What is a Payday Loan?

A payday loan is a short-term loan with a high annual percentage rate. Also known as cash advance and check advance loans, payday loans are designed to cover you until payday and there are very few issues if you repay the loan in full before the payment date. Fail to do so, however, and you could be hit with severe penalties.

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Lenders may ask the borrower to write a postdated check for the date of their next paycheck, only to hit them with rollover fees if that check bounces or they request an extension. It’s this rollover that causes so many issues for borrowers and it’s the reason there have been some huge changes in this industry over the last decade or so. 

How Do Payday Loans Work?

Payday lending seems like a simple, easy, and problem free process, but that’s what the payday lender relies on. 

The idea is quite simple. Imagine, for instance, that your car suddenly breaks down, payday is 10 days away, and you don’t have a single cent to your name. The mechanic quotes you $300 for the fix, and because you’re already drowning in debt and have already sold everything valuable, your only option is payday lending.

The payday lender offers you the $300 for a small fee. They remind you that if you repay this small short-term cash sum on payday, you won’t incur many fees or any real issues. But a lot can happen in 10 days. 

More bills can land in your mailbox, more expenses can arrive out of nowhere, and before you know it, all of your paycheck has been allocated for other expenses. The payday lender offers to rollover your loan for another month (another “payday”) and because you don’t have much choice, you agree.

But in doing so, you’ve just been hit with more high fees, more compounding interest, and a sum that just seems to keep on growing. By the time your next payday arrives, you’re only able to afford a small repayment, and from that moment on you’re locked into a debt that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Predatory Practices

Payday loans have been criticized for being predatory and it’s easy to see why. Banks and credit unions profit more from high-income individuals as they borrow and invest more money. A single high-income consumer can be worth more than a dozen consumers straddling the poverty line.

Payday lenders, however, target their services at low-income individuals. They offer small-dollar loans and seem to profit the most when payment dates are missed and interest rates compound, something that is infinitely more probable with low-income consumers.

Low-income consumers are also more likely to need a small cash boost every now and then and less likely to have the collateral needed for a low-interest title loan. According to official statistics, during the heyday of payday loans, most lenders were divorced renters struggling to make ends meet.

Nearly a tenth of consumers earning less than $15.000 have used payday loans, compared to fewer than 1% for those earning more than $100,000. Close to 70% of all payday loans are used for recurring expenses, such as utility bills and other debts, while 16% are used for emergency purchases.

Pros and Cons of Taking Out a Payday Loan

Regardless of what the lender or the commercial tells you, all forms of credit carry risk, and payday loans are no exception. In fact, it is one of the riskiest forms of credit available, dragging you into a cycle of debt that you may struggle to escape from. Issues aside, however, there are some benefits to these loans, and we need to look at the cons as well as the pros.

Pros: You Don’t Need Good Credit

Payday loans don’t require impeccable credit scores and many lenders won’t even check an applicant’s credit report. They can afford to do this because they charge high interest and fees, and this allows them to offset many of the costs associated with the increased liability and risk.

If you’re struggling to cover your bills and have just been hit with an unexpected expense, this can be a godsend—it’s a last resort option that could buy you some time until payday.

Pros: It’s Quick

Payday loans give you money when you need it, something that many other loans and credit offers simply can’t provide. If you need money right now, a payday lender can help; whereas another lender may require a few days to transfer that money or provide you with a suitable line of credit.

Some lenders provide 24/7 access to money, with online applications offering instant decisions and promising a money transfer within 24 hours.

Pro: They Require Very Little

A payday loan lender has a very short list of criteria for its applicants to meet. A traditional lender may request your Social Security Number, proof of ID, and a credit check, but the average payday lender will ask for none of these things.

Generally, you will be asked to prove that you are in employment, have a bank account, and are at least 18 years old—that’s it. You may also be required to submit proof that you are a US citizen.

Cons: High Risk of Defaulting

A study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that nearly half of all payday loans go into default within just 2 years. That’s a staggering statistic when you consider that the average default rate for personal loans and credit cards is between 1% and 4%.

It proves the point that many payday lender critics have been making for years: Payday loans are predatory and high-risk. The average credit or loan account is only provided after the applicant has undergone a strict underwriting process. The lender takes its time to check that the applicant is suitable, looking at their credit history, credit score, and more, and only giving them the credit/loan when they are confident it will be repaid.

This may seem like an unnecessary and frustrating process, but as the above statistics prove, it’s not just for the benefit of the lender as it also protects the consumer from a disastrous default.

Con: High Fees

High interest rates aren’t the only reason payday lenders are considered predatory. Like all lenders, they charge fees for late payments. But unlike other lenders, these fees are astronomical and if you’re late by several weeks or months, those fees can be worth more than the initial balance.

A few years ago, a survey on payday lending discovered that the average borrower had accumulated $458 worth of fees, even though the median loan was nearly half that amount.

Cons: There are Better Options

If you have a respectable credit history or any kind of collateral, there are better options available. A bank or credit union can provide you with small short-term loans you can repay over many months without accumulating astronomical sums of interest. 

The interest rates are much lower, the fees are more manageable, and unless your credit score is really poor, you should be offered more favorable terms than what you can get from a payday lender.

Even a credit card can offer you better terms. Generally speaking, a credit card has some of the highest interest rates of any unsecured debt, but it can’t compare to a payday loan. It also has very little impact on your credit score and many credit card providers offer 0% on purchases for the first-few months.

What’s more, if things go wrong with a credit card, you have more options than you have with a payday loan, including a balance transfer credit card or a debt settlement program.

Why Do Payday Loans Charge So Much Interest?

If we were to take a cynical view, we could say that payday loans charge a lot simply because the lender can get away with charging a lot. After all, a payday loan lender targets the lowest-income individuals, the ones who need money the most and find themselves in desperate situations.

However, this doesn’t paint a complete picture. In actual fact, it all comes down to risk and reward. A lender increases its interest rate when an applicant is at a greater risk of default. 

The reason you can get low rates when you have a great credit score and high rates when you don’t, is because the former group is more likely to pay on time and in full, whereas the latter group is more likely to default.

Lending is all about balancing the probabilities, and because a short-term loan is at serious risk of defaulting, the costs are very high.

Payday Loans and Your Credit Score

Your credit will only be affected if the lender reports to the credit bureaus. This is something that many consumers overlook, incorrectly assuming that every payment will result in a positive report and every missed payment in a negative one. 

If the lender doesn’t report to the main credit bureaus, there will be no changes to your report and the account will not even show. This is how many payday lenders operate. They rarely run credit checks, so your report won’t be hit with an inquiry, and they tend not to report on-time payments.

However, it’s a different story if you miss those payments. A lender can report missed payments and defaults and may also sell your account to a debt collector, at which point your credit score will take a hit. 

If you’re concerned about how an application will impact your credit score, speak with the lender or read the terms and conditions before applying. And remember to always meet your payments on time to avoid any negative marks on your credit report and, more importantly, to ensure you’re not hit with additional fees.

Payday Loans vs Personal Loans

A personal loan is generally a much better option than a payday loan. These loans are designed to help you cover emergency expenses, pay for home improvements, launch businesses, and, in the case of debt consolidation loans, to clear your debt. 

The interest rates are around 6% to 10% for lenders with respectable credit scores, and while they often charge an origination fee and late fees, they are generally much cheaper options. You can repay the loan at a time that suits you and tailor the payments to fit your monthly expenses, ensuring that they don’t leave you short at the end of the month.

You can get a personal loan from a bank or a credit union; whenever you need the money, just compare, apply, and then wait for it to hit your account. The money paid by these loans is generally much higher than that offered by payday loans and you can stretch it out over a few years if needed.

What is an Unsecured Loan?

Personal and payday loans are both classed as unsecured loans, as the lender doesn’t secure them against money or assets. Secured loans are typically secured against your home (mortgage, home equity loan) or your car (auto loan, title loan). They can also be secured against a cash deposit, as is the case with secured credit cards.

Although this may seem like a negative, considering a lender can repossess your asset if you fail to meet the payment terms, it actually provides many positives. For instance, a secured loan gives the lender more recourse if anything goes wrong, which means the underwriters don’t need to account for a lot of risk. As a result, the lender is more likely to offer you a low interest rate. 

Where cash advance loans and other small loans are concerned, there is generally no option for securing the loan. The lender won’t be interested, and neither should you—what’s the point of securing a $30,000 car against a $1,000 loan!?

New Payday Loan Regulations

Payday lenders are subject to very strict rules and regulations and this industry has undergone some serious changes in recent years. In some states, limits are imposed to prevent high interest rates; in others, payday lenders are banned from operating altogether. 

The golden age of payday lending has passed, there’s no doubt about that. In fact, many lenders left the US markets and took their business to countries like the UK, only for the UK authorities to impose many of the same restrictions after a few years of pandemonium. In the US, the industry thrived during the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s, but it has since been losing ground and the practice is illegal or highly restricted in many states.

Are Payday Loans Still Legal?

Payday loans are legal in 27 states, but many states have imposed strict rules and regulations governing everything from loan amounts to fees. The states where payday lenders are not allowed to operate are:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia

It is still possible to apply for personal loans and title loans in these states, but high-interest, cash advance loans are out of the question, for the time being at least.

Debt Rollover Rules for Payday Lenders

One of the things that regulations cover is something known as Debt Rollover, whereby a consumer rolls their debt over into the next billing period, accruing fees and continuing to pay interest. The more rollovers there are, the greater the risk and the higher the detriment to the borrower.

Debt rollovers are at fault for many of the issues concerning payday loans. They create a cycle of persistent debt, as the borrower is forced to acquire additional debt to repay the payday loan debt. 

In the following states, payday loans are legal but restricted to between 0 and 1 rollovers:

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Washington D.C.
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Other states tend to limit debt rollovers to 2, but there are some notable exceptions. In South Dakota and Delaware, as many as 4 are allowed, while the state of Missouri allows for 6. However, the borrower must reduce the principal of the loan by at least 5% during each successive rollover.

Are These Changes for the Best?

If you’re a payday lender, the aforementioned rules and regulations are definitely not a good thing. Payday lenders rely on persistent debt. They make money from the poorest percentage of the population as they are the ones most likely to get trapped in that cycle.

For responsible borrowers, however, they turn something potentially disastrous into something that could serve a purpose. Payday loans still carry a huge risk, especially if there is any chance that you won’t repay the loan in time, but the limits imposed on interest rates and rollovers reduces the astronomical costs.

In that sense, they are definitely for the best, but there are still risks and potential pitfalls, so be sure to keep these in mind before you apply for any short-term loans.