Do Credit Builder Loans Actually Work?

Posted February 6, 2018 11:02 a.m. EST
Updated February 7, 2018 6:00 a.m. EST

If you have no credit or bad credit, getting a loan may seem impossible.

That’s because when lenders are considering a loan application, their main concern is whether the applicant can pay the loan back. They look at an applicant’s credit history, which shows an one’s debt and payment history, to determine how likely the applicant can pay off a loan in the future.

If an application has no debt — and therefore no loan repayment history, or a spotty record of late payments or loan defaults, a lender likely will determine that lending to the applicant would be too risky.

A credit builder loan is one way you can start building a strong credit history that will eventually qualify you for other loans.

In this review, we’ll cover:

What is a credit builder loan?

How a credit builder loan works

  • What to watch out for
  • Where to get a credit builder loan
  • Pros of credit builder loans
  • Cons of credit building loans

Learn more:

Why your credit score matters

Other ways to build credit

What is a credit builder loan?

Building good credit, whether you are starting from scratch or repairing a bad credit history, requires patience. You’ll need time to show lenders that you are a consistently reliable borrower who makes on-time debt payments.

A credit builder loan is a great way to begin establishing a good credit history. Here’s how it works:

A financial institution such as a credit union, which typically issues credit builder loans, deposits a small amount of money into a secured savings account for the applicant. The borrower then pays the money back in small monthly installments — with interest — over a set period of time. At the end of the loan’s term, which typically ranges from six to 24 months, the borrower receives the total amount of the credit builder loan in a lump sum, plus any interest earned if the lender offers interest.

Borrowers who make all of their payments on time will benefit significantly. Lenders report the payments to credit reporting companies, which helps the borrower begin build a solid credit history.

How a credit builder helps boost credit

A credit builder loan helps consumers build their credit by providing an opportunity for them to make small monthly payments. As the lender reports regular loan payments to credit reporting agencies, your credit history will show that you can make regular, on-time loan payments over the life of a loan.

Most credit builder loans are small, ranging from $300 to $1,000, which means they have also small monthly payments. Interest rates vary by bank, so be sure you compare all your options to get the best rate. We found rates ranging from low as 5% all the way up to 16% at various banks.

To apply for a credit builder loan, consumers can visit a local lender’s branch or apply online. Because the borrower won’t receive any money until the loan is paid in full, credit builder loans typically are easy to qualify for.

What to watch out for

Credit builder loans are not free, so be sure to ask about fees and interest rates. Some lenders may charge an application fee, and interest rates vary widely among lenders. While some offer rates in the single digits, other lenders’ rates may be significantly higher.

Where to get a credit builder loan

Here are examples of a few types of credit builder loans.

Credit unions

Many credit unions, which offer credit builder loans as a way to help clients establish good credit, list details of the loans online and provide an online application.

1st Financial Federal Credit Union, for example, offers these terms:

  • Minimum Loan Amount: $500
  • Maximum Loan Amount: $1,000
  • Loan Term: 12 months
  • Interest Rate: 12%
  • Payment history reported to credit bureaus
  • 50% of interest refunded back with on-time payments

Some regional or local banks, like credit unions, offer credit builder loans with the intention of helping clients build a good credit score as they work toward good financial health.

The Sunrise Banks Credit Builders Program, for example, places loan funds into a Certificate of Deposit (CD) for the borrower. The CD earns interest as the borrower repays the loan, which can be withdrawn when it’s paid in full. Consumers can borrow $500, $1,000 or $1,500, and they are assigned a repayment schedule of monthly principal and interest payments. Payments are reported to Experian, Transunion and Equifax.

Self Lender

Self Lender, based in Austin, Texas, is designed to help consumers increase their financial health. Working in partnership with multiple banks, Self Lender offers a credit-builder account that is essentially a CD-backed installment loan. In other words, you open a CD with the bank and they extend a line of credit to you for the same amount. When you make payments, they report it to the credit bureaus.

The money you put in the CD itself is what secures the loan.

Self Lender offers four loan amounts, each with 12- or 24-month terms. Borrowers can receive loans of $525, $545, $1,000, or $2,200 with interest rates up to 15.65% APR. These terms and rates are current as of Jan. 31, 2018.

Self Lender reviews rate the services as 4.8 out of 5 stars, with many reviewers noting that their credit score increased after paying off their Self Lender loan and praising the platform’s easy and simple process.

Pros of credit builder loans

  • A credit builder loan forces you to save money, as you are essentially making payments into a savings account.
  • Credit builder loans are secured by the money the bank has deposited for you, so they are typically easy to apply for.
  • When the loan is paid off, you will receive a payment in the amount of the loan. Some lenders also pay you dividends or refund a portion of your interest.
  • You will develop good savings habits through a credit builder loan, which requires you to set aside money every month for a loan payment.
  • As you make payments on time every month, you will develop financial discipline that you apply to bigger loans.

Cons of credit building loans

  • Late or missed payments will be reported to credit reporting agencies, which could hurt your credit score.
  • They aren’t all free. Self Lender charges a $9 to $15 administrative fee, which is included in the APR.

Learn more:

Why your credit score matters

Credit scores are calculated from your credit report, which is a record of your credit activity that includes the status of your credit accounts and your history of loan payments. Many financial institutions use credit scores to determine whether an applicant can get a mortgage, auto loan, credit card or other type of credit as well as the interest rate and terms of the credit. Applicants with higher credit scores, which indicate a better credit history, typically qualify for larger loans with lower interest rates and better terms.

Three federal credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Transunion, collect information from data providers and lenders, and use it to calculate your credit score. These credit reporting agencies report credit scores to lenders and personal finance websites.

Consumers typically have multiple credit scores, which differ due to the way they are calculated, the information that the credit bureau uses in the calculation and the time that they are calculated. The two major scores are FICO and Vantage.

Here are more details about each one.

FICO scores

FICO scores show the likelihood of a borrower paying back a loan on time, and scores range from 300 to 850. More than 90% of lending decisions in the U.S. are influenced by an applicant’s FICO score.

Five factors determine a consumer’s FICO score:

  • Payment history (35%)This is a record of your loan payment and notes whether they were on time, late or missed.
  • Amounts owed (30%)Also known as utilization, amounts owed is how much you use your credit limit. For example, if you have a credit card with a $15,000 limit and you have a debt $3,000 on the card, your utilization is 20%.Ideally, your utilization should be less than 30% on all debts combined.
  • Length of credit history (15%)This measures the length of time that you’ve had credit. If you opened your first credit card 20 years ago when you were a college student, for example, your credit history likely would be slightly higher than someone who took out their first loan one year ago.
  • New credit (10%)New credit looks at how frequently you’ve inquired about your credit and opened new accounts. For example, when you open a new credit card, your credit score could be slightly lower for six months before going back up.
Vantage scores

Vantage scores, which also measure your credit risk, are used by 20 of the 25 largest financial institutions. Like FICO scores, higher scores lead to better loan opportunities. Vanguard scores range from 300 to 850, and are available for free online.

Vantage scores, which are calculated using data from a consumer’s credit report, take six factors into account.

Extremely influential
  • Payment history
Highly influential
  • Your age and type of credit (maintaining a mix of accounts over a long time is beneficial)
  • Percentage of your credit limit used (utilization)
Moderately influential
  • Your total debt balance
Less influential
  • Recent credit inquiries and credit behavior (don’t open a lot of new accounts at one time)
  • Available credit

How do I get my credit score?

There are numerous ways to get your FICO and VantageScore for free. Check out our guide on Ways to Get Your Free FICO Score >

Other ways to build credit

Credit builder loans aren’t the only way to establish a good credit score. Here are some other options if you don’t want to take out a loan.

Secured credit cards

Like credit builder loans, secured credit cards are an easy way to build or rebuild credit history. The application process is the same, but secured credit cards require a deposit between $50 and $300 into a separate account. The bank then issues a line of credit that is typically equal to the deposit, allowing you to build a credit history without putting the lender at risk.

Many secured credit cards allow you to “graduate” and move to a traditional credit card after you’ve proven that you can make payments consistently. Lenders will report your payments to credit reporting bureaus, and some offer autopay, online payments and alerts to make sure you pay your monthly bill on time.

Secured credit cards are not always free. Some require annual fees and have APRs as high as 25%.

Unsecured personal loans

Unsecured personal loans can be easy to qualify for and can help you build credit. These loans typically range from between $2,000 and $50,000, and some lenders will offer them to borrowers with lower credit scores.

The borrower will receive the money in a lump sum upfront, and a disciplined consumer who is focused on building credit can use the money to repay the loan.

Using an unsecured personal loan to build credit, however, can be risky. Many unsecured personal loans come with origination fees and interest rates can be as high as 36%, which can make the loan an expensive way to build credit.

The bottom line

While credit building loans can be a key step in establishing a strong credit history, it’s imperative that you make all of your payments in full and on time. When you are committed to building a strong financial future with personal budgeting and spending discipline, successfully paying off a credit builder loan can lead to approval for good rates and terms on mortgages, auto loans and other loans in the future.

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