We’ve all seen the ads. “Need cash fast?” a speaker asks. “Have bad credit? You can get up to $1,000 within 24 hours.” The ad then directs you to a sketchy-sounding website, like 44cash.com, or a slightly-less-sketchy-sounding business, like PLS Loan Store. Most of us roll our eyes or go grab another beer when these commercials air. But 12 million people a year turn to payday lenders, who disguise the real cost of these loans. Borrowers often become saddled with unaffordable loans that have sky-high interest rates.

For years, states have tried to crack down on these deceptive business practices. Now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is giving it a shot. On Monday, the New York Times reported that the CFPB will soon issue the first draft of new regulations on the $46 billion payday-lending industry. The rules are being designed to ensure borrowers have a better understanding of the real cost of payday loans and to promote a transparent and fair short-term lending market.

On the surface, payday loans sound like a good idea to many cash-strapped Americans. They offer a short-term loan—generally two weeks in length—for a fixed fee, with payment generally due on the borrower's next payday. The average borrower takes out a $375 two-week loan with a fee of $55, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Safe Small-Dollar Loans Research Project which has put out multiple reports on payday lenders over the past few years. But payday lenders confuse borrowers in a couple of ways.

First, borrowers are rarely able to pay back their loans in two weeks. So they "roll over" the payday loan by paying just the $55 fee. Now, they don't owe the $375 principal for another two weeks, but they're hit with another $55 fee. That two-week, $375 loan with a $55 fee just effectively became a four-week, $375 loan with a $110 fee. If, after another two weeks, they still can't repay the principal, then they will roll it over again for yet another $55 fee. You can see how quickly this can spiral out of control. What started as a two-week loan can last for months at a time—and the fees borrowers incur along the way end up dwarfing the principle. Pew found that the average borrower paid $520 in fees for the $375 loan, which was rolled over an average of eight times. In fact, using data from Oklahoma, Pew found that “more borrowers use at least 17 loans in a year than just one.” 

Second, borrowers are often confused about the cost of the loan. The $55 fee—payday lenders often advertise a fee of $15 per $100 borrowed—sounds like a reasonable price for a quick infusion of cash, especially compared to a credit card with a 24-percent annual percentage rate (APR). But that’s actually an extremely high price. Consider the standard two-week, $375 loan with a $55 fee. If you were to roll that loan over for an entire year, you would pay $1,430 in fees ($55 times 26). That's 3.81 times the original $375 loan—an APR of 381 percent.

Many borrowers, who badly need money to hold them over until their next paycheck, don’t think about when they'll actually be able to pull it back or how many fees they’ll accumulate. “A lot of people who are taking out the loan focus on the idea that the payday loan is short-term or that it has a fixed $55 fee on average,” said Nick Bourke, the director of the Pew research project. “And they make their choice based on that.”

Lenders advertise the loans as a short-term fix—but their business model actually depends on borrowers accruing fees. That was the conclusion of a 2009 study by the Federal Reserve of Kansas City. Other research has backed up the study’s findings. “They don’t achieve profitability unless their average customer is in debt for months, not weeks,” said Bourke. That’s because payday lending is an inefficient business. Most lenders serve only 500 unique customers a year, Pew found. But they have high overhead costs like renting store space, maintaining working computers, and payroll. That means lenders have to make a significant profit on each borrower.

It’s also why banks and other large companies can offer short-term loans at better prices. Some banks are offering a product called a “deposit advance loan” which is nearly identical to a payday loan. But the fees on those loans are far smaller than traditional payday loans—around $7.50-$10 per $100 loan per two-week borrowing period compared with $15 per $100 loan per two-week period. Yet short-term borrowers are often unaware of these alternatives. In the end, they often opt for payday loans, which are much better advertised.


The CFPB can learn a lot about how to (and how not to) formulate its upcoming regulations from state efforts to crack down on payday lenders. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have implemented restrictive rules, like setting an interest-rate cap at 36 percent APR, that have shutdown the payday-loan business almost entirely. Another eight states have created hybrid systems that impose some regulations on payday lenders, like requiring longer repayment periods or lower fees, but have not put them out of business. The remaining 28 states have few, if any, restrictions on payday lending:

The CFPB doesn’t have the power to set an interest rate cap nationally, so it won’t be able to stop payday lending altogether. But that probably shouldn’t be the Bureau’s goal anyways. For one, eliminating payday lending could have unintended consequences, such as by driving the lending into other unregulated markets. In some states, that seems to have already happened, with payday lenders registering as car title lenders, offering the same loans under a different name. Whether it would happen on a large scale is less clear. In states that have effectively outlawed payday lending, 95 percent of borrowers said they do not use payday loans elsewhere, whether from online payday lenders or other borrowers. “Part of the reason for that is people who get payday loans [are] pretty much mainstream consumers,” Bourke said. “They have a checking account. They have income, which is usually from employment. They’re attracted to the idea of doing business with a licensed lender in their community. And if the stores in the community go away, they’re not very disposed towards doing business with unlicensed lenders or some kind of loan shark.”

In addition, borrowers value payday lending. In Pew’s survey, 56 percent of borrowers said that the loan relieved stress compared to just 31 percent who said it was a source of stress. Forty-eight percent said payday loans helped borrowers, with 41 percent saying they hurt them. In other words, the short-term, high-cost lending market has value. But borrowers also feel that lenders take advantage of them and the vast majority want more regulation.

So what should that regulation look like? Bourke points to Colorado as an example. Lawmakers there capped the annual interest payment at 45 percent while allowing strict origination and maintenance fees. Even more importantly, Colorado requires lenders to allow borrowers to repay the loans over at least six months, with payments over time slowly reducing the principal.1 These reforms have been a major success. Average APR rates in Colorado fell from 319 percent to 129 percent and borrowers spent $41.9 million less in 2012 than in 2009, before the changes. That’s a 44 percent drop in payments. At the same time, the number of loans per borrower dropped by 71 percent, from 7.8 to 2.3.

The Colorado law did reduce the number of licensed locations by 53 percent, from 505 to 238. Yet, the number of individual consumers fell just 15 percent. Overall, that leads to an 81 percent increase in borrowers per store, making the industry far more efficient and allowing payday lenders to earn a profit even with lower interest rates and a longer repayment period.

Bourke proposes that the CFPB emulate Colorado’s law by requiring the lenders to allow borrowers to repay the loans over a longer period. But he also thinks the Bureau could improve upon the law by capping payments at 5 percent of borrower’s pretax income, known as an ability-to-repay standard. For example, a monthly payment should not exceed 5 percent of monthly, pretax income. Lenders should also be required to clearly disclose the terms of the loan, including the periodic payment due, the total cost of the loan (all fee and interest payments plus principal), and the effective APR.

The CFPB hasn’t announced the rules yet. But the Times report indicated that the Bureau is considering an ability-to-repay standard. The CFPB may also include car title lenders in the regulation with the hope of reducing payday lenders' ability to circumvent the rules. However, instead of requiring longer payment periods, the agency may instead limit the number of times a lender could roll over a borrower’s loan. In other words, borrowers may only be able to roll over the loan three or four times a year, preventing them from repeatedly paying the fee.

If the Bureau opts for that rule, it could limit the effectiveness of the law. “That kind of tries to tackle a problem of repeat borrowing and long-term borrowing but that’s a symptom,” Bourke said. “That’s not really the core disease. The core disease is unaffordable payments.” In addition, it could prevent a transparent market from emerging, as payday lenders continue to take advantage of borrowers’ ignorance over these loans. “The market will remain in this mire,” Burke added, “where it’s dominated by a deceptive balloon payment product that makes it difficult for consumers to make good choices but also makes it difficult for better types of lenders to compete with the more fair and transparent product." Ultimately, that's in the CFPB's hands.

  1. This is known as an amortizing loan. Loans where the payments don’t reduce the principal are called balloon payment loans.