Revolving Credit vs. Installment Credit: An Overview

There are two fundamental types of credit repayments: revolving credit and installment credit. Borrowers repay installment credit loans with scheduled, periodic payments. This type of credit involves the gradual reduction of principal and eventual full repayment, ending the credit cycle. In contrast, revolving credit contracts allow borrowers to use a line of credit according to the terms of the contract, which do not have fixed payments.

Both revolving and installment credit come in secured and unsecured forms, but it is more common to see secured installment loans. Any type of loan can be made through either an installment credit account or a revolving credit account, but not both.

Key Takeaways

  • Installment credit is an extension of credit by which fixed, scheduled payments are made until the loan is paid in full.
  • Revolving credit is credit that is renewed as the debt is paid, allowing the borrower access to a line of credit when needed.
  • To reduce or eliminate the burden of revolving credit, some consumers use installment credit to pay off revolving credit debt.

Installment Credit

The most distinguishing features of an installment credit account are the predetermined length and end date, often referred to as the term of the loan. The loan agreement usually includes an amortization schedule, in which the principal is gradually reduced through installment payments over the course of several years.

Common installment loans include mortgages, auto loans, student loans, and private personal loans. With each of these, you know how much your monthly payment is and how long you will make payments. An additional credit application is required to borrow more money.

Installment credit is considered less dangerous to your credit score than revolving credit.

Revolving Credit

Credit cards and lines of credit are two familiar forms of revolving credit. Your credit limit does not change when you make payments on your revolving credit account. You can return to your account to borrow more money as often as you want, as long as you do not exceed your maximum.

Because you are not borrowing a lump sum when the account is opened, there is no set payment plan with revolving credit. You are granted the ability to borrow up to a certain amount. However, this flexibility often results in lower borrowing amounts and higher interest rates. Unsecured revolving credit account interest rates often range between 15%–20%. The interest rate is rarely locked in, and creditors have the right to increase your rate if you fail to make payments.

Oftentimes, revolving credit is a more dangerous way to borrow than installment credit. An enormous part of your credit score (30%, according to Experian) is your credit utilization rate (that is, how closely your card balance is to your overall limit on each card). Carrying high balances drags your score down.

Special Considerations

Although it has some benefits, revolving credit can quickly become a financial burden. Some people even take out installment loans to pay off their revolving credit. There are advantages and disadvantages to this strategy.

Advantage 1: Predictable Payments

The greatest benefit of using installment credit to pay down revolving debt is the adjustment in monthly repayment expectations. With credit cards and other revolving debt, you are expected to pay a minimum amount on the outstanding balance. This can create numerous required payments with a wide range of repayment amounts, causing difficulty in budgeting.

With installment credit, you are provided a set monthly repayment amount for a stated period of time, making budgeting easier. Installment loans can also be extended over time, allowing for lower monthly payments that may align better with your monthly cash flow needs.

Advantage 2: Lower Cost of Borrowing

For qualified borrowers, installment credit can be less expensive than revolving credit as it relates to interest rates and user fees. Credit card companies charge interest rates that range from 9% to 25%, which compounds each month when balances are not fully paid. The higher the interest rate, the more expensive carrying revolving debt can be over the long term.

Conversely, installment credit lenders offer lower interest rates, ranging from 2% for secured loans to 18% for unsecured loans. Using the lower interest rate charged for installment credit to pay down revolving debt can mean hundreds to thousands of dollars in savings over the course of the repayment term. Also, revolving debt can come with excessive fees for late payments, exceeding credit limits, or annual maintenance; installment credit is void of these charges.

Disadvantages of Installment Credit

Although there are some benefits to using installment credit to pay off more expensive, variable revolving debt, some drawbacks exist. First, some lenders do not allow you to pre-pay the loan balance. This means you are not allowed to pay more than the required amount each month (or even settle the debt entirely) without being assessed a prepayment penalty. This is typically not an issue with credit card debt repayment.

Installment credit lenders have more stringent qualifications regarding income, other outstanding debt, and credit history. Most credit card companies are more lenient in their lending practices, particularly for higher-risk borrowers.

Installment credit may seem to be a cure-all to high-interest rate revolving debt, but this strategy is only beneficial if you are committed to purchasing much less with credit cards once you pay off the balances. Running up new credit card balances in addition to the monthly payments required by an installment loan can put incredible pressure on your budget each month.