Understanding annual percentage rate (APR) is an important step toward making an informed comparison between different loans. We walk you through the basics of APR, throw in a few examples and tell you what you can realistically expect based on your credit history.
APR is your loan’s interest rate expressed as a percentage. Because it’s written as a percentage, it’s easily confused with interest rates — it doesn’t help that when there are no fees, APR and interest are the same.
Most personal loan providers base your APR on the amount you borrow, the time you have to pay back your loan (or loan term), your financial history and any fees.
What's an interest rate?
An interest rate is the percentage of your loan balance that you have to pay back in addition to the amount you borrowed. With personal loans, lenders often charge you interest with each scheduled repayment — usually once a month. Your monthly repayment actually has two parts: A repayment on your balance and an interest payment.
As your balance gets lower, the amount in interest decreases since it’s a percentage of that balance. Your payments on the balance, however, increase so you end up paying the same amount each month.
Why should I care about APR?
Comparing APRs on different loans with the same term is the easiest way to tell which is the least expensive. That’s because the interest rate alone doesn’t take into consideration how much fees impact your payments.
The most common fee associated with personal loans is the loan processing fee (aka origination fee), which covers application costs. These tend to range from 1% to 6% of your loan amount and are subtracted from your funds before you receive them.
Let’s look at an example: Say you wanted to borrow $10,000 and repay it over five years. You applied with two lenders and this is what they offered:
The second lender looks like a better deal when you look at the interest rate alone. But when you factor in the origination fee, it’s clear the difference is not nearly as big — even more apparent when you look at the monthly payment.
Compare rates from top online personal loan providers
Pro tip: Compare rates for loans with the same repayment term for the best results
Your loan term is an easy-to-forget factor that goes into determining your APR.
How does this work? Looking at the previous example. Say you wanted to borrow $10,000 from the first lender with the 11% interest rate but weren’t sure how much time you wanted to take to pay it back. Compare two different loan terms:
24-month term (2 years)
60-month term (5 years)
Total interest paid
Total loan cost
Three things become clear when you look at this comparison: A shorter loan term can increase your APR, up your monthly payments, but lower your overall loan cost.
Higher APRs for shorter-term loans aren’t necessarily more expensive — in fact, the opposite could be true. That’s why it’s more effective to compare loan APRs with similar terms. The lowest APR for the same loan term is, in fact, the least expensive.
What’s a good rate on a personal loan?
Since APR is heavily dependent on your personal credit score, it’s hard to say what makes a good overall rate.
Unsecured personal loans come with APRs that range from 5% to 36%, though you can sometimes find an APR as low as 2%. The lowest rates are available for people with good or excellent credit, while higher rates tend to go to those with low credit or poor credit history.
Don't be fooled by starting APRs: They're only for people with perfect credit
We’ve all done this: Looked at the lowest possible rate on a loan and assumed it’s the rate we’d get. In reality, those low rates only apply to the small group of people who have absolutely perfect credit.
To get a better idea of what you can expect with a lender, fill out a prequalification application or use a calculator to get a personalised rate. Prequalification typically doesn’t require a hard credit check, so your credit score shouldn’t be affected.
Keep in mind that your prequalification rates might not be what you end up with — you’ll know your exact rate only after you fully apply. Think of it as a risk-free way of making a more informed decision.
When looking at different lenders, you might come across the terms “fixed-rate” and “variable-rate” interest. Fixed-rate interest doesn’t change throughout your loan term, but a variable rate loan might as the market fluctuates.
Why would anyone get a variable rate loan? They tend to have a lower, more attractive, starting APR. It’s possible that they’ll stay at that low rate the whole time — but not likely.
It’s tempting to think that APR covers your total loan cost, but technically there are some other fees that don’t factor in. These fees are circumstantial, so you won’t necessarily have to pay them. They include:
Late fees. Most lenders charge a fee for paying late.
Non-sufficient funds or returned check fees. If you try to make a payment from an account without enough funds, many lenders charge a fee (usually the same amount as the late fee).
You might be able to save with autopay
Setting up automatic payments after taking out a loan has become pretty standard — and for good reason. Not only does it makes payment less of a hassle, some lenders knock down your APR for signing up.
Understanding personal loan APR is essential to making a strong comparison. Comparing APR is the simplest way to tell which loan — with the same terms — is cheapest. Instead of going by the lowest advertised rates, try getting prequalified with a few lenders to see what type of APR you can expect.
You can, however, expect your interest rates to be on the higher end of the spectrum. Consider looking into taking steps to improve your credit score or getting a personal loan for fair credit.
If you make all of your payments on time you can see your credit score rise. However, you’ll damage your credit score if you’re late, default or settle your loan through a debt relief company.
You can get typically get a low interest rate on your personal loan if you have excellent credit, so taking steps to improve your credit score might be the most effective — but time consuming — way to get a good interest rate. If you don’t have the time for that, consider looking into a secured personal loan.
Yes, some lenders offer personal loans that can be used to purchase a car. However, you might want to consider taking out a car loan instead: They’re easier to qualify for, your interest rate might be lower and you might not pay as many fees.
When the Reserve Bank of New Zealand increases or decreases the rates it charges banks, that affects what lenders will charge you. Typically, when the OCR rate rises, so do personal loan APRs on new fixed-rate loans and all variable-rate loans. The same goes for when the OCR rate decreases.
Anna Serio is a trusted loans expert who's published more than 800 articles on Finder to help Americans strengthen their financial literacy. A former editor of a newspaper in Beirut, Anna writes about personal, student, business and car loans. Today, digital publications like Fundera, Business.com, and ValueWalk feature her professional commentary, and she earned an Expert Contributor in Finance badge from review site Best Company in 2020.
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