic monthly payments of $350, which will have my $4,000 in dental bills paid off in just under 12 months.

The main reason I chose the Chase Freedom Unlimited® is for the rewards. Chase Ultimate Rewards is my favorite credit card program thanks to its high-value, flexible points system and the fact that it’s travel-oriented. 

Since I already have an Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card (the Chase Sapphire Reserve®), I can transfer the rewards I earn with the Chase Freedom Unlimited® to my Reserve account. The welcome bonus from the Chase Freedom Unlimited® —  $200 after spending $500 in the first three months from account opening — which I earned right away with my dental bills, got me 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points. 

Since the Chase Freedom Unlimited® earns 1.5% back on non-bonus category spending, my $4,000 dental bill also earned me $60 in cash back or 6,000 Ultimate Rewards points. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve® cardholder, my points are worth 1.5 cents each when redeemed for travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal or through Pay Yourself Back. So, between the welcome bonus and the 1.5% back, I earned a total of 26,000 points, which are worth $390 when used this way.

Other options for making the most of a big expense

It’s not the biggest welcome bonus out there, but I was more focused on the 0% intro APR offer and getting a credit card with an ongoing rewards system that would actually benefit me. At the time, Chase Freedom Unlimited® also offered 5% back on groceries for your first year (this offer is no longer available), which is currently one of my biggest spending categories. It also offers 5% back on travel booked through Chase, 3% back on dining and drugstores, and 1.5% back on all other purchases, which makes it an excellent all-purpose card for most people.

Had I already had a good everyday card in my wallet, I might have looked for a credit card with a bigger welcome bonus or a longer 0% intro APR period. Some of the best low-interest credit cards offer a 0% intro APR on purchases, balance transfers, or both for up to 18 months. For example, the Citi® Double Cash Card has an intro 0% APR on balance transfers for 18 months (then a 13.99% – 23.99% (Variable) APR), and earns a flat rate of 2% cash back on all purchases (1% when you buy, and 1% when you pay it off).

If I’d been willing to pay off the expense using my emergency fund, I would’ve focused on a credit card with a lucrative welcome bonus and a big minimum spending requirement that I might not otherwise be able to achieve. For example, The Platinum Card® from American Express
is currently offering 75,000 points after you spend at least $5,000 in your first 6 months of account opening. (Note: New Platinum Card® cardmembers can earn 10x points on eligible purchases at U.S. Gas Stations and U.S. Supermarkets, on up to $15,000 in combined purchases, during the first 6 months of card membership).

Or, with the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card, you can currently earn 100,000 points after spending $15,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Not only did I find a way to cover an unexpected expense without dipping into my savings or paying interest, but I was also able to earn some pretty generous rewards. At the same time, I set up automatic monthly payments to ensure that my dental bills are paid off before the introductory period ends, because rewards are never worth ending up in credit card debt.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.

For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.

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