Apple has recently announced that it will include “apple pay later” in Apple Pay when it releases ios 16 this fall. “Apple pay later” is part of a growing trend among companies to offer buy now, pay later payment options. Analysts estimate that at least $100 billion in transactions annually are paid with buy now, pay later, and this amount is predicted to dramatically increase within a few years, with some analysts predicting that this amount could reach between $1 trillion and $4 trillion within a few years. Because buy now, pay later is such a widespread phenomenon, it is important for Christians to be aware of its effects on low-income individuals.
What is buy now, pay later?
Buy now, pay later allows consumers to purchase products and pay for them in installments over time. Consumers often pay for items in four installments over several months, rather than paying for items all at once. Buy now, pay later is, essentially, a short-term loan that allows people to purchase items they may not be able to afford if they had to pay for them all at the time of purchase. Buy now, pay later does not cost more than traditional payment methods if consumers make their payments on time. These “loans” can be used to purchase necessities, household items, and technology, among other items.
However, while credit card companies check credit scores prior to issuing loans, buy now, pay later does not. Thus, these programs are particularly attractive to people who have a low credit score or who do not have a bank account, which are more common among low-income individuals. Studies show that a large percentage of users are young people, who may not have a full understanding of debt and who tend to have lower incomes.
Why are buy now, pay later programs predatory toward the poor?
Buy now, pay later programs encourage people to spend more money than they otherwise would. A 2020 survey by Cardify.ai, a data firm that tracks consumer spending, found that nearly half of buy now, pay later shoppers increased their spending by 10% to over 40% when they used buy now, pay later instead of a credit card. Another survey of 6,500 adults found that around half of people who use buy now, pay later worry it will lead them to overspend, and 57% of people who have used the program have regretted purchasing an item because it was too expensive. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that a disproportionate number of low-income individuals use this method of payment.
While buy now, pay later does not cost more than traditional payment methods up front, it often charges high interest rates and steep fees for people who are late on payments. Unlike credit cards, buy now, pay later is not heavily regulated by the government. Consequently, it is not required to clearly state late fee policies and is not prohibited from issuing interest rates above a certain amount. These exorbitant fees and high interest rates can trap low-income individuals in a cycle of debt.
Evidence also suggests that people are likely to be late on buy now, pay later payments. A study by CR Research, a market research agency, found that over half of buy now, pay later consumers have fallen behind on a payment. Additionally, a 2020 study by Cornerstone Advisors found that two thirds of consumers who were late for a payment lost track of payments and paid late, despite having the needed money. This high rate of late payments is due in part to the complexity of the service and difficulty of keeping track of required payments. It also points to the reality that many low-income individuals may be forced to take on more debt to make these payments and that these programs are targeted toward young people who disproportionately overdraft.
Consequently, buy now, pay later is predatory toward the poor because it disproportionately attracts low-income individuals, often involves very steep late fees that are not clearly advertised, and can make keeping track of payments difficult. It can trap low-income individuals in cycles of debt.
Can buy now, pay later programs be helpful?
If people make careful and informed decisions about when to use buy now, pay later, it could serve as a helpful budgeting tool for those with limited resources. People may be able to purchase items that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. And if buy now, pay later programs reduced their interest rates for late fees and more clearly advertised their late policies, they could be beneficial to low-income individuals. Regulations to ensure that these criteria are met would reduce the risks associated with these programs.
Why should Christians care about this issue?
Christians should care about the rise in popularity of buy now, pay later programs because Scripture is clear that we are called to seek justice and care for the poor. “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). High interest rates on these loans are unjust and harmful to the poor, so supporting reasonable regulations on their excesses is a way to promote justice in our society. Additionally, Christians are called to love our neighbors. Opposing predatory lending practices is one way that Christians can live out this call to love.
Scripture strongly condemns usurious and exploitative lending practices. Recognizing the dignity of every person extends to business and financial relationships as well as interpersonal ones. As the Southern Baptist Convention affirms, “God is opposed to those who take advantage of the weak, poor, and vulnerable” and “predatory lending fails to respect the dignity of the person created in the image of God and interferes with human flourishing.” For this reason, Southern Baptists are opposed to predatory lending practices that target financially unstable persons. Any lending practice that intentionally uses and exposes vulnerable individuals is unacceptable and should be strictly regulated by government protections. By being aware of the pitfalls of buy now, pay later, Christians can support policies that are beneficial to their neighbors and more effectively advocate for the poor.
The ERLC is committed to strongly opposing exploitative lending practices and is working to support regulations and legislation that would stop these practices that are harmful to our neighbors.