Payday Lending in America: Who Borrows, Where They Borrow, and Why

Who Borrows, Where They Borrow, and Why


Each year, 12 million borrowers spend more than $7 billion on payday loans.

This report—the first in Pew's Payday Lending in America series—answers major questions about who borrowers are demographically; how people borrow; how much they spend; why they use payday loans; what other options they have; and whether state regulations reduce borrowing or simply drive borrowers online.

Key Findings

1. Who Uses Payday Loans?  

Twelve million American adults use payday loans annually. On average, a borrower takes out eight loans of $375 each per year and spends $520 on interest.  

Pew's survey found 5.5 percent of adults nationwide have used a payday loan in the past five years, with three-quarters of borrowers using storefront lenders and almost one-quarter borrowing online. State regulatory data show that borrowers take out eight payday loans a year, spending about $520 on interest with an average loan size of $375. Overall, 12 million Americans used a storefront or online payday loan in 2010, the most recent year for which substantial data are available.

Most payday loan borrowers are white, female, and are 25 to 44 years old. However, after controlling for other characteristics, there are five groups that have higher odds of having used a payday loan: those without a four-year college degree; home renters; African Americans; those earning below $40,000 annually; and those who are separated or divorced. It is notable that, while lower income is associated with a higher likelihood of payday loan usage, other factors can be more predictive of payday borrowing than income. For example, low-income homeowners are less prone to usage than higher-income renters: 8 percent of renters earning $40,000 to $100,000 have used payday loans, compared with 6 percent of homeowners earning $15,000 up to $40,000.

2. Why Do Borrowers Use Payday Loans?  

Most borrowers use payday loans to cover ordinary living expenses over the course of months, not unexpected emergencies over the course of weeks. The average borrower is indebted about five months of the year.  

Payday loans are often characterized as short-term solutions for unexpected expenses, like a car repair or emergency medical need. However, an average borrower uses eight loans lasting 18 days each, and thus has a payday loan out for five months of the year. Moreover, survey respondents from across the demographic spectrum clearly indicate that they are using the loans to deal with regular, ongoing living expenses. The first time people took out a payday loan:

  • 69 percent used it to cover a recurring expense, such as utilities, credit card bills, rent or mortgage payments, or food;
  • 16 percent dealt with an unexpected expense, such as a car repair or emergency medical expense.

3. What Would Borrowers Do Without Payday Loans?   

If faced with a cash shortfall and payday loans were unavailable, 81 percent of borrowers say they would cut back on expenses. Many also would delay paying some bills, rely on friends and family, or sell personal possessions.  

When presented with a hypothetical situation in which payday loans were unavailable, storefront borrowers would utilize a variety of other options. Eighty-one percent of those who have used a storefront payday loan would cut back on expenses such as food and clothing. Majorities also would delay paying bills, borrow from family or friends, or sell or pawn possessions. The options selected the most often are those that do not involve a financial institution. Forty-four percent report they would take a loan from a bank or credit union, and even fewer would use a credit card (37 percent) or borrow from an employer (17 percent).

4. Does Payday Lending Regulation Affect Usage?  

In states that enact strong legal protections, the result is a large net decrease in payday loan usage; borrowers are not driven to seek payday loans online or from other sources.  

In states with the most stringent regulations, 2.9 percent of adults report payday loan usage in the past five years (including storefronts, online, or other sources). By comparison, overall payday loan usage is 6.3 percent in more moderately regulated states and 6.6 percent in states with the least regulation. Further, payday borrowing from online lenders and other sources varies only slightly among states that have payday lending stores and those that have none. In states where there are no stores, just five out of every 100 would-be borrowers choose to borrow payday loans online or from alternative sources such as employers or banks, while 95 choose not to use them.

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