The 40-minute documentary Spent: Looking For Change tells the story of Justin, Tiffany, Melissa, Alex, and Debbie—and nearly 70 million other Americans. That’s the number of people who fall outside the traditional banking system and use services like payday lenders and title loans. While these services fill a needed role for those without a bank account, they also create a cycle of fees and interest that can be difficult to break free from.
Melissa and Alex—a couple from Rhode Island—fell on hard times when their son was diagnosed with autism and Alex was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which forced him to leave his job. In an effort to keep up with the regular bills for things like electricity as well as the added medical costs, they ended up taking a small loan out for $450. This eventually turned into $1700 in fees and interest.
Debbie is a handbag designer who is seeing some success in selling her products. However with student debt in the six-figures, she is only able to purchase the materials for the bags in small quantities. Because her credit line is so small, she would be unable to take on a high value order should she be approached by a major boutique or retailer.
We watch as one mother’s car is towed away and another mother spends time and gas paying bills because she does not have an online banking account. These stories and others shed a light on the tribulations that people encounter because they are “unbanked.” An increasing amount of people who are turning to these services are considered middle class and the film cites the fact that almost half of the households in the U.S. do not have $2,000 in reserves should they face an emergency situation.
The film also mentions some new initiatives that address ways to bank outside the system more effectively or avenues to help people get approved for bank accounts and small business loans. In San Francisco, communities are pooling their money in order to form a fairer lending system and in Atlanta, an organization is working to widen the criteria from which credit scores are generated.
However the documentary fails to touch on the root causes. While it may be beyond its scope, the deeper problems that force individuals into using these services should be considered. If people had living wages, affordable health care, and affordable higher education, perhaps there would be much less of a need for payday lenders and other such alternative financial services.
Another caveat to the piece is that it is sponsored by a major credit card company, American Express, and the film’s website basically advertises some American Express services. That said, the documentary is worth the time as the stories and statistics are important ones. It can be seen in full here: