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Pawn and loan stores aren’t doing great in the Covid-19 economy

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Perry Lewin has been in the pawn industry for 28 years, but he’s never quite seen a year like this one. Sales have skyrocketed at his store, Decatur Jewelry and Antiques, in central Illinois. Early on in the pandemic, people were scooping up TVs, guitars, gaming systems, laptops, whatever they could to stay occupied and educated at home.

“We couldn’t keep a bicycle in the stock to save our life,” Lewin said. Tools were flying off the shelves, as many households decided it was the “perfect time for a honey-do list.” He estimates his gun and ammunition sales are up by 500 percent. “You know what it was like back in March and April, scared as hell,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the pawn business has been good in 2020. Even the Pawn Stars pawn stars are struggling. This, at its core, is a money business, not a stuff business. The bread and butter is in loans.

“What happened is our inventory started depleting rapidly, and that was the result of consumers not needing the services of a pawnshop,” Lewin said, explaining that his central loan operation has been way down for much of 2020. “They were not bringing items in to us either to sell or get a loan on, but they were mining everything from us.”

Pawnshops are a longtime fixture in the capitalist economy — one pawnbroker told me pawning is the second-oldest industry in the world. (He asked me if I knew what the oldest was; I assured him I did.) But they remain relatively misunderstood by much of the public, especially those who don’t use their services.

I spoke with pawnbrokers across the country about what the business has been like in this unprecedented year, and the picture that emerged was a microcosm of the economy that flies under the radar for many. Pawnshops, which were deemed essential during the pandemic, experienced panic-buying trends — guitars, guns, and gold — in real time. They also felt the impact the CARES Act had in getting money into people’s pockets and small businesses’ cash registers because it meant people didn’t need their loans.

“We have loans where customers who have been with us for a very long time — 10 years, 20 years even — are now redeeming stuff completely, which they’ve never done before,” said Eric Modell, president of Modell Financial, which owns a chain of jewelry stores and pawnshops in New York. “And they don’t say, ‘I have money from the government, here I am,’ but 20 years you’ve been paying interest.”

But now that much of that support has ended, loans are ticking up again. People are heading back to the pawnshop.

Guitars, gold, and guns

When the pandemic hit, a lot of people had similar ideas on how to pass the time at home and what they needed to buy to do it. They turned to Amazon, sure, but also pawnshops. Brokers say they couldn’t keep at-home entertainment items, musical instruments, laptops, and tablets on the shelves.

But people haven’t just been making their purchases to stay entertained and educated. They’re also buying to ease their panic.

Gun sales have been through the roof in 2020, and some of the pawnbrokers I spoke to said they’ve truly never seen such a sustained boom in gun and ammunition sales as they have now, especially among first-time buyers.

Troy Farr, who owns Texas Pawn & Jewelry outside of Austin, recalled going to one of his stores on a Saturday during the spring to see how things were going and discovered 42 guns had been sold, “which is a lot for a pawnshop.” Forty-one of them had been to new gun owners. “I don’t know why they wanted a gun for a virus that was spreading, but I didn’t ask them,” he said.

Supply chain problems in the pandemic have complicated what gun sellers would otherwise see as a pretty positive increase in firearms sales, especially when it comes to ammunition.

Rob Barnett worked at his family’s pawn operation in Huntsville, Alabama, before starting up his own shop in Fayetteville, Tennessee, and he has spent decades in the firearms business. He says he’s never seen supply in worse shape, and perceived hoarding has only made the situation worse. “Once people start perceiving there’s a shortage in the industry, people start to worry and start buying things they don’t want,” he said.

Guns aren’t the only thing people buy when they’re nervous — they’re also buying gold, the price of which has increased fairly steadily for much of the year.

“Even though the prices of gold had gone up on account of Covid, people still felt the stability of gold and were investing in gold,” said Jordan Tabach-Bank, the owner and CEO of the Loans Companies, a high-end pawn brand that operates in New York, California, and Chicago. When people think the world might be going to hell — and 2020 has given them plenty of reasons to think that — they buy gold.

“That is a trend that has happened since the beginning of time,” he said.

Loans are a much bigger part of the pawnshop business than you probably realize

Everybody knows the Hollywood pawnshop tropes — the creepy guy smoking behind the counter in a seedy corner store, taking a stolen television off someone’s hands, probably so they can go buy drugs. But that’s not the reality. For one thing, it’s easier to sell stolen items online because pawnshops are pretty heavily regulated. But in recent decades, the industry has also made an effort to remake its image.

Pawnshops are a collateral, non-recourse lender, which basically means loans are made not on someone’s credit history but on the value of an item — a TV, a ring, a hammer, whatever. The length of a loan and the interest rate on it often depends on the state.

For example, in New York, shops have to hold on to pawned items for four months and can’t charge more than 4 percent interest per month; in Texas, it’s one month at a 15 to 20 percent rate for most items. People can sell their items to pawnbrokers directly as well, but that’s generally not the business model and not what most people do.

Basically, you bring in your watch, get a loan on it, get a ticket for it, and come back to redeem your watch at some point in the future, paying off the loan plus interest. If you don’t come back to pay off your loan — or at least keep paying the interest payments (some people leave items with the pawnshop for years) — the pawnbroker gets to keep your watch and can sell it.

“Absolute worst-case scenario with us, you lose your ring, you lose your watch. We do not garnish your wages, we do not ding your credit, we don’t prevent you from owning a home,” Tabach-Bank said.

According to the National Pawnbrokers Association, there are about 10,000 pawn stores nationwide that employ about 35,000 people and serve about 30 million customers annually. The stores run the gamut from publicly traded pawn companies, such as EZCorp and FirstCash, to small mom-and-pop operations. Many pawn businesses are multigenerational not only in ownership but in customers.

Pawn loans are “like clockwork for a lot of our customers,” Modell said. “There are people who live and breathe with the pawnshop.”

The NPA estimates that pawn loans average $150 for 30 days and that about 85 percent of loans are redeemed. That can vary, depending on the item — people are likelier to retrieve a family heirloom than they are a buzzsaw.

Pawnshops generally serve people without credit or with bad credit, though there are exceptions. They get compared to payday lenders, which are often predatory and suck people into cycles of debt. Are the interest rates pawnshops charge great? No. But on the scale of options for people without a lot of options, they’re not the worst, either.

“Pawn loans are, of course, one of the more expensive forms of credit, but they are often less costly than a payday or car title loan and are far less likely to trap consumers in long cycles of debt,” said Charla Rios, a researcher at the Center for Responsible Lending. “You do have instances where people are bringing in items, and they’re on loan for quite some time.”

She also noted the industry hasn’t really been growing. “Prior to Covid-19, the revenues for pawn loans were kind of flat,” she said.

Financially underserved consumers spent an estimated $189 billion in fees and interest on financial products in America in 2018, $9.2 billion of which went to pawnshops. By comparison, $25.4 billion went to overdraft fees.

“It’s a mixed story,” said John Caskey, an economist at Swarthmore College and the author of Fringe Banking: Check-Cashing Outlets, Pawnshops, and the Poor. “It’s not a complicated transaction where people are being swindled.”

Covid-19 has not been great for pawnshops

Whenever Tabach-Bank, the high-end pawnbroker, runs into people lately, they ask him about what they assume must be a boom in business this year. “People are like, ‘Business must be amazing, you must be crushing.’ But for most pawnbrokers across the nation, it’s been quite the contrary,” he said.

According to Cyndee Harrison, director of marketing and public relations at the National Pawnbrokers Association, members have reported loans falling by as much as 40 percent this year, and some shops have been forced to close down altogether. “When you have a 40 percent decrease in the core area of your business, that’s going to pinch,” she said.

There’s no single answer for what’s going on, but most pawnbrokers and experts have a two-pronged explanation. One is that people are staying home and spending less — they’re not going out to restaurants and bars, they’re skipping vacation, etc. The other is that the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion stimulus package signed into law in March, got money to a lot of people by way of stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits, and Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses. Eviction moratoriums and forbearance on mortgages and student loan payments are also factored in.

In other words, people and businesses had more money, and they didn’t need to resort to the pawnshop to pay rent, float their payrolls, or even just go to the bar on Friday night. And it’s not just that they weren’t taking out new loans; they were also able to pay off their existing loans and redeem their stuff.

Kerry Rainey, board president of the NPA and owner of Bayou Pawn and Jewelry in Louisiana, described the situation as “complete madness and a complete change of our business structure.”

“Our pawns went way down, our redemptions went way up,” he said. And with all the extra cash, pawners turned into buying customers. “Now we’re having a hard time restocking the store and getting our inventory back up because of all of the sales that we’ve done.”

It’s an experience shared across the industry, among high-end shops and more typical operations, in blue states and red states.

“The way it’s turned out has been quite different than what we had anticipated, not only for us, but from some of the discussions we’ve had in other pawn stores in Las Vegas,” said Andy Zimmerman, the general manager of Gold and Silver Pawn in Las Vegas, made famous by the television show Pawn Stars.

Zimmerman said in their case, it’s not just about the stimulus and savings; it’s also the decline in casino traffic, especially earlier on in the pandemic. In Las Vegas, it’s not uncommon for gamblers to pawn items for money to bet with.

“When we’re at normal times … especially when big events happen in town and people are well-to-do, they have expensive jewelry, and they’re not very lucky at the tables. Because we have a pretty decent-sized bandwidth to take in expensive items, during those times, the loans would typically pick up,” he said.

Many of the measures from the CARES Act have ended or are about to. The extra $600 in weekly federal unemployment ended in July, PPP loans have been used up, and rent and mortgage payments put off are coming due. Pawnbrokers say that’s started to show up in their business now, too, as customers old and new are again in need of their services.

The publicly traded pawn company FirstCash reported that loans fell by 60 percent in the month of April, and while they began to improve, pawn balances were still down 30 percent at the end of September from the prior year, meaning people are still pawning things less and able to pay off existing loans more. In its third-quarter earnings report, the company indicated it expects the rebound to accelerate.

“We are starting to see people who are in need of short-term cash,” Hyde said. “The big question, of course, is what happens next, and none of us has a crystal ball.”

The negative effects on lower-end financial services aren’t limited to the pawn industry. The payday loan industry has seen a steep decline in business, too.

Pawnshops are an outgrowth of capitalism. If people had more money, they wouldn’t need them.

When asked, most pawnshop owners acknowledged that they were in an awkward position: Many people have been better off financially, at least when government stimulus was flowing, and that’s been bad for business. But shop owners countered that business overall is generally better when the economy is doing better than it is when it’s doing poorly, an assertion that experts backed up.

While the impression of pawnshops is that they are only there for people in moments of desperation, that’s not always the case. People will also pawn an item to buy a concert ticket or get that last bit of money they need for a vacation. And in good times, they tend to feel more optimistic they can pay it off.

“A pawnshop tends to do best when the economy is good and rolling and people feel safe and secure with pawning their extra item — a laptop, jewelry, television, a watch — something like that so they can just get the temporary loan because they know they’ve got their next payroll check coming,” Barnett said. A one-time government loan doesn’t provide the same kind of future assurances.

For many people, the pawnshop is just a part of their financial lives, and some of their possessions are just a part of their budget. They build up relationships with brokers and will come in to get a loan time and time again.

Lewin, the Illinois pawnbroker, told me about a widow in her 70s who has been coming to him every month for years, getting a $200 or $300 loan on a nice piece of jewelry to tide her over before her next Social Security check comes in. When she comes to pick up her jewelry, they clean it for her, give her a cup of coffee, and catch up.

Yes, pawnshops charge high interest rates that more traditional financial institutions don’t. But they are also a lifeline for people who often don’t have access to more traditional financial institutions or just need to figure out a way to get by.

Wendy Woloson, a historian at Rutgers University and the author of In Hock: Pawning in America From Independence Through the Great Depression, noted that throughout history pawnshops have been vilified in an effort to downplay the broader flaws their existence exposes. “The exploitative practices that capitalism relies on would not have worked if it were not for the pawnbroker to help people get by week-to-week,” she said.

If people had more money in their pockets, if the capitalist system worked better, then they wouldn’t need pawnbrokers as much in the first place. 2020 has been a case study showing just that. But while more help is not on the way from the federal government, it’s still going to be there from the pawnshop.

“There would be a lot of people in a world of hurt if pawnshops didn’t exist,” Farr said.

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3 credit habits that you need to break

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(© Rido – stock.adobe.com)

Are you using your credit card responsibly? Or do you have a few bad habits? Take a look at three common bad habits that people have with their credit cards and the best ways to stop doing them.

Habit 1: Pushing the limits

The first bad credit habit is pushing your outstanding balance close to its limit. What’s wrong with that? The first problem is that you’re giving yourself a larger debt load to contend with every month — one that accumulates interest the longer that it sits. It could be very difficult to pay down, and it could even lead to you maxing out your card.

The second problem with this habit is that it leaves you vulnerable to emergencies. You’ve taken up the majority of your available credit, so you can’t depend on it for unexpected payments. What if you need to pay for an urgent repair and there’s not enough room on your card? What can you do?

To avoid that difficult situation, you could apply for an online loan to help you cover the emergency costs and move forward. See how you can apply for an online loan in Ohio when you have no other safety nets to fall back on. It’s important that you only turn to this solution when you’re dealing with an emergency. It’s not for everyday purchases or small budgeting mistakes.

In the meantime, you should try your best to keep your credit utilization at 30% or lower — this means that your balance should be below the halfway point of your limit.

Habit 2: Paying the minimum

You pay your credit card bills on time, but you only give the minimum payment. While this habit can stop you from racking up late fees and penalties, it can still get you into hot water if you’re not careful.

Only paying the minimum for your bill will make it very difficult for you to whittle down the balance, especially when you’re continuing to charge expenses on your card. You’re only taking $20-$25 off a growing pile.

So, what can you do? If you’re paying this amount by choice, stop it — you’re only making things harder for yourself down the line. If you’re paying this amount because you don’t have any more funds, look at your budget to see whether you can cut your monthly costs to get more savings and use them to tackle your balance.

Habit 3: Using it for every single expense

You don’t need to put every single expense on your credit card. Your morning coffee? Your afternoon snack? Putting these small, everyday expenses on your card is a habit that can make your balance climb quickly.

You also don’t want to put some very important expenses on there, like mortgage payments. For one, these payments are large and will take up a significant amount of your credit. Secondly, if you need to use a credit card to make these payments on time, you need to reinvestigate your budget to see whether you can actually afford your living space.

So, what you should you do? Use a debit card, cash or checks to pay for the items above. Only put expenses on your credit card that you’re positive you can pay off in a reasonable timeframe.

Don’t let these bad habits drag you down and get you into financial trouble. Break them now, before it’s too late.

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Free credit reports have been extended; here’s why it’s important to check yours regularly

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Checking your credit could save you from identity theft. (iStock)

Typically, you’d be able to check your credit report — at least for free — just once annually through each of the three major credit reporting agencies. But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, credit reports are now more accessible than ever.

Credit reporting companies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are all offering  free credit reports weekly through April 20, 2022.

The move means better insight into your financial health during what, for most, is an economically challenging time. According to experts, it might also be a time that’s ripe for at-risk personal information and identity theft, too — even more reason consumers should be checking their credit on the regular.

HOW OFTEN DOES YOUR CREDIT SCORE CHANGE?

Have you checked your annual credit lately? If not, here’s what you need to know about these free nationwide credit reports and how to get them. If you’re not sure where you fit on the credit score spectrum, you may want to start using a credit monitoring service to track changes to your credit score. Credible can get you set up with a free service today.

Free credit reports for all?

The nation’s three credit bureaus initially started offering free weekly credit reporting last year, just after the pandemic began. In early March, they announced they’d extended the offer for another year, this time through April 20, 2022.

To request your free credit reports and access copies, you can go to AnnualCreditReport.com and provide some basic information to verify your identity (things like your date of birth, Social Security Number, and address).

Once your report is ready, you should see a detailed list of all open and closed accounts in your name, your payment history, recent credit activity and more.

5 BENEFITS OF HAVING A GOOD CREDIT SCORE

Protect yourself from identity theft

There are many reasons why checking your credit activity is important, but chief among them? That’d be the prevalence of data breaches in today’s world — not to mention the risk of identity theft they come with.

“In the past, it was perfectly acceptable for people to check their credit history once a year, but now with security breaches happening on a regular basis, consumers should be monitoring their credit more closely than ever,” said Clint Lotz, president and founder of TrackStar.ai, a predictive credit technology firm.

Lotz said the Equifax breach — which exposed over 147 million Americans’ personal information in mid-July 2017 — is the perfect example of why watching your credit report is important as far as identity theft protection goes. The pandemic, he said, adds an extra layer of risk to things.

“It took them [Equifax] months before they even realized they had been hacked, and considering that they hold files on hundreds of millions of Americans, it’s fair to say that many identities were stolen by the time they caught up to it,” Lotz said. “With many of us worrying about very serious issues not related to our credit, it’s a prime time for that stolen data to be put to work by bad actors in slow, methodical ways and in the hopes that nobody notices it.”

More reasons to check your credit

Checking your credit health often isn’t just good for detecting fraud alerts and to protect your identity, though. You can also monitor your report for errors — things like inaccurately reported late payments, for example — and then dispute those with the credit bureau.

If the error gets corrected, it could improve your credit score and make a jump from bad credit to a FICO score that’s more favorable. Not sure of your credit score? Head to Credible to check your score without negatively impacting it.

WHAT IS CREDIT MONITORING, AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

You can also use your credit reports and scores to monitor your financial habits — like the timeliness of your payments or how much debt you have left to pay off. Both of these factors can play a big role in your score, as well as how likely you are to get approved for loans, credit cards and other items.

“If you’re taking out a loan, getting insurance or even applying for a new job, checking your credit will allow you to see an overview of what would be seen by others looking at your credit,” said Leslie Tayne, a debt relief attorney with the Tayne Law Group. “Staying up-to-date on your credit reports and information allows you to know exactly where you need to improve.”

Want to be sure your credit is stellar before applying for a loan or insurance policy? Consider Credible’s partner product Experian Boost, which lets you use positive payment history on utilities, streaming and other bills to improve your credit score.

Set up a monitoring service, too

Though checking your credit reports manually is smart, you should also consider signing up for a credit monitoring service. These consumer financial services check your credit information and score regularly and alert you of any changes.

IS IT WORTH PAYING FOR CREDIT MONITORING?

If you’re interested in monitoring your credit or improving your score, head to Credible and learn more about how Experian can help. You can also use Experian Boost to get credit for on-time bill payments.

Have a finance-related question, but don’t know who to ask? Email The Credible Money Expert at [email protected] and your question might be answered by Credible in our Money Expert column.

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Do Personal Loans Have Penalty APRs?

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Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

When you make your credit card payment late, you’re often subject to late fees and a penalty APR, which is a temporary spike in your interest rate.

The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, for instance, has a 13.99% to 23.99% variable APR, but the penalty APR is a variable 29.99% (see rates and fees). Penalty APRs usually last for at least six months, but card issuers often reserve the right to extend them — especially when you continue making late payments. A look at the terms for the Citi® Double Cash Card show us that the “penalty APR may apply indefinitely.”

Penalty APRs are certainly not a trap you want to fall into, but it’s not something you usually have to worry about if you have a personal loan. Personal loan lenders can, however, charge late fees upwards of $39 per late payment. Whether your loan charges late fees all depends on how good of a loan you qualify for, and that comes down to your credit score, borrowing history and ability to make your payments.

Personal loans also tend to charge lower interest rates than credit cards, too. The average personal loan interest rate for two-year loans is currently 9.46% according to Q1 2021 data from the Federal Reserve, compared to 15.91% for credit cards.

Typically, interest rates for personal loans range between roughly 2.49% and 24%, but personal loans for applicants with bad credit can come with even higher APR — so do your research before applying.

Other common personal loan fees include:

  1. Interest: The monthly charge you pay to borrow money
  2. Origination fee: A one-time upfront charge that your lender subtracts from your loan to pay for administration and processing costs
  3. Late fee: A one-time fee charged for each payment that you fail to make by the due date or within your grace period
  4. Early payoff penalty: A fee incurred when you pay off your balance faster than planned (because the lender misses out on months of expected interest payments)

As you can see, personal loans can be costly, even without a penalty APR. It’s obviously best to avoid paying extra fees whenever possible. That’s easier to do when you have a good to excellent credit score, since you’ll qualify for better loan options.

Select has a free tool to help match you with personal loan offers without damaging your credit score.

None of the loans on our best personal loan list charge origination fees or early payoff penalties, but some may charge late fees.

Our top picks for best personal loans

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

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