Unsecured Loans: Borrowing without Collateral

What Is an Unsecured Loan?

An unsecured loan is a loan that doesn’t require any type of collateral. Instead of relying on a borrower’s assets as security, lenders approve unsecured loans based on a borrower’s creditworthiness.

Examples of unsecured loans include personal loans, student loans, and credit cards.

Key Takeaways

  • An unsecured loan is supported only by the borrower’s creditworthiness, rather than by any collateral, such as property or other assets.
  • Unsecured loans are riskier than secured loans for lenders, so they require higher credit scores for approval.
  • Credit cards, student loans, and personal loans are examples of unsecured loans.
  • If a borrower defaults on an unsecured loan, the lender may commission a collection agency to collect the debt or take the borrower to court.
  • Lenders can decide whether or not to approve an unsecured loan based on a borrower’s creditworthiness, but laws protect borrowers from discriminatory lending practices.

How an Unsecured Loan Works

Unsecured loans—sometimes referred to as signature loans or personal loans—are approved without the use of property or other assets as collateral. The terms of these loans, including approval and receipt, are most often contingent on a borrower’s credit score. Typically, borrowers must have high credit scores to be approved for unsecured loans.

An unsecured loan stands in contrast to a secured loan, in which a borrower pledges some type of asset as collateral for the loan. The pledged assets increase the lender’s “security” for providing the loan. Examples of secured loans include mortgages and car loans.

Because unsecured loans require higher credit scores than secured loans, in some instances, lenders will allow loan applicants with insufficient credit to provide a co-signer. A co-signer takes on the legal obligation to fulfill a debt if the borrower defaults. This occurs when a borrower fails to repay the interest and principal payments of a loan or debt.

Because unsecured loans are not backed by collateral, they are riskier for lenders. As a result, these loans typically come with higher interest rates.

If a borrower defaults on a secured loan, the lender can repossess the collateral to recoup the losses. In contrast, if a borrower defaults on an unsecured loan, the lender cannot claim any property. But the lender can take other actions, such as commissioning a collection agency to collect the debt or taking the borrower to court. If the court rules in the lender’s favor, the borrower’s wages may be garnished.

Also, a lien can be placed on the borrower’s home (if they own one), or the borrower may be otherwise ordered to pay the debt. Defaults can have consequences for borrowers, such as lower credit scores.


Unsecured Loan

Types of Unsecured Loans

Unsecured loans include personal loans, student loans, and most credit cards—all of which can be revolving or term loans.

A revolving loan is a loan that has a credit limit that can be spent, repaid, and spent again. Examples of revolving unsecured loans include credit cards and personal lines of credit.

A term loan, in contrast, is a loan that the borrower repays in equal installments until the loan is paid off at the end of its term. While these types of loans are often affiliated with secured loans, there are also unsecured term loans. A consolidation loan to pay off credit card debt or a signature loan from a bank would also be considered unsecured term loans.

In recent years, the unsecured loan market has experienced growth, powered partly by financial technology (fintech) firms. The past decade, for example, has seen the rise of peer-to-peer (P2P) lending via online and mobile lenders.

$1.195 Trillion

The amount of U.S. consumer revolving debt as of February 2023, according to the Federal Reserve.

If you’re looking to take out an unsecured loan to pay for personal expenses, a personal loan calculator is an excellent tool for determining what the monthly payment and total interest should be for the amount you’re hoping to borrow.

Unsecured Loan vs. Payday Loan

Alternative lenders, such as payday lenders or companies that offer merchant cash advances, do not offer secured loans in the traditional sense. Their loans are not secured by tangible collateral in the way that mortgages and car loans are. However, these lenders take other measures to secure repayment.

Payday lenders, for example, require that borrowers give them a postdated check or agree to an automatic withdrawal from their checking accounts to repay the loan. Many online merchant cash advance lenders require the borrower to pay a certain percentage of online sales through a payment-processing service such as PayPal. These loans are considered unsecured even though they are partially secured.

Payday loans may be considered predatory loans, as they have a reputation for extremely high interest and hidden terms that charge borrowers added fees. In fact, some states have banned them.

Special Considerations

While lenders can decide whether or not to approve an unsecured loan based on your creditworthiness, laws protect borrowers from discriminatory lending practices. The enactment of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) in 1974, for example, made it illegal for lenders to use race, color, sex, religion, or other non-creditworthiness factors when evaluating a loan application, establishing terms of a loan, or any other aspect of a credit transaction.

While lending practices have gradually become more equitable in the United States, discrimination still occurs. In July 2020, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which takes the lead in supervising compliance and enforcing the ECOA, issued a Request for Information soliciting public comments to identify opportunities for improving what the ECOA does to ensure nondiscriminatory access to credit. “Clear standards help protect African Americans and other minorities, but the CFPB must back them up with action to make sure lenders and others follow the law,” stated Kathleen L. Kraninger, then-director of the CFPB.

What is considered collateral?

Collateral is any item that can be taken to satisfy the value of a loan. Common forms of collateral are real estate, automobiles, jewelry, and other items of value.

Is a co-signed loan considered secured?

Although having a co-signer may help you get approved for a loan, it doesn’t make the loan secured. In the case of a default, the lender would require the co-signer to repay the loan.

Can bankruptcy eliminate all unsecured loans?

Declaring bankruptcy is a serious undertaking, but in most cases, it will clear your unsecured loans. There is one exception, though: student loans. While some student loans may be forgiven in the event of bankruptcy, many are not, leaving the debtor still obligated to pay them.

The Bottom Line

Unsecured loans are common but can bear significant risk for both the lender and the borrower. Before taking out any unsecured loan, assess your financial health and your ability to repay the loan. Borrowing money that you can’t repay can result in garnishment of wages and tax returns and put the borrower on a difficult path back to solvency.

Article Sources
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  1. Experian. “Secured vs. Unsecured Loans: What You Need to Know.”

  2. Experian. “White Paper: Fintech Trends—Unsecured Personal Loans.”

  3. Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “Revolving Consumer Credit Owned and Securitized.”

  4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “What Is a Payday Loan?

  5. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “The Bureau Is Taking Action to Build a More Inclusive Financial System.”

  6. Federal Register. “Request for Information on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Regulation B.”

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