What is a personal loan?

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A personal loan is a sum of money you borrow from an online lender, a bank down the street or a credit union you belong to. Once you receive funds, you begin repaying the lender on a predetermined schedule until you’ve paid back the loan in full.

The best part about personal loans — and one reason they’ve surged in popularity — is that most come with a fixed interest rate and fixed repayment term. Unlike credit cards, which come with variable rates and variable monthly payments based on how much you charge, personal loans come with a measure of predictability.

What is a personal loan?

A personal loan is money you borrow from a bank or other financial institution with a set repayment period and consistent monthly payments. Most personal loans are unsecured, which means that you won’t have to put down collateral to borrow the money. Loan amounts vary widely, from around $1,000 to $50,000 or more, and interest rates usually range from 6 percent to 36 percent. Borrowers typically get between one and seven years to repay the money.

How it works

If you’re looking to get a personal loan, you’ll have to complete an application and wait for approval — a process that may take a few hours or a few days. Once you’re approved, the lender will disburse money into your bank account, and you use the funds for your intended purpose. You will also start to repay the money right away. Throughout the loan term, your lender will likely report your account activity to the credit bureaus. Making on-time payments can help you build a positive credit history.

Here’s an explanation of all the moving parts that make personal loans what they are:

  • Interest rates: Personal loans charge borrowers a fixed APR, or annual percentage rate, on top of the loan amount (or principal). This APR can vary depending on creditworthiness, income and other factors. The personal loan interest rate determines how much interest borrowers pay over the life of the loan.
  • Monthly payment: Personal loans come with a fixed monthly payment that you’ll make for the life of the loan, calculated by adding up the principal and the interest. You can typically secure a lower monthly payment if you agree to pay off your loan over a longer stretch of time.
  • Repayment timeline: Repayment timelines vary for personal loans, but consumers are often able to choose repayment timelines between one and seven years.
  • Origination fees: Some personal loans charge an initial origination fee on top of the original amount of your loan. While origination fees vary, it’s common to see origination fees as high as 6 percent of your loan amount.

How rates are determined

A personal loan APR determines how much interest you pay over the life of the loan. Personal loans may come with a fixed rate, in which the APR stays constant over the life of the loan, or a variable rate, which can fluctuate over time. The APR includes the personal loan’s interest rate plus fees and other costs the lender charges.

Lenders sometimes base variable rates on a well-known index rate, such as the prime rate (the interest rate at which banks and other financial institutions lend to one another). Lenders may cap a variable interest rate so it won’t rise above a certain amount — even if the index rate increases. However, most personal loans come with fixed APRs, which means that your payments will be predictable every month.

Your APR is determined based on a number of personal factors, the most important being your credit score. If you have a good credit score, you may qualify for a lender’s lowest rates — the best rates typically go to people with credit scores above 700. Your APR may also be determined by your annual income, your payment history and your loan details.

Types of personal loans

While most personal loans work in a similar fashion, there are some differences among loan products and lenders. Here are the main types of personal loans you should be aware of:

  • Unsecured personal loans: Most personal loans are unsecured, meaning you don’t have to put down any collateral to qualify. With an unsecured personal loan, you’ll receive a lump sum of cash, then repay your loan with fixed monthly payments over a fixed repayment timeline.
  • Secured personal loans: Secured personal loans require you to put down collateral to qualify. In lieu of putting down cash as collateral, you may be able to use other assets, such as a home, a boat or a car. The lender may be able to seize those assets if you fall behind on payments.
  • Credit-builder loans: Credit-builder loans don’t actually extend you a line of credit. These loans are deposited into a savings account that the lender controls, and you make payments on your balance for the duration of the loan. During this time, lenders report your payments to the credit bureaus in order to help you build a history of responsible credit use. At the end of the loan, you receive your payment in full, minus loan fees.
  • Specialized lenders: Some service-oriented companies offer personal loans to their customers as a means of helping them afford their products or services — for instance, you may be offered financing by a home improvement store when you buy a new appliance. These loans are typically convenient, but they don’t always offer the best rates and terms.

Common uses of personal loans

One big benefit of personal loans is the fact that you can use your loan proceeds however you want. This makes personal loans incredibly diverse and flexible. Here are some of the most common applications.

Debt consolidation

Debt consolidation loans are unsecured personal loans offered to consumers who need to consolidate high-interest credit card debt or debt from other loans. These loans tend to come with lower interest rates that can help consumers save money on interest or secure a lower monthly payment.

Expensive events

Consumers with a pricey event like a wedding, a honeymoon or a graduation party often take out personal loans to fill the gaps in their budget. Once the event is over, they get the benefit of repaying their loan with fixed monthly payments and a fixed interest rate over time.

Investing in yourself

It’s common to take out personal loans for educational purchases, such as pursuing a workplace certification or attending a career-boosting seminar. You can also take out a personal loan to pay for procedures that improve your self-image, such as dental implants or cosmetic surgery.

Small home improvement projects

While home equity loans and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) are popular with consumers who want to take on remodeling projects, these home improvement loans require you to put up your home as collateral. Many consumers turn to unsecured personal loans instead of home equity products for this reason. They can borrow the money they need for their project with affordable rates and terms, yet they don’t have to put their home on the line.

Emergencies

Personal loans also work well for emergencies, such as surprise medical bills, an urgent roof replacement or even funeral expenses. Since some personal loans let consumers apply online and receive funding within a few business days, they can provide exceptional peace of mind and financial support when an emergency strikes.

How to get a personal loan

If you’re ready to apply for a personal loan, take these steps first:

  1. Pull your credit. A higher credit score will give you a better chance at getting approved for a personal loan with the best rates and terms. If your credit score is on the lower end, dispute any errors on your credit reports and take steps to improve your credit score before applying.
  2. Pay down debt if you can. A lower debt-to-income ratio can also help you qualify for a loan with good terms. If yours is high — around 45 percent or more — then paying off some of your debts or increasing your income will help.
  3. Get quotes from multiple lenders. Once your finances are in order, get loan quotes from several lenders. Compare APRs, loan amounts, loan terms and lender reputation. Some lenders offer prequalification, which allows you to estimate your loan terms without hurting your credit.
  4. Submit documents to your lender. When you decide on a lender, you’ll need to formally apply for the loan and submit a variety of financial information. This could include bank statements or pay stubs. If you don’t have a job, be prepared to show how you plan to make payments. Some lenders accept alternative forms of income, such as unemployment benefits.
  5. Receive the money. If your loan application is accepted, the lender should send you the funds within a few business days. You can then use the money for your intended purpose. Setting up payment reminders can help you avoid late fees and bruises to your credit.

Common mistakes when using a personal loan

Here are some common mistakes people make when taking out a personal loan — and how you can avoid them:

  • Borrowing more than you can afford: If you take out a personal loan and fall behind on payments, it will cost you in the long run. You may have to pay a late fee, and your credit score may take a hit. Before taking on debt, use a personal loan repayment calculator to estimate your monthly payment and check whether it fits into your monthly budget.
  • Getting stuck with high costs: Gathering quotes from multiple lenders can help you spot the best deal and potentially save you interest. Compare interest rates, fees and lender reputation before applying for the loan.
  • Ignoring the loan costs: Even if you’re aware of the interest and fees baked into your personal loan, you might not think about how much you’re paying. For example, let’s say you borrow $10,000 with a 10 percent APR and a 6 percent origination fee on a 36-month personal loan. You’ll ultimately pay $600 toward the origination fee and $1,616 in total interest. Using a loan calculator can help you get a feel for what you’ll pay before taking out the loan — so you can be sure that you’re comfortable with the costs.

Next steps

If you need to borrow money and prefer the stability of a fixed repayment schedule and fixed monthly payment, a personal loan could be exactly what you need. To get the best loan rates and terms, take steps to become an attractive borrower by improving your credit score and keeping other debts at a minimum.

It’s also important to shop around and compare personal loan rates with multiple lenders in the personal loan space, including companies that offer personal loans online. This is the only way to find the cheapest personal loan for your personal situation.

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Written by
Kim Porter
Contributing writer
Kim Porter is a personal finance expert who loves talking budgets, credit cards and student loans. In addition to serving as a contributing writer for Bankrate, Porter also writes for publications such as U.S. News & World Report, Credit Karma and Reviewed.com. When she's not writing or reading, you can usually find her planning a trip or training for her next race.
Edited by
Student loans editor