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Dear Liz: I recently bought a new car, and the dealer, after running a credit check, told me my Experian score was 783. I have had only credit cards and no loans. This is my first auto loan. They gave me a 3.5% interest rate and I took it reluctantly. I do not like the rate and the need to pay huge interest over time, and am considering paying off the loan as soon as possible as there are no pre-payment penalties. If I am able to pay off my loan in a couple of months (instead of the original five-year loan term), will this improve or adversely affect my credit score? How will this look in the eyes of future lenders?
Answer: Paying off debt is a good thing, both for your credit scores and your wallet. The leading FICO credit scoring formula likes to see a big gap between your available credit and the amount you’re using. This is particularly true with revolving accounts, such as credit cards, but your scores also get a boost from paying down installment debt, such as auto loans and mortgages.
By the way, a 3.5% rate isn’t bad and wouldn’t cause you to pay “huge” interest. But you probably would have gotten a better rate had you arranged your financing in advance, say with a local credit union. If the dealership then offered you a better deal, you could cancel your application with the credit union. As it was, you left yourself at the mercy of the dealer — not a good idea.
Once you get this loan paid off, consider making the same-sized payments to a savings account so you can pay cash for your next car. If you do decide to finance again, try to keep your loan term to three or four years. That will help ensure you don’t buy more car than you can afford and could prevent you from being “upside down” (owing more than the car is worth) for much of the loan term, as is often the case with longer loans.