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What Are Hardship Loans and When Should You Use One?

Unforeseen expenses can pop up even if you’re well prepared. Events like a medical emergency, car accident or job loss can all affect your personal finances and make it difficult to cover monthly bills – especially if you don’t have an emergency fund. Fortunately, many financial institutions offer hardship loans that help people through challenging times.

Let’s look at what hardship loans are, the pros and cons of common hardship loans and whether you should consider using one.

What Is a Hardship Loan?

A hardship loan is a type of financing designed to help those in a financial crisis caused by an emergency expense or shortage of earnings. You can use a hardship loan to cover any unforeseen costs, like a medical bill or car repair, or to pay for monthly basics, such as food and rent.

While the characteristics of hardship loans can vary between lenders, most are known for their small loan limits, low interest rates and short repayment terms. Depending on the borrower’s situation, some hardship loan programs may offer forbearance or deferred payments.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, hardship loans weren’t as widely available. But during and after the widespread economic challenges and repeated shutdowns of the last few years, many people needed help – especially finding employment. Today, there are many options available to borrowers who want assistance covering the gap between their income and expenses.

Common Types of Financial Hardship Loans

Although hardship loans come in various forms, any one of them could be used to cover unavoidable expenses. But remember that not every option will be suitable for your situation. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each loan type, so you can choose which works best for you.

Unsecured hardship personal loans

An unsecured hardship loan is a type of personal loan that doesn’t require collateral. Instead, lenders will determine how much you can borrow by assessing your credit score and financial situation. If you have poor credit, you might struggle to qualify for an unsecured personal loan, because most lenders use strict requirements.


During a hardship, one benefit of using an unsecured personal loan is that you don’t need an item of value to use as collateral. You also won’t have to worry about the lender repossessing any collateral if you default on the loan.


Like any type of financing, unsecured loans also have some drawbacks. Since you don’t need collateral to secure the loan, your lender will be taking on more risk. The more risk the lender faces, the higher your interest rate and annual percentage rate (APR) will be. Therefore, this option could be more expensive than alternatives.

Secured hardship personal loans

Unlike an unsecured personal loan, a secured loan requires some form of collateral. As a result, most lenders will have less strict qualification guidelines, likely making it easier for borrowers with low credit scores to gain approval.


The main advantages of a secured personal loan are the lower interest rates, longer terms and larger loan amounts. These perks are possible because collateral loans help alleviate some of the lender’s risk.


On the other hand, using collateral means the lender can claim your property and sell it to recoup their losses if you can’t make the payments. Simply put, a secured hardship loan can expose you to more risk than an unsecured loan.

Home equity loans

You may have heard about home equity loans being used to finance a home improvement project. But did you know you can also use them in an emergency? If you own your home and have a significant amount of equity, you could convert some of it into cash if you’re in a desperate situation.


Home equity loans offer fixed interest rates that are usually lower than those for personal loans. They also use longer loan terms, which means repaying the loan could be easier. The more time you have to repay what you borrowed, the smaller your monthly payments will be.


Unfortunately, this type of loan could mean taking on substantial debt. A second payment can be challenging to manage if you’re already struggling to pay your mortgage. Also, home equity loans use your home as collateral. So if you default, you could lose your home through foreclosure.

401(k) hardship withdrawal

Depending on your situation, you might be able to take out a short-term loan from your 401(k) retirement plan. Most employers offer this option for specific purposes, such as:[1]

  • Repairing a primary residence
  • Avoiding foreclosure or eviction
  • Paying off qualifying medical bills
  • Funding a college degree
  • Covering funeral expenses

Before you choose this option, discuss your situation with your plan administrator to ensure you meet the eligibility requirements.


Borrowing from your retirement account could help you avoid taking out high-interest loans or racking up credit card debt. Furthermore, you don’t need to meet a lender’s requirements or have your credit history checked to access these funds.


You may be required to pay a penalty fee or taxes if you withdraw from your 401(k).[2]This option could also hurt your future retirement plans if you don’t repay what you withdrew. Your plan may even require you do repay the loan in full if you ever leave your job.[2]

Payday alternative loans

Payday loans are notorious for their predatory lending practices and can cause a vicious cycle of debt. Thankfully, many credit unions and online lenders offer payday alternative loans (sometimes called PALs). These loans come with short terms – usually a year or less – and low borrowing limits.


You can use a PAL to quickly cover a last-minute bill without applying for a loan with a payday lender. Also, this type of hardship loan might be more affordable than an unsecured personal loan.


A shorter time frame to repay the borrowed amount means your monthly loan payments could be higher than expected. The APRs for PALs can also be extremely high, especially compared to home equity loans or secured personal loans.

Peer-to-peer loans

Due to their accessibility, peer-to-peer lending platforms have grown in popularity over the past decade. A peer-to-peer (P2P) loan is similar to borrowing money from a family member or friend – except the people lending to you can be anyone using the platform.


P2P lending typically uses low interest rates to ensure affordability. Borrowers with low or no credit can also use this option, since requirements are more relaxed than with a traditional personal loan. Some P2P lenders may require investors to meet specific criteria before they can lend money to borrowers, which helps promote safety among users.


Just because you have access to a P2P lending platform doesn’t mean you’ll be able to secure enough funds to cover the cost of an emergency. And if you default on a peer-to-peer loan, you’ll risk hurting your credit score, just like with a traditional installment loan. It’s also worth noting that some platforms could charge high service fees.

Should You Use an Emergency Hardship Loan?

Now that we’ve covered the different types of hardship loans, your next step is to consider if you should use one. This primarily depends on your situation and financial goals. But if you need access to a relatively small amount of funds for a short time period, a hardship loan may be the best solution.

However, it’s important to be aware that hardship loans can be expensive to use if you have poor credit. Since many borrowers are struggling financially, they likely have low credit scores or less-than-perfect payment histories. These issues can make it difficult for them to be approved for a hardship loan – and if they are approved, they could have a high interest rate and APR.

If you think you won’t qualify for one of the options listed above, here are some alternatives you can explore:

  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs): Some employers offer assistance to help employees pay to repair fire or flood damage to a home, afford medical expenses and cover burial costs. Although, you may need to provide proof – such as a financial hardship letter – to qualify.
  • Nonprofit organizations: Some nonprofit groups and charities may offer resources for low-income individuals and families to help them through a financial emergency.
  • Government grants and loans: Federal and state governments often run grant and loan programs for residents. These programs can help assist with the cost of food, childcare, housing, medicine and utilities.
  • A personal or home equity line of credit: If you’re unsure how much money you’ll need to borrow, you might consider applying for a line of credit. A line of credit works like a credit card. You can use it to pay for emergencies or regular expenses, then repay the amount you borrow each month.

How To Get a Hardship Loan

Though the exact process will depend on the lender, the following steps can help you choose and apply for a hardship loan:

  • Get a copy of your credit report: Knowing your three-digit Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO®) Score will help you see what programs you may qualify for.
  • Check the prequalification requirements: Once you know what type of hardship loan you want to use, take the time to ensure you meet the lender’s requirements.
  • Compare rates and terms: If you’re undecided between multiple lenders, don’t hesitate to run a cost comparison to find which loan is the most affordable.
  • Submit a loan application: Once you pick a lender, fill out an application and provide your financial information. You might need to submit additional documents, like pay stubs, bank account statements and tax returns.
  • Finalize your loan: After you apply, your application will go through the underwriting process before being approved. Then, you’ll receive a lump-sum payment that you can use to pay your expenses.

Hardship Loan FAQs

Check out the answers to these frequently asked questions to learn more about hardship loans.

Can I get a hardship loan while I’m unemployed?

Being unemployed can make getting any type of loan more difficult. But hardship loans were partially designed to help borrowers struggling with a lack of income. You may need to apply with a few lenders or use collateral to be approved, but it is possible.

Will a hardship loan affect my credit score?

Anytime you borrow money, the lending institution will record the transaction with one or more of the three credit bureaus: Equifax®, Experian™ and TransUnion®. This means if you miss a payment or default on the loan, your credit score will feel the negative effects. But your credit score could improve over time if you make on-time payments.

Who offers hardship loans?

Many types of lenders offer hardship loans. However, you’ll likely find this type of financing at a small bank, credit union or online lending platform. Most larger, traditional banks don’t offer this financial product.

Hardship Loans Can Ease Hard Times

Hardship loans can help you cover unexpected costs for emergency medical care, home repairs and other necessities. By researching the types of hardship loans available, you can find an option that best fits your situation.

The Short Version

  • A hardship loan is a type of financing designed to help those in a financial crisis caused by an emergency expense or shortage of earnings
  • There are secured and unsecured hardship loans available. If your credit score is low, you may have a hard time qualifying for unsecured options
  • Hardship loans were partially designed to help borrowers struggling with a lack of income, so you may be able to qualify for one even if you’re unemployed
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  1. IRS. “Retirement Plans FAQs regarding Hardship Distributions.” Retrieved January 2023 from

  2. IRS. “Considering a loan from your 401(k) plan?” Retrieved January 2023 from

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