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Updated on Wednesday, December 28, 2016
The payday loan trap begins innocently enough. You’re low on cash, you’ve maxed out your credit cards, and none of your family or friends can loan you the money. Borrowing $250 from a payday lender seems like a logical solution. As long as the $250 plus a $37.50 fee is paid at the end of the two-week term – the time your next paycheck comes due – you’ll be debt free. No harm, no foul.
Before you know it, you run out of money again and can’t repay the loan two weeks later. So you pay a fee to extend the loan for another 14 days. When the next term is up, you can have the lender cash your check or draw from your account for the initial amount of $250 plus the $37.50 fee, or you can pay to extend, yet again, with another fee payment.
This plot replays itself over and over again for months on end. After a year, you will have paid $975 to borrow $250. Effectively, you borrowed money with an annual percentage rate (APR) of 390%.
“It’s important to note that payday loans are structured intentionally to make it very difficult to walk away from,” says Diane Standaert, executive vice president and director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending. “The lender takes direct access to a borrower’s bank account in order to establish the loan, either through a check or direct access to their online account. This leverage creates a business model that makes it nearly impossible to walk away.”
This is the payday loan debt trap, but it can get worse. In this guide, we’ll explain how to get out from under a payday loan and avoid falling into the trap again.
How to Get Out of the Payday Loan Trap
There are several strategies to get out of the vicious payday loan cycle, and the strategy you choose to implement will largely depend on your financial situation.
To free up funds to pay back your loan, you’ll have to cut expenses where you can. Start by creating a budget and look at costs that are easy to cut like restaurants and other discretionary spending such as shopping trips and travel.
Next, move to some medium-cost necessities like the cable, internet, and cellphone bill or auto and rental insurance premiums. Call these companies and negotiate with them to lower costs or see if you qualify for a discount.
If you’re still having a difficult time coming up with the extra cash to pay down your loans, look to some larger expenses like your car payment and rent. It may be in your best interest to sell your car and find a more affordable mode of transportation or a less-expensive car. Consider moving or getting a roommate to reduce the cost of rent.
Finding extra money in your budget will allow you to put more income toward the debt you have acquired and catch up on your payday loans.
Work with your lenders
While you create a budget, go to your payday lender and ask if they can provide you with an extended payment plan (EPP). EPPs give the borrower more time to pay off a loan without added fees and interest and without getting turned over to a collections agency, as long as the borrower doesn’t default on the EPP.
If your lender doesn’t offer an extended payment plan, you may want to turn to any other entities you owe money to. If you have non-payday loan debt, like credit card debt, auto loans, student loans, and the like, talk to the lenders of these debts to see if they can help restructuring your debt.
Restructuring means your lender could extend the term of the loan to reduce the cost of monthly payments, or reduce the frequency of payments being made. For some student loans, you may be allowed to make income-based repayments. By reducing other required monthly payments, you will be able to put more money toward paying down your payday loans. Note that restructuring could impact your credit score, but will not be as costly as bankruptcy.
Other lenders who might be able to help
Whether you choose to work with a credit counselor or tackle the payday loan repayment on your own, another option is to seek alternative lenders who may be able to assist with getting you out of the payday lending debt cycle.
Alternative Lender #1: Friends and Family Financing
Receiving a small loan from your family is a popular option suggested on the credit website message boards. This can help you make a one-time payment to the payday lender and close your payday loan once and for all. After which, you can pay back your family in small payments made up of the fees you would have otherwise been paying to the payday lender. Typically, friends and family won’t charge you added fees or interest, so this is the most preferred and affordable route for a borrower who is strapped for cash.
Alternative Lender #2: Faith-Based Organizations and Military Relief
If you are a military servicemember or veteran or a have a religious affiliation, your participation could open up short-term lending and relief opportunities.
A few faith-based lenders have cropped up around the U.S. that are primarily focused on helping borrowers refinance their payday loans and get out of the payday lending debt cycle. One example is Exodus Lending, a nonprofit organization in Minnesota that pays off their clients’ payday loans in exchange for their clients’ paying Exodus for the loan balance over the course of 12 months without interest or additional fees.
Military service members also have protections and emergency relief assistance through various veterans organizations.
Alternative Lender #3: Personal Loans
Find cheaper funding with a personal loan through your local credit union or our personal loan database.
With a 600+ credit score, you may be able to secure a personal loan with an average APR between 6% and 36%, a range considerably lower than the 400% to 700% APRs that come with payday lending. Use the funds you receive through your personal loan to pay off all outstanding payday loans and close the door to payday lending for good.
Then make the minimum monthly loan payment for your new personal loan on time and in full.
Once you’ve built your credit above the 600 threshold, visit your local credit union to apply for a personal loan.
Continue to improve your credit score with responsible personal loan and credit card repayments. Over time, your score will improve yet again. Once your score is over 700, you will be eligible for even more affordable personal loans with APRs as low as 4%.
Are there times it makes sense to walk away?
There are times when bankruptcy is the best option to relieve debts you are not able to pay back. If you choose to go this route, you will be required to obtain a pre-bankruptcy credit counselor before you file.
It’s important to find a government-approved credit counselor through the U.S. Trustee Program (USTP) to ensure a reasonable counseling rate – a fee of less than or equal to $50 is considered reasonable. USTP-approved agencies are required to inform clients that services are available for free or at a reduced rate, based on the client’s ability to pay, prior to the exchange of any information and the counseling session.
A credit counselor will help evaluate your personal financial situation, create a personal budget plan, and look into alternatives to filing for bankruptcy, like restructuring debt or negotiating with your payday lender. After all options have been exhausted, your counselor can help you explore your options for bankruptcy.
Many borrowers have been told that bankruptcy is irrelevant for payday lending. They also fear that they could be arrested if they fail to make payments. This is a common myth spread by debt collectors for payday lenders. These threats are illegal, and if they happen to you, make sure to contact your state attorney general and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Low credit ratings and the absence of access to a bank account can lead to exceedingly expensive financial products. A Vanderbilt University Law School study found evidence that access to payday loans increases personal bankruptcy rates, doubling Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings for first-time payday loan applicants within two years.
How payday loans can lead to bankruptcy
Most payday loans are secured by getting access to a borrower’s online checking account or by receiving a signed check from the borrower for the amount of the loan plus the loan borrowing fee.
When borrowers fail to make their payment upon the loan due date, and don’t pay the extension fee, the lender can withdraw the amount due through the borrower’s online account or cash the signed check.
If the borrower doesn’t have enough funds in their account to cover the amount rendered, their check will bounce and they will incur a bounced check fee and a returned check, which impacts the borrower’s credit report and credit rating. With a record of bounced checks, the bank can go as far as shutting down the borrower’s bank account and make it difficult for the borrower to obtain any new accounts.
What are your rights with a lender?
To begin the fight against payday loans, we must review the borrower’s rights when they enter the loan agreement, understand how lenders get away with hemorrhaging money from borrowers, and what legislation is doing about it.
Payday lending isn’t legal in every state. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia (see the map above) have effectively capped payday loan interest rates at 36% APR. Residents of the remaining states without APR caps stay unprotected against the harm of the inescapable payday lending debt cycle.
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), payday lenders are not required by federal law to offer borrowers the lowest rates available. This is because lenders charge a fixed-fee price. Some states, as Standaert mentioned, cap these fees such that the annual rate for a two-week loan doesn’t exceed the enforced rate cap.
Although lenders are not legally bound to offer the lowest rates available, federal law requires payday lenders to disclose the cost of the loan in terms of an annual APR, so the borrower will see on the website or on their contract that the interest rate is 300% or more, according to Standaert.
“Though, disclosures of the price alone do not alleviate the concerns about the predatory structures of this product,” says Standaert. “Payday loans are marketed as a quick fix to a financial emergency, but payday lenders know that their business model is built on keeping people trapped in debt they can’t repay.”
Fees versus interest
It’s important to note the language lenders use in how they structure these financial products. Payday lenders are able to charge excessive amounts in “interest” because in reality, they aren’t charging interest, they’re charging a fee.
If your payday loan were treated as a loan with a designated payback period, interest rate, and amortization schedule, then for every payment you made over the course of time you borrowed the money, a portion of your $37.50 would go to pay down your $250 loan balance.
In the case of payday loans, every payment you make to extend the loan is purely a fee-based payment, or interest-only payment with a 100% principal payment at the end of the term.
What legislation has done and will do
“A rate cap, such as what the fifteen states and D.C. have enforced, is the strongest protection they can enact on the state level. There is activity at the federal level as well,” says Standaert.
“The CFPB, has been working for the past several years to rein in the harms of the payday lending debt trap,” adds Standaert. “While the CFPB doesn’t have authority to enforce a rate cap, their strongest role is to establish rules that enforce payday lenders to assess whether the loan is affordable in light of a borrower’s income and expenses prior to issuing a loan.”
“While states have the ability to address cost, the CFPB can address the harmful nature of these loans,” says Standaert. “Restricting the predatory business practice of payday lending can allow better financial products to come to the forefront for borrowers who need financial relief.”
Standaert said that the Center for Responsible Lending and other organizations dedicated to fair financial products for consumers have seen overwhelming support for the CFPB and states to crack down on payday loans.
“Seventy-five percent of voters in South Dakota went to the ballot box this November and voted to reduce the cost of payday lending from 500% to 36%,” says Standaert. “This was the first time voters have reached a conclusion of this sort.”
Who to contact if your lender is being unfair
Standaert suggests that borrowers should file complaints with their state attorney general and the CFPB at consumerfinance.gov/complaint.
“Whether the cost is too high, they have issues with how their bank account is being treated, or they have experienced unfair debt collection tactics, the CFPB accepts complaints for people from all around the country struggling with payday loans for all kinds of reasons,” says Standaert.