What Can I Use My Loan Money For?

Is it illegal to find an alternative use for the money?

Businesswoman watching woman sign paperwork
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When you borrow money, you might end up with more cash than you need. It is especially common with student loans and auto loans (whether it happens intentionally or by accident). When that happens, are you allowed to spend the money on anything you want?

To find out what's allowed, check your loan agreement. In some cases, there are restrictions, but other loans allow you to do whatever you want with the money.

Some people even take out loans without any intention to use the money the way the bank thinks they will. The most brazen borrowers invest the money, hoping to earn more than they pay in interest. Others simply use the funds for daily living: paying bills, buying groceries, and so on.

Loans For a Specific Purpose

With some loans, lenders want to restrict how the funds are used. Loan interest rates typically take into account the risk that the lender expects to take, and that depends in part on the purpose of the loan. Riskier loans have different terms and are more expensive than less-risky loans.

You might not even be able to get certain loans unless the money goes toward a specific purchase. Examples of loans for a specific purpose include:

  • Auto loans are similar to home purchase loans. The vehicle you buy secures the loan, so the lender takes less risk. You generally don't get a clear title in those cases. Your lender has a lien on the vehicle until you pay off the loan. This makes it harder for you to sell the car for cash. That said, auto loans tend to be smaller than home loans, so lenders are not as strict. You might be able to get a check for as much as 110 percent of the car's value, leaving some extra money for registration and similar expenses, but this is not common.
  • Student loans are especially tricky. The government subsidizes some student loan interest costs because an educated population is considered a good investment. Furthermore, banks are willing to offer attractive student loans because college-educated adults will be more likely to have the income needed for repayment. With student loans, you end up with a large sum of money in your bank account, and nobody watches to see what you do with the funds. You're supposed to spend that money on expenses related to higher education, but what does that mean? Tuition and fees are obviously acceptable expenses, as are textbooks and rent. A vacation or a new TV is usually not an acceptable expense because you don't need those things to complete your education.
  • Business loans are also likely to come with restrictions. For example, Small Business Administration (SBA) loans can be used only to operate your business. You can't use them to pay off other debts, buy something in hopes of an increase in value, or for any purpose "that is not considered to be a sound business purpose as determined by SBA."
  • Personal loans can be used for pretty much anything. You don't pledge collateral, nor do you agree to use the money for a specific purpose. Personal loans include credit cards and signature loans from your bank or credit union. Loans from online lenders and peer-to-peer lenders often are personal loans as well.

    Check your agreement

    If your loan contract/agreement says you must use the funds for a certain purpose, you're taking a risk by doing something you agreed not to do. If you fail to keep your end of the bargain, the lender may choose to end the agreement and demand that you return the money immediately. Getting the money back quickly and without cost may be a challenge. For example, you may have to pay a penalty for early distribution from a CD, or you might not have the money available anywhere which would cause you to default on the loan.

    Is it illegal?

    Using your loan money for alternative purposes might not be illegal, but there is a risk that your lender will take legal action against you if they find out that you’ve used the money in a way that's different from what you promised and you default.

    Complications

    Getting creative with your loan money can result in several problems. First, you might find yourself deep in debt. Student loans can be especially troublesome because they are difficult to wipe out—even in bankruptcy—so they'll haunt you for life if you get in over your head.

    Even an auto loan can cause trouble. If you borrow too much, you'll find that you owe more on the vehicle than it is worth, also known as being upside down. As a result, you'll have a hard time selling the vehicle or you'll keep making payments long after the car is worthless.

    Some lenders set minimum loan sizes and might require you to borrow more than you need. If that happens to you, don't treat the money as a gift. Use it pay off other debts, or send that money right back to your lender, assuming there is no prepayment penalty.