New CFPB Rules Get Tougher With Payday-Lender Debt Traps

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In early October, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced it would implement long-awaited new rules aimed at limiting the power of payday and title lenders. The bureau director, Richard Cordray,  has been a vocal critic of the nonbank lenders, and the agency has been working on new rules to regulate lenders in this space for several years.

“The CFPB’s new rule puts a stop to the payday debt traps that have plagued communities across the country,” Cordray said in a statement. “Too often, borrowers who need quick cash end up trapped in loans they can’t afford. The rule’s common sense ability-to-repay protections prevent lenders from succeeding by setting up borrowers to fail.”These rules will apply to both brick-and-mortar and online lenders.

What changes are happening

Lenders are going to have to prove that a borrower can afford to repay the loan

One of the major rules is a “full-payment test” that will determine if borrowers can “afford the loan payments and still meet basic living expenses and major financial obligations.” Payday lenders typically don’t run a credit report on borrowers and only usually look at a pay stub to determine if you qualify.

Most consumers end up unable to repay the loan when it comes due, usually a couple weeks later. According to the CFPB, more than 80 percent of all payday loans are rolled over or renewed. The same is true for title loans, with 20 percent of borrowers losing their vehicle to title loan companies. Because there is little regulation on interest rates, these loans usually have APRs of 300 percent or more.

However, borrowers can avoid the full-payment test if the lender meets the following requirements: It must make 2,500 or fewer covered short-term or balloon-payment loans per year and earn no more than 10 percent of its revenue from such loans.

It won’t be as easy for lenders to access funds in borrowers’ bank accounts

Another issue is that many payday and title loans require access to the user’s bank account, where payments will be automatically debited. If the user does not have the amount available in his or her account, the account will be overdrawn. This usually results in the consumer being charged overdraft fees on top of the hefty interest already going to the payday lender.

According to the CFPB, “these borrowers incur an average of $185 in bank penalty fees, in addition to any fees the lender might charge for failed debit attempts, specifically, a late fee, a returned-payment fee, or both.”

One of the rules that the CFPB installed is a limit on attempted debits, so the lender has to get authorization from the consumer to debit the account more than twice. The CFPB also hopes to limit the amount of times a loan can be extended, as a way to decrease the fees the borrower must pay.

Borrowers can repay debt more gradually

To avoid the full-payment test, payday lenders can lend up to $500 if they structure the payments so the borrower can pay them off “more gradually.” However, there will be strict rules in place for this type of loan.

For example, lenders won’t be able to offer gradual repayment plans to customers who have recent or outstanding short-term or balloon-payment loans. They also can’t make more than three loans in quick succession and can’t make loans under this option if the consumer has already had more than six short-term loans or been in debt for more than 90 days on short-term loans over a rolling 12-month period.

Few options for borrowers in need

The CFPB’s long-awaited rules may help protect borrowers from predatory lenders, but don’t solve a key issue: There just aren’t that many viable alternatives for people who need to borrow small sums quickly.

A report from the Milken Institute, “Where Banks Are Few, Payday Lenders Thrive,” found that neighborhoods with more banks tend to have fewer payday lenders, and vice versa. There was also a strong correlation between payday lenders and neighborhoods with higher African-American and Latino populations as well as a greater instance of payday lenders where there are fewer high school and college graduates.

Jennifer Harper, who researched predatory lending in Chattanooga, Tenn., as part of the Financial Independence Committee for the Mayor’s Council for Women, said she hopes there will be a solution for consumers that doesn’t require them to take out a payday loan.

“We want to find an alternative to payday lending that would still allow people to access they need, without those crazy interest rates,’ she said. “Getting that quick access to cash may be fine for that day, but then it really puts a burden on the borrower long-term.”

Jason J. Howell,  a certified financial planner and fiduciary wealth adviser in Virginia, agrees with the new regulations taking place.

“The CFPB is taking the opportunity to protect the most vulnerable consumers: lower-income borrowers that are typically ‘un-banked,’” he said. “The proposed rule would reduce fees that make payday loans especially hard to pay back; and that could also reduce the issuance of these loans in the first place.”

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What Trump’s Budget Means for Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Confirming the fears of many, President Donald Trump’s recently proposed federal budget calls for the defunding of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. While those currently enrolled in the program would not be affected, anyone taking out loans after July 1, 2018, would not be eligible.

Proponents of the program, designed to attract candidates to the public sector by forgiving student loans after 120 consecutive payments, fear this cut would incentivize teachers, lawyers, nurses, and other professionals to seek out careers in the private sector where the salaries are significantly higher. Opponents say the program is too costly, and the proposed cuts would save taxpayers billions.

What Does This Mean?

Adam Minsky, a Boston, Mass.-based attorney who specializes in student loans and consumer issues, cautioned that President Trump’s budget proposal is just that — a proposal.

The president can propose a budget, but it’s up to Congress to finalize and ratify it. The Republicans currently have a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the federal budget only needs to have a simple majority for it to pass. Still, that would require about eight Democrats to vote yay, something they’re unlikely to do unless the final draft takes a more bipartisan turn.

The process of getting a budget approved through Congress is a long road. Each chamber of Congress has to approve the bill internally, then the bill goes to a committee that looks at both the Senate and House of Representatives bills to reconcile any differences. Finally, the bill is sent to both houses of Congress for a final vote.

Budget proposals rarely make it through Congress unaltered. Trump’s proposal is more like a polite nudge from the executive branch, not a firm decree.

Budget talks will continue throughout the summer and fall, and it’s not clear when a final proposal will be announced.

What Is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program?

Started in 2007, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program allows borrowers who took out federal student loans to have their loans forgiven after 120 consecutive payments (10 years), as long as they served in a government or nonprofit role while all those payments were made. Graduates who utilize the program are on a mandated income-based repayment plan, so their payments are often much lower than they would be on the standard plan.

Careers such as law, nursing, social work, teaching, law enforcement, firefighting, and the military would all be affected by this shift. Many who choose to enter these professions have the option of working for the private sector where salaries are higher, but choose the public route because of this program. Not having the PSLF program could mean a dearth of candidates entering these fields.

“You have people making major life decisions based on the existence of this and other programs,” Minsky said.

The program incentivizes people to work in the public sector where salaries are lower and the demand is greater. If people don’t have a reason to take a lower-paying job, some experts worry that the gap between the rural and urban communities and other low-income areas will continue to increase.

Who Is Affected by This?

Only borrowers who take out federal student loans after July 1, 2018, would be affected by this change, and anyone who took out loans before this would be grandfathered in. The first crop of students who will have their loans forgiven will be this fall. Currently, over half a million people are enrolled in the PSLF program.

What’s the Problem?

The problem with Trump’s proposal is that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is a federal law. A budget proposal can’t change the law, but it can defund the program. That’s where the legal confusion arises.

“That’s the million dollar question,” Minsky said. “How can you have a program that is legally allowed to exist without funding it?”

He anticipates that if a budget passes defunding the PSLF program, several lawsuits would immediately come about.

“The way they’re going about doing it is problematic from a legal point of view,” Minsky said.

What Can People Do?

If you oppose the president’s proposal, you should contact your local representatives to tell them how you feel. Each citizen has one House representative and two Senators. Minsky recommends calling, writing a letter, and setting up a meeting with their spokesperson.

When you call, “you want to identify yourself as a constituent and as a voter,” he said.

If you have coworkers who would also be affected by this, try to rally them to take action. Ask your boss if the organization you work for can take a public stand on these issues. Post about it on social media and encourage your friends to reach out to their elected officials. Strong public opinion could sway politicians to listen to the people and not include this proposal in their own budget.

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How Weight Loss Helped This Couple Pay Down $22,000 of Debt

Photo courtesy of Brian LeBlanc

About two years ago, Brian LeBlanc was fed up. The 30-year-old policy analyst from Alberta, Canada, had struggled with his weight for years. At the time, he weighed 240 pounds and had trouble finding clothes that fit. He decided it was time to change his lifestyle for good.

LeBlanc started running and cutting back on fast food and soft drinks. He ordered smaller portions at restaurants and avoided convenience-store foods. About a year into his weight-loss mission, his wife Erin, 31, joined him in his efforts.

“The biggest change we made was buying a kitchen food scale and measuring everything we eat,” Brian says. “Creating that habit was really powerful.”

Over the last two years, the couple has shed a total of 170 pounds.

But losing weight, they soon realized, came with an unexpected fringe benefit — saving thousands of dollars per year. Often, people complain that it’s expensive to be healthy — gym memberships and fresh produce don’t come cheap, after all. But the LeBlancs found the opposite to be true.

Erin, who is a payroll specialist, also managed their household budget. She began noticing a difference in how little money they were wasting on fast food and unused grocery items.

Photo courtesy of Brian LeBlanc

“Before, we always had the best intentions of going to the grocery store and buying all the healthy foods. But we never ate them,” she says. “We ended up throwing out a lot of healthy food, vegetables, and fruits.”

Before their lifestyle change, Brian and Erin would often eat out for dinner, spending as much as $80 per week, and they would often go out with friends, spending about $275 a month. Now, Brian says if they grab fast food, they choose a smaller portion. Last month, they only spent $22 on fast food.

What’s changed the most is how they shop for groceries, what they buy, and how they cook. Brian likes to prep all his meals on Sunday so his lunches during the week are consistent and portion-controlled. They also buy only enough fresh produce to last them a couple of days to prevent wasting food.

Shedding pounds — and student loan debt

Photo courtesy of Brian LeBlanc

Two years after the start of their weight-loss journey, they took a look at their bank statements to see how their spending has changed. By giving up eating out and drinking alcohol frequently, they now spend $600 less a month than they used to, even though they’ve had to buy new wardrobes and gym memberships.

With their newfound savings, the LeBlancs managed to pay off Brian’s $22,000 in student loans 13 years early. Even with the $600 they were now saving, they had to cut back significantly on their budget to come up with the $900-$1,000 they strived to put toward his loans each month. They stopped meeting friends for drinks after work, and Erin took on a part-time job to bring in extra cash. When they needed new wardrobes because their old clothing no longer fit, they frequented thrift shops instead of the mall.

When they made the final payment after two years, it was a relief to say the least.

Now the Canadian couple is saving for a vacation home in Phoenix, Ariz., which they hope to buy in the next few years, and they’re planning to tackle Erin’s student loans next. They’re happy with their weight and lives in general, but don’t take their journey for granted.

“There were times we questioned our sanity and we thought we cannot do this anymore,” says Erin. But they would always rally together in the end.

“There are things that are worth struggling for and worth putting in the effort,” Brian says. “Hands down, your health is one of those things.”

How Getting Healthy Can Help Financially

Spending less on food isn’t the only way your budget can improve alongside your health. Read below to see how a little weight loss can tip the scales when it comes to your finances.

  • Spend less on medical bills. Health care costs have skyrocketed in the last two decades, but they’ve impacted overweight and obese individuals more. A report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality stated that between 2001 and 2006, costs increased 25% for those of normal weight — but 36.3% for those overweight, and a whopping 81.8% for obese people. The less you weigh, the less you’ll pay for monthly health insurance premiums and other expenses.
  • Buy cheaper clothes. Designers frequently charge more for plus-size clothing than smaller sizes. Some people claim retailers add a “fat tax” on clothes because there are fewer options for anyone over a size 12. It might not be fair, but it’s the way things are.
  • Save on life insurance. Your health is a huge factor for life insurance rates. Annual premiums for a healthy person can cost $300 less than for someone who is overweight.
  • Cut transportation costs. Biking or walking to get around is not only a cheap way to exercise — it’s a cheap way to travel. You’ll be saving on a gym membership and limiting gasoline costs in one fell swoop. Bonus points if you go the whole way and sell or downgrade your vehicle.

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What To Do if Your Insurance Doesn’t Cover a Health Care Provider

Smiling senior man having measured blood pressure

It’s a pretty common scenario: you’re looking to book a medical appointment, so you go to your insurance company’s website to find an in-network doctor. You book the appointment, see the doctor, and all seems well — until you get a whopping bill. Apparently, that doctor wasn’t in your network after all, and now you’re faced with out-of-network charges.

This happens more often than we think. Unfortunately, insurance company websites are notoriously fallible. Not only that, but they change so frequently that it can be difficult to nail down just who is and isn’t covered. At some point or another, just about everyone will have to deal with a situation where their insurance doesn’t cover a provider.

It’s easy to feel duped in this scenario. Navigating the ins and outs of insurance is hard enough, but there’s nothing more frustrating than being fed incorrect information.

So what should you do?

What to Do If You’ve Already Gotten the Bill

Call the doctor

Doctors don’t usually consider themselves responsible for significant out-of-pocket costs resulting from a lack of research on the part of the patient.

But if you asked the doctor or their representative about insurance coverage beforehand, you should contact them immediately if that information ends up being false. Many physicians will honor the price they initially told you or at least give a hefty discount. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t get back to you right away. Keep calling to see if you can get a lower price.

Negotiate and ask for a better rate

Most doctors have two different rates: one for insurance companies and one for self-pay individuals. If your doctor’s visit isn’t going to be covered by your insurance, call the doctor’s billing department to ask for the self-pay cost.

“Most physician offices will accept a lesser amount, especially if they know the service is not going toward a deductible,” said health insurance agent Natalie Cooper of Best Quote Insurance of Ohio.

Ask about a payment plan if you can’t afford to pay the bill in one go. Most medical offices would rather get the money a little bit at a time than not at all.

“Most physician and hospital groups will accept a small payment of $25 or $50 per month until it’s paid off,” Cooper said.

Use a health savings account

If you’re struggling to pay a medical bill out of pocket, see if you can open an HSA and use those funds to pay for it. If you owe $2,000, you can transfer $2,000 to an HSA and then pay the doctor directly from that account.

What’s the benefit? HSA contributions are deductible on your taxes. Unfortunately, only people with high-deductible plans are eligible to start an HSA. Individuals can only contribute up to $3,400 a year or $6,750 in an HSA. You can start an HSA anytime if you have an eligible healthcare plan.

The IRS says you can only use your HSA to pay for qualified medical expenses, a list of which you can find here. Funds in an HSA roll over from year to year, and you can contribute up to $3,400 annually or $6,750 for families.

You can also open a Flex Spending Account, which works similarly to an HSA. However, funds don’t roll over to the next year and users can only contribute $2,550 a year.

How to Prevent Out-of-Pocket Expenses

Ask beforehand

Many people use the insurance company’s website to find a doctor, but those lists are often out of date. Insurance information can even change daily. The only way to confirm a doctor’s status with an insurance company is to call them directly and ask if they’re a network provider — not just if they accept your insurance.

“When they are a network provider, they are contractually required to accept no more than the negotiated contracted rate as payment in full, which is usually less than the billed rate,” said human resources expert Laurie A. Brednich. “When they say they ‘accept xyz insurance,’ they are usually not a network provider, but will file the claims on your behalf, and you are responsible for the full billed charges.”

It can also be helpful to give them your insurance group and account numbers beforehand so there’s no question about your specific policy. The more specific you can be, the more accurately you’ll be able to navigate the insurance labyrinth.

Find out if all procedures and doctors are covered

Have you ever been to a doctor who’s recommended you see a specialist for a certain procedure — only to find out that the specialist isn’t covered by your insurance, even though they’re in the same building?

When a doctor recommends you to a colleague, they’re not confirming that the other physician is covered in-network. Before you make the appointment, talk to the billing department to see what their policies are. You can request an estimate in writing beforehand so you’ll have an idea of what the costs will be.

Some procedures might not be covered even if they’re being ordered by your in-network doctor. If your doctor sends your results to a lab, that lab might be out of network, even if your insurance covers the doctor who ordered them.

Confirm the lab’s status before you go in. If it’s too late, call your insurance and ask if they can bill the service as in-network. Cite the fact that you weren’t aware the lab would not be covered.

If they refuse, contact the doctor’s office and explain your situation. Ask them why they used an out-of-network provider and see if they’re willing to write off the bill. Be polite, but firm.

Ask the doctor to apply

When Julie Rains’ insurance changed to a preferred provider plan, she discovered her trusted doctor was now going to be out of network. Instead of searching for a replacement, she asked if her physician would apply to the insurance company to be covered by her new plan. He agreed.

It took almost two months for him to be accepted, Rains said. If you’re going this route, it’s best to start as soon as you find out your insurance company has changed policies. Rains said between the time she found out about the changes and when they went into effect, her doctor had already been approved.

You might have less luck with a doctor you’ve only been seeing for a short time, but most medical professionals take long-term patient relationships seriously — especially if your whole family goes to the same office. As always, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

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