Let's say you've spent the last five years charging freely with the credit card you got right after you graduated college. You were busy having fun, so you kept swiping, but never made more than the monthly minimum payment. Now it's time for an adult expenditure, like a car, and you realize that your credit card debt is out of control.
But you've also done a little homework and decided that a personal loan is the best option for your current financial need -- consolidate that debt and its 21 percent interest rate into one lower monthly payment.
How's your credit score?
This is an important question to ask, and probably one you should've asked sooner (since you want the loan to consolidate credit card debt). But it's never too late to improve. Because a personal loan is not tied to collateral like a mortgage or car loan, lenders will take a solid look at your score. The better your score, the lower your interest rate. A score of 580 to 659 is considered poor, and you could be looking at interest rates as high as 30 percent. Scores between 660-699 are fair, and typically translate into interest between 15 percent and 20 percent. An excellent score of 740-850 will mean interest between 5 percent and 10 percent.
Know your debt-to-income ratio
What are your regular monthly expenses (rent, utilities, student loan, car loan)? What is your monthly gross income (your total paychecks before taxes)? Add up the bills, and divide them by the income, and that equals your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio. Lenders like to make loans to folks whose DTI is no more than 36 percent.
Be financially organized
Have all your financial ducks on a row before you apply for that loan. Typically, lenders will require two years of tax returns with W2s, two recent pay stubs, and your two most recent bank and investment statements. By being prepared with all your documentation, you are not only expediting the process, but also presenting yourself as a mature and responsible individual.
Get as many fees covered as possible
Many personal loans charge an origination fee - a fee charged by a lender on entering into a loan agreement to cover the cost of processing the loan. If you need to borrow $10,000 and there is a 3% fee, then make sure you borrow $10,309.28. The 3% fee is deducted and you have the full $10,000 you need. To see if you are getting a good deal, compare the Annual Percentage Rate of a loan, not the interest rate. The APR includes the origination fee.
This is critical. With your credit score, your debt-to-income ratio and all your paperwork in hand, you are well positioned to shop for the best rate in a personal loan. Use our personal loan comparison tool to find different loans to get the lowest possible monthly payment. Financing sources that offer personal loans include banks, credit unions and online lenders.
Optimize the length/type of the loan
Again, you have the power of knowledge: you know your monthly expenses and your gross income. So figure out the best term of a loan for your circumstances that balances how much you can spend on loan repayment each month with a goal of paying it off as quickly as possible. The shorter the length of time your debt is outstanding, the less you will pay in interest.