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A payday loan (also called a payday advance) is a small, short-term unsecured loan “regardless of whether repayment of loans is linked to a borrower’s payday”. The loans are also sometimes referred to as “cash advances”, though that term can also refer to cash provided against a prearranged line of credit such as a credit card. Payday advance loans rely on the consumer having previous payroll and employment records. Legislation regarding payday loans varies widely between different countries and, within the USA, between different states.

To prevent usury (unreasonable and excessive rates of interest), some jurisdictions limit the annual percentage rate (APR) that any lender, including payday lenders, can charge. Some jurisdictions outlaw payday lending entirely, and some have very few restrictions on payday lenders. Due to the extremely short-term nature of payday loans, the difference between nominal APR and effective APR (EAR) can be substantial, because EAR takes compounding into account. For a $15 charge on a $100 2-week payday loan, the annual percentage rate is 26 × 15% = 390%; the usefulness of an annual rate (such as an APR) has been debated because APRs are designed to enable consumers to compare the cost of long-term credit and may not be meaningful in cases where the loan will be outstanding for only a few weeks. Likewise, an “effective” rate (such as an EAR — ) may have even more limited value because payday loans do not permit interest compounding; the principal amount remains the same, regardless of how long the loan is outstanding. Nevertheless, careful scrutiny of the particular measure of loan cost quoted is necessary to make meaningful comparisons.

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Many people who use it are low-income people with few assets because these people are least able to secure normal, lower-interest-rate forms of credit. Since payday lending operations charge higher interest-rates than traditional banks and less commonly encourage savings or asset accumulation, they have the effect of depleting the assets of low-income communities.

According to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “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.” 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.