Do paycheck advance apps improve financial health?

Fintechs that let workers draw money from their paycheck before payday through an app are having a moment.

Such apps, including Even.com, PayActiv, EarnIn, DailyPay and FlexWage, are designed for consumers who live paycheck to paycheck — roughly 78% of the U.S. workforce according to one study.

More than 300,000 Walmart employees, for example, use this feature, called Instapay, provided by Even and PayActiv. PayActiv, which is available to 2 million people, announced a deal with Visa on Thursday that will let people put their pay advances on a feeless prepaid Visa card.

Payday advances

Earnin, which lets consumers retrieve up to $100 a day from upcoming paychecks, received $125 million in Series C funding from DST Global, Andreessen Horowitz, Spark Capital, Matrix Partners, March Capital Partners, Coatue Management and Ribbit Capital in December. The Earnin app has been downloaded more than a million times.

In theory, such apps are useful to those who run into timing problems due to large bills, like mortgage and rent, which come due a few days before their paycheck clears. Getting a payday advance from an employer through an app can be less expensive and less problematic than taking out a payday loan or paying overdraft fees.

But do these programs lead to financial health? Or are they a temporary Band-Aid or worse, something on which cash-strapped people can become overdependent?

Volatile incomes, gig economy jobs

One thing is clear — many working poor are living paycheck to paycheck. Pay levels have not kept up with the cost of living, even adjusted for government subsidy programs, said Todd Baker, senior fellow at the Richman Center for Business, Law and Public Policy at Columbia University.

“That’s particularly evident when you think of things like home prices and rental costs. A large portion of the population is living on the edge financially,” he said. “You see it in folks making $40,000 a year, teachers and others who are living in a world where they can’t handle any significant bump in their financial life."

Also see: Why financial wellness can no longer be an afterthought

A bump might be an unexpected expense like medical treatment or a change in income level, for instance by companies shifting to a bonus program. And about 75 million Americans work hourly, with unstable pay.

“Over the last several decades, we’ve changed the equation for many workers,” said John Thompson, chief program officer at the Center for Financial Services Innovation. “It’s harder to have predictable scheduling or even income flow from your job or jobs. But we haven’t changed the way we pay, nor have we changed the way bills are paid. Those are still due every month on a certain date. This income volatility problem that many people experience hasn’t been offset by giving the employee control of when they do have access to these funds.”

Where on-demand pay comes in

Safwan Shah, PayActiv's CEO, says he has been working on the problems for consumers like this for 11 years. The way he sees it, there are three possible ways to help: by paying these workers more, by changing their taxes, or by changing the timing of when they’re paid.

The first two seem out of reach. “I can’t give more money to people; that’s not what a fintech guy does,” Shah said. “I can’t invent money. And I can’t change the tax laws.”

But he felt he could change the timing of pay.

“I can go to employers and say, your employees are living paycheck to paycheck,” Shah said. “They’re bringing that stress to work every day. And you are suffering too, because they are distracted — a Mercer study shows employers lose 15 hours a month in work from these distracted employees.”

Shah persuades employers to let their employees access a portion of the wages they have already earned. His early wins were at companies whose employees frequently request paycheck advances, which generates a lot of paperwork. Employees can access no more than 50% of what they have already earned — a worker who has earned $300 so far in a month could at most get $150.

Employees pay $5 for each two-week period in which they use PayActiv. (About 25% of the time, the employer pays this fee, Shah said.)

PayActiv also gives users unlimited free bill pay and use of a Visa prepaid card. In July, PayActiv became part of the ADP marketplace, so companies that use ADP can use its service.

PayActiv's largest employer is Walmart, which started offering it via the Even app in December 2017. In October, Walmart began allowing employees to pick up cash through the app in Walmart stores, so users who were unbanked could avoid ATM fees.

Shah said the service helps employers reduce employee turnover, improve retention and recruit employees who prefer real-time pay. He also has a guilt pitch.

“I was first in the market to this, in 2013,” Shah said. “People looked at me and said, ‘What? I’m not going to pay my employees in advance. Let them go to a payday lender.’ Then I’d show them pictures of their offices surrounded by payday loan shops. I’d say, ‘They’re here because of you.’ ”

Does early access to wages lead to financial health?

When Todd Baker was a Harvard University fellow last year, he studied the financial impact of PayActiv’s earned wage access program. He compared PayActiv’s $5 fee to payday loans and bank overdraft fees.

Baker found that a $200 salary advance from PayActiv is 16.7% of the cost of a payday loan. Payday lenders typically charge $15 per $100 borrowed, so $30 for a two-week, $200 loan. If the borrower can’t pay back the amount borrowed in two weeks, the loan gets rolled over at the original amount plus the 15% interest, so the loan amount gets compounded over time.

With PayActiv, "there is always a full repayment and then a delay before there is enough income in the employee’s payroll account for another advance," Baker said. "It never rolls over.”

Baker also calculated that the PayActiv fee was only 14.3%, or one-seventh, of the typical $35 overdraft fee banks charge.

So for people who are struggling to manage the costs of short-term timing problems and unexpected expenses, fintech tools like PayActiv’s are a lot cheaper than alternatives, Baker said.

“Does it create extra income? No. What it does is help you with timing issues,” he said.

Aaron Klein, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said workers should have access to money they’ve already earned, whether that’s through real-time payments or through apps that provide pay advances.

“I also am on board with the idea that by saving your $35 overdraft and saving your payday loan rate, you’ll be better off,” Klein said.

But he’s not willing to say these tools solve the problems of low-income people.

“If the core problem is I used to make $35,000 a year, now I make $30,000, and because of that shock I’m going to end up accruing $600 of payday loan and overdraft fees, eliminating that $600 makes you a lot better off,” Klein said. “But it doesn’t negate the overall income shock.”

Thompson at CFSI says it’s too soon to tell whether earned wage access brings about financial well-being.

“We’re just beginning to explore the potential for these tools,” he said. “Right now they feel very promising. They could give people the ability to act quickly in an emergency and have access to and use funds in lieu of a payday loan or some other high-cost credit or consequence they would rather avoid, like an overdraft fee.”

What could go wrong

Thompson also sees a potential downside to giving employees payday advances.

“The every-other-week paycheck is one of the few normal structures we have for people around planning, budgeting and managing their money,” he said.

Without that structure, which is a form of savings, “we’re going to have to work hard to make sure we don’t just turn people loose on their own with even less structure or guidance or advice on their financial life.”

Another common concern about payday advance tools is that if you give people access to their money ahead of time, they’ll just spend it, and then when their paycheck arrives, they will come up short.

But Klein, for one, doesn’t see this as an issue.

“I trust people more to manage their money,” he said. “The people who work paycheck to paycheck spend more time budgeting and planning than the wealthy, because it’s a necessity.”

A related fear is that people could become addicted to payday advance tools, and dig themselves into a deeper hole.

Jon Schlossberg, CEO of Even.com, somewhat surprisingly acknowledges this could happen.

“Getting access to your pay on demand is a tool you can use the right way or the wrong way,” he said. “If you offer only on-demand pay, that could cause the problem to get worse, because getting access to that money all the time triggers dopamine; it makes you want to do it more and more. If you are struggling with a very low margin and you’re constantly up against it, getting more money all the time accelerates that problem."

Quantitative and qualitative analyses have borne this out, he said.

Even has granted users $700 million worth of Instapays; they typically use Instapay 1.4 times a month. Schlossberg doesn't see high use of the feature as success.

“You shouldn’t need to be using Instapay,” he said. “You should be becoming financially stable so you don’t have to.”

Baker said addiction to payday advances isn't a danger because they don't roll over the way payday loans do. With a salary advance, “It’s conceivable you could get $200 behind permanently, but it’s not a growing obligation and it’s not damaging,” he said.

Shah at PayActiv said users tend to withdraw less than they're allowed to — about 75%.

“When it comes to usage of their own salary, instead of asking for more, people behaviorally ask for less,” he said.

They see PayActiv more as a headache reliever like Tylenol, rather than an addictive candy or drug, Shah said.

Pay advances are just one of many tools that can help the working poor. They also need help understanding their finances and saving for goals like an emergency fund and retirement.

“This conversation about on-demand pay is a double-edge sword, because people are paying attention to it now, which is good, but they’re viewing it as this magic tool to solve all problems,” Schlossberg said. “It isn’t that. It is a piece of the puzzle that solves a liquidity problem. But it is by no means going to help people turn their financial lives around.”

Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback at penny.crosman@sourcemedia.com.

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