On Payday, Many GIs Pay Back

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Six months ago, John Elliott, a sailor based at Norfolk Naval Station, was having trouble keeping up with his bills, so he went looking for a quick source of cash to tide him over.

He took out what's known as a payday loan, borrowing against future paychecks in exchange for money on the spot.

Elliott borrowed a total of $1,600 from four lenders, but the high fees he was charged each time he took out or renewed his loans made them hard to pay off. In another six months, his debt could balloon to as much as $4,480.

"I thought I would pay it off in a couple of months," he said. "It's taken longer than I thought."

Elliott's experience of a short-term loan turning into a long-term liability is a familiar scenario to payday customers, many of whom live from paycheck to paycheck and have little access to other forms of credit. A Defense Department study published last month found that members of the military use payday loans three times as often as civilians.

To get a payday loan, all a borrower needs is a checking account and a pay stub. There is no credit check. The borrower simply hands over a post-dated check for the amount of the loan plus fees or gives the lender authorization to automatically withdraw money from a bank account.

But the fees can be high, averaging $15 to $30 for every $100 loaned. If a borrower does not pay back the loan by the next payday, the lender can deposit the check or take the money from the borrower's account. The borrower can also renew, or "roll over," the loan, incurring another round of fees. All told, such fees can add up to an annual percentage rate of 400 to 700 percent.

Though payday loans are supposed to be used for the occasional cash crunch, many customers repeatedly renew or "roll over" their loans. Studies by bank regulators in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana found that payday customers renewed loans an average of 10 to 13 times in one year.

Consumer groups say the way the loans are structured makes it easy for low-income earners to get in over their heads. "These are loans made without regard to ability to pay to people who have trouble making ends meet," said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

Payday loans have caught the attention of Pentagon officials and members of Congress, who worry that the high fees contribute to financial problems among military personnel.

Severe Consequences

While it's bad enough for a civilian to fall deeply into debt, the consequences for members of the military can be far more severe, including the loss of security clearance or a court-martial. Those consequences make military personnel the perfect clients for payday lenders because they have extra incentive to pay back loans, Fox said.

"How [service members] manage their finances is important to their careers and their security clearances," she said. "They will keep a loan afloat at all lengths."

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