personal loans
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A personal loan can be a great way to get the cash you need to consolidate debt, finance a home improvement project or just about anything else. The average interest rate on a two-year personal loan is 10.70%, according to the Federal Reserve, compared to the average credit card interest rate of 17.69%.

Whether you’re interested in borrowing from a bank, credit union or an online lender, the process is mostly the same. But getting a loan the smart way requires a little extra research and care to make sure you get the best offer available.

How to get a personal loan in 7 steps

  1. Run the numbers
  2. Check your credit score
  3. Consider your options
  4. Shop around for the best rates
  5. Pick a lender and apply
  6. Provide necessary documentation
  7. Accept the loan and start making payments

1. Run the numbers

The last thing you or lenders want is for you to take out a personal loan and not be able to afford to pay it off. While lenders typically do their due diligence to make sure you have the ability to repay the debt, it’s a good idea for you to run your own numbers to make sure it’ll work out.

Start by determining how much cash you’ll need, keeping in mind that some lenders charge an origination fee, which they deduct from your loan proceeds. Make sure you borrow enough to get what you need after the fee.

Then use a personal loan calculator to find out what your monthly payment will be. This can be difficult if you don’t know yet what kinds of rates and repayment terms lenders will offer. But you can play around with the numbers a bit to get an idea of what the loan will cost you and decide if your budget can handle it.

2. Check your credit score

Most lenders will run a credit check to determine how likely you are to repay your loan. While some online lenders have started to look at alternative credit data, even they will typically also look at your credit score.

Most of the best personal loans require that you have at least fair credit, but good and excellent credit will give you the best chance of getting approved with a good interest rate. To find out where you stand, check your credit score for free by signing up with Bankrate.

If your credit score is lower than you expected, get a copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com to see if there are any errors. If you find one, contact credit reporting agencies like Equifax, TransUnion and Experian to see if you can get them corrected.

If your credit score is low for other reasons, you may still have a chance to get a loan. But the interest rates and fees may be too high to make it worth it, so take steps to improve your credit before applying.

3. Consider your options

Depending on your credit situation, you may or may not need a co-signer to get approved for a loan with a decent interest rate. If you can’t find a co-signer, you may have the option to get a secured personal loan instead of an unsecured one.

Secured loans require collateral, such as a vehicle, home equity or cash in a savings account or certificate of deposit, in exchange for more favorable terms. If you fail to repay the loan, the lender can seize the collateral to satisfy the debt.

You’ll also need to think about where to go to get a loan. With traditional banks, for instance, you may have a hard time getting approved if you have bad credit. Some online lenders, however, specialize in working with bad-credit borrowers, and some credit unions have short-term loans that serve as a cheap alternative to payday loans.

4. Shop around for the best rates

One of the worst things you can do when getting a loan is to settle with the first offer, simply because it’s rarely the best one. Take some time and shop around for the best possible interest rate. Compare several types of lenders and loan types to get an idea of what you qualify for.

If you’ve been a longtime account holder with your bank or credit union, for instance, consider talking to them first. If you’ve shown good financial choices for years, your bank may be willing to look past some recent credit missteps.

Also, some online lenders allow you to get prequalified with a soft credit check, which won’t impact your credit score. This can be a great way to view offers without any commitment. Get prequalified through Brankrate to get the best personal loan rate for you!

Lenders that don’t offer a prequalification process will typically run hard credit inquiries as part of the loan application process. To limit the effect of hard inquiries on your credit score, it’s best to do your rate-shopping within a 45-day period to count them as a single inquiry for credit-scoring purposes.

5. Pick a lender and apply

After you’ve done your due diligence, pick the lender with the best offer for your needs. Then start the application process.

Depending on the type of lender, you may be able to do the entire application process online, or you may need to do part of it at your local bank or credit union branch.

Every lender is different regarding what information they’ll need on the application, but you’ll typically need to provide your name, address and contact information, the reason for the loan, and income and employment information.

You’ll also share how much you want to borrow and may get a few different options to proceed with after a soft credit check. You’ll also have a chance to review the complete terms and conditions for the loan, including fees and your repayment period. Read through the fine print carefully to avoid hidden fees and other pitfalls.

6. Provide necessary documentation

Depending on the lender and your credit situation, you may need to provide some documentation after you submit your application. For example, you might need to upload or fax a copy of your latest pay stub, a copy of your driver’s license or proof of residence.

The lender will let you know if it needs any documentation from you and how to get it to the right person. The faster you provide the information, the sooner you’ll get a decision.

7. Accept the loan and start making payments

After the lender notifies you that you’ve been approved, you’ll need to finalize the loan documents and accept the terms. Once you do this, you’ll typically get the loan funds within a week — some online lenders get it to you within one or two business days.

Now that you have the loan, note when your first payment is due and consider setting up automatic payments from your checking account. Some lenders even offer interest rate discounts if you have your account on autopay.

Also, think about adding extra money to your payments each month. While personal loans can be cheaper than credit cards, you’ll still save money on interest by paying off the loan early.

Should you get a personal loan?

Now that you know how to get a loan, the next question is whether you should get one. Personal loans can provide an excellent way to consolidate and save money on higher-interest credit card debt. And if you’re borrowing to make some home improvements, you may be able to get some of the money back when you sell the home.

But it may not make sense to borrow money for something you don’t need. As one example, vacations can be fun, but you may end up regretting it if you’re still paying off your trip years later.

If you’re learning how to get a personal loan, take some time to determine whether getting a loan is right for your situation. Also, consider some alternatives, such as 0% APR credit cards that can help you save on balance transfers and new purchases alike.

Whatever you do, avoid applying for a personal loan without seriously considering whether it’s necessary and some alternatives.

Preparation is the key

When the question is how to get a personal loan, the best answer is to be prepared. Do your research and know all your options. Be sure to read the fine print and don’t be afraid to ask a lender to clarify something for you.

Lastly, make sure to set yourself up for success by getting on an automatic payment plan and looking for ways to pay off the loan early.

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