1. Shop around
Never sign on the dotted line the first place you look for a personal loan. Each lender will have a slightly different formula when considering your application, which means your interest rate will vary — perhaps significantly — from one lender to the next. One convenient way to search for an unsecured loan online is by using our loan search tool below which can help match you with the best personal loan for your needs.
If your credit is great and you’re able to pay off a loan quickly, you might want to consider treating a credit card with a 0% (or otherwise very low) introductory APR as a personal loan. Of course, you’ll need to make sure the credit limit is high enough for your needs. You’ll also need to have the discipline not to add to your balance, and to pay it off before your low interest rate expires, typically in 15 to 18 months. If you think you can swing this, be sure to check out our post on the Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards for some great 0% introductory APR credit cards.
2. Keep an eye on fees
Make sure you know whether there are fees other than the interest you’ll pay associated with your personal loan. Common fees include an origination fee (typically a percentage of the amount you’re borrowing, which can vary from under 1% to as much as 5%). Also note whether there are fees for late payments ($15 or 5% of your outstanding balance is typical). Other fees may include charges for unsuccessful payments or payments made by check.
Also be on the lookout for prepayment fees. These are fees lenders charge if you pay off your entire loan early (which means the lender won’t be getting the full amount of interest it would have if you had made payments as scheduled for the full loan term). Most lenders I researched won’t hit you with a prepayment penalty for unsecured personal loans, but it’s definitely worth double-checking.
3. Choose the right term
You’ll want to see how flexible your lender is on loan terms. Some online lenders may only let you choose between three- and five-year terms, for instance. Term is important because it affects how much you ultimately pay over the life of the loan. A longer term can help keep your payments manageable, but it means you’ll be paying more in the end. On the flip side, a shorter term will mean higher payments, but you’ll shell out less overall.
For a more concrete example, let’s say I take out a $10,000 unsecured personal loan at 12% interest. According to this Bankrate calculator, I would pay $11,957 over a three-year term, but $13,347 over a five-year term. If I can afford the higher monthly payment ($332 a month for three years instead of $222 a month for five years), the shorter term means significant savings.