Short Term Credit and Controlling One’s Financial Affairs

It’s Hardly Predator vs. Prey

Consumerism is American. Free market capitalism and payday loans are all part of necessary competition, despite what critics would have you believe. (Photo:

Consumerism is American. Free market capitalism and payday loans are all part of necessary competition, despite what critics would have you believe. (Photo:

If media and banking industry critics of payday lending are to be believed, payday loan outlets are perched in the reeds, muscles coiled in anticipation of springing upon unsuspecting consumers. “Predatory lending” is the fallback term such misinformed critics use, under the assumption that people who use payday loans are tricked or somehow lured into doing so. Yet ample evidence exists that indicates that payday loan customers are educated and take time to consider their options before choosing the short term loan product.

Understand Who Uses Payday Loans

Edward Lawrence and Gregory Elliehausen studied who uses payday loans and why in their April 2008 Contemporary Economic Policy article “A Comparative Analysis of Payday Loan Customers.” Using a national survey that takes into account numerous payday loan outlets belonging to industry trade association the Community Financial Services Association (CFSA), the authors reach beyond the veil of anecdotal evidence as they interview 427 payday loan customers from the survey. Rather than finding an uneducated, unsophisticated group that is being victimized against their will or better judgment, Lawrence and Elliehausen found that payday loan customers consider their decisions carefully and weigh the cost of payday loans against other costs both monetary and environmental.

Consumers, Consumption and Debt Burden

Consumer credit fills a definite need, particularly for segments of society without a great deal of liquid assets at their easy disposal and a significant debt burden. Building upon Juster and Shay’s 1964 study “Consumer Sensitivity to Finance Rates: An Empirical and Analytical Investigation,” where consumer credit is seen to be used on household durable goods, and multiple studies that suggest that such a method is financially feasible when the rate of return is high, Lawrence and Elliehausen point toward a model where high interest payday lending may be optimal for certain consumers. The conditions under which the authors see this would be the case are “relatively high-return investment opportunities, low current income and strong preferences for current consumption.”

Yes, We Live in a Consumer Culture

Americans see it as their right (and their curse) to “keep up with the Joneses.” When this behavior is left unchecked, personal debt can spiral out of control. Thus, when consumers look to short term loans like payday loans to handle financial shocks, they do so in large part because they do not have the liquid assets available to handle their debt obligations in lump sums. Creditors know this, so they tend to limit the amount of credit they extend so as to protect themselves from default. Unsecured personal loans are available from payday lenders to make up the difference. They are available at a cost that the authors find consumers are more willing to swallow than more expensive or socially taboo alternatives.

The Rise of Rationed Borrowers

The authors refer to the Juster and Shay study in stating that borrowers constrained by their debt loads are “rationed” borrowers. Juster and Shay theorize that rationed borrowers are “in early family life-cycle stages where rates of return on household investments would be high.” Their income would be low to moderate, which would explain the small amount of liquid assets available. Furthermore, their demand for consumer credit would be connected less to interest rates and more to the general lack of standard credit available.

That’s the way Juster and Shay saw it in 1964, 45 years ago. Things have changed a great deal since then. Creditors have a greater technical facility for assessing and pricing risk, say Lawrence and Elliehausen. The requirements for equity have lessened and the time for short term loans to reach maturity have lengthened. Unsecured credit through bank-issued credit cards has also become more readily available. There is a “subprime credit card market” for today’s rationed borrowers, but there are other alternatives that do not deal so heavily in the constant spiral of revolving debt. Payday loans have been a prime alternative for rationed borrowers.

NOT Preying Upon the Elderly

Some critics of payday loans claim the industry preys upon the elderly. However, numerous recent studies indicate that young and middle-aged consumers have contributed to an increasing demand for short term loans. Their drives are somewhat different, as Lawrence and Elliehausen’s findings show. For the young, their demand for payday loans has been predicated on how quickly they can pay off their short term loans (seven to 20 days is standard) and hence regiment their budget, whereas middle-aged  consumers’ demand is more in tune with obtaining better interest rates.

Budgetary Discipline

This sense of maintaining a budget in the face of environmental pressures resonates through various other studies. Katona’s “Psychological Economics” (1975) indicates that consumers “may be reluctant to increase credit card debt because they fear that they will not have the discipline to make payments on the additional debt.”In this case, Lawrence and Elliehausen hypothesize that consumer use of payday loans via a standard contract may be expensive in a traditional sense, but if the alternative is increased vulnerability to higher debt or even an inability to access credit, the short term loans are preferable in the long run.

Survey Says

Payday loan customers surveyed by Lawrence and Elliehausen tend to break many of the stereotypical notions spread by critics of the industry. They are not in fact poor; just over half had family incomes between $25,000 and $49,999. Considering that having an active checking account is a requirement for obtaining a payday loan, unbanked households (generally lower income) are not being exploited by such short term loans. In terms of age, two-thirds were under 45 years old, with more than one-third under 35. Only 10 percent were 55 or older, so clearly the elderly is not being targeted. Family situations indicated more than half were married or living with a partner, and 65 percent of respondents had children under 18 years of age living in the household. These are young families with debt loads who are attempting to deal with financial shocks as best they can. Now that America is in a recession, I’m sure that if Lawrence and Elliehausen conducted their survey today, the numbers would continue to support this idea.

Do They Have Other Options?

The survey indicated that a whopping 91.6 percent of payday loan customers do rely on other types of consumer credit at times. However, considering the finding that payday loan customers are less likely to use revolving credit like credit cards, one would think that they find an advantage in using the more regimented payday loan model. I would offer that it is precisely that budgetary discipline discussed earlier that makes payday loans more appealing for these rationed borrowers.

Of course, having other credit options tends to go hand-in-hand with the potential for a greater debt burden. As such, the authors’ survey found that 73 percent of payday loan customers had been turned down or limited in their ability to secure other types of loans over the past five years. Payday loans become a necessity during financial emergencies if other options are limited. In fact, two-thirds of respondents claimed they used payday loans due to unforeseen financial events.

Making Informed Decisions

Lawrence and Elliehausen found that respondents to the payday loan survey tended to follow cognitive models suggested in other consumer credit studies. Specifically, they go through a process where they recognize need, gather details, consider options, decide and then evaluate how it went in the aftermath. As the majority of consumers in the survey appeared educated (the majority were high school graduates or had college experience), it would stand to reason that payday loan customers tend to display cognitive ability and efficiency. In the case of details like APRs and finance charges, greater education tended to equate to greater awareness (where such factors were considered important in the decision-making process).

Young Families Who Consider Options Carefully

Lawrence and Elliehausen’s findings speak to the financial realities facing many American families. They’re just starting out, their wages are not yet high and they don’t have many liquid assets lying around for a rainy day. Used in a non-habitual fashion, payday loans help absorb financial shocks during times of financial difficulty. They give consumers “a little control over their financial affairs they otherwise would not have,” write the authors. Is it any wonder then that customer attitudes toward payday lending were positive in the survey? There is peace of mind in being able to handle one’s own affairs. Since the majority of those surveyed did not show signs that they were using payday loans beyond the fashion for which they were intended, why is it that the government should be so gung-ho to step in with heavy regulation and taxation? By stymieing competition in a free market economy and restricting payday loan availability, aren’t they harming both consumers in need and their own capitalist system?

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