Interest rates impact various aspects of our personal and financial lives. But what are interest rates, really? Understanding them is essential for making informed decisions about borrowing, saving, and investing. It can seem overwhelming at first, but here’s a simple guide to explain the different types of interest rates.

1. Nominal (Stated) interest rate

The nominal interest rate, also known as the stated interest rate, is the rate initially quoted on a loan or savings account. It’s the raw percentage of interest charged or earned on the principal amount without accounting for inflation or compounding. For example, if you have a savings account with a nominal interest rate of 3%, it means you will earn 3% interest on your initial deposit (that’s without considering any additional factors).

2. Real interest rate

The real interest rate is the nominal interest rate adjusted for inflation. It reflects the true purchasing power of money by considering the impact of rising or falling prices over time. The real interest rate is calculated like this: subtract the inflation rate from the nominal interest rate. If the nominal interest rate is 5% and inflation is 2%, the real interest rate would be 3%. A positive real interest rate means that your money is growing in purchasing power, while a negative real interest rate means that your money’s purchasing power is decreasing.

3. Annual Percentage Rate (APR)

The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is a standardized way to represent the total cost of borrowing, including both the nominal interest rate and also any additional fees or costs associated with the loan. It gives you a more accurate picture of the actual cost of borrowing than just the nominal interest rate alone. The APR allows borrowers to compare different loan offers more effectively, since it includes all the costs you’ll be paying for the loan.

4. Effective Annual Rate (EAR) or Annual Equivalent Rate (AER)

The Effective Annual Rate (EAR) or Annual Equivalent Rate (AER) is the total amount of interest earned on a savings account or investment after factoring in account compounding. Compounding is the process of earning interest on both the initial principal and any previously earned interest. The EAR or AER is higher than the nominal interest rate because it reflects the impact of compounding, which allows your money to grow at a faster rate over time.

5. Prime Rate

The Prime Rate is the interest rate that banks charge their most creditworthy customers. It serves as a benchmark for many other interest rates, including variable-rate loans and credit cards. The Prime Rate is influenced by the federal funds rate set by the central bank. As the Prime Rate changes, so do a lot of the other interest rates tied to it.

6. Fixed vs. variable interest rate

Interest rates can also be categorized by their stability. Fixed interest rates remain constant throughout the loan or investment term, which means they’re predictable in terms of monthly payments or returns. Variable interest rates, on the other hand, are dynamic. They fluctuate based on market conditions or specific benchmarks, like the Prime Rate. Variable rates can lead to changing payments or returns over time.

What are interest rates: the bottom line

Understanding the different types of interest rates is essential for managing your finances effectively. Whether you’re borrowing money, saving, or investing, each type of interest rate has its role and impact on your financial decisions. Knowing how to calculate and compare various interest rates will empower you to make informed choices and maximize your financial well-being. Always consider your financial goals and risk tolerance when evaluating different interest rate options, and seek professional advice if needed to make the best decisions for your financial future. To further build your financial knowledge, check out our article on Financial terms you need to know.