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What is APR and What Does It Mean for Your Debt?

Understand APR so you can pay off debt faster and save money.

Money in a Minute: What is APR?
What is annual percentage rate? Simple, it’s what you pay your lenders to borrow their money. It can be a little or a lot. For instance, mortgage rates average around 4 percent, while credit cards average around 18 percent
How can credit card interest rate hurt me? If you carry a balance each month, you’re literally giving away your money. Think of it like this: Here’s a dollar; now take 15 cents and just hand it to someone you don’t know. That’s what happens when you don’t pay off your credit card each month.
How can I get out of credit card debt once and for all? Debt.com can help. There are many proven programs out there and Debt.com can help you find the one that’s right for you.
 
If you have debt or plan to take on new debt, it’s vital that you understand APR. Lenders and creditors extend credit, so you can pay back purchases over time, but they don’t do it for free. APR is basically the price you pay to borrow and charge – i.e. the cost of the convenience that credit provides. And understanding it is often the key to getting out of debt quickly for the least amount of money possible.

This guide from Debt.com will teach you everything you need to know about APR. If you have any questions, visit our Ask the Expert section to ask Debt.com’s panel of experts.

Defining APR and interest rates

APR stands for annual percentage rate and it represents the total standard cost of using credit or a loan. This means that APR includes not only the interest rate but also standard financing fees on some loans. So, although APR and interest rates are interconnected, they are not always identical.

What is an interest rate?

An interest rate represents the cost of a debt, not including fees, expressed as a percentage. There are two types of interest rates that matter:

  1. An annual interest rate is the interest rate applied over a one-year period. It’s basically APR minus fees.
  2. A periodic interest rate is the interest rate charged in a single billing cycle. This is the rate you can use to calculate monthly interest charges.

You multiply the current balance of a loan or credit card by the periodic interest rate to determine accrued monthly interest charges. These charges are deducted out of your monthly payment. This means only a portion of your monthly payment goes to reducing principal (the actual debt you owe).

For example, let’s say you have a mortgage for $240,000 at a 5% interest rate. Your monthly payment would be $1,288.37. However, only $288.37 goes to pay off principal. The other $1,000 goes to cover accrued monthly interest charges.

Which fees does APR include?

APR includes any standard fees on loans. This includes:

  • Administration fees
  • Loan processing fees
  • Underwriting fees
  • Document preparation fees

For mortgages, APR also includes the following fees:

  • Points
  • Prepaid interest
  • Brokers fees
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI)
  • Escrow fees
  • Some closing costs

However, there are other fees that are not included in APR, such as appraisal fees, attorney fees, credit report fees, title fees and notary fees. Any fees incurred because of repayment issues are also not included in APR. This includes early repayment or prepayment penalty fees, late fees. For credit cards, no fees are included with APR. So, credit card APR is identical to the annual interest rate, even on cards that have things like annual fees.

How APR works and how to calculate interest charges

APR is expressed as a percentage of the total debt amount. So, for instance, let’s say you take out a $20,000 personal loan at 5% APR. The total cost of that loan for you as the borrower over a one-year period would be $1,000. By contrast, let’s say you took out the same $20,000 loan at 20% APR. In this case, the total annual cost would be $4,000.

This is why you always want to aim for the lowest APR possible on any debt financed. Higher APR means higher costs. It also usually means that it takes longer to pay off your debt because more of each payment goes to cover accrued interest charges.

But this means you can only use APR to calculate the annual cost of a loan. If you want to calculate your monthly costs, then you need to know the interest rate.

How do lenders determine APR?

Since APR is the combination of annual interest rate and fees, there are a number of factors that determine the APR you receive on a loan or credit line.

  1. What type of loan or credit line is it, which determines what fees get rolled into APR.
  2. Your credit score, which determines what annual interest rate you can qualify to receive.
  3. Economic conditions, such as where the Federal Reserve currently sets their prime interest rate.

That last one is important, and it’s often overlooked. Just because you have excellent credit, it doesn’t mean you always get rock-bottom low interest rates. The Federal Reserve raises and lowers the benchmark interest rate (known as the federal funds rate) to help control the economy. In a weak economy, the Fed drops rates low to encourage borrowing. But in a strong economy, they raise rates to combat inflation.

That means right now, as our economy gets stronger, borrowing gets more expensive. If you purchased a home at the height of the Great Recession, you got a really great deal because the prime rate was near zero. But now, as the Fed completes a series of rate hikes to combat inflation, it means that loans and credit lines are getting more expensive.

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Calculating interest charges from interest rates

If you know the annual interest rate for a loan or credit card, it’s fairly easy to calculate monthly interest charges.

  1. First, you divide the annual interest rate by the number of billing cycles to determine the periodic interest rate.
  2. For most types of credit, this means you divide the annual interest rate by 12.
  3. Then you multiply the periodic interest by the current balance (principal remaining)
  4. This will tell you exactly how much you pay in accrued monthly interest charges.

If you subtract the interest charges from your monthly payment this tells you how much principal, you pay off in a billing cycle. For credit cards, you can use APR to calculate interest charges because credit card APR doesn’t include fees. For loans, you may not necessarily be able to use APR to calculate interest charges because fees are rolled in.

What is a good APR?

This depends on the type of debt. Good APR on a credit card would be terrible APR on a mortgage. Here is a handy table that shows the current average APR for various types of debt:

Type of DebtAverage APR
Credit cards16%
Mortgages4-6%
Auto loans3-10%
Personal loans10-15%

That being said, keep in mind that qualifying for good APR is only possible with good or excellent credit. If you have less than perfect credit, then you should expect to qualify at higher APR. For instance, our friends at ValuePenguin say that someone with bad credit should expect to see personal loan APR up to 28-32%. That’s higher than the rates on most credit cards for bad credit!

How to lower APR

Since APR is a combination of interest rate and fees, it follows that there two basic ways to lower APR:

  1. You can negotiate with the lender to eliminate fees that you’d normally pay, such as brokerage fees.
  2. You can reduce the annual interest rate applied to the balance.

The most common of the two is to reduce the annual interest rate. Interest rate negotiation is an essential skill for anyone that uses credit. When you negotiate interest rates on loans, you refinance the debt. Just keep in mind that if you refinance a loan, you’ll face another round of fees. For example, if you refinance your mortgage, expect another round of closing costs. When you negotiate lower rates on credit cards, you simply call the lender to ask for a rate reduction. There should not be any fees for lowering your rate.

You should consider negotiating a lower rate with a lender or creditor anytime you improve your credit score. You may also want to consider refinancing and rate negotiation if the economy takes a turn and the Fed drops their rates again.

  • On loans, you can shop around for a new loan for any lender when you want to refinance – not just the lender your original loan came from.
  • On credit cards, you call the creditor’s customer service line to negotiate. Debt.com’s founder has 7 tips on how to negotiate lower credit card APR that may be handy.

Don’t let high APR waste your money and hold you back from eliminating your debt fast. Find solutions to cut APR and pay off your debt faster.

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Article last modified on September 18, 2018. Published by Debt.com, LLC . Mobile users may also access the AMP Version: What is APR and What Does It Mean for Your Debt? - AMP.