Access Denied: Fighting Period Poverty with Library Cup Loan Program

Cup loan program is a type of high-interest short-term loan offered by some pawn shops and payday lenders. The name comes from the practice of the lender providing the funds in the form of cash that can literally fit into a cup.

These loans are designed to provide quick cash, often to cover emergency expenses or bills, for borrowers who may not qualify for traditional loans or credit cards. The loans typically range from $50 to $1000, with repayment due on the borrower’s next payday, usually within two to four weeks.

While fast and convenient, cup loans come with very high interest rates, often exceeding 300% APR when fees are factored in. As a result, borrowers can easily get trapped in cycles of debt if unable to repay the loan promptly. Cup loans have faced scrutiny from consumer advocates and regulators due to concerns about predatory and abusive lending practices.


Cup loan programs originated in the mid-19th century in Ireland as an informal way for poor farmers and agricultural laborers to access credit. At the time, mainstream banks refused to lend small sums to poor rural folk, leaving them with few options during difficult times.

The basic premise was that an individual in need would approach a wealthier member of the community and ask to borrow a “cup” of money, often literally a cup full of coins. The amount was small, just enough to tide the borrower over for a few days or weeks until they could repay it. If the lender agreed, the borrower would pledge to return the money by an agreed date, usually with a little interest added.

This practice spread organically since it filled a credit gap. By the 1860s, cup loans were common across rural Ireland. They enabled struggling farmers to buy seed or feed to plant the next crop, or laborers to feed their families during lean times. While interest rates were high, cup loans cost less than the other option: pawning meager possessions to pawnbrokers.

The informal and personal nature of cup loans enabled borrowers to avoid the stigma and red tape of charity. It was seen as a hand up amongst neighbors, not a hand out. Of course, some lenders did take advantage of borrowers’ desperation with exorbitant rates. But the system persisted because for many, it was their only recourse in times of need.

How Cup Loans Work

Cup loans are a type of small, short-term loan that use a borrower’s household goods as collateral. Here’s how they work:

The lender provides durable plastic or metal cups to borrowers. The cups have lids and are locked by the lender. Borrowers take the cups home and fill them with household items like jewelry, keys, electronics or other valuables to use as collateral.

To get the loan, borrowers bring the locked cups back to the lender. The lender assesses the items inside to determine the loan amount, up to a certain limit. The lender then unlocks the cup briefly to verify its contents before relocking it and lending the money.

The cups are kept locked in the lender’s possession for the duration of the loan term, usually 30 days or less. This retains the collateral while allowing the borrower use of the money.

To repay the loan, the borrower returns the principal plus fees and interest. The lender then unlocks the cup and returns the collateral items to the borrower. If the borrower defaults, the lender can keep the collateral items according to the loan agreement.

The model provides a way for borrowers to leverage their household goods for quick cash loans without needing to pawn or sell their personal items. The cups serve as a simple collateral system while keeping borrowers’ valuables secure with the lender.


Cup loan programs provide access to credit for individuals who may not qualify for traditional loans or credit cards. These small loans allow borrowers to establish a credit history and build their credit scores over time through on-time repayments.

Some key benefits of cup loans include:

  • Access to credit: Cup loans provide a source of financing for those who may not have existing credit or qualify for other loans. This gives borrowers a chance to obtain funds for expenses even if they lack credit history.

  • Building credit: By making on-time payments on a cup loan, borrowers can demonstrate responsible usage of credit. This helps establish a positive payment record with the lender and credit bureaus. Over time, regular on-time payments on a cup loan can improve credit scores.

  • Affordable payments: Cup loans start with small principal amounts and require payments over short terms. This makes the periodic payments more affordable for borrowers on limited budgets.

  • Fast funding: Cup loans can provide funds more quickly than traditional loans that require lengthy applications and approval processes. The money can be used to cover emergency costs or other pressing needs.

  • Flexible terms: Borrowers can often renew or roll over cup loans if they need more time to repay. This gives them flexibility in managing payments.

  • Simple application: The application process for cup loans is much faster and simpler than applying for standard loans or credit cards. Approvals can happen in minutes.

By providing access to credit and allowing borrowers to build positive payment histories, cup loans help underserved populations establish credit and improve their financial options. For borrowers with damaged credit or no credit at all, these small loans can be an important first step on the path to financial inclusion and opportunity.


Cup loan programs have faced criticism from some consumer advocacy groups and policymakers. Some of the main criticisms include:

  • High Interest Rates – Cup loans typically charge very high interest rates, often in the range of 200-500% APR when calculated as an annual percentage rate. These high rates make it challenging for borrowers to repay the loans, and they can end up paying far more in interest and fees than the amount they originally borrowed. Critics argue these rates are exploitative.

  • Risk of Losing Collateral – Borrowers put up important possessions like their car title as collateral for cup loans. If they default, the lender can seize their collateral. Borrowers face the risk of losing essential items they need to get to work or take care of their family. Losing a car or other collateral can create a downward spiral for struggling borrowers.


The cup loan industry has historically operated with little regulation or oversight. However, concerns over predatory lending practices have led some jurisdictions to implement laws aimed at protecting consumers.

The main laws governing cup loans include:

  • Interest rate caps – Some states have instituted laws capping the maximum annual percentage rates (APRs) that cup lenders can charge. This helps prevent exorbitant interest rates.

  • Term length limits – Regulations may limit loan terms to 30-90 days to prevent consumers from being stuck in debt traps.

  • Restrictions on rollovers/renewals – Rules prohibiting automatic loan renewals force lenders to reassess a borrower’s ability to repay each time.

  • Limits on number of loans – Laws restricting the number of loans per borrower per year aim to prevent endless loan cycling.

  • Cooling off periods – Requiring a waiting period between loans stops borrowers from immediately taking out another loan when unable to repay the current one.

  • Disclosure requirements – Lenders may have to clearly disclose all loan terms to ensure transparency.

  • Licensing/registration – States can require cup lenders to be licensed and registered to operate, allowing for oversight.

However, regulation varies significantly by state and enforcement is often lacking. Many advocates argue that stronger federal laws are needed to uniformly protect consumers across the country. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has also recently started to take a more active role in monitoring the industry.

Ethical Considerations

There is an ongoing debate about the ethics of cup loan programs. On one hand, these loans provide quick cash to people who may not qualify for traditional loans or credit cards. This gives financially vulnerable individuals access to funds when they need it most. The speed and convenience is appreciated by many borrowers.

However, critics argue the exorbitant interest rates and fees are predatory and take advantage of desperate people. With interest rates sometimes exceeding 300%, borrowers can easily get caught in cycles of debt. The loans are marketed as short-term solutions, but many end up rolling over the loan repeatedly and paying far more in fees than the original loan amount. This had led some to characterize cup loans as a form of legal loan sharking.

Consumer advocacy groups caution people to read the fine print carefully, crunch the numbers, and explore alternative options before taking out a cup loan. They recommend turning first to family and friends, credit unions, or employer assistance programs. If a cup loan is the only option, borrow only what you can realistically pay back in the next pay cycle. Cup loans should be used sparingly and as a very last resort, not as an ongoing source of financing day-to-day expenses.

More regulation may be needed to protect vulnerable borrowers. But the cup loan industry argues increased regulation will cut off access to emergency funds for many needy Americans. It’s a complicated issue with reasonable arguments on both sides. Additional research and consumer education could help strike the right balance between access and protection.

Case Studies

Cup loan programs have been implemented around the world as a way to provide small, short-term loans to low-income individuals. Here are some examples of specific programs:

Kiva’s Cup Loan Program in Kenya

Kiva, a non-profit organization, launched a cup loan program in Kenya in 2011 in partnership with local microfinance institutions. Borrowers take loans of $25 to $50 and make repayments over 6-12 months. The program specifically targets first-time borrowers in rural areas who lack access to traditional banking services. Over 10,000 Kenyans have benefited from the program.

Grameen Bank in Bangladesh

The Grameen Bank pioneered the concept of microloans in Bangladesh beginning in the 1970s. While not specifically a “cup loan,” borrowers take small loans on average of $200 and make repayments in weekly installments. At its peak, Grameen Bank had over 9 million members. The program aimed to provide loans to the poorest individuals, especially women.

Cup Loans in The Philippines

In The Philippines, cup loans are offered by microfinance organizations and rural banks. Loans range from 2000 to 10,000 pesos ($40-$200) paid back over 4-6 months. These programs aim to help low-income individuals pay for emergency expenses, startup capital for small businesses, or day-to-day needs. They provide an alternative to high-interest moneylenders.

The Future

Cup loan programs are likely to continue evolving in the years ahead as technology improves and new innovations emerge. Here are some ways these programs may change going forward:

  • Increased use of technology and automation – Apps and algorithms can help streamline the loan application and approval process, reducing overhead costs. This could allow for lower interest rates. Machine learning may also help improve credit scoring models.

  • New loan structures – We may see more flexible repayment options, like income-based repayment plans that tie monthly payments to a person’s salary. Programs based on post-graduation income share agreements are also being tested.

  • Partnerships with employers – Some companies may partner with cup loan providers to offer loans as a benefit, potentially at lower rates. This can help attract talent.

  • Focus on financial education – Providers may expand financial literacy initiatives to help ensure borrowers understand loan terms and how to manage debt responsibly after college.

  • Increased regulation – As the industry grows, regulators may impose stricter rules around transparency, data privacy, non-discrimination, and ability to repay. This could improve protections for consumers.

  • Rise of alternatives – Income share agreements and employer partnerships may reduce reliance on traditional loans. But loans will likely remain an important option for many students.

The cup loan landscape will continue shifting. The key will be finding the right balance between innovation, responsible lending, and consumer protections. Companies that adapt while prioritizing positive social impact are likely to shape the future of these programs.


Cup loans, also known as payday loans, have been around for decades now. While they serve a purpose for some borrowers who need quick cash, they remain controversial due to their high interest rates and fees.

In summary, cup loans provide small, short-term loans to borrowers who may not qualify for traditional loans from banks or credit unions. Borrowers can walk into a cup loan store, apply for a loan, and walk out with cash in just minutes. This speed and accessibility is the main appeal of these loans.

However, borrowers must pay back the full loan amount plus fees within two to four weeks. The fees are so high that they equate to annual percentage rates of 200-500% or more. If a borrower cannot repay the loan that quickly, they often take out another cup loan and become trapped in a cycle of debt.

Consumer advocates argue that cup loan companies prey on desperate, low-income borrowers who don’t fully understand the terms they are agreeing to. They point out that these loans rarely solve financial problems and often make them worse. Some even refer to cup loans as “legal loan sharking.”

On the other hand, the cup loan industry maintains that they provide a valued service at a fair price. Some studies have shown that most borrowers are satisfied and able to repay without issue. Cup loan companies argue that they take on high-risk borrowers who would not be able to get credit otherwise.

Looking ahead, more regulation may come to the cup loan industry, but they are likely here to stay in some form. Their convenience and easy approval will continue to fill a demand, even as critics raise concerns about potential debt traps. Borrowers should weigh all options carefully and understand the full costs before taking out a cup loan.

In conclusion, cup loans fill a niche but also carry risks. With education and regulation, they can retain their usefulness without being detrimental to the most financially vulnerable borrowers. The debate over their ethics and impacts will continue as long as these controversial loans are issued.

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