Borrowed trouble: My 30 days inside a payday loan office

The cursor blinks and a man hovers over my computer. American flag t-shirt, sleeves off — he coughs into his hands and rubs them together. He’s nervous. On my desk lies his bank statement, three pay stubs and a driver’s license. They are the only items he has in the world.

“You can do $200?” he asks. “All I need is $200.”

“I can do $200,” I say, but I’m falsely distracted: I’m typing — clicks and clacks without regard to timing or rhythm. The store is stuffy today. I’m thinking about going home. Or crawling under my desk, holding my knees and rocking. I’m feeling loansome: i.e., the mental weight from a month’s work of digging irresponsible borrowers under insurmountable debt.

“Yeah,” he says, “that all?”

Sam, who sits next to me, swivels over. She reaches to tap my computer screen, making the monitor shake, her chubby finger with a fat force. Where she taps it reads,

TOTAL LOAN AMOUNT APPROVED: ………………. $750.00

Sam turns her head, smiling at me, nodding, as if to say, “Go ahead, Kevin, you got this. I believe in you.” So I swallow. I have to find my voice again, like a shy 12 year old being forced to sing the National Anthem in front of his friends; it’s in there, but it doesn’t want to come out.

Below my computer screen is a motivational sign:

GOAL: 100% of TLA

Next to the letters is a picture of a steaming coffee cup with a pastry.

The man, waiting, now growing impatient to my silence, stretches. He looks to his right, at the signage hanging on the wall. Big, beautiful green letters,

BE A RESPONSIBLE BORROWER, TAKE ONLY WHAT YOU NEED.

“You’re approved for $750,” I say.

He pretends to think about it: “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll take it. All of it.”

Checks and Balances

Every human who has ever held more than one job has had a bad job. Maybe the culture was rotten, or the pay was criminal. Maybe you were actually a criminal, I don’t know.

But six years ago, at The Cash Store, this was something else. I’m talking about a dreadful job, a horrific season of life — a day-in, day-out grind that compromises integrity, burdens shoulders and weighs down smiles until they’re crooked and false.

The job posting, listed under Finance on Monster.com, was immediately appealing. It started at $11 per hour, plus bonus incentives, which, considering the $7.50 minimum wage, wasn’t bad. Sam and the District Manager — whose name I forget, let’s call her Kathy — interviewed me. Sam and Kathy hired me on the spot, promptly, right after the interview. And yes, it felt good. It made me feel alive, like, how often does this happen? I must be an incredible person!

Later, I would find out — after reading through two binders full of training material — that when a store interviews a candidate, and that candidate comprises capability and remote interest, the store should close the deal and hire that candidate on the spot.

In other words, Don’t let the candidate walk. He might think it over too much.

What is a Cash Store?

Payday advances, check cashing, title loans — maybe you’ve seen them before (unless they are illegal in your state). MoneyTree is the most popular franchise.

This is how it works: You bring in recent pay stubs and a banking statement. The payday institution will offer you a loan based on a fraction of your income. You will get approved unless your bank statement has more than three NSFs (non-sufficient funds) for the month.

The interest rate is in the 200s.

There are also title loans.

A title loan, as the name suggests, is when you trade your vehicle’s title over for cash in return. The loan institution retains your title and charges mega interest. If you can’t repay the loan, eventually the interest accumulates to the value of your vehicle, and you lose the car.

For better or for worse, Idaho state government is relatively hands-off. This means, while almost every other state has heavily regulated or outlawed title loans, like Washington state, Idaho has not. Washington residents, who live 30 minutes away, were often our best customers.

Photo by Pawel Kadysz

Photo by Pawel Kadysz

At this point, it’s only fair to say that payday loans are not inherently evil. Like gambling, drinking, or watching network television — moderation and sound judgement can make all the difference. There were a few customers, I can remember, who needed a couple hundred bucks with no family or friends to turn to. Some emergency cropped up (+rent + car payments + tuition), payday was too far away, and the extra fees were worth it. When payday came, he or she paid in-full, on time — and occasionally early — walking out the door with an easy, swift gait.

In my month at The Cash Store, I celebrated these rare moments. Escape. They beat a system that was heavily rigged not in their favor. “Good for him,” I’d say.

“We’ll get ‘em next time,” Sam would say with a wink.

I’d offer a nervous smile and look out the window, dying on the inside.

***

For every responsible borrower there were ten irresponsible borrowers. It was an addiction. You could see it on their faces. They owed money to every loan office in town, hopping from branch to branch like monkeys, often returning to refinance. There was never any hope for most of these people and we were enabling their sickness.

When customers didn’t make their monthly payments (which was often), we’d have to call cell numbers, then house phones, then whoever they put down as references. We’d harass them. Call and call. Call and call. Message after message.

Call and call.

It was unending and unnerving.

I had come from a long line of irresponsible borrowers. It’s why my last name has two r’s. Each person we called — who dodged us — I knew it was their fault, really, but I felt for them. Who’s to really blame here, the predator or the prey? Both, I suppose. There’s no sense to make of it.

But thoughts like these were endless, swimming like sharks in my head, nibbling on my brain.

Sam’s Club

Sam was the type of girl who found her life’s calling managing a payday advance office. It’s not that she didn’t have integrity or morals. Sam was helping people — even if most failed.

She was 25, jovial and overweight. Her hair pulled back tight, Sam sat with great posture and spoke with a clear and pleasant customer cadence. Her tone was both approachable and stern. She listened to pop radio through a black, Radio Shack boombox that rested above a cabinet full of car titles.

Sam’s boombox played only Top 40s. All day, every day. It was torture. At the time, my life’s purpose comprised listening and knowing indie-rock and punk music. It was how I differentiated myself as an individual. I was still relatively new to Idaho, back then, coming from a California music scene that tattooed its residents with pomposity and exclusivity. Our scene was the best scene, and I would talk about it, but really, you had to be there.

So I wasn’t sure which was worse: scamming desperate people into loans that would forever ruin their lives, or listening to The Script’s “Breakeven” four times a day.

The music filled our tiny office — a retail front with one shared desk behind a high counter. The potential client would walk in, look at our signage of happy, clean people holding fresh bundles of cash, and then walk up to our desk, and I would begin to begrudgingly moan, “Welcome to The Cash Store,” but Sam often beat me to it.

She was a pro, and I admired her for it, though I desperately wanted to save her.

Payday Retreat

“Didn’t you know what you signed up for? How has anything changed?” When I told the store that I was quitting, Kathy, the District Manager, tried to argue and shame me into staying.

“I just don’t feel right about it anymore,” I said, half-hearted, now unsure of myself.

“But it’s their choice, Kevin. You’re not doing anything wrong here. This is all legal.”

“We upsell them,” I said. “Don’t we?” It was a rare moment of confidence. In the days leading up to this conversation, I had rehearsed the speech. “We upsell them,” was the first sentence, but now I couldn’t remember the rest. I sat and stared at my shifting, sweaty hands.

“It’s no different than selling a muffin with a cup of coffee,” Kathy said. “This is business.” Her argument was tenuous, sure, but she was unshaken, proud of her Business Administration wit. She paused, letting the room breathe, and I squirmed in my seat.

And then, after shaking her head, she sighed, as if to realize that, somewhere along the way, she had made an embarrassing mistake: “Finance isn’t for everyone. Is it, Kevin?”

I wanted to tell her that upselling a loan with a poster on the wall that read, “Borrow only what you need” was wrong. That targeting irresponsible borrowers with the flash of money was wrong. That ignoring obvious red flags was wrong. That taking control of a person’s vehicle, which was often his or her only meaningful asset, was wrong. That 200+% interest was impossible, and that if we were in other states, our whole operation would be illegal.

“No,” I said. “I guess not.”

Kathy stood, shook her head, adjusted her business suit, and promptly walked out the door.

Photo by Mark Doda

Photo by Mark Doda

Sam wasn’t surprised: “You’re too nice a guy for this.”

“But you’re nice,” I argued, hoping she’d come with me, that she’d realize her potential. But Sam didn’t come. She had three kids and a stay-at-home husband. She had payments of her own. She gave me a hug and let me walk out the door without much thought, like I was some customer; I wondered which kind.

Return of the King?

Recently, I moved back to North Idaho after two years of college out east. In the months prior, I imagined a glorious return — a high paying job, enough money for a downpayment on a house. I would pass by the old shop, The Cash Store, on my way to my new job and I would shake my head: “Wasted youth.” I would watch a seedy customer limp inside, bank statement and pay stubs in hand. “How sick our world is,” I would moan.

Sardonic, I know, but that was the vision. Instead, I’m living in my parent-in-law’s basement, unemployed — broke, but rich with a hard drive full of a hundred rejected resumes.

I drive by The Cash Store, today, and I park. I wonder if Sam is still in there. I wonder if she would remember me, six years later, if she would welcome me back, and if I would do it all over again. If I should do it all over again. If I should walk inside and grab a resume and wait for her call.

I wonder if I’ll ever need a loan.

I put the car in Drive and slowly leave their parking lot, considering an alternate timeline or dimension — one where I had never left. Instead, I worked my way up. I’m now District Manager. Kathy is my mentor. I tithe. I sing at church. I’m content as I recline in my leather sofa.

I shake off the vision with a laugh. I drive around aimlessly, with no where else to go.

Idealism isn’t always practical, integrity not always lucrative.

This is the cycle of the middle class. Dreams and visions, big ideas and goals, the future is planted but the rain doesn’t come. Instead we get mist. Not enough water to grow the crops, but just enough to wet our faces, just enough to taste it.

I’ll take it. I want all of it.

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5 comments

  1. Kevin,

    The job market in northern Idaho hasn’t changed much since you left it. So you have a few choices, hang-in there and see what turns up; move to another city/state with more opportunities; move to another country with more opportunities.

    I for one am glad you are not working at the Cash Store any longer – that type of job would have eaten away at your soul, till none of the Kevin I know and respect was remaining. Checkout TheMuse.com and see if there isn’t anything helpful in there for you.

    In the old days those folks at the Cash Store would have been called bunco or con-artists, flimflam artists, hucksters. You know snake oil peddlers, selling tonic that cures all – a claim that is preposterous. What the Cash Store and those types of businesses do isn’t any different, nor any more ethical than what the financial institutions did during the most recent foreclosure debacle. Sucking people in for more than can afford – with no way out when they hit a bump in the road. It may be (or have been) legal, but it isn’t ethical. Kathy and Sam are only deluding themselves with those arguments they gave you when trying to convince you to stay.They are like drug dealers or the tobacco industry, getting people hooked on their so-called services by providing that first free hit, knowing they’ll keep the mark coming back. Deep down they know what they are doing isn’t really helping anyone, but sell it they will.

    Do the people going to these places in order to deal with their financial problems also have a responsibility? Yes, of course, but so many people, especially American’s are ignorant about how money works and our society and school systems do little to educate them. When I got in debt I was aware that it was my doing, but it took me a long time to learn why I was getting the results I was getting. To understand what I was doing wrong, what line of thinking I was following that was so erroneous that the debt accumulated and I kept finding myself back in the same dilemma. Getting educated on what I was doing wrong and what societal myths I was believing that were keeping me off course made a huge difference. So the fault I find with people who use these places is that once they see they are stuck in a cycle like the one you described in your post, is that they do nothing to educate themselves and make the necessary changes to get out of the cycle. They remain victims of the Kim’s and Kathy’s and Cash Stores of the world- and so for that they have no one but themselves to blame.

    Thanks for sharing and reminding how far I’ve come and how blessed I am.

    1. Thanks, Mary! You always have such thoughtful comments. I especially liked, “Getting educated on what I was doing wrong and what societal myths I was believing that were keeping me off course made a huge difference. So the fault I find with people who use these places is that once they see they are stuck in a cycle like the one you described in your post, is that they do nothing to educate themselves and make the necessary changes to get out of the cycle.”

      So, so true. Well done!

  2. Good post, Kevin. I got my first job in the finance industry, thirteen years ago, working at a small loan company in Boise similar to where you worked. I learned there that I couldn’t be bought by pressure or cash, the Vice President of the company would visit from TX and liked to persuade/coerce via intimidation and lining cash up on our desks, etc. I moved to a competitor for a few years and moved on and away from the industry altogether after that.

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