Some ‘buy now, pay later’ users warn others away

Many consumers find buying now and paying later a godsend when cash is tight. Others are wishing they’d paid upfront to avoid pain later.

Tia Whiteside, 27, knew she was spending more than she would have without buy now, pay later services — the popular loans that let borrowers split purchases into installments with little or no interest. Planning a day trip to the beach with her 2-year-old son last year, she spent $800 on Amazon purchases including a tent, new outfits and a high-end sandcastle kit with the BNPL provider Affirm.

Whiteside, a Greenville, South Carolina-based behavioral analyst who treats childhood autism, makes good money; she and her husband bring in about $110,000 per year combined. But the $6,000 in BNPL loans she’d racked up over roughly two years felt frivolous, she said, especially because they’re planning to buy their first home.

“I was just seeing my paycheck continually eaten up,” said Whiteside, “and I was like, ‘Where’s my money going?'”

The last straw was a $600 Dyson hair styler and dryer, which she’s used just once since purchasing it with Affirm at Neiman Marcus in early February. By mid-March, Whiteside said she’d deleted the Klarna and Afterpay apps from her phone — but held on to Affirm, because she still owes it money.

BNPL services have taken off among shoppers across income and credit levels for various reasons. Many are seeking cover from high credit card interest rates. Some, having burned through traditional credit options, are desperate for financial lifelines. Others are simply looking to better manage their cash flow.

The fastest uptake has been among consumers 35 and younger, who represent more than half of BNPL borrowers, LexisNexis Risk Solutions found late last year. Many are increasingly using the loans for daily essentials, not just big-ticket purchases. While some already see them as a routine tool in their wallets, others, like Whiteside, are turning away in alarm.

“I can pay on my credit cards more freely if I don’t have that other consumer debt,” Whiteside has since realized, referring to her existing $10,000 card balance. After trimming her discretionary spending and sticking to home-cooked meals, she said she’s been able to whittle down her BNPL debt to about $1,200.

As BNPL usage soars, financial experts and researchers have raised alarms about risky spending on the platforms, even though they can often be used responsibly.

“I’m sure there are people who use it well, but on average, we feel it kind of replaces the credit card,” said Ben Lourie, an accounting professor at the University of California, Irvine. “People are consuming extra. There’s just no way around it.”

Lourie and fellow researchers at UC Irvine, Stanford and Singapore Management University analyzed the bank and credit card data of nearly 11 million consumers. They found that BNPL users racked up at least $176 more per year in overdraft fees, credit card interest and late fees after starting to use the services.

While the transaction data they scrutinized, in a paper released March 21, ranged from 2014 to 2021, Lourie said he suspects the overspending has “gotten worse.” But that may be difficult to gauge, in part because BNPL loans aren’t uniformly reported to major credit agencies, creating “phantom debt” that lenders aren’t always able to see.

Some borrowers have been warning others on social media against buying now and paying later, with a few criticizing the services’ advertising practices.

“I’ve got like 10 PayPal pay in 4 plans left (thankfully those are almost done) $500 in affirm plans, and $2k on credit cards,” one Reddit user wrote last year. “I just tried to get my parents off my student loans and was told I can’t due to my rotating debt to income ratio.”

“I finally paid my Afterpay bill, and they immediately emailed me to purchase shoes on an installment plan,” a poster on X said in February. “What part of I’m poor do they not understand?”

The services have drawn attention from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which found last year that most BNPL users had higher credit card utilization rates and lower credit scores than non-BNPL borrowers. Many appeared to be leaning on the installment loans while also shouldering high rates on revolving credit card balances, the agency said.

That report also found Black consumers were 65% more likely to borrow on BNPL than the general population, followed by Hispanic consumers (47%) and female consumers (35%).

After about three or four years of using BNPL services for designer clothes, handbags and Apple devices, Amy Baird, 39, was staring down more than $9,000 in debt.

“It caught up to me,” said Baird, who lives in Dallas and works as a claims clerk for an insurance company. “I had put myself in a pretty big hole,” she said, adding that she found support in a subreddit focused on shopping addiction.

Her boyfriend helped her secure a low-interest balance transfer card, making it easier to tackle the loans one provider at a time, she said. After paying off her other three major BNPL lenders, Baird said, her Affirm balance of about $1,200 is all that’s left.

Financial planners often advise compulsive shoppers to take a beat after putting something in their online carts — to consider payment strategies or wait a day and come back. But BNPL platforms can make it hard to press pause, some borrowers and financial experts said.

Whiteside recalled getting smartphone notifications from her Affirm app shortly after paying off a loan, telling her, “‘You’ve got this much pre-approved to spend,’ and that just feels kind of icky,” she said.

Many consumer lending products, including traditional credit cards, regularly dangle promotions to attract and maintain borrowers. But Kevin Mahoney, a Washington, D.C.-based financial planner, said BNPL services are set up in ways that can feed habits his clients are working to break.

“You don’t really have to do anything other than click ‘purchase,'” he said.

That frictionlessness can be especially tempting “on days when people are tired or stressed and you just have less willpower,” said Mahoney, who works mainly with millennial consumers. Many younger borrowers — especially those with big, new financial obligations like student loans — find the extent of their overspending sneaks up on them suddenly, he said.

Affirm didn’t comment on its advertising but said it underwrites every lending decision to help ensure users aren’t overextended.

“You see exactly the total cost upfront before you decide whether or not to transact, and it doesn’t perpetuate these debt cycles with compounding interest or profiting from junk fees and complicated math,” a spokesperson said.

Afterpay pointed to features designed to “safeguard” consumers, including the ability to lower their spending limits and customize notifications. PayPal said it emphasized “payment flexibility and choice” at checkout and factored borrowers’ repayment histories into its lending decisions. Klarna said it had responsible spending limits for its users, whose average outstanding balance is $150, compared to the more than $6,000 for credit card users.

Some lawmakers have called for more scrutiny of BNPL services.

Last fall, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who heads the Senate banking committee, joined Sens. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and John Fetterman, D-Pa., in a letter urging the CFPB to ensure BNPL providers didn’t “take advantage of struggling consumers” ahead of the holiday season.

“Aggressive advertising encourages consumers to use these plans for multiple purchases, at multiple online stores — racking up debt they cannot afford to repay,” Brown said in a statement to NBC News.

Baird, for her part, acknowledged BNPL services can make inflation and high interest rates feel “easier” for those who can keep their shopping impulses under control. But she’s sworn them off for good and encourages others to proceed with caution.

“I am so scared of them now,” she said. “I don’t need that in my life.”

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