Credit Card vs. Personal Loan: What’s the Best Way to Cover an Expense?

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Life is full of surprises – and not always the good kind. Your car breaks down, you end up in the hospital, or a layoff throws your whole world off kilter.

Financial emergencies happen whether we like it or not. This is why having an emergency fund is crucial. But what if an unexpected expense comes up and you’re strapped for cash?

A couple of options include charging your credit card or taking out a personal loan to cover the expense. But which one is best?

Learn the pros and cons of using a credit card vs. personal loan and which option is right for your situation.

Personal loan vs. credit card: what’s the difference?

Both personal loans and credit cards let you borrow money when you don’t have the cash. And let’s be honest: going into debt is rarely a good thing. But if you must borrow money, you can consider a personal loan or credit card to get you through.

A personal loan is a type of installment loan, which means you borrow a lump sum and then repay the loan in installments over a fixed period of time. You can get a personal loan from a bank or an online lender like SoFi or Prosper.

A credit card is a type of revolving credit, which means you can borrow money from a line of credit as many times as you want. While you must pay your bill every month, the amount depends on how much you borrowed during that particular billing period.

Credit card vs. personal loan pros and cons

Each option has its own pros and cons. Credit cards offer convenience, security, and potential rewards, but they also can have sky-high interest rates and make it easy bury yourself in debt if you’re not careful.

Personal loans give you the option to have a fixed interest rate and a fixed loan term, but they can also have stricter guidelines and additional fees.

So which would should you choose if you’re in need of cash? A personal loan or a credit card? Priyanka Prakash, a finance specialist at FitBiz Loans shared some situations when it makes sense to use a credit card and when it makes sense to use a personal loan.

Personal loan

Use a personal loan when:

  • You are making a purchase that you’d like to pay off over several months.
  • The lender offers a low interest rate that you can potentially use to refinance higher-rate credit card debt.
  • The lender doesn’t charge fees, but your credit card company does charge an annual fee.

Credit card

Use a credit card when:

  • You are making a purchase that you can pay back in full the next month.
  • The purchase(s) you are making also earn rewards or cash back points on the credit card.
  • The credit card offers 0% interest for a limited time.

In other words, credit cards are a good option if you need short-term help and can pay off the debt relatively quickly. If you have a card with 0% APR and can pay off your balance before the promotional period is up, using a credit card is probably your best option.

If you have a large expense that you know will take you several months or years to pay back, a personal loan may be a more cost-effective option due to the lower interest rates and fixed loan term.

A personal loan can even help you consolidate your credit card debt and save money on interest. So if you have several credit cards with balances and high interest rates, you can take out a personal loan and pay off your balances. You’d then have one monthly payment, one interest rate, and a set repayment term.

Whether you decide to opt for a personal loan or credit card, it’s important to project your payoff time and calculate how much interest you’ll pay with each option. In addition, it’s crucial to look at the fine print and understand if there are any additional fees or requirements.

Final word

Using a personal loan or credit card to pay for expenses should be a last resort. These options should also only be considered for necessary expenses — not that dream trip to Hawaii or a new designer wardrobe.

In an ideal world, you would pay for everything in cash or pay off your credit cards in full each month. While there may be times when that’s not possible, you can start saving now to ensure future surprise expenses don’t put you in the position of having to choose between a personal loan or credit card to get by.

While paying down your debt, commit to putting a portion of your income toward savings each month. I recommend saving at least 10 to 20 percent of your income each month, but if that’s not possible start with whatever you can. Having a cushion of cash can give you more repayment options for when the next emergency arises.

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Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.

Advertiser Disclosure

Student Loan Hero Advertiser Disclosure

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.

RATES (APR)loan amount
5.74% – 16.99%1 $5,000 to $100,000
7.54% – 35.99% $1,000 to $50,000
7.99% – 35.89%* $1,000 to $50,000
56.00% – 199.00%2 $500 to $4,000
5.99% – 24.99%3 $5,000 to $35,000
5.99% – 29.99%4 $7,500 to $40,000
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1 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Fixed rates from 5.990% APR to 16.990% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 5.74% APR to 14.70% APR (with AutoPay). SoFi rate ranges are current as of March 18, 2019 and are subject to change without notice. Not all rates and amounts available in all states. See Personal Loan eligibility details. Not all applicants qualify for the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, to qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including evaluation of your credit worthiness, years of professional experience, income and other factors. See APR examples and terms. Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at 14.95%. Lowest variable rate of 5.72% APR assumes current 1-month LIBOR rate of 2.49% plus 4.28% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.
  2. To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull.
    See Consumer Licenses.
  3. Minimum Credit Score: Not all applicants who meet SoFi’s minimum credit score requirements are approved for a personal loan. In addition to meeting SoFi’s minimum eligibility criteria, applicants must also meet other credit and underwriting requirements to qualify.
  4. SoFi Personal Loans are not available to residents of MS. Maximum interest rate on loans for residents of AK and WY is 9.99% APR, for residents of IL with loans over $40,000 is 8.99% APR, for residents of TX is 9.99% APR on terms greater than 5 years, for residents of CO, CT, HI, VA, SC is 11.99% APR, and for residents of ME is 12.24% APR. Personal loans not available to residents of MI who already have a student loan with SoFi. Personal Loans minimum loan amount is $5,000. Residents of AZ, MA, and NH have a minimum loan amount of $10,001. Residents of KY have a minimum loan amount of $15,001. Residents of PA have a minimum loan amount of $25,001. Variable rates not available to residents of AK, TX, VA, WY, or for residents of IL for loans greater than $40,000.
  5. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)
2 Important Disclosures for Opploans.

Opploans Disclosures

Direct Deposit required for payroll.

Opploans currently operates in these states:

  1. To qualify, a borrower must (i) be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; (ii) reside in a state where OppLoans operates; (iii) have direct deposit; (iv) meet income requirements; (v) be 18 years of age (19 in Alabama); and, (vi) meet verification standards.
  2. This information is current as of October 10, 2017 and is subject to change. Opportunity Financial, LLC lends or arranges loans in the following states: Alabama, California, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. We do not lend or arrange loans in all states. Opportunity Financial offers line of credit products in: Kansas, Tennessee and Virginia. Please note: This is an expensive form of credit. This service is not intended to provide a solution for longer-term credit or other financial needs. Loans made or arranged by Opportunity Financial are designed to help you meet your short-term borrowing needs. Loan amounts may vary and are dependent upon qualification criteria and state law. Refer to Loan Cost & Terms at www.opploans.com for additional details. Complete disclosures of APR, fees and payment terms are provided within the transaction documents, such as the Loan Agreement. First-time Opportunity Financial customers typically qualify for an installment loan of $1,000 to $5,000 with an APR from 59% to 199%. For example, a $1,000 loan made or arranged by Opportunity Financial with 12 bi-weekly payments of $130 has a 199% APR. After the 12th successful payment, the loan would be paid in full.
  3. Applications processed and approved before 7:30 p.m. ET Monday-Friday are typically funded the next business day. In some cases, we may not be able to verify your application information and may ask you to provide certain documents. Some customers applying for a loan may be required to submit additional documentation due to state law and qualification criteria.
  4. Lower APRs and longer terms when compared to a typical payday lending product. According to the Consumer Federation of America, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, payday loans range in size from $100 to $1,000, depending on state legal maximums and carry an average APR of 400% and an average loan term of two weeks. The maximum APR for a loan offered by OppLoans is 199% and loan sizes range from $1,000-$5,000 with a typical term of six months dependent on the state law.
  5. As of October 17, 2017. Ratings on third-party websites may periodically change; please check the third-party websites for up-to-date reviews and ratings. Google+ Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 1,824 reviews. Facebook Rating: 4.7 out of 5 based on 270 reviews.
3 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for Payoff.

Payoff Disclosures

  1. All loans are subject to credit review and approval. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, credit usage and history. Currently loans are not offered in: MA, MS, NE, NV, OH, and WV.
4 Important Disclosures for FreedomPlus.

FreedomPlus Disclosures

  1. All loans available through FreedomPlus.com are made by Cross River Bank, a New Jersey State Chartered Commercial Bank, Member FDIC, Equal Housing Lender. All loan and rate terms are subject to eligibility restrictions, application review, credit score, loan amount, loan term, lender approval, and credit usage and history. Eligibility for a loan is not guaranteed. Loans are not available to residents of all states – please call a FreedomPlus representative for further details. The following limitations, in addition to others, shall apply: FreedomPlus does not arrange loans in: (i) Arizona under $10,500; (ii) Massachusetts under $6,500, (iii) Ohio under $5,500, and (iv) Georgia under $3,500. Repayment periods range from 24 to 60 months. The range of APRs on loans made available through FreedomPlus is 5.99% to a maximum of 29.99%. APR. The APR calculation includes all applicable fees, including the loan origination fee. For Example, a four year $20,000 loan with an interest rate of 15.49% and corresponding APR of 18.34% would have an estimated monthly payment of $561.60 and a total cost payable of $7,948.13. To qualify for a 5.99% APR loan, a borrower will need excellent credit on a loan for an amount less than $12,000.00, and with a term equal to 24 months. Adding a co-borrower with sufficient income; using at least eighty-five percent (85%) of the loan proceeds to directly pay off qualifying existing debt; or showing proof of sufficient retirement savings, could help you also qualify for the lowest rate available.
* Important Disclosures for Upgrade Bank.

Upgrade Bank Disclosures

* Your loan terms are not guaranteed and are subject to our verification and review process. You may be asked to provide additional documents to enable us to verify your income and your identity. This rate includes an Autopay APR reduction of 0.5%. By enrolling in Autopay your payments will be automatically deducted from you bank account. Selecting Autopay is optional. Annual Percentage Rate is inclusive of a loan origination fee, which is deducted from the loan proceeds. Late payments or subsequent charges and fees may increase the cost of your fixed rate loan. All loans made by WebBank, member FDIC. Please refer to Upgrade’s Terms of Use and Borrower Agreement for all terms, conditions and requirements.

** Accept your loan offer and your funds will be sent to your bank via ACH within one (1) business day of clearing necessary verifications. Availability of the funds is dependent on how quickly your bank processes this transaction. From the time of approval, funds should be available within four (4) business days.