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Updated on Monday, October 1, 2018
When shopping for a loan, it’s tempting to cast your eyes to the monthly total. That low monthly payment may fit into your budget, but it’s more important to look at each loan’s annual percentage rate. The APR will provide a much clearer picture of how much the loan will actually cost you in the end.
The monthly payment is determined by the loan amount, the interest rate and your loan term, but it doesn’t tell you how expensive the loan is. While a low monthly payment on a loan may appear to be a good deal, the total cost of a loan may be much higher than you think if it carries a high APR and the payments are spread out over a long period.
What is APR anyway?
APR is the annual rate of interest paid on a loan. It tells you how much it costs to borrow for one year. The reason why APR gives you a true picture of how expensive your loan is is because it factors in not only the interest costs but other fees lenders charge for a loan. The APR is determined by lenders’ fees, the risk of the business that is borrowing the money and the length of the loan’s term.
If a lender doesn’t charge additional fees, the loan’s APR and interest rate are the same. But if the lender charges a 5% loan origination fee, the APR can be higher than the simple interest rate. For example, you can probably find a personal loan that has an 8% interest rate, but if the lender bundles fees into the total loan amount, the APR may be 9% or even higher.
Longer-term loans have higher APRs because the risk of default is somewhat higher. Lenders make lending decisions based on a borrower’s creditworthiness — the higher the credit score, the better the rates and terms. Lenders perceive those with subprime credit scores as risky borrowers, and that’s why those with less-than-stellar credit often are subject to higher APRs and longer terms.
Why a low monthly payment may not be cheap at all
A low monthly payment doesn’t necessarily mean the loan is inexpensive, but a high APR definitely means a higher cost of borrowing because it tells you how much interest and fees you pay on a loan.
Here’s an example of why the monthly payment is not the only factor you should consider while borrowing money:
Earnest, an online lender, offers no-fee personal loans with fixed rates from 5.99% to 17.24% APR. On a hypothetical $10,000 loan amount, the monthly payment is $210 if Borrower A gets a five-year loan with a 9.49% APR. The borrower will have to pay $12,598 by the end of the loan term. That translates to a total interest cost of $2,598.
In contrast, if Borrower B takes the same loan with a 5.99% APR — the lowest rate — and a three-year loan term, the borrower has a $309 monthly payment. Borrower B’s monthly payment is higher than Borrower A’s, but the total interest paid over the loan’s life span is only $1,114, less than half of what Borrower A will pay over five years in interest.
Now, let’s say Borrower C picks a $255 monthly payment for a five-year, $10,000 loan that carries an 17.24% APR, the highest rate. The total cost of the loan is $15,301, with $5,301 paid in interest — more than half of the loan principal and $4,187 more than Borrower B will pay. This is the most expensive loan option offered by Earnest, but the monthly payment isn’t the highest.
Borrowers A and C have the same five-year loan term, but because they qualify for different APRs, Borrower C ends up paying about $2,700 more in interest, or more than twice of what Borrower A pays in interest on the loan, even though their monthly payment amounts are closer.
Earnest personal loan
Monthly payment vs APR: What should I focus on when shopping for a loan?
Your monthly payment doesn’t really tell you much about your loan. If you focus only on whether you can afford a loan on a monthly basis, you may be vulnerable to sneaky sales tricks that make it seem like you’re getting a good deal when you’re really not.
When you borrow money, If you are looking for nothing but a monthly payment that will fit your monthly budget, the easiest way is to stretch out the loan over a few more years. Instead of a two-year loan, you may take a five-year loan with lower monthly payments but a higher APR. Unfortunately, by doing so, you will end up paying more for borrowing money over the life of the loan.
Instead of settling on a monthly payment, you should look at the APR and the long term. Lower APRs on the same loan amount always mean lower interest payments. Although you won’t get the lowest monthly payment with the shortest-term loan, you will spend less in the end.
How do I reduce loan costs?
Improve your credit
Before you shop for a loan, check your credit score. Lenders offer better terms and lower rates to borrowers with higher credit scores because they are less likely to default on their debt. A recent LendingTree study estimated that someone with a fair credit score paid $29,106 more than someone with a “very good” credit score for the same $234,437 mortgage loan and $5,629 more in interest for the same $5,265 credit card debt. LendingTree is the parent company of MagnifyMoney.
If you have a subprime credit score, you can save money on loans by improving your credit score. The key to increasing your score is to make on-time payments on bills, keep your credit utilization ratio at or below 30%, have a mix of credit accounts and don’t apply for too many loans too frequently. Read more about how to improve your credit score.
Pay off your debt faster
If you have already taken on an expensive loan and if your lender doesn’t charge prepayment penalties, you can reduce your interest payment by paying off your debt fast. There are two ways to save money: pay extra each month or make a large lump-sum payment when you get a windfall.