False Promises: Rent-To-Own Stores Hurt the Poor

How much money are you going to spend this Christmas season? Chances are you’ve spent some time searching for the best deals.  Most of us follow a familiar pattern. Are you looking to purchase a couch?  Well, pick a style that you want and decide on a price point. Find a couple stores that fit.  Maybe do a little online research first. Then go to a few stores, try the couches out (take a nap in one, just to be sure), and make comparisons. Purchase the one that fits within your dream and budget. 

Back up.  Let’s try that again.

This time, what if you didn’t have the savings to get a new couch? Look into what IKEA has!  But you can’t afford the shipping.  You’d take a road trip to IKEA, but you don’t have a reliable vehicle, or the money for gas, or a truck that you can borrow. Well then, maybe part of your research will have to include finding a store that will let you pay on credit. Except you have bad credit. So you might look into layaway. But that only applies to some stores for some items, often only for some seasons. There are lots of roadblocks. What can you do?

There is an option.

Go to a rent-to-own store. They are everywhere, and you don’t need credit or cash. You can pay in affordable payments over a long span of time – even two years. What a great deal!  It sounds like a potential resource for the financially vulnerable, right?

Of course, there’s a catch. And it’s not a catch so much as a trap. Want an iPad? Make it a used one for extra value. Then spread the payments out over a generous 72 installments. That is an option. But the total cost of those 72 payments? Try $1,439.28. Still think it’s a good deal? 

It’s not. In fact, it is unjust. Rent-to-own stores and their practices are entirely legal. Many would argue that they are a valuable resource. And most of them are probably not actively misleading their customers. Most folks are probably aware of what they are signing up for. They make the choice. But despite the legality, there is something ugly at work here. It is the same thing that drives Shared Justice to speak out against predatory lending in all its forms.

Let’s raise our voices to advocate for more robust protections for the financially vulnerable.

The business model depends on the vulnerability, desperation, and failure of its customers. 

It is a model that is suspicious at best and despicable at worst. Rent-to-own storefronts, like payday lenders, run their business with the expectation (even the hope) that many of their customers will not be able to pay. At one Buddy’s store, “some 75 percent of items are returned or repossessed within weeks of the transaction, store manager Angela Shutt says.” The store gets a few payments from the customer and the chance to resell the returned items. Such dependency on customer failure is predatory. As Christians, we are compelled to question such practices. We have a culture in which the poorest among us often pay the most for things. This includes more than just rent-to-own stores. Some studies suggest this discrepancy may be true for everything from toilet paper to cars. 

Christians are called to consider these things. Proverbs 22:2 states, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor…” The simplicity of this statement is convicting. Thousands of years ago when this was written, and still today, there is a basic temptation to take advantage of people’s desperation. God calls us to fight that temptation. Let’s do something about it.

EDUCATE: 

One of the quickest ways to see many of the poverty traps within our system is to educate ourselves. By “educate” I do not mean that we just need to read more articles. While that may be helpful, nothing can compare to learning and even entering into the stories of people who are living this. Try to imagine what it’s like when your options suddenly shrink. This will not only increase understanding, but help reveal where exploitation is happening in the system.

CREATE: 

We need business leaders who have skills to offer the marketplace, but who also are grounded in Christian principles of shared justice. Are we prepared to lead the way in creating business models that can benefit vulnerable people in our community? Can we use both our business training and our passion for justice to create business models that are moral as well as profitable? I believe the possibility is there. We need people with creativity and courage to lead the way. 

ADVOCATE: 

We also need to educate ourselves about the laws in place. Are they designed to increase the flourishing of our communities or are they designed so that only certain segments of our communities thrive? Let’s raise our voices to advocate for more robust protections for the financially vulnerable. 

I believe that with education, creativity, and advocacy we can begin to make an impact that can ripple through communities. We want to see communities flourish. So especially in this Christmas season, let’s live out of a narrative of abundance.  

 -Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.  www.calvaryreformedholland.org