Short-term loans can be applied for and received quickly. They often require little to no collateral, making them seem very attractive in a crunch. In exchange for the convenience, however, you’ll pay steep interest rates and high fees. The repayment timeline also may only be a few weeks long. For these reasons, short-term loans are best approached with caution.

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What are short-term loans?

Short-term loans are loans with little to no collateral that are to be repaid in a year or less, sometimes weeks or months. Most require proof of employment with a certain monthly salary, a bank account and a driver’s license or another form of ID. Because there is often no collateral and the credit requirements are lower, these loans charge a higher interest rate (up to 400 percent) and may have other fees and penalties.

How do they work?

Many of these loans can be applied for and received quickly. You simply submit your application (usually online) and proof of employment or other credit information. Then the company reviews it and offers you the loan terms, including the amount, interest rates, fees and repayment schedule. If you agree, you sign the contract and get your money, often in as little as 24 hours.

Most short-term loans are offered for less than $2,000, with repayment due in weeks.

Types of short-term loans

Short-term loans come in several types, each with different characteristics, fee structures and terms:

  • Payday loans: One of the most common is the payday loan, which provides cash for borrowers as they await their next paycheck. Usually, the only requirement is a pay stub to prove you have a job. These loans often require prompt payback — as soon as your next paycheck clears — and many come with enormous APRs and fees.
  • Car title loans: Another type of short-term lending, a car title loan, allows the borrower to use their vehicle as collateral as long as it’s owned outright. These loans usually allow you to borrow just 25 to 50 percent of the car’s market value and can come with APRs of 300 percent and repayment windows as short as 15 to 30 days. If you’re late with payments, the interest charges mount, and the loan will cost you far more.
  • Bank overdrafts: Bank overdrafts, where customers get temporary coverage from their bank at a hefty interest rate when their accounts lack the necessary funds, are also a form of short-term loan. As are installment loans, where borrowers have regular, frequent payments over some time until the principal and interest have been repaid.

Other options include lines of credit extended by banks or credit unions to bridge temporary cash flow challenges and bridge loans, which can be useful during real estate transactions when a new house has been purchased while the other property is still on the market.

Benefits of short-term loans

A short-term loan may seem attractive for these reasons:

  • Rapid approval timeline: The approval process for short-term loans is often very fast. You simply submit your application and proof of employment or other credit information.
  • The funds are provided quickly: Many short-term lenders deposit cash into your account in as little as 24 hours, which can be helpful if you have an emergency or unexpected expenses.
  • No collateral required: Unlike a secured loan, you do not provide collateral, such as a car or a home, to obtain a short-term loan.
  • Lower credit score requirements: The credit requirements associated with short-term loans are typically less stringent than other types of borrowing, making it easier to get approved.

However, in most cases, the risks far outweigh the benefits.

Why you should avoid short-term loans

While there are a few benefits, short-term loans should be used only as a last resort to cover expenses that must be paid when you have no other alternatives.

Interest rates and fees

The interest rates on these loans are often very high. For just a few thousand dollars (most lenders won’t offer much more than $10,000 or $15,000 at most), the borrower could be on the hook for an APR approaching 400 percent or more.

Lenders expect their money to be paid back quickly, within a year. Because of the short timeline, the monthly payments will be much higher than other types of borrowing. In some cases, such as payday loans, the money may need to be repaid in just a month or two weeks, which can put great stress on your finances.

You need to make sure you have a solid plan to pay it back within the terms of the loan because the consequences can cost you even more. Sizable late fees will accrue if you cannot repay the principal within the allotted terms.

Credit score penalties

These loans may also affect your credit score, both positively and negatively. Some companies make a hard inquiry on your credit, and your credit will take a slight hit. Additionally, your credit will also be negatively affected if you miss a payment or don’t pay off the loan in time.

Potentially hazardous cycle

The biggest drawback to short-term loans is that they often do not adequately solve the underlying problems that cause you to need a short-term loan. In fact, with their high interest rates and fees, they often worsen the problem and become a debt trap.

You have to pay the interest and fees to get the short-term loan, so you have less money next month, making it even more likely you’ll need another loan or refinance the original loan. You’ll be charged more fees when refinancing or extending the original loan. It’s a vicious cycle that’s difficult to escape.

Alternatives to short-term loans

There are short-term loan alternatives that may work for you. While these alternatives may not work for everyone, you might consider one or more of the following:

  • Asking friends and family: If you borrow money from friends and family, make sure that both of you are clear on whether and how the money should be repaid — otherwise, the loan can damage your relationship.
  • Borrowing from the equity in your home: If you have a larger emergency or one that is not urgent and own your home, you may be able to tap into your home’s equity with a home equity loan or line of credit. These alternatives usually take a few weeks.
  • Buy now, pay later loan: Buy now pay later services are growing in popularity. These lenders and services allow borrowers to make interest-free installments over a set time, typically over about six weeks. The terms vary widely, however, and some plans last much longer. While the longer repayment timelines may sometimes assess interest, buy now, pay later can be a less expensive option than typical short-term loans.
  • Credit card: If your emergency can be paid with a credit card, it may be a better and cheaper option than taking out a short-term loan.
  • Personal loan: Personal loans can be an alternative to short-term loans as well. The terms and rates you get vary depending on your credit, but they’re usually much better than most short-term loans. Personal loans typically have a fixed repayment period of a couple of years. If you want to pay off the loan early, find a lender that does not charge a prepayment penalty. Lenders like Lightstream, SoFi and Upstart do not charge fees for paying off loans early.
  • Personal line of credit: A personal line of credit is another way to cover unexpected expenses in an emergency or help meet a cash shortfall. An unsecured revolving account with a variable interest rate, a personal line of credit is a type of loan you can draw from as needed and then pay back with interest. It is similar to a credit card.
  • Salary advance: Some employers may offer salary advances, a type of borrowing involving being paid in advance for future wages. The advance would then be deducted from your future earnings. Not all employers offer this type of program, and those that do typically have some type of restrictions or limitations in place.

The bottom line

Although short-term loans are convenient and seem a great way to fix a temporary problem, they come with many risks. The fees and interest rates can top 400 percent, and payback terms can be as little as two weeks. Missing payments will negatively affect your credit score and cost you more in late fees, penalties and interest. This can lead to a cycle of borrowing that is difficult to break out of. Research all your options before you apply for this type of loan.