When an unexpected expense pops up, many people find themselves in a bind. In fact, a recent Federal Reserve survey found that 44% of respondents said they’d have to sell a belonging or borrow money to cover a $400 emergency expense.
The fix is to build an emergency fund. Even $500 in the bank can get you out of a pinch, and having three to six months of expenses is even better. That amount could let you get by without pawning off valuables, selling your blood or leaning on the generosity of a friend or relative.
It takes time, discipline and extra money to build that cushion. In the meantime, here are strategies to earn fast cash today, increase your income on an ongoing basis and cut your monthly spending.
Get your hands on extra cash today
1. Sell old cell phones: A study released in 2015 found that half of the people surveyed had at least one old cell phone gathering dust. You can sell your old phone on sites such as Swappa and Gazelle, but to get cash today, using an ecoATM kiosk is your best bet. Consider selling old MP3 players and tablets, too.
2. Sell unused gift cards: In 2015, an estimated $973 million in gift cards went unused, according to research and advisory firm CEB TowerGroup. Most online gift card exchanges take a few days because you have to mail the card and then wait for a check or direct deposit, but Cardpool kiosks offer instant cash for cards valued at $20 or more. You’ll get slightly less there; the company pays up to 85% of the card’s value at its kiosks, while it pays up to 92% if you sell through its website.
3. Pawn something: As a way to borrow money, pawnshop loans are not great. But they’re quick, and if you can’t repay the loan, the pawnshop simply keeps the item you used as collateral. That’s a lot better than ruined credit and calls from debt collectors. You can often sell outright to a pawnshop, too, instead of borrowing against an item. Jewelry, musical instruments, firearms and up-to-date electronics fare best.
4. Work today for pay today: Searching for this phrase online turns up lots of results, some legitimate, some not. Companies such as PeopleReady, LaborWorks and LaborFinders can help place you in jobs immediately, and you’ll get paid at the end of the workday.
If such a company isn’t available in your area, try the Craigslist jobs or gigs sections, which often have similar postings for short-term work in food service, housekeeping and general labor.
Ask for help
5. Seek community loans and assistance: Local community organizations may offer loans or short-term assistance to help with rent, utilities or other emergencies. NerdWallet has compiled a database of payday loan alternatives available to residents in nearly two dozen states. Local churches may make small loans at low rates. Community centers and nonprofit associations in your area may also offer small loans.
6. Ask for forbearance on bills: Some creditors such as utilities and cable television companies don’t charge interest on late payments, so find out whether they’ll accept delayed payments. Use whatever money you save from not paying those bills to cover emergency needs. If you can’t pay consumer debts such as auto loans or mortgages, explore your options with the lender first before turning to toxic high-rate loans.
Borrow from yourself
7. Request a payroll advance: Ask your employer for a cash advance on your pay, which usually doesn’t cost you any fees and which you repay via payroll deduction. Some companies also offer low-cost loans to workers in crises. You also might consider ActiveHours, an app that offers workers advances that they repay in a lump sum on payday at no interest. It does ask for a donation, though, and requires access to your bank account and work time sheets.
8. Take a loan from your retirement account: You can take a loan on your 401(k) or individual retirement account, but there are conditions. You can borrow from your IRA once a year if you repay the money within 60 days. If your employer allows 401(k) loans — not all do — you typically can borrow as much as half your account balance, up to $50,000, and you have five years to repay it. However, if you don’t make payments for 90 days, the loan is considered taxable income. And if you quit or lose your job, you typically have to repay the 401(k) loan shortly thereafter.
9. Borrow against life insurance: If you have a life insurance policy that has cash value, sometimes called permanent life insurance, you can borrow against it and have the rest of your life to repay it. If you don’t repay, the insurance company subtracts the money from the policy payout when you die. But you can’t borrow against a term life insurance policy, which is the more common type.
Take out a loan
10. Use a credit card cash advance: If you have a credit card and the account is in good standing, a cash advance is a much less expensive option than a payday loan. You’ll pay a fee, typically around 5% of the amount you borrow, plus interest, which can be around 30%.
11. Look for a payday alternative loan: Some credit unions offer small, short-term cash advances known as payday alternative loans. Federally chartered credit unions legally can’t charge more than a 28% annual percentage rate on PALs. That’s not cheap, but it’s much better than payday loans, which have triple-digit APRs.
12. Take out a personal loan: Some lenders can fund a personal loan in a day; if you have good credit, you’ll probably have many choices. If your credit is a challenge, you’ll need to find a lender that not only delivers fast cash but also accepts poor credit. Rates for borrowers with bad credit from mainstream lenders top out at 36% APR. You may find other lenders offering fast funding without a credit check, but you’ll pay triple-digit interest rates. Don’t fall for it.
Increase your income
13. Rent out a room: Sites like Airbnb aren’t just for people who have vacation homes to rent out when they’re not using them. Many of the site’s listings are for extra rooms — or even shared rooms — in the owner’s house, meaning you could stay put while bringing in some cash, particularly if you live in a reasonably desirable area. Check local ordinances to make sure short-term rentals are allowed.
Creating a listing on the site is free, but there is a 3% service fee when a reservation is made. You can easily estimate how much you might make on the Airbnb website. For example, the site estimates that a one-week private room rental in relatively rural Staunton, Virginia, could bring in $725. The company releases payment to the host 24 hours after the guests check in.
14. Moonlight as a dog sitter: Technology is on your side here, too, with sites including Care.com and Rover, matching pet owners with dog sitters and walkers. You can choose to host the dog or stay at the owner’s house (and — here’s an idea — rent out your place through Airbnb while you’re gone). Rates are between $20 and $60 a night in most areas, though they can skew higher or lower depending on the location and the amount of work involved.
15. Become a rideshare or delivery driver: These are jobs you can do in the evenings or on weekends, using your own car and gas. Companies such as Uber and Lyft match you with people willing to pay for a ride, and delivery services such as OrderUp and Postmates pay you to deliver takeout and other items. Here’s a look at what Uber and Lyft drivers earned in various cities in 2015; the range seems to be $10 to $15 a trip. OrderUp says its drivers earn up to $20 an hour, and Postmates pays up to $25 an hour.
Reduce your monthly spending
16. Cut your insurance premiums: One of the dirty secrets of the car insurance industry is that premiums for the same driver for the same coverage can vary by hundreds of dollars from company to company. Each insurer does its own math; that’s why it pays to compare car insurance quotes.
If you like your carrier, review the dozens of discounts it may have available. You could get 10% off or more for things like making good grades, completing defensive driving training or going at least three years without an accident.
The same is true with homeowners insurance. Shopping around can save you 10% to 15%, as can discounts for things like having a home security system, staying claim-free or being a nonsmoker. And many insurers offer discounts for buying both car and homeowners or renters policies with them.
17. Consolidate your debt: If you’re struggling to keep up with multiple debt payments, you may be able to consolidate those balances — from credit cards, medical bills, store financing or other charges — and lower your payments with a personal loan. Some lenders can fund the loan within a day. Refinancing $5,000 worth of debt from a 10% interest rate to 5% could save you more than $800 in interest if you need to carry the balance for at least four years.
If you have good credit, you can do a balance transfer of high-interest credit card debt onto a new card with a 0% introductory interest rate. Make sure you can pay off the balance before the rate balloons at the end of the introductory period.
18. Refinance your student loans: Borrowers are benefiting from low interest rates and a competitive private student loan refinancing market, and refinancing options are available for people with a range of credit scores. It’s worth checking into whether a refinance could save you money — especially when the average borrower through NerdWallet’s refi platform can save more than $11,000.
19. Change your cell phone plan: If you value money in your pocket over buying a new fancy phone, look into cell phone providers that offer rock-bottom rates. FreedomPop offers basic voice and data service for free. The catch with these services is you often have to buy a phone outright or bring your own. So maybe you don’t want to sell your old phone quite yet. You can find a prepaid cell phone plan for $30 a month or less as well.
4 fast-cash sources to avoid
Payday loans: Payday loans are short-term loans that are made to people who have a source of income and a bank account and that are repaid in a lump sum. Your credit isn’t a factor, but if you already have outstanding payday loans, you may not be able to get another one. Interest is usually expressed as a “fee” — $15 per $100 borrowed is typical. But that can be a trap: Borrowers typically have the option to pay another fee instead of settling the loan, and over time, those fees add up. A typical $15 fee on a two-week loan amounts to nearly 400% interest on an annual basis.
Payday installment loans: Available at stores and online, these payday installment loans stretch repayment terms to as long as three years. You don’t need good credit; the products often are advertised as no-credit-check installment loans. But you typically must meet the requirements of a payday loan: a paycheck and a bank account. Interest charges mount quickly: A $2,000, three-year loan at 400% APR will end up costing over $16,000.
Auto title loans: These short-term loans — in places where they’re legal — require you to hand over the title to your vehicle as collateral for the debt. They’re often compared to payday loans, and the interest rates are comparable, but they can be even worse: If you don’t repay, the lender can seize your car.
Credit-building payday loans: Most payday lenders don’t report on-time payments to the big credit bureaus, which would help your credit scores. Some lenders do, and they also reduce interest rates on subsequent loans to reflect improved credit. Oportun, Rise and Fig Loans all offer installment loans at a lower cost than a payday outlet — but their rates are still many times those of mainstream lenders. We don’t recommend these loans unless the only other option is a traditional payday loan.
Updated Aug. 30, 2017.