Student loans, 401(k)s and payday loans: The top 5 money questions of the year answered

Medical symptoms, obscure facts or who your favorite Hollywood star is dating we often turn to Google with these burning questions. But when we’re not searching for the latest on say, Kim Kardashian, many of us are using the internet to make sense of money.

Student loans, 401(k)s and payday loans were among the top five most-Googled financial topics nationwide, according to a report issued earlier this year by Chicago-based Liberty Bank. Leading the pack, the question How do student loans work garnered almost 2.5 million searches on average, according to the bank’s analysis.

At the state level, Californians were most interested in cash advances, Texans looked for budgeting tips and both New York and Illinois residents wanted to know how much money you need to open a savings account.

1. How do student loans work? (2.5 million searches)

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The gist: Student loans are funds borrowed to pay for higher education, which you pay back to the lender upon graduation, with interest. With the standard federal student loan repayment plan, you’ll make equal monthly payments on your student loans for 10 years. There are other kinds of repayment plans, depending on your income, job and other factors.

What else to know: Student loan forgiveness, missing payments on loans and parent PLUS loans are topics credit counselors get asked about often, says Elaina Johannessen, program director at Minnesota-based LSS Financial Counseling, a nonprofit credit counseling agency.

Forgiveness can be a lifeline for struggling borrowers, but it’s not easy to get. To qualify, you must meet eligibility requirements like making payments for a certain period of time.

2. What is a mortgage? (2.3 million searches)

The gist: A mortgage is a loan a lender gives you to purchase a home. Most mortgages have fixed rates, and typical repayment periods are 15 or 30 years, but there are some mortgages with different terms and variable rates. You could lose your home if you don’t pay your mortgage.

What else to know: Homeowners often ask if they should put more money toward their mortgage or build savings, says Jaime Quiros, certified financial planner and portfolio manager at FBB Capital Partners in Bethesda, Maryland. (The answer depends on your financial goals, he says.) If you have money to spare, start an emergency fund, however small. When life gets in the way of your goals, it can keep you on track.

3. What is a car loan? (568,100 searches)

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The gist: A car loan is a fixed-rate loan a lender gives you to purchase a car. Typical repayment periods range from three to six years, but longer-term loans are available. Your could lose your car if you don’t pay your loan back.

What else to know: The shorter the loan period, the better, Johannessen says. Seven-year loan terms are popular because they carry lower monthly payments, she says, but borrowers pay more interest.

4. How do payday loans work? (368,000 searches)

The gist: Payday loans are expensive, short-term loans for small amounts, typically less than $500, that you repay with your next paycheck. They require a bank account and income, and most payday lenders don’t check your credit.

What else to know: Much has been written about the perils of payday loans, including the likelihood you’ll be in debt for a long time. Johannessen says payday loan borrowers usually come to a credit counselor when it’s too late and they need to stop the bleeding. Before you take one, see if you can qualify for cheaper products, like a payday alternative loan from a credit union.

5. What is a 401(k)? (301,000 searches)

The gist: A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement account to which you contribute a portion of each paycheck before taxes. Most employers that provide 401(k)s match a part of your contribution, giving you free money for retirement.

What else to know: If you’re unsure how much to put into your 401(k), start by contributing enough to snag the employer match, Quiros says. Something people forget is that your 401(k) account belongs to you, even if you change jobs, he says.

NerdWallet is a USA TODAY content partner providing general news, commentary and coverage from around the web. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.

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