When Are Personal Loans a Good Idea?

They can be expensive, but they're sometimes your best option

A personal loan can be used for just about anything. Some lenders may ask what you plan to do with the money, while others will just want to be certain that you have the ability to pay it back. A personal loan isn't inexpensive, but it can be a viable option in a variety of circumstances. Here's how to decide if one is right for you.

Key Takeaways

  • Personal loans can be used for almost any purpose.
  • Unlike home mortgages and car loans, personal loans are usually not secured by collateral.
  • Personal loans can be less expensive than credit cards and some other types of loans but more expensive than others.

How Personal Loans Work

A personal loan is typically an unsecured loan, which means that the lender does not require collateral—a home or a car, for example—to borrow money. However, with unsecured loans, the lender is taking a greater risk and will most likely charge a higher interest rate compared to a secured loan. Just how high your rate will be can depend on a number of factors, including your credit score and debt-to-income ratio.

Some banks offer secured personal loans, and the collateral can be your bank account, car, or other property. A secured personal loan may be easier to qualify for and carry a somewhat lower interest rate than an unsecured one. As with any other secured loan, you may lose your collateral if you are unable to keep up with the payments.

Personal Loan Interest Rate Factors

Investopedia / Lara Antal

Even with an unsecured personal loan, failing to make timely payments can be harmful to your credit score and severely limit your ability to obtain credit in the future. FICO, the company behind the most widely used credit score, says that your payment history is the single most important factor in its formula, accounting for 35% of your credit score.

When to Consider a Personal Loan

Before you opt for a personal loan, you'll want to consider whether there may be less expensive options for you to borrow money. Some reasons for choosing a personal loan are:

  • You don't have or couldn't qualify for a low-interest credit card.
  • The credit limits on your credit cards don't meet your current borrowing needs.
  • A personal loan is your least expensive borrowing option.
  • You don't have any collateral to offer.

You might also consider a personal loan if you need to borrow for a fairly short and well-defined period of time. Personal loans typically run from 12 to 60 months. So, for example, if you have a lump sum of money due to you in two years but not enough cash flow in the meantime, a two-year personal loan could be a way to bridge that gap.

Here are five more examples of when a personal loan might make sense.

1. Consolidating Credit Card Debt

If you owe a substantial balance on one or more high-interest-rate credit cards, taking out a personal loan to pay them off could save you money. For example, the average interest rate on a credit card is 23.99%, while the average rate on a personal loan is 11.48%. That difference should allow you to pay the balance down faster and pay less interest in total. Plus, it's easier to pay off a single debt obligation rather than multiple ones.

However, a personal loan is not your only option. Instead, you might be able to transfer your balances to a new credit card with a lower interest rate, if you qualify. Some balance transfer offers even waive the interest for a promotional period of six months or more.

2. Paying Off Other High-Interest Debts

Though a personal loan is more expensive than other types of loans, it isn't necessarily the most expensive. If you have a payday loan, for example, it's likely to carry a much higher interest rate than a personal loan from a bank. Similarly, if you have an older personal loan with a higher interest rate than you would qualify for today, replacing it with a new loan could save you some money.

Before you replace a personal loan, however, be sure to find out whether there's a prepayment penalty on the old loan or application or origination fees on the new one, which can sometimes be substantial.

3. Financing a Home Improvement or Big Purchase

If you're buying new appliances, installing a new heater, or making another major purchase, taking out a personal loan could be cheaper than financing through the seller or putting the bill on a credit card.

However, if you have any equity built up in your home, a home-equity loan or home-equity line of credit could be less expensive still. Of course, those are both secured debts, so you'll be putting your home on the line.

4. Paying for a Major Life Event

As with any major purchase, financing an expensive event, such as a bar or bat mitzvah, a major milestone anniversary party, or a wedding, could be less expensive if you pay for it with a personal loan rather than a credit card. According to a 2021 survey by Brides and Investopedia, one in five U.S. couples will use loans or investments to help pay for their wedding.

As important as these events are, you may want to consider scaling costs back somewhat if it means going into debt for years to pay it off. For that same reason, borrowing to fund a vacation may not be the best idea, unless it's the trip of a lifetime.

A personal loan can help improve your credit score if you make all your payments on time. Otherwise, it will hurt your score.

5. Improving Your Credit Score

Taking out a personal loan and paying it off in a timely manner could help improve your credit score, especially if you have a history of missed payments on other debts. If your credit report shows mostly credit card debt, adding a personal loan might also help your “credit mix.” Having different types of loans, and showing that you can handle them responsibly, is considered a plus for your score.

That said, borrowing money you don't really need in the hope of improving your credit score is a dangerous proposition. Better to keep paying all your other bills on time while also trying to maintain a low credit utilization ratio (i.e., the amount of credit you are using at any given time compared with the amount that's available to you).

What Can I Use a Personal Loan For?

You can use a personal loan to fund almost anything, including a major purchase or event, home improvements, or to pay down higher-interest debt or an emergency expense.

What Do I Need to Take Out a Personal Loan?

Every lender has their own specific requirements in order to apply for one of their personal loans. However, there are plenty of personal loans that are unsecured, which means you won't need any collateral.

When Should I not Take Out a Personal Loan?

Before using a personal loan to cover everyday living expenses, consider lower-interest borrowing alternatives first. You also shouldn't take out a personal loan without first checking if it's the least expensive option available to you.

The Bottom Line

Personal loans can be useful in many circumstances. They aren't cheap, however, and there might be better alternatives. If you're considering one, Investopedia's personal loan calculator can help you determine what it would cost you and whether it fits into your monthly budget.

Article Sources
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  2. FICO. "What's in My FICO Scores?"

  3. Experian. "What Is the Best Term Length for a Personal Loan?"

  4. Federal Reserve Board. "Consumer Credit - G.19."

  5. PR Newswire. "Weddings & Money 2021: A Brides & Investopedia Study Reveals How Much COVID-19 Continues To Change The Wedding Industry."

  6. FICO. "What Does Credit Mix Mean?"