Rent-to-Own – Or – How to Screw Over the Poor


The Washington Post has an interesting article today about the rent-to-own industry. Now it’s not talking about someone who does a rent-to-own deal for their house, but rather someone who does a rent-to-own deal for more basic things, like furniture.

The story focuses on a family in Cullman, Alabama, who are in the process of making weekly payments on a couch that retails for about $1,500. In the end, they’ll pay over $4,000 for it. That’s assuming they make all their payments on time and don’t have to pay late fees. That’s also assuming they’ll actually be able to pay it off, and won’t have it taken away after putting in, say, $3,000 or so.

Now look. I’m poor. I slipped from lower-middle class in 2010 to middle-lower class as of this year. Right now, in the late part of October, I haven’t even broken $8,000 in earnings. I’ve had to go on food stamps for the first time since the 1990s, and I can’t afford to pay for the last class I need to get my associate’s degree. That’s in addition to the rent I can’t pay, and haven’t paid since June.

I have a couch, as well as a few other things to sit on. But if I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t go rent-to-own. I’d spend a few days, or if needed, weeks, scanning Craigslist to find a couch for free (they show up often along with, oddly, free hot tubs), or a love seat, or just a chair. To be fair, the article mentions that this woman and her family tried Craigslist, but they should have continued to try.

Failing that, I wouldn’t go rent-to-own. I just wouldn’t. This family’s weekly payment is around $110. That currently includes a smartphone (which I’d argue is certainly more vital than a couch), and a pair of speakers. So I don’t know what just the couch costs them per week. Let’s assume $75. If they’d simply saved two weeks of payments on the couch, they would have had $150, which is easily enough to pick up a couch at a garage sale or something. Yes, it’s hard to save up money when you’re poor, but there are ways.

If Craigslist and garage sales or yard sales failed to yield me a couch, I’d still not do the rent-to-own thing. But if I did, I’d get the cheapest one available and damn the looks of it. I don’t need a cup-holder. I don’t need a reclining option. Ultimately, I’d need a place to sit at the end of a long day, and it doesn’t matter what the couch looks like as long as it can fullfill that basic need.

But then…I have an advantage this woman does not.

“I don’t know how we’ll make it,” Abbott said, and every solution came with a problem. Return the sofa? Sure, but she’d burn the money she’d already put into it and leave her living room with a hole. Find work? She’s tried, but neither Wal-Mart nor Jack’s nor the nursing home cafeteria have shown interest in an applicant with psoriasis and a ninth-grade education.

The “ninth-grade education” is where the problem is here. The fact that she hasn’t finished school doesn’t make her stupid by any means, but it does maker her ignorant and increases the likelihood of her living exactly the kind of life she lives right now. I’m quite poor at the moment, but at least I finished high school, and have made good progress through college. My poverty is temporary. Hers is likely to be generational, as is that of another woman mentioned in the article who is a grandmother at 37.

The solution here is, of course, to make sure the state provides whatever help it can to get this woman a GED. Free birth control for her, if she wants it, would also be a good idea. The state should also do whatever it can to make sure her children complete high school and don’t have kids at an early age.

Of course the state in question is Alabama, so none of this will happen.

I feel for this woman and her family. They’re going to lose this couch at some point, and that sucks, especially given the amount of money they’ve already sunk into it. But in the end, that could be for the best. That $75, or whatever, per week, could be better spent on almost anything else. Well, anything else that isn’t rent-to-own.

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