In the past several years, payday loan stores have been popping up all over the country. With names like "Check Into Cash," "The Cash Store," and "EZ Money," they offer unsophisticated consumers the promise of quick, easy cash with few questions asked. But at what price?
The High Cost of Easy Money
Americans paid more than $6 billion in payday loan fees in 2005, and the number is likely to be much higher when the results for 2006 are tabulated. Payday lending is a big business, and it's also one of the fastest growing in the country. EZCorp, for example, was a lowly Texas-based pawnbroker just a few years ago. Thanks to expanding into the payday loans business in 2002, the company has more than quintupled its profits, and its stock had the best one-year price performance of any company traded on the major exchanges or NASDAQ, through June, 2006.
While buying EZCorp's stock a year ago would have been a wise financial decision, actually using the company's services has never been a good idea. The reason EZCorp and companies like it make so much money is because they rip off their customers, and this is hardly a matter of opinion. According to EZCorp's 2006 report for shareholders, the average payday loan has an annual percentage rate (APR) of 530 percent - and that's not a typo - that's highway robbery. So why would anyone ever use a payday loan service?
Target Market - The Unsophisticated and Credit Constrained Consumer
Most of the payday loan business's customers are people who are unsophisticated and / or have made bad decisions with their credit in the past. These are people with no savings and no credit, who live check-to-check. They don't realize that when they agree to pay a $40 fee for a $200, two-week loan, they are paying an astronomical annual interest rate. Or in some cases, they just don't care - they feel that they have no other options.
A disturbingly large percentage of people use payday loan services in order to avoid incurring NSF (non-sufficient funds) charges with their banks. People living check-to-check, with no access to conventional credit, can be devastated by unexpected expenses. Imagine a single mother who needs to write a $200 check to get her car fixed in order to get to work the next day, but she doesn't have the $200 in her bank account. She writes the check and then immediately goes to the payday loan store, where she can usually borrow the $200 with nothing beyond verification of her employment with a recent check stub. In this case, the single mom may actually be making a wise choice - since NSF fees are said to have an APR of 665 percent, and bank overdraft fees are even higher, at 1,160 percent APR. Clearly, the system is stacked against those who need the most help.
The Cycle of Indentured Servitude - And How To Avoid It
In the worst cases, people end up working all week in order to pay back their payday loan, and then have to take out another payday loan in order to make ends meet. Thus, the cycle continues, and these unfortunate people are relegated to the modern equivalent of indentured servitude.
The best way to prevent this from happening to you is to always maintain adequate lines of credit. In the above example, if the person could have simply charged the $200 repair bill on her Visa or Mastercard, all would have been well. Using a credit card to automatically pay for your regularly occurring charges, such as your phone and cable bills, is a good way to avoid NSF or bank overdraft fees, as well.
If you find yourself in trouble, be sure to always pay the minimum due on your credit cards - make this a priority second only to survival. If you default on your credit cards, you may have a very difficult time getting credit again in the future. Avoid the mistakes of the payday loan consumer, and of course, avoid the payday loan stores. Your money should be applied for your own benefit, not to the bottom line of unethical companies that make profits for their shareholders by exploiting the poor.