What is an installment loan?

An installment loan lets you borrow a set amount that you repay with interest over a period of months or years.

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An installment loan is a common type of loan that’s often used to buy a car, house or other large purchase. You may even have an installment loan that goes by another name, like a mortgage. Here’s what an installment loan is and what to know about these types of loans before you borrow.

How installment loans work

An installment loan is a lump sum of money that you borrow and repay in payments — or installments — over a period of time, usually months or years. Installment loans can be secured with collateral, like a car, or unsecured.

Installment loans work differently than revolving credit — which you get with a credit card or home equity line of credit — because you borrow the funds all at once. You can’t get more money without applying for a new loan. And installment loans give you more time to repay the loan, unlike payday loans that require full repayment from your next paycheck.

Examples of installment loans

Personal loans: Personal loans are installment loans you can use for almost any reason. Available loan amounts range from $1,000 to $100,000, and repayment terms are typically two to seven years.

A lender decides whether you qualify for a personal loan and at what rate using information like your credit history and score, income and other outstanding debts.

Unsecured personal loans are more common than secured personal loans, but some lenders let borrowers use a savings or investment account or a vehicle as collateral for the loan to potentially qualify for a lower rate.

Home loans: With a home loan, or mortgage, you borrow the value of the house and agree to repay it with interest in monthly increments, typically over 15 or 30 years.

In this case, the installment loan is secured by the home, and after too many missed payments, you risk losing it.

A home equity loan — which is a second mortgage you might take to pay for home improvements — is also an installment loan.

Auto loans: An auto loan is another example of a secured installment loan. You borrow the cost of the vehicle and make monthly payments, plus interest, over two to six years. If you miss payments, the lender can repossess your car.

Student loans: Student loans are installment loans because you pay them back in regular payments over time. They can have fixed or variable rates, though, and they typically include a period after you’ve borrowed the money when interest accumulates but monthly payments haven’t kicked in.

How installment loans affect your credit

Applying for an installment loan typically requires a hard credit check, which can temporarily lower your credit score a few points. Beyond that, installment loans can strengthen your credit — as long as you make consistent, on-time payments.

Reputable lenders report on-time payments to at least one of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Payment history makes up 35% of your credit score, and on-time installment loan payments help build that history.

The consequences for missed or late payments can be severe. A payment that’s more than 30 days late can knock 50 to 100 points off your credit score. Most lenders have the option to set up automatic payments, which removes the pressure of remembering to pay.

How to get an installment loan

  • Compare. Lenders use different methods for assessing your loan application and assigning your rate, so it can pay to compare installment loans from multiple lenders. Also consider other forms of financing, like low-interest credit cards or lines of credit, that may be less expensive, especially for big expenses.

  • Pre-qualify. Getting pre-qualified for a personal loan or preapproved for a mortgage lets you see potential loan amounts, rates and payments without affecting your credit score. You can then assess how the payments impact your budget.

  • Boost your application. Before you apply, consider a joint or co-signed installment loan or secure an unsecured loan with collateral. These options may help you qualify or get a lower rate or higher loan amount. Just know there are consequences if you're unable to repay the loan: your co-signer will be on the hook, or the collateral could be taken.

  • Apply. Installment loans are offered at banks, credit unions and online lenders. The time required to apply varies by loan type and lender; online lenders typically offer faster processes.

Personal installment loans for bad credit

Borrowers with thin or imperfect credit profiles may be able to get an installment loan with bad credit (below 630 FICO). Some lenders have lower credit score requirements and consider other information, like bank account transactions, employment, education and existing debts. Credit unions and online lenders typically work with bad-credit borrowers, while banks tend to require good to excellent credit.

High-cost personal installment loans

Lenders must disclose a loan’s annual percentage rate (interest rate plus all other fees), and personal finance experts say 36% APR is the maximum rate for a loan to be affordable.

But you’ll find some installment loans with rates of 100% or higher. Lenders that offer high-interest installment loans may not check your credit and ability to repay the loan or report on-time payments to the credit bureaus. These are red flags that signal the loan is at best too expensive and at worst predatory.

Before you borrow, calculate your monthly loan payments to see what rate, term and loan amount fit with your budget.

Installment loan alternatives

A personal installment loan may be an expensive way to cover an emergency. Try these options first.

  • Borrow money from a friend or family member. It may be humbling to ask someone you trust for money, but it can be inexpensive or interest-free. Draw up a loan agreement that specifies when you'll pay it back and what interest you'll pay. Tread carefully with this option to avoid putting the relationship at risk.

  • Explore other ways to earn money. Selling clothes, driving for a rideshare service, website testing or taking surveys for money are all ways to earn money on the side if you have the time.

  • Turn to a charity or local nonprofit for help. NerdWallet’s database of payday loan alternatives has a list of resources by state that may be able to provide a small loan or other assistance.

  • Borrow from your next paycheck with a loan app. Loan apps let you access a small portion of your earned wages, typically for low or no fees. But it could also lead to overdraft fees or repeated borrowing, so it's best used as a last resort in an emergency.

Frequently asked questions

A loan that you get in a lump sum and repay over time is an installment loan. Here are a few examples:

  • Personal loans.

  • Auto loans.

  • Student loans.

  • Mortgage loans.

Personal loans are installment loans. In both cases, you get a chunk of cash all at once, and then repay it over a few months or years. Personal loans are just one type of installment loan. Others include auto loans, student loans and mortgage loans.

Installment loans break up the repayment into smaller, often predictable, payments. They also give you time to repay the loan. Having smaller payments to make and more time to make them can help ensure you repay the loan in full. With a payday loan, on the other hand, you often get until your next paycheck to repay the full loan.

Also, many installment loan payments are reported to the credit bureaus, which can help you build credit.

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