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What’s the difference between a personal loan and a credit card?

Credit card or personal loan? The answer depends on what you’re buying and how you intend to pay it back.

When you’re in the market to make a major purchase but don’t have all the cash on hand, borrowing funds can be a viable route. It usually comes down to two options: credit cards and personal loans. Both have pros and cons, but choosing the one that best suits your financial situation could save you money in the long run.

How do personal loans and credit cards work?

Personal loans and credit cards are both types of credit that you have to repay with interest. However, there are some differences between the two.

  • Personal loans come in a lump sum. You have a predetermined amount of time to pay them off, usually between one and seven years. On top of interest, you might also have to pay application, origination, monthly or prepayment fees.
  • Credit cards are a revolving form of borrowing, so they can theoretically last a lifetime. There’s a cap on how much you can borrow each month and you have to make at least a minimum monthly payment on your balance. Many credit cards charge annual fees but also come with interest-free grace periods, balance transfers and rewards.

Main differences between personal loans and credit cards

Interest rate

Generally 2.99%-36.00%

Generally 13.99% to 22.99%

Repayment terms

Monthly

Monthly

Borrowing limit

Can be up to $100,000

Can be as high as $50,000

Funds disbursement

One lump sum upon approval

Revolving credit on card
(cash advances available as well)

Compare personal loan lenders and credit card providers

Name Product Filter Values APR Min. Credit Score Loan Amount
BHG personal loans
Varies
700
$20,000 – $200,000
A highly-rated lender with quick turnaround and reliable customer service.
Credible personal loans
2.49% to 35.99%
Fair to excellent credit
$600 – $100,000
Get personalized rates in minutes and then choose an offer from a selection of top online lenders.
Best Egg personal loans
5.99% to 29.99%
600
$2,000 – $50,000
A prime online lending platform with multiple repayment methods.
PenFed Credit Union personal loans
5.99% to 17.99%
650
$600 – $50,000
With over 80 years of lending experience, this credit union offers personal loans for a variety of expenses.
SoFi personal loans
4.99% to 19.63%
680
$5,000 – $100,000
A highly-rated lender with competitive rates, high loan amounts and no fees.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Name Product Filter values Rewards Purchase APR Annual fee
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
3% at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year (then 1%), 2% at US gas stations and select US department stores and 1% on other purchases (redeem as statement credit)
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 13.99% to 23.99% variable)
$0
Earn a $200 statement credit after spending $2,000 in the first 6 months. This is a higher-than-average welcome offer for a card with no annual fee. Terms apply, see rates & fees
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
6% on select US streaming services, 3% on transit and US gas stations, 6% at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 annually, then 1% after that and on other purchases (redeem as statement credit)
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 13.99% to 23.99% variable)
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($95 thereafter)
Earn a $300 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card within the first 6 months. Having 6 months to earn a welcome offer is a rare benefit as most cards give you only 3. Terms apply, see rates & fees
Citi® Diamond Preferred® Card
N/A
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 13.74% to 23.74% variable)
$0

Best of Finder 2021

An impressive 21 months intro APR on balance transfers and purchases, as well as no annual fee make this one of the top 0% APR cards available.
Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card
1.5% cash back on all purchases
26.99% variable
$39
Get unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase with no limit on how much you can earn, and no changing categories.
Citi Custom Cash℠ Card
5% cash back on purchases in your top eligible spend category each billing cycle on up to the first $500 spent, then 1% cash back thereafter and on all other purchases
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 13.99% to 23.99% variable)
$0
A new cashback card that automatically awards 5% to your highest eligible spending category each billing cycle, on up to $500 (then 1%).
Citi Simplicity® Card
N/A
0% intro for the first 12 months (then 14.74% to 24.74% variable)
$0
With an intro APR of 21 months, this card has one of the longest balance transfer offers on the market. Plus, no late fees and no annual fee.
Citi® Double Cash Card
Up to 2% cash back on purchases (1% when you buy plus 1% as you pay)
13.99% to 23.99% variable
$0
Earn up to 2% on every purchase with no annual fee. This is the highest flat-rate cashback card on the market.
Luxury Card Mastercard® Black Card™
1x points on all purchases with 2% point value when you redeem for airfare and 1.5% for cash back
14.99% variable
$495
Receive an annual $100 air travel credit toward flight-related purchases including airline tickets, baggage fees, upgrades and more.
Tomo Credit Card
1% cashback on all purchases
N/A
$0
A credit-building card with no fees, no APR, and no credit check.
Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card
2x miles on Delta purchases, restaurants and at US supermarkets and 1x miles on other eligible purchases
15.74% to 24.74% variable
$0 intro annual fee for the first year ($99 thereafter)
Earn 70,000 bonus miles after you spend $2,000 in purchases on your new card in your first 3 months. Terms apply, see rates & fees
Capital One Platinum Credit Card
N/A
26.99% variable
$0
A no-annual-fee card for average credit. Earn a higher credit line after five on-time payments.
Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase, 5% on Lyft, 3% on dining and drugstores and 1.5% on all other purchases
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 14.99% to 23.74% variable)
$0
This solid 1.5% cashback card gets even better with the addition of up to 5% back in categories like travel, drug stores and dining.
Chase Freedom Flex℠
5% cash back on up to $1,500 combined in quarterly categories you activate, 5% on Chase travel purchased through Ultimate Rewards®, 3% on dining and drugstores, and 1% on all other purchases
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 14.99% to 23.74% variable)
$0
Get up to 5% cashback in rotating and newly added everyday categories. The refreshed Freedom Flex card has lots of earning potential.
American Express® Gold Card
4x at restaurants including delivery and Uber Eats; 4x at US supermarkets on up to $25,000 annually (then 1x points), 3x points on directly-booked flights and 1x points on other eligible purchases
See Pay Over Time APR
$250

Rose Gold is Back

Earn up to 4x points on select purchases, a bevy of travel perks, and a welcome offer worth up to $600 based on our valuation with this upper-mid tier travel card. Terms apply, see rates & fees
Citi Rewards+® Card
Earn 2x points at supermarkets and gas stations on up to $6,000 annually, then 1x points after that and on all other purchases
0% intro for the first 15 months (then 13.49% to 23.49% variable)
$0
New Limited Time Offer: Earn 20,000 bonus points after you spend $1,500 in purchases with your card within 3 months of account opening; redeemable for $200 in gift cards at thankyou.com
Hilton Honors American Express Card
7x points on eligible Hilton purchases, 5x at US restaurants, US supermarkets and US gas stations, 3x on all other eligible purchases
15.74% to 24.74% variable
$0
With a massive welcome offer for a no-annual-fee card and up to 7x points on eligible Hilton purchases, this is a solid pick for Hilton fans and occasional travelers. Terms apply, see rates & fees
Journey Student Rewards from Capital One
1% cash back on all purchases, 1.25% for months you pay on time
26.99% variable
$0
Earn 1% cash back on all purchases or get 1.25% cash back for months you pay on time.
Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card
N/A
26.99% variable
$0
A no-annual-fee secured card that separates itself from the pack with a $200 credit limit after making a more affordable than average deposit of $49, $99 or $200.
Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card
1.5% cashback on all purchases
26.99% variable
$0
A student credit card with a solid 1.5% unlimited cashback rate.
Capital One SavorOne Student Cash Rewards Credit Card
3% cashback on dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and eligible grocery stores, 8% on tickets at Vivid Seats through January 2023 and 1% on all other purchases
26.99% variable
$0
This new credit card offers up to 3% cashback in popular categories for college students who are always on the go.
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Compare up to 4 providers

Benefits and drawbacks of a personal loan

Benefits

  • Lower interest rates than credit cards
  • Repayment schedule means your debt comes with an end date
  • Can be cheaper in the long term
  • No temptation to overspend

Drawbacks

  • Minimum loan term means that you’ll carry the debt for more than a year
  • Can be inflexible (may not offer early repayments)
  • Can take longer to apply for

Suitable for

  • Large one-off purchases like cars or home improvement
  • Large debt consolidations
  • Borrowing over a long period of time

Compare and apply for a personal loan

Benefits and drawbacks of a credit card

Benefits

  • Immediate spending
  • Can come with rewards
  • Convenient option if you need a constant cash flow
  • Balance transfer for debt consolidation
  • Interest-free grace period

Drawbacks

  • Usually carry higher interest rates
  • Only requires a minimum repayment each statement period, which means your debt can accrue interest indefinitely

Suitable for

  • Smaller purchases
  • Small debt consolidations
  • Everyday shopping or retail purchases to earn reward points
  • Spending amounts that you can be paid back within the interest-free introductory period

Find the best credit card for you

Personal loans vs. credit cards: Which one is right for you?

There is no single answer to this question. While a credit card might be the right choice in one situation, a personal loan might be more suitable in another. And in a third situation, neither might be appropriate.

Here are some questions to ask to help decide which credit product might best meet your needs:

  • What do you need the funds for? If you need money for a one-off expense, such as a large purchase, then a personal loan may be suitable. If you want continued access to credit, then a credit card may be a better option.
  • How do you manage your repayments? Credit cards are an ongoing form of credit, while personal loans have an end date. If either a personal loan or credit card will work for your needs, you may want to consider how disciplined you are with repayments. If you think you may be tempted with the credit line sitting there, then a more structured repayment schedule, such as that offered by a personal loan, may be worth considering.
  • Are you consolidating debt? It’s important to consider your options carefully. How much debt do you have and does it include loans and credit card accounts? Make sure you’ll be able to consolidate all of your account — for instance, only certain providers allow you to balance transfer loans to a credit card. You also have the option of consolidating your credit cards to a personal loan, which may be able to help you save.
  • How much are you looking to borrow? Credit card limits differ, as do personal loan limits. Generally, with an unsecured personal loan you can apply for up to $100,000. You may be able to get a high credit limit with a credit card, but you’ll generally need to meet stricter eligibility criteria.

Financing home renovations

Imagine this scenario: Ashley recently bought a home and is looking to fund some renovations. Since she has no equity, she narrows her options down to a credit card and a personal loan. The personal loan has a term of four years, and Ashley decides she’ll calculate the credit card’s monthly payments based off the same term.

Credit limit or loan amount

$7,500

$15,000

Interest rate

19%

6.5%

Monthly payment

$224.25

$355.72

Total interest paid

$3,264.04

$2,074.77

Because Ashley has carefully budgeted for the home renovations, she knows she can afford the higher payments the personal loan requires. And since she can borrow more — while paying less in interest — Ashley decides to go through with the personal loan rather than the credit card.

How to compare personal loans and credit cards

  • Interest rates. If you compare interest rates, generally personal loans are cheaper. The true cost is reflected in the APR, as you need to consider any fees as well.
  • Fees. Personal loans may come with an application fee or origination fee, among other fee types. Credit cards usually just have the annual fee, if there’s a fee at all.
  • Your financial situation. If you have good control over your spending and you regularly follow your budget, then a credit card could be suitable and even help you earn money through rewards and cash back. On the other hand, a personal loan offers the structure some people may need to repay debt timely.

How interest is calculated: Credit card vs. personal loan

Credit cards and personal loans might both come with APRs. But it doesn’t quite work the same way. With a personal loan, you’ll typically pay a percentage of your loan principal in interest each month — this amount can vary, especially if your loan is amortized.

With a credit card, you can effectively avoid paying interest if you’re able to pay off your balance each month. You’ll only pay interest when you have a balance that takes more than a month to pay off — which can take less time than a personal loan. So while credit card rates might be higher, they also come with the option of completely avoiding interest payments.

Using a personal loan or credit card to consolidate debt

Debt consolidation involves merging multiple debts into one loan or credit card. It simplifies your monthly payments and could save you money if you find a lower interest rate. There are two main ways to do this: With a debt consolidation loan or a balance transfer credit card.

  • Debt consolidation loans are term loans used to pay off any kind of debt at a lower interest rate. Your lender either gives you the money to pay off your debt, or — more likely — asks for your payment information to do it for you.
  • Balance transfer credit cards allow you to transfer all of credit card debt to onto a new card with a lower rate. They usually charge a one-time transfer fee, on top of annual fees, and often offer introductory rates that can be as low as 0%.

Bottom line

Personal loans and credit cards are two forms of borrowing that both offer attractive benefits and some notable drawbacks. Which you choose is ultimately up to you, and many people have used both at different points for different purposes. Be sure to compare your options to make an informed decision.

Frequently asked questions

What is an interest-free grace period on a credit card?

This is the time between when you put a charge on your credit card and when that balance begins accruing interest. If you pay off your balance in full each month, you can avoid credit card interest altogether.

What is an unsecured loan?

An unsecured loan is one that doesn’t require collateral. The lender gives you the loan amount without securing one of your assets. Read our guide on unsecured loans to learn more.

I have excellent credit. Am I guaranteed to get any loan or credit card I apply for?

There’s no such thing as a guaranteed personal loan or credit card. Your chances of approval may be higher, but be sure to read the provider’s other eligibility criteria to make sure you qualify.

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