What Is a Personal Loan?

A personal loan is an amount of money you can borrow to use for a variety of purposes. For instance, you may use a personal loan to consolidate debt, pay for home renovations, or plan a dream wedding. Personal loans can be offered by banks, credit unions, or online lenders. The money you borrow must be repaid over time, typically with interest. Some lenders may also charge fees for personal loans. 

Key Takeaways

  • Personal loans are loans that can be used to cover a number of personal expenses. 
  • You can find personal loans at banks, credit unions, and through online lenders. 
  • Personal loans can be secured, meaning you need collateral to borrow money, or unsecured, with no collateral needed. 
  • Personal loans can vary greatly when it comes to their interest rates, fees, amounts, and repayment terms. 

Understanding a Personal Loan

A personal loan allows you to borrow money to pay for personal expenses and then repay those funds over time. Personal loans are a type of installment debt that allows you to obtain a lump sum of funding. For example, you might use a personal loan to pay for:

  • Moving expenses
  • Debt consolidation
  • Medical bills
  • Wedding expenses
  • Home tenovations or repairs
  • Funeral costs
  • Vacation costs
  • Unexpected expenses

These loans are different from other installment loans—such as student loans, car loans, and mortgage loans—that are used to fund specific expenses (i.e. education, vehicle purchase, and home purchase).

Some personal loan lenders restrict the ways in which you can use a personal loan. For example, you may not be able to get a personal loan to pay for college tuition, fees, or other expenses. 

A personal loan is also different from a personal line of credit. The latter is not a lump sum amount; instead, it works like a credit card. You have a credit line that you can spend money against and, as you do so, your available credit is reduced. You can then free up available credit by making a payment toward your credit line.

With a personal loan, there’s typically a fixed end date by which the loan will be paid off. A personal line of credit, on the other hand, may remain open and available to you indefinitely as long as your account remains in good standing with your lender. 

Types of Personal Loans

Personal loans may be secured or unsecured. A secured personal loan is one that requires some type of collateral as a condition of borrowing. For instance, you may secure a personal loan with cash assets, such as a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD), or with a physical asset, such as your car or boat. If you default on the loan, the lender could keep your collateral to satisfy the debt.

An unsecured personal loan requires no collateral to borrow money. Banks, credit unions, and online lenders can offer both secured and unsecured personal loans to qualified borrowers. Banks generally consider the latter to be riskier than the former, as there’s no collateral to collect. That can mean paying a higher interest rate for a personal loan.

How a Personal Loan Works

To get a personal loan, you need to apply to a lender. Again, this can be a bank, credit union, or online personal loan lender. 

Generally, you would first complete an application. The lender reviews it and decides whether to approve or deny it. If approved, you’ll be given the loan terms, which you can accept or reject. If you agree to them, the next step is finalizing your loan paperwork. 

Once that’s done, the lender will fund the loan, which means paying the proceeds to you. Depending on the lender, this may be done through a direct deposit into your bank account or a check. After the loan is funded, you can use the money as you see fit. You then have to begin repaying the loan according to the terms established in your loan agreement. 

Defaulting on a personal loan could cause significant damage to your credit score. You could also lose your collateral with a secured loan or risk being sued by your lender to collect the debt. 

Example of a Personal Loan

When considering a personal loan, it’s helpful to understand how much it may cost. The annual percentage rate (APR) on a personal loan represents the annualized cost of repaying the loan based on the interest rate and fees. The APR and loan term can determine how much you pay in interest total over the life of the loan. 

For example, assume you get a $10,000 personal loan with an APR of 7.5%. The loan has a repayment term of 24 months. Using those terms, your monthly payment would be $450 and the total interest paid over the life of the loan would be $799.90.

Now assume you borrow the same amount but with different loan terms. Instead of a two-year term, you have three years to repay the loan, and your interest rate is 6% instead of 7.5%. Using those terms, your monthly payment would drop to $304, but your total interest paid would increase to $951.90.

Comparing the numbers this way is important if you want to get the lowest monthly payment possible or pay the least amount of interest for a personal loan. Using a simple online personal loan calculator can help you determine what kind of payment amount and interest rate are the best fit for your budget. 

While some lenders charge no fees for personal loans, others may levy a credit check fee, a loan origination fee, or—if you decide to pay off the loan early—a prepayment penalty. Paying late could trigger a late payment fee. 

Where to Find Personal Loans

The first place to look for personal loans may be your current bank or credit union. Your personal banker can advise you on what types of personal loans may be available and the borrowing options for which you’re most likely to qualify.

Personal loans can also be found online. Numerous lenders offer personal loans online. You can apply electronically, get a decision in minutes and, in some cases, get funding in as little as 24 to 48 hours after loan approval. 

When comparing personal loans online or off, pay close attention to the details. Specifically, consider the following:

  • Interest rate
  • Fees
  • Repayment terms
  • Borrowing limits (minimum and maximum)
  • Collateral requirements

You can check your credit report for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. When doing so, look for any errors that may be hurting your score and don’t hesitate to dispute them. 

It’s also helpful to check the minimum requirements to qualify for a personal loan. Lenders can have different requirements when it comes to the credit score, income, and debt-to-income ratio that are acceptable to be approved for a personal loan. This can help you narrow down the loans that may best fit your credit and financial profile.