It’s no secret that borrowing money costs money. But when it comes to telling you how much a loan will cost you, lenders may approach the matter from different perspectives: Some talk about their interest rate while others focus on their annual percentage rate (APR). Once you understand these terms and how they play into the total loan cost, you can make an informed decision before committing to a loan.

Interest Rate Is the Starting Point 

A loan’s interest rate is the cost of borrowing the principal (the amount of the loan), expressed as a percentage of that principal. You can get an idea of the amount of interest you might pay on a loan by using the following simple interest formula for a fixed-interest loan: Principal x Interest Rate x Years. Let’s say you’re looking at a five-year, $10,000 loan with an annual fixed interest rate of 5%. You can calculate the simple interest this way:

$10,000 principal x .05 interest x 5 years = $2,500 in interest over the life of the loan

Annual Percentage Rate (APR) Adds Fees to the Mix

APR, which is also expressed as a percentage, more accurately reflects the true cost of borrowing, because it includes the interest rate plus certain fees and other expenses associated with the loan. These costs may include application, processing, administrative and other fees, depending on the type of loan and the lender’s policies. If no additional fees are charged, the interest rate and APR will be the same; this is called a no-fee loan.

Typically, the APR will be either the same or higher than the interest rate. However, when a loan is fully deferred — i.e., no payment of interest or principal is required for a specified period of time — the interest rate may be higher than the APR. 

Compare Loans Using APR

When you’re shopping for the best deal on a loan, compare APRs rather than interest rates. Fees may vary widely from lender to lender, so using the all-inclusive APR should provide you with a more meaningful comparison. Borrowers sometimes believe that the loan with the lowest interest rate is their best choice, only to discover later that the fees charged on that loan outweigh any cost savings in interest.

Learn all you can about any loan you are considering before you commit to it. Find out: 
  •  Will the lender be charging you simple interest (interest based on principal only) or compound interest (interest on not only the principal but also the interest)?
  • Is the interest rate fixed (doesn’t change over the life of the loan) or variable (may fluctuate with market rate changes)?
  • What fees and other costs will be included?
  • What is the loan’s repayment term?
PNC offers an online student lending calculator to help you compare its loan options, including rates and upfront fees, if any. The more you know about what goes into the overall cost of your loan, the better prepared you will be to make your loan decision.