After a long period of lower visibility, personal loans are staging a comeback, as the U.S. economy improves, and as consumers with better credit scores view personal loans with increased demand.
According to TransUnion, U.S. personal loan account balances stood at $107 billion in mid-2017, 10.8% higher than the same period in 2016, and a whopping 132% higher than in 2012, when the Great Recession still cast a shadow over the U.S. economy.
Yet according to the Federal Reserve's 2016 Report on Economic Wellbeing of U.S. Households, just 10% of U.S. adults (as measured by survey respondents) actually applied for a personal loan in the previous year, compared to 65% of Americans who applied for credit cards, and 26% who applied for an auto loan.
What's more, only one in four personal loan applicants were turned down for a loan, compared to one in three credit card applicants, in the same time frame.
Consequently, if you're in the market for some quick, extra cash, and have decent credit, the personal loan tidewaters are churning in your favor these days.
That said, with any sizable personal financial transaction, it's always best to tread carefully. Do so with these five checklist items you should cross off before applying for a personal loan. That will help you qualify while also getting maximum benefits from the experience:
Why do you need the cash? A personal loan makes sense when you need money for a large purchase but don't have the cash on hand, notes Jamie Wharton, marketing coordinator at Earnest.com, in San Francisco, Calif. "For example, a personal loan can be used to consolidate your credit card debt, start a business, or make home improvements to increase your home's value," Wharton says. "It's easy to apply for a personal loan online, but make sure you have your finances in order before doing so."
Go "alternative" for the best rates. "When weighing the pros and cons of a personal loan, also consider alternative options," advises Charley Moore, chief executive officer at Rocket Lawyer. "For example, try looking at a personal loan from credit unions and online lenders." Besides lower interest rates, these sources should typically have more flexible qualification requirements than a bank loan," Moore says. For example, LendingTree.com, which offers borrowers access to dozens of lenders, has loan options starting at 6% interest -- a good deal when many traditional personal loan rates are north of 10%.
Know your credit health before applying. Qualifying for an unsecured personal loan today starts with your credit history, with loans approved for virtually anyone with a credit score of 640 and higher, with some lenders approving at the 600-credit score level (Avant comes to mind -- it's approving borrowers with credit scores of 580.) "If you have solid credit history, then you should be able to qualify for a loan without much trouble," says Andrew Rombach, content manager and managing editor at LendEDU, a financial product marketplace. You aren't barred from a personal loan with lacking credit, Rombach says, but you would probably have to deal with a much higher interest rate. (Avant's APR starts at around 9.95%, for example.)
Watch out for fees and restrictions. Be on the watch for lenders who'll stick you with fees for obvious issues like late payments, but also for lower-profile reasons. "For example, check to see if your prospective lender allows you to increase your payment without any fees and make extra payments when you can afford it," Wharton advises.
Ask yourself a critical question before applying. Only take out a personal loan to improve your chances of making, and not owing money, says Moore. You need to be able to affirmatively answer the question, "will your loan help promote good financial decisions?" If the answer is "yes," a personal loan should be for you, as long as you use it wisely and pay back the loan as quickly and cost-consciously as possible, he says.
The upside? Personal loans can be a quick source of cash, and they typically have rates a lot lower than credit cards, says Cody Green, co-CEO of USA Drives, an online financing company.
"If you want to get out of debt quickly, and you've done your research, a personal loan is a great option," Green says.