What’s the difference between a merchant cash advance and a loan, really?

We’re glad you asked that question! Luckily for you, we’ve done all the heavy lifting on that topic, so sit back, grab a cup of coffee and let us guide you towards a better understanding in the next X minutes.

Traditional Term Loans

When your business is in need of capital, your next thought may lead you to a ‘bank loan’ – and rightfully so. Traditional banks have practiced the art of lending for centuries and have helped build our country. Whether you want to buy land, build a house, or start a business, if you need capital, you go to a bank.

You apply for a business loan, provide the necessary requirements, and if approved, the bank gives you a lump sum of cash in exchange for making monthly payments over a set period of time (or ‘term’) with a fixed or variable interest rate over the life of the loan. Depending on the term of the business loan, it would then be further sub-categorized as either a long-term or short-term loan.

Long Term Loans
Long-term loans are, you guessed it – loans with a repayment period significantly longer than what’s considered a short-term business loan. Repayment for a long-term business loan can be anywhere from 5 years to a decade or more.

Approvals for long-term loans are harder to come by because you have to contend with the strict qualifying standards of traditional banks. Most likely, you will also have to put up collateral and the bank may limit the amount of loans the business can take on in the future. Also, not only does your business have to be in good standing and have the financial statements to prove it, but your personal credit score will also have to be outstanding.

Long-term loans make more sense for established businesses with a stable business credit history that are looking to expand or acquire another company. In addition to the longer repayment term, these loans are generally higher dollar amounts (six-figures is common) and can have a lower interest rate than short terms loans. The Small Business Administration (SBA) is a great source for low-interest loans with varying terms for established businesses, and they are partially backed by the government. So, if you default on the loan, the federal government is responsible for paying back 85 percent of it.

However, borrower beware, the lower interest rate over a longer period of time can equal or surpass that of a short-term business loan over its lifespan, significantly increasing the repayment amount. Think about it.

SEE ALSO: How Much Does it Cost to Start a Retail Store?

Short Term Loans
As a small business owner, you’ll typically go with a short-term loan, even if you’re just starting out. A short-term loan is structured to provide more immediate funds. Short term loans are typically smaller amounts, have a slightly higher interest rate than long-term loans, and you guessed it – have a shorter payback period that can last a few months, to a few years.

Short term loans heavily rely on your personal credit and may require you to put up collateral if you’re going through a traditional financial institution such as a bank. However, on the bright side, there are more alternative financing sources for small business owners other than banks, but more on that later. That makes them easier to obtain even if you don’t have the best personal credit score or collateral to put against the loan.

food truck inventory difference between merchant cash advance and loan

The Difference Between Short and Long Term Loans

Short term loans are used for working capital needs (buying inventory, marketing, payroll). The use of funds is tied directly to generating revenue, and can, therefore, be paid back earlier. In other words, you use the loan for a business initiative that generates revenue quickly, which makes the higher interest rate less of an issue.

Long-term loans are used for expansion and growth. Initiatives like remodeling, buying equipment, buying out a partner, etc. are excellent reasons to take out a long-term loan. Since the initiatives aren’t directly tied to revenue generation (i.e. you aren’t using a long-term loan to fund a marketing campaign), they need a longer payback period to soften the blow of larger fixed monthly payments.

SEE ALSO: The Fundamentals: Where to Buy Coffee Shop Equipment

Secured and Unsecured Loans

The whole idea behind collateral is that it becomes a security net for the bank. If you want the bank to lend your business the money, they may require that you, the borrower, pledge a piece of real estate or your assets such as inventory, in order to ensure repayment. If you default on the loan, the bank has the authority to seize the assets or real property in order to repay the debt. When you pledge collateral against a loan, it’s called a secured loan – meaning the bank is securing itself from losing out on as little money as possible.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have unsecured loans. Any idea how those are structured? You guessed it again, unsecured loans do not require the borrower to put up collateral. They are heavily based on your personal credit score and slightly based on the relationship history the borrower has with the lender.

Since you’re not providing the lender with any assets or property based security blanket, they are considered a bigger risk. And we all know that with a bigger risk means a bigger reward, right? So from a lender’s perspective, that bigger reward means a higher interest rate for you, which equals more (bigger) money (reward) for them. Along the same lines, because you’re not putting up any collateral, you will be required to sign a Personal Guarantee (PG). A personal guarantee means that you are personally responsible for the repayment of that loan. Not the business, not another stakeholder, nor another partner. If you signed on the PG line, you are responsible for repayment.

Long-term loans are almost always secured, while short-term loans could go either way depending on your credit score, relationship with the bank, and if you’re willing to sign a personal guarantee. Lines of credit can also work in this manner where they are either secured or unsecured, and that brings us to our next point.

Lines of Credit

Lines of credit are worth a mention here because they are a version of, or a subcategory of a short-term business loan, but with a slight twist. They’re similar to a credit card in that once the lender approves you for a certain amount, it remains at your disposal. A line of capital is primarily used for working capital needs. They’re great or inventory purchases, operating costs, or it can be used as general cash flow or capital if you’re in a pinch, because sales are slow.

Unlike a loan where you have to reapply once you use up the funds, a line of credit is revolving. Meaning that if a bank decides to extend a line of credit to you for $30,000 and you take $10,000 to buy more inventory, or invest in marketing to grow sales, you still have $20,000 left to use, or not use. The bank will charge interest on that $10,000 until it’s paid off. When you pay down that $10,000, your credit line goes back to $30,000 without having to reapply like you would for a loan. So, even if you don’t need the cash right away, opening a line of credit sooner rather than later is a smart idea – it’s your security net.

SEE ALSO: 3 Types of Collateral to Use for Small Business Loans

Merchant Cash Advance

Up to this point, we’ve talked about different types of loans, short and long, secured and unsecured business loans, and even revolving lines of credit. Do you remember how we mentioned there was a bright side to short-term loans? That there are more alternative financing sources for small businesses in regards to ‘loans.’

Merchant Cash Advances (MCA) have been around since the 1990’s and businesses in the merchant cash advance industry were one of the pioneers in alternative lending sources. We use ‘loans’ in quotations for this topic because MCA’s are not your traditional business loan.

The fine line between the two is that an MCA provides your business with a lump sum upfront payment (similar to a loan), but rather than a repayment structure based on monthly installments, a cash advance is repaid in exchange for an agreed upon percentage of future credit card and debit card sales, or receivables withdrawn directly from your daily credit card revenue.

Simply put, an MCA does not qualify as a loan because it’s technically a sale of future revenue. And because of that technicality, it’s not subjected to the scrutiny or regulations that are imposed on a standard small business loan. Nor does it require a personal guarantee, and even bad credit scores are welcome. In a nutshell, that is the difference between a merchant cash advance and a loan.

We know what you’re thinking, how can someone or some company buy a percentage of your future revenue from sales or receivables and intercept that money automatically before you ever see it? Enter your payment processor, a.k.a your credit card processor.

In the beginning, cash advances started out as a quick and easy way for merchants to acquire the cash flow they needed rather than waiting for a bank’s rigorous and slow approval process – if you even get approved. Since payment processors already had access to a merchant’s funding account for credit card sales, it made sense for them to tap into that as an avenue of payback for a ‘loan’ or cash advance.

Eventually, credit card processors began partnering with merchant cash advance companies. In some cases, payment processors would offer the service and funding in-house as a compliment to their core business offering. This became more mainstream in the early to mid-2000’s.

So, what’s the catch? Fees on an MCA tend to be higher because there is no personal guaranty or collateral to secure the advance. If you go out of business, the MCA provider has no recourse against you personally to get their capital back like they would for a loan.

shopkeep credit card reader difference between merchant cash advance and loan

Benefits of an MCA

Since a merchant cash advance is paid based on a percent of your future credit card sales, rather than a fixed payment, the actual amount the provider collects varies month to month. This can be very beneficial for a merchant managing their cash flow. If you go through a slow period, the collections made on the cash advance decrease. If sales skyrocket, the collections increase. However, the percent that is collected never changes, keeping your business cash flow stable.

Blurring The Line Between Cash Advances and Loans

Thanks to merchant cash advances, traditional small business lenders were forced to step up their game and offer fast and flexible loans in order to get a piece of that market.

The quickness of cash advances alongside technology, helped disrupt the traditional financing industry and opened the doors for a relatively new industry of online lending. Online lenders offer a variety of services, and financing options that resemble the ease and speed of a cash advance. The emergence of these alternative resources gives merchants like you a heck of a lot more resources for capital, cash flow needs, operating expenses or marketing campaigns.

SEE ALSO: The Ins and Outs of Small Business Financial Planning

Cash Advance or Loan? Which is Right for My Business?

So now that you know the difference between a merchant cash advance and a loan, how do you decide which one is right for your business? The answer is, it all depends on you and your unique business needs. Here are a few things to consider to point you in the right direction.

Your personal credit is a key component to help you establish business credit. Since loan repayments or lack thereof, are reported to credit bureaus, if you don’t have great personal credit, it may be harder to obtain a loan from traditional sources. If your credit is less than stellar, a merchant cash advance may be the better option.

Profits and Credit Card Revenues
Banks will look at your business’ overall profits and number of years in business as factors in determining whether or not you qualify for a loan. Companies that provide merchant cash advances are also interested in the amount of time you’ve been in business, but they’re more interested in your credit card revenues since that’s how the cash advance will be repaid.

Repayment Schedule
To repay a traditional loan, you pay monthly installments of a fixed amount due at the same time each month. Cash advances are paid back on either daily or weekly intervals and the amount will fluctuate based on your credit card revenue. If you prefer the flexibility of varying repayment amounts based on your credit cards sales, a cash advance would be the better option. If you prefer a little more consistency in your repayment schedule, a loan is the better choice.

Use of Capital
Merchants like you will need capital for a variety of reasons. Maybe you need to buy new seasonal inventory and run a marketing campaign; ideal uses for cash advances because you anticipate making your money back relatively quickly. Maybe you need to buy some new equipment or just need a little extra cash flow during your slow months. If that’s the case, a loan or a line of credit from the bank would be the better option.

We know it’s tricky to navigate through the murky financial waters of small business ownership. That’s why we like to tackle tough topics like the difference between a merchant cash advance and a loan. We save you time from having to do the research on your own and spell out the difference between the two. It doesn’t get much easier than that!

Nicole Walters

Nicole Walters

As Content Writer at ShopKeep, the number #1-rated iPad Point of Sale System, Nicole Walters leverages her background in communications and her extensive experience in the payment and POS industry to create valuable content that addresses real problems and solutions for small business owners.