‘Buy now, pay later’ trends, popularized on social media, aren’t sustainable in the long run

I like to think of myself as mildly competent when it comes to finances—at least for someone of my age without any real fiscal education beyond the occasional podcast or ‘10 Side Hustles That Will Make You Rich’ article that Instagram strategically plants into my algorithm. My reality proved to be a delusion when my bank swarmed me with alerts and emails letting me know that I had overdrawn my checking account on Wednesday. I could not remedy this with my savings, which sat at a whopping 82 cents, but rather had to squeeze in some of those side hustles (not found on the aforementioned lists, which are effective clickbait consisting mostly of bullshit) to save me from looming fees.

Red is a color that characterizes my generation, which I haphazardly align myself with from the older, less adept end. Gen Z is loud and often angry (like red), its planet is in flames (again, red), and it faces massive amounts of debt (living, largely, in the red). I don’t have the sort of hot-girl TikTok following that would sustain regular compilations set to Saucy Santana’s “Material Girl,” but the desire to create them is something I understand. TikTok, unlike Instagram, is built on the promise of virality, which is something we all think we are worthy of, to some extent. Its “For You Page” both feeds you unexpected content and offers the potential for you to be that unexpected content for others. Hence, offering periodic shopping hauls to your 10 followers could possibly balloon to 10k or 100k, if it just reached the right audience—the audience that appreciates you for all you’re worth. However, frequent closet updates aren’t financially (or environmentally) sustainable.

Enter payment plans. Faux plants in bulk? Payment plan. Skimpy silk dress for summer? Payment plan. Matching hand-painted dining set that makes me feel like an adult, but an edgy adult? Payment plan. The possibilities of tomorrow are no longer inhibited by the limitations of today—until the day after tomorrow, when those payment plans sustaining your TikTok persona pile into debts that even your resales on Depop can’t cover.

The buy now, pay later financial procrastination plans aren’t insubstantial. In 2021, more than $20 billion was spent through such services by Americans. That’s no small potato issue—it’s actually a pretty substantial, and growing, slice of the mostly rotten potato pie that makes up the $870 billion-a-year online shopping industry. This payment model has bled into physical shopping as well, with platforms like Afterpay offering their services for in-person shoppers. These services are often not actually free, a fact often cleverly masked by their marketing, which has served as the basis of several class action lawsuits.

Payment plans, as a concept, offer a practical solution to immediate necessities outside of your budget. Perhaps they function better with necessities that relate to things like plumbing more so than the latest fashion fads. For the younger generations already facing mounds of debt and losing any hope of saving enough to own property or retire, payment plans are alluring to the ‘fuck it’ attitude that doesn’t care for a future, because it doesn’t believe in one.