STRETCHING EVERY DOLLAR

The economic downturn grabbing national headlines looks very personal up close, in the midnight lighting of a Rapid Cash store on Nellis Boulevard.

Between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. on a nothing-special Friday, two dozen working Las Vegans find themselves where they never imagined they’d be: in line for a short-term loan just to make ends meet.

“I’ve driven past here a million times and I never thought I’d have to use it,” says Marvin Jacobs, a 46-year-old kitchen manager for the Clark County School District.

Tonight, Jacobs is one of five customers applying for a new kind of short-term financing agreement: the gasoline loan.

“We’ve seen people come here on a bus, to get money so they can get back home and put gas in their car,” says district manager Brian Cianciola, who oversees Rapid Cash’s 14 Las Vegas locations.

Jacobs will have two weeks to pay back his $535, along with the standard interest of 17.65 percent ($94.41 in total). If he can’t pay in full, he can pay only the interest and extend his loan another two weeks, or pay the principal down and decrease his next interest payment.

“The way gas is going, you’re talking about $40 extra a week,” says Jacobs, whose Ford Explorer sucks up more than $60 per tank. “You don’t think about it when you’re driving around.”

Customer service agent Stephanie Roberts walks in from the parking lot, where she has just appraised Michael Vallejo’s 1992 Honda Civic for a title loan. The 21-year-old El Pollo Loco cashier came in requesting $800 to pay down his credit cards.

“On every corner, you see gas is going up,” Vallejo explains.

Roberts informs Vallejo that he qualifies for $600 cash.

“But I need more,” he insists.

She tells him to come back the next morning with a personal check to apply for a $200 payday loan.

Gasoline loans aren’t the only new money-store trend. Rapid Cash employees see an appreciable increase in customers with variable-rate mortgage woes. (No numbers are available, however, since customers are not routinely asked what their loans will be used for.)

“It’s really killing me,” says Yvonne Acfalle, a 39-year-old banquet manager and mother of three, as she collects a short-term loan of $800 to avoid yet another late mortgage fee.

“Even if I got a big raise,” she says, “it still wouldn’t be enough.”

The mortgage Acfalle and her husband took out to buy a house in 2005 jumped from $1,200 to $1,600 per month in May, and probably will continue increasing every six months. She says she wants to sell, but can’t because her house has lost $50,000 in value.

“I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” she says.

Not all of tonight’s customers are victims of the economy. But the surge in gasoline and food prices isn’t making things easier for Maderal Hilburn. The 46-year-old father of three is here to pay down an $800 loan for video poker that already has entered collections.

“I’ve got to be honest,” Hilburn says. “I was real irresponsible. And I know better. I’ve had 10 years of abstinence before.”

Hilburn says he hasn’t played in seven months.

“It’s just a vicious circle,” he says, “and it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Today was payday for Hilburn, who came to Rapid Cash immediately after getting off work. (He won’t disclose where.)

“I’m only talking to you because it may help somebody,” he says.

Hilburn says he owes another $520 loan to a competing money store.

“That’s what really screwed me up,” he says. “But I had to get really beat up by this to really get how bad this is.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find voices critical of money stores and what they perceive as their exploitation of the unfortunate. In fact, one critic is in line tonight, to pay down a loan he took out on behalf of a family member.

“This wasn’t my personal choice,” says Justin Ponkow, a 21-year-old civil engineering student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I vehemently oppose places like this. In the long run, these places are really, really bad for people.

“Temporary fixes are not real solutions.”

Cianciola sees his business as a savior, however, not a parasite.

“We’re here for the person that has this need that has no place to turn,” he says. “Some people are here because their credit is in disarray. They may have had bankruptcies. They may not have a bank account.

“So we’re able to give them money — with very little qualification — that they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.”

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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