The importance of having a rainy day fund can't be overstated — you're sure to encounter a storm at some point. While our insiders suggest setting your target at a minimum of three to six months' worth of expenses, actually doing so can be a slow climb. This is especially true if you're splitting your efforts between paying off debt. For many, a trip to the emergency room or a stint of unemployment is enough to seriously rock the financial boat.
That's where long-term personal loans come in. Like any type of financing, they come with both benefits and risks. But if used wisely, they could potentially rescue you from a financial nightmare.
What is a long-term loan?
Personal loans are doled out by lenders and, unlike credit cards, are not revolving lines of credit. When we say "long-term" personal loans, we're referring to loans that stretch beyond the one-year mark. Some may last only 12 months, while others can take a decade or more to pay off.
The most important thing to remember about personal loans is that the interest rate, monthly payment and payoff timeline are all fixed, meaning there's virtually no wiggle room when it comes to how much you have to pay every month. In other words, when you sign on, you're committing to this bill for the long haul. This could be taken as either a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it.
On the one hand, the fixed payment keeps the finish line in sight. Credit cards, on the other hand, give you the oh-so-tempting option of just paying the minimum, which stretches out the life of the loan, resulting in you paying more in interest over the long term. On the flip side, if you stumble upon financial hard times, having the ability to make lower monthly payments can be a godsend.
That said, long-term personal loans can be used for just about anything — from consolidating debt to seeing you through a financial emergency. Since the money is typically deposited straight into your bank account, you can use it however you wish. Of course, they don't come without some strings attached.
Let's break down the fees and rates for personal loans
For starters, personal loans are considered unsecured debt.
"Unlike your mortgage or an auto loan where you're leveraging an asset (your home or your car) as collateral, personal loans are attached to no such security," Pamela Capalad, certified financial planner and founder of Brunch & Budget, tells MagnifyMoney.
"As such, lenders understandably see them as being inherently riskier,” she added.
“This is precisely why you can expect strict repayment terms and potentially higher interest rates."
The APR may not stand alone. In some cases, you could be hit with an origination fee to the tune of 1% to 6%. Some companies will also try and sell you insurance or other expensive, unnecessary products with these loans, says Lynn Ballou, certified financial planner and CFP Board ambassador.
"And if they've front-loaded that loan with extra interest or charged you an origination fee, that's actually costing you quite a bit more than if you'd just looked for a less expensive option,” she added.
In other words, borrowers beware. Before signing on the dotted line, be sure to read carefully through the terms and fees. Ballou then suggests running the numbers through an independent loan calculator to make sure it's actually a good deal for you. After factoring in the interest rate and potentially an origination fee, would it be less expensive to go with a different financing option? (We'll explore this shortly.) Also, is the monthly payment within your budget? These are make-or-break questions to ask yourself before pulling the trigger.
When a long-term personal loan makes sense
Now that we've picked apart the nitty-gritty details, let's explore when a long-term personal loan might be a good idea. A personal loan can be a powerful consolidation tool for those struggling to eliminate high-interest debts — assuming you snag a better APR. In addition to saving money, you'll have a clear timeline in place and the convenience having just one monthly payment.
When it’s the cheapest borrowing option
"Personal loans actually have some great interest rates, especially now since the market has gotten really competitive over the last few years," said Capalad. "With a long-term loan, you'll probably end up paying off your debt faster, or at least about the same time as doing some sort of debt snowball method." The debt snowball method involves ordering debts from smallest to largest balances and tackling the smallest debts first.
As far as rates go, the better your credit score and higher your income is, the better chances you’ll secure a good rate. If you have poor credit, however, you should expect to see a higher rate. Personal loan rates can eclipse credit card rates, getting as high as 35.99%.
Capalad does offer another word of warning. If you're using a personal loan to consolidate debt, you have to be really disciplined to put those credit cards away. When people use the loan to get their cards down to what Capalad calls "that nice $0 balance," it can be extremely tempting to run up the balances again. That said, if you're disciplined and committed to using a long-term personal loan to get on stronger financial footing, it can represent a great solution.
Debt consolidation aside, sometimes it simply works out better from a dollar-and-cents perspective. If you find a personal loan with no origination fee and a reasonable APR, it may very well be less expensive than getting a cash advance via a credit card, especially since many financial institutions charge a 1% to 5% cash advance fee.
"Sometimes a personal loan is actually the least expensive option available, but sometimes it's also the only option available," added Ballou. "Not everyone has something to collateralize, like equity in their home to unlock a home equity loan."
When a long-term personal loan doesn't make sense
If you're stuck between a financial rock and a hard place, being hit with costly fees or high interest rates is certainly better than filing for bankruptcy or defaulting on your bills. The good news is that doing some light research might reveal a different option that's a better fit than a personal loan.
Begin by asking yourself what you need this loan for. Is it to see you through a financial emergency that's unlikely to happen again? Or is it to take a last-minute vacation? That may sound obvious, but it's a legit question to ask because it's all about trade-offs here.
Let's say you take out a five-year $5,000 personal loan at 19.5% APR. If you crunch the numbers using our personal loan calculator, it translates to a $131 monthly payment — you'll also spend an additional $2,865 on interest. Is that really worth it for a family vacation? Perhaps not.
You might, on the other hand, feel like it’s your best option if you’re swimming in credit debt with higher interest rates and need a debt consolidation loan.
The scenario plays out better if you have a fully-funded emergency savings.
"If you have a steady job and you're at that three- to six-month level, and the trip is extremely important to you because it's for, let's say, your best friend's wedding, you're better off dipping into your emergency fund and then paying yourself back — but you have to be extremely committed to topping it back off as soon as possible," said Capalad.
When your cash reserves are running low and a long-term personal loan isn't your best option, it's time to explore the financial alternatives. (We'll dive deeper into your options below.)
Getting a long-term personal loan
Ready to move forward with a long-term personal loan? Here's what should be on your radar:
Checking your credit score
Whenever you're seeking new financing, your credit score is perhaps the most important factor. This number basically sums up how creditworthy you are, which is what lenders care about. The higher your score, the better interest rates and financing options you'll get. Here's how FICO, America's leading credit reporting agency, breaks down this all-important three-digit number. (There are a number of ways to access your credit score for free.)
This number is actually a reflection of what's on your credit report, which sums up your credit history. Experian, TransUnion and Equifax (the three major credit bureaus) each generate their own report, which you can pull for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Doing so is vital to maintain a healthy credit score. What's more, finding and disputing an error on your report may give your score a significant boost.
Where to get a long-term personal loan
Applying for a long-term personal loan isn't all that different from locking down one with a shorter term. The internet has certainly streamlined the process. LendingTree, which is MagnifyMoney’s parent company, offers a way to compare loans from top lenders like BestEgg, Avant, LendingClub and more. Here, you can plug in a few pieces of information and possibly get quotes in a matter of seconds based on your credit score. It’s a soft credit pull, which won’t hurt your credit, but just know that when you officially apply with a lender, it will count as a hard inquiry.
Just be sure to compare rates as no two lenders are the same. Let's say, for instance, your credit score sits at 660 and you're looking to remodel your kitchen for $20,000. Short of a hard credit pull, here are some instant quotes:
on Payoff’s secure website
- Loan Amount
- $5,000 – $35,000
- up to 60 Months
- APR Range
- Origination Fee
- Credit Required
- Soft Pull
- You can get your rate without hurting your score.
Advertiser Disclosure :
All loans are subject to credit review and approval. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, credit usage and history. Currently loans are not offered in: MA, MS, NE, NV, OH, VT, WI, and WV.
As you can see, there's a pretty wide gap when it comes to interest rates. The good news is that the longer the term, the shorter the monthly payment — but you'll ultimately pay more in interest over the long haul. For example, let's pretend you lock down that $20,000 loan with no origination fee and an APR of 16%. Now let's compare what happens when we tweak the repayment timeline:
Total Interest Paid
There are a lot of moving parts here, which is why reading the fine print is vital. Before we jump into that, let's talk about getting pre-qualified.
Getting pre-qualified for a personal loan
It's probably a term you've heard before, but let's unpack what it actually means. Pre-qualification utilizes what's known as soft credit pulls as opposed to hard inquiries. Doing this does not impact your credit, making it much easier to shop around for the best deals. Soft inquiries essentially give lenders a little sneak peek of your credit. Once you pull the trigger on a loan, the bank will then do a deep dive by pulling your full credit report. (FYI, hard credit inquiries typically only shave a few points off your score, depending on your overall credit health, and you'll bounce back relatively quickly if you keep up with on-time payments.)
Applying for a personal loan
Once you're ready to formally apply for a long-term personal loan, you'll need to gather up some documents. According to Ballou, this typically includes:
- Photo ID
- Proof of income and employment
- Bank statements
- Possibly a copy of a W-2 or tax return as proof of past income
Once the application process is in motion, the next step is approval, but Ballou says you could be denied if the lender sees you as a credit risk. Having bad credit, a short credit history, unreliable income or unsteady employment could all work against you.
Read the fine print
Before making the commitment, thoroughly read through all the terms and fine print. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:
- Do you really need this loan? If it's a true financial emergency, the answer might be yes. Otherwise, think long and hard before going all in.
- Can your budget comfortably absorb the monthly payment? Remember, personal loans are locked in; you're on the hook for that payment every month.
- Is there an origination fee? Run the numbers and also factor in the APR. How much will your loan actually cost you when all is said and done? Is there a cheaper alternative? (We'll jump into this in the next section.)
- Are you okay with the repayment timeline? Think about your long-term financial goals. If, say, you'd love to save for a down payment on a house within the next five years, will this loan impede your ability to do so?
- Is a prepayment penalty hiding in the contract? This could make it costly to pay off your loan ahead of schedule.
Alternatives to a long-term personal loan
Depending on your situation, a personal loan may very well be your cheapest option. If not, you're not out of luck. Here are some alternatives worth exploring:
Home equity loans & lines of credit
Home equity loans (HELs) and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) both use your home as collateral. You're basically borrowing against the equity you have in your home by way of a secured loan or credit line. To get the best rates, you'll need a decent credit score (ideally 660 and up) and at least 15% equity in your home. You also don't want your debt-to-income ratio to exceed the 43% mark. One other crucial point: if you default on your payments, the bank could seize your home, so make sure you're really comfortable moving forward.
Cash-out mortgage refinancing
A cash-out refinance lets you borrow additional cash to use as you wish. You could also tweak the terms, like extending to a longer-term loan, to lower your monthly payment and give your budget some breathing room. This, of course, will keep your mortgage debt alive and well for a longer period of time, and there may be fees, but in the short term, it may be your least expensive option.
Balance transfer credit cards
Seeking a personal loan to consolidate debt? Utilizing balance transfer offers may be a more strategic way to go. This is when you jump on low- or no-interest promotional APR offers to pay off your existing balances. Then you knock out the new balance before that teaser introductory period ends.
"If you can aggressively pay down the debt, then you can save a lot of money, especially if you have a lot of debt," said Capalad.
Just be sure to read the fine print. There's usually an initial fee that could be as high as 4%. And once the promotional period ends, your APR may skyrocket. This option really only makes sense if you can eliminate the balance within that time. Also, most banks won't let you transfer debt from one card to another within the same bank.
Traditional credit cards
Your financial emergency may cost you less if you finance it with a traditional credit card, especially if the interest rate is reasonable and you're able to accelerate your payments. While some personal loans will hit you with a prepayment penalty, you're more than welcome to pay more than the minimum balance on a credit card. Here's a simple credit card debt calculator to help bring the numbers into focus.
Borrowing from family or friends
It may bruise your pride, but borrowing cash from loved ones just might save you from financial ruin. (According to LendingTree research, 94.5% of people surveyed said they wouldn't charge interest on a loan to a family member.) If you're face-to-face with a true emergency, tap into your personal network to see what options may be available. You can work together to determine the terms and even draw up a contract if it gives your benefactor some peace of mind.
The Pros and Cons of Long-Term Personal Loans
Let's recap, shall we?
- Long-term personal loans translate to on-the-spot cash that's typically deposited right into your bank account, which you can then use for whatever you want.
- If you routinely make on-time payments, you'll end up boosting your credit score in the long term.
- Using personal loans to consolidate debt could save you big time in interest.
- They're good for folks who don't have something to collateralize, like home equity or a car.
- The monthly payment and payoff timeline are fixed, and there's no wiggle room. If you miss it, you're in default, which could do a number on your credit score.
- Depending on your credit score, you may not be eligible for a reasonable APR. This could cost you.
- Your loan may come with a prepayment penalty.
- Making this monthly payment over a long period of time could impact your ability to save for other financial goals.
- Opting for a long-term loan over a short-term one means you'll ultimately shell out more in interest payments.
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