Buy Now, Pay Later?

Recently I was in the store, and while walking in the aisle, I saw a sign saying “ Buy now and pay later – see the associate for details.” I might expect to see signs like that during winter holiday shopping, but not in the spring!

First, what is Buy Now Pay Later? Basically it’s an option that lets consumers finance their purchase by making small payments each month, without paying any interest. Example: purchase an air fryer for $125 by paying $25 at the time of purchase and promising four future payments of $25 (perhaps monthly or bi-weekly).

According to a 2021 survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, people chose Buy Now, Pay Later for five main reasons, listed below in order of preference.

  1. The largest group (78%) stated that it was more convenient for them.
  2. The second reason given was that the consumers did not want use their credit card. Even though they could have purchased the product with a credit card, they feel they were better off without charging it to their credit card.
  3. The next reason was that it was the only way they could afford the product. This is certainly understandable for consumers who are living paycheck to paycheck on a tight budget. Any large purchase would constrain their budget; small payments make the purchase possible.
  4. Some people did some analysis to compare payment options, and concluded that “buy now, pay later” was the least-costly payment option available to them.
  5. Lastly, for some consumers “buy now, pay later” was the only payment method they had – they did not have checking accounts or credit cards available, and worked strictly with cash.  

It is important to point out that even though “Buy Now, Pay Later” does not charge a fee to the consumer, it is not truly free. The retailer offers it in cooperation with an outside finance company, which charges the retailer a fee for the service. Some retailers expect to see increased sales that will make up for the added cost; other retailers may pass the cost on to the consumer in the form of higher prices.

Budgeting for large purchases requires some planning. For those who do not have savings or credit available to cover the cost of a large purchase, Buy Now Pay Later may prove to be a very helpful option, enabling them to acquire higher-cost items they would not otherwise have been able to afford.

A caution: what if I buy an air fryer today (needing $25 payments), and a bike next week (with payments of $40) and a chainsaw the next week ($20 payments)?  Next month I’ll have a bunch of unusual payments to make. If it seems “easy” to make large purchases, consumers may make several purchases within a few weeks and find themselves overcommitted. Like all tools, “Buy Now, Pay Later” can be useful, as long as we use them carefully!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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