What APR Tells You About a Loan
APR stands for annual percentage rate. It's different from the interest rate in that it not only includes interest costs but also fees related to a loan. Essentially, it gives you an idea of how much a loan will cost you.
To use APR, you don’t need to understand the math behind it, but you can always dig deeper and learn how to calculate APR if you want more information.
APR is an annualized rate. In other words, it describes how much interest you’ll pay if you borrow for one full year. Let's say you borrow $100 at 10% APR. Over the course of one year, you'll pay $10 in interest (because $10 is 10% of $100). But in reality, you’ll probably pay more than $10.
You might not borrow for an entire year, or the amount that you borrow might change throughout the year (as you make purchases and payments on your credit card, for example). To get precise figures, you might need to do a little bit of math.
The example above assumes interest is calculated and charged only once per year, and you don’t pay any fees—which might not be accurate. Credit cards generally charge small amounts of interest daily or monthly (and add those charges to your loan balance), which means you’ll actually pay more due to compounding. (Those interest charges are added to your balance so you can pay more interest the next day.)
To figure out your daily rate, take the APR and divide it by 365. If the APR is 10%, the daily rate would be 0.0274% (0.10 divided by 365 = .000274). Note that some credit cards divide by 360 days instead of 365 days.
Nevertheless, you can usually assume that a lower APR is better than a higher APR (with mortgages being an important exception).
What Is 0% APR?
Many advertisements offer deals such as "0% APR for 12 months." These types of offers are designed to get you in the door so that lenders can eventually charge you interest after the promotional period is over. If you pay off your balance within that time frame, then you don't have to pay interest on it. But if you have a balance left after the 0% APR promotional period is over, then you'll have to pay a high interest rate on what's left.
These 0% APR offers can help you save money on interest, but you may still pay other fees to borrow. For example, your credit card might charge a “balance transfer” fee for you to pay off balances on other credit cards. The fee might be less than you’d pay in interest with the old card, but you’re still paying something. Likewise, you might pay an annual fee to the credit card issuer, and that fee is not included in the APR.
It is possible to pay absolutely nothing and take full advantage of a 0% APR offer, but you have to be diligent to pull this off. It’s essential to pay off 100% of your loan balance before the promotional period ends and to make all of your payments on time—if you don’t, you might pay high interest on any remaining balance.
Deferred interest is not the same as 0% interest. These programs are often advertised as “no interest” loans, and they're especially popular around the winter holidays. However, you will pay interest if you fail to pay off the entire balance before the promotional period ends.
With a true 0% offer, you’ll just start paying interest on any remaining balance after your promotional period ends. With deferred interest, you’ll pay interest retroactively on the original loan amount as if you weren’t making any payments. Deferred interest offers are not allowed to be advertised as “0% interest.”
What Does Variable APR Mean?
If an APR is variable, then it can change over time. With some loans, you know exactly how much you’ll pay in interest: you know how much you’ll borrow, how long you’ll take to pay it back, and what interest rate is used for interest charges. Loans with a variable APR are different. The interest rate might be higher or lower in the future than it is today.
Variable-rate loans are risky because you might think you can afford to borrow given today’s rate, but you may end up paying a lot more than you expected. On the other hand, you’ll typically get a lower initial interest rate if you’re willing to assume the risks of using a variable APR. In some cases, variable APRs are the only option available—take it or leave it.
What might make your interest rate increase? Variable APRs typically rise when interest rates in general rise. In other words, they rise with interest rates on savings accounts and other types of loans. But your interest rate can also increase as part of a “penalty” (whether you have a variable APR or not). If you fail to make payments, for example, your rates can jump dramatically.
APR for Mortgage Comparisons
When it comes to home loans, APR is complicated. It is supposed to be an apples-to-apples way to compare all of the costs of your loan: interest costs, closing costs, mortgage insurance, and all of the other fees you might pay to get a home loan. Since different lenders charge different fees, APR would ideally give you one number to look at when comparing loans. However, the reality is that different lenders include (or exclude) different fees from the APR calculation, so you can’t just rely on APR to tell you which mortgage is the best deal.
What Affects APR?
Whether you pay a high APR or a low APR depends on several factors:
Type of Loan
Some loans are more expensive than others. Home loans and auto loans generally come with lower rates because the home is available as collateral and people tend to prioritize those loans. Credit cards, on the other hand, are unsecured loans, so you have to pay more as a result of the increased risk.
Your borrowing history is an important part of any lending decision. If you can show a solid history of repaying loans on time (and therefore you have great credit scores), you’ll get lower APRs on almost every type of loan.
Again, it’s all about the risk. If lenders think they can avoid losing money, they’ll offer lower APRs. For home and auto loans, it’s important to have a low loan-to-value ratio (LTV) and a good debt-to-income ratio. Good ratios show that you’re not biting off more than you can chew and that the lender can sell the collateral and walk away in decent shape if necessary.