Interest Rates and How They Impact You

This is the fifth post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation.

Today I’m going to touch on the exciting topic of interest rates. Okay, let’s be honest, most of us consider the subject boring and highly technical at best, and pure financial torture at worst. But hear me out. I’d like to explain why interest rates are in fact pretty fascinating, surprisingly straightforward, and worth learning about. The truth is that interest rates can have a massive impact on your current and future financial situation.

So what are interest rates? And how do they affect your financial well-being? If you think about it, everything in our modern society has a cost. You pay for a good meal at a nice restaurant, there’s a charge for staying at a hotel, and an education certainly isn’t free. The same holds true for money. It has a cost and that cost is interest rates. In order to get your hands on some money, say for a car loan, a mortgage, even groceries, you pay for that money in the form of an interest rate. When you have a good credit history, i.e. you consistently pay back other people’s money in a timely manner, you’re considered a good credit risk and it becomes cheaper for you to borrow money in the future. In other words, the interest rate you’ll get charged on loans will be lower than the average person. This is a good thing for your financial well-being. On the flip side, if you are even occasionally late on a credit card, car loan, or any other debt payment, you become a less desirable credit risk and the rate at which you’re charged to borrow money in the future goes up. In other words, the interest rate on the next loan you take out will be higher and you’ll pay out more money over the course of the loan, all else being equal.

You may have heard about the compounding power of interest and how it can help you significantly grow your wealth. This is a very true financial tenant when it comes to investing your money. However, this same principle also works against you when you step into the role of a borrower. As an example, consider that the median price of a home in 2013 was about $200,000. Now assume you take out a 30-year fixed mortgage to purchase a home. You’ve worked hard and have 10% in cash to put down. This leaves you with a $180,000 mortgage. Going interest rates for borrowers with good credit are around 4.25%. Even though these are still historically low rates, at 4.25% you can expect to pay approximately $138,960 in interest alone over the life of the loan! That’s in addition to the $200,000 cost of the house. Now let’s pretend that your credit is a little below average, making you a slightly higher-risk in the eyes of a bank. You’re still able to secure a loan, but the bank wants to charge you a 5.00% interest rate in order to compensate for the risk they take on by lending to you. At a 5.00% rate, you can expect to pay $167,760 in interest over the course of the loan, or almost $30,000 more than you would pay with a better credit score. That is some serious money.

On top of the impact interest rates have on our personal investments and debt payments they also affect our spending and saving behavior. Imagine that your bank was offering a savings account with a 10% interest rate. All else being equal, would you be more or less inclined to save? That’s right. Most people would choose to direct more of their personal income towards savings when interest rates are higher. If millions of people were forgoing spending in favor of savings, this would have a significant effect on the overall economy. Interest rates matter. What about high interest rates when you’re the borrower? As we saw above, even a small increase in an interest rate can lead to much larger debt payments. Generally speaking then, higher interest rates tend to depress credit growth and in the end can muddle economic activity as consumers take out fewer loans.

As you can see, interest rates can have a very direct and often significant effect on our personal financial situation, not to mention our saving and spending patterns, and the broader economy. Although we’ve only skimmed the surface, suffice it to say that interest rates are worth understanding, if for no other reason than to help you make smarter decisions with your money.

Carrie Tallman, CFA
Director of Research

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