The New Payday Lender Looks a Lot Like the Old Payday Lender

Apps promising to “advance” a user’s wages say they aren’t payday lenders. So what are they?

Jonathan Raines needed money. An app promised to help.

He searched online for an alternative to traditional payday lenders and came across Earnin, which offered him $100 on the spot, to be deducted from his bank account on payday.

“There are no installments and no really high interest,” he told me, comparing the app favorably to a payday lender. “It’s better, in that sense.”

Earnin didn’t charge Raines a fee, but asked that he “tip” a few dollars on each loan, with no penalty if he chose not to. It seemed simple. But nine months later, what was originally a stopgap measure has become a crutch.

“You borrow $100, tip $9, and repeat,” Raines, a highway-maintenance worker in Missouri, told me. “Well, then you do that for a bit and they raise the limit, which you probably borrow, and now you are in a cycle of get paid and borrow, get paid and borrow.” Raines said he now borrows about $400 each pay cycle.

“I know it’s a responsibility thing, but once you are in that cycle, you are stuck,” Raines told me. Borrowing against his own paycheck hasn’t made stretching his money any easier. Especially because the app changes its terms based on users’ cashflow: Earnin requires constant access to users’ bank-account balances, and when its algorithms detect that a user might not be able to repay, the app lowers the borrowing limit. (A representative from Earnin said the company tells borrowers two days before their next check what the next borrowing maximum is, and that it sets these limits so users can’t borrow more than they’ve earned in a pay period.)

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