Earned wage access is an employer-provided benefit that allows employees to access a portion of their paycheck ahead of payday. This can be immensely helpful for employees living paycheck to paycheck who incur unexpected, emergency expenses.
On-demand access to money that employees have earned can keep them from relying on more dangerous and costly alternatives, like payday loans, cash-advance apps, and even intentionally overdrafting their bank accounts. But earned wage access programs may also carry some fees, and they can inspire bad habits with budgeting and money management.
How Does Earned Wage Access Work?
Earned wage access (EWA) works similarly to a cash advance app, except that it’s an employer-provided benefit. Employees who work at a company offering this benefit can download the app of the third-party EWA provider that their company works with and then apply to access a portion of their paycheck.
Employers typically limit how much of a paycheck employees can access early. EWA providers charge a fee for this access. In some cases, the employee will have to pay the fee every time they use the service; in others, employers foot the bill as part of the benefit.
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Earned Wage Access Example
Here’s an example of how earned wage access (also sometimes called early wage access) might work in the real world:
An hourly employee earns $20 an hour, after taxes and retirement contributions. Though she receives her paycheck every two weeks, the employee realizes she needs money now to cover an emergency vet bill. She has already worked six days, meaning there are four working days before the end of the pay period — and more time before payroll processes.
She uses the EWA app that her company has partnered with to apply for early access to her paycheck. There is a $5 fee, but her company covers the cost as part of the earned wage access benefit. The EWA benefit is limited to 50% of her total pay for the period, so the employee then receives $800 ahead of her paycheck.
On payday, the employee usually receives a check for $1,600. Because she’s accessed $800 early, however, her paycheck will only be $800.
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How to Qualify for Earned Wage Access
Qualifying for earned wage access is easy. You just have to work at a company that offers it as a benefit. EWA is growing increasingly popular. Companies like Uber, McDonalds, and Walmart have all adopted early wage access as an employee benefit.
Unlike personal loans or credit cards, there’s no credit check to access the money early. Instead, you’ll just need to download the app of the program that your company has partnered with and connect it to your bank account or debit card to have the money transfer go through.
Earned Wage Access Pros and Cons
Earned wage access offers tremendous benefits, especially to employees who are struggling financially. However, EWA also has its fair share of drawbacks to consider.
• Fast access to money: The best way to handle unexpected expenses is to draw money from your emergency savings fund. In theory, the money will have been sitting there — in a high-yield savings account actively earning interest — so you don’t have to rely on credit cards, personal loans, cash advance apps, or payday loans. However, people who live paycheck to paycheck understandably can’t build an emergency savings fund. Earned wage access offers another path forward. You’ll be withdrawing money you’ve earned, just a little early. That means you aren’t taking on debt to cover life’s unexpected expenses.
• Easy to qualify: Taking out a personal loan for emergency expenses is often a smart idea if you don’t have the money in savings. But if your credit score is in poor shape, you might have trouble getting approved for a personal loan. Getting money through earned wage access may be easier. As long as your company offers this as a benefit, you don’t have to worry about credit checks and high-interest debt.
• No fees (or at least low fees): Many employers cover the admin fee of earned wage access for their employees as part of the benefit. Other employers might have arrangements with EWA platforms that don’t charge fees when employees access their funds early. Even if the employee is responsible for a transaction fee for an EWA, the cost is usually low.
• Smaller paycheck: When you need money in a pinch, earned wage access can be a great solution that doesn’t involve taking on debt. However, when payday arrives, your paycheck could be much smaller. Often, EWA platforms allow you to access up to 50% of your paycheck, meaning your payday will be cut in half. While you’ve covered the cost of the emergency expense, you’re now faced with paying your monthly bills on only half of your normal check. That could mean tightening your belt at the grocery store or making late payments on bills.
• A bad habit: Like cash advance apps or even payday loans, EWAs can be a slippery slope. You may access a portion of your paycheck early during one pay period, get a smaller paycheck as a result, and then need to turn around and access the next paycheck early to make up for your reduced paycheck. According to a 2021 study by the Financial Health Network, more than 70% of employees who utilized earned wage access used it in consecutive pay periods. It’s a difficult pattern to get out of — and could be even more detrimental if you change jobs and your new employer doesn’t offer EWA. In that case, you might be tempted to take out a predatory loan instead.
• Potential fees: In some cases, employees do have to pay for earned wage access. These fees are usually nominal, especially when compared to alternatives — overdraft fees from spending more than they have in their bank account or exorbitantly high interest rates for payday loans — but EWA fees should still be a consideration for people on a budget. Maybe there’s another alternative, like borrowing money from a family member or a payment plan for whatever emergency expense the employee has incurred.
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Earned Wage Access vs Cash Advance Apps
Cash advance apps, also referred to as early payday apps, share some similarities with earned wage access. Both are typically managed through mobile apps and help you access cash flow ahead of your next paycheck.
Earned wage access, however, is offered solely through an employer. The employer may cover fees for the employees, and the amount a person can access is related to their actual paycheck.
With a cash advance app, consumers are responsible for any associated fees. Some apps may advertise no fees (and no interest), but they may charge a fee for instant transfers. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait a few days to get the money, which often defeats the purpose. Other cash advance apps might have a monthly charge.
The amount you can borrow through a cash advance app varies and may be tied to the cash flow of your linked bank account. Repeat borrowers may get approved for higher funds. Repayment is due on the borrower’s next payday.
Though hidden fees can make cash advance apps expensive, they’re generally a safer option than payday loans.
💡 Quick Tip: Just as there are no free lunches, there are no guaranteed loans. So beware lenders who advertise them. If they are legitimate, they need to know your creditworthiness before offering you a loan.
Earned wage access can be helpful in an emergency situation, if your employer offers this benefit. However, EWA may come with fees, can make it more challenging to budget on payday, and may even lead to a recurring habit. As an alternative in an emergency solution, you can take out a personal loan. It won’t affect your upcoming paycheck, you can use loan moneyfor a variety of purposes, and it can give you the funds you need, at a low cost, to get through a financial hardship.
Think twice before turning to high-interest credit cards. Consider a SoFi personal loan instead. SoFi offers competitive fixed rates and same-day funding. Checking your rate takes just a minute.
Is earned wage access a loan?
Earned wage access is not a loan. It allows employees at participating companies to access money they’ve already earned, just ahead of schedule.
What are the benefits of earned wage access for employees
Earned wage access offers employees several benefits, including fast access to money they’ve technically earned, no or low fees, and easy qualification requirements. (You’ve just got to work for a company that offers this benefit.)
What are the downsides of earned wage access?
Earned wage access can have some downsides. Employees may have to pay fees to get early access to their paycheck, the amount you can access is often capped at 50%, and it can lead to a bad habit wherein you regularly need money before your paycheck.
Photo credit: iStock/Ivan Pantic
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