Buy Now. Pay (and Pay, and Pay, and Pay) Later.

Scott Galloway headshot
By Scott Galloway
Let’s role-play. It’s March 2021. You’re 23, a year out of college. Your last semester was ruined by the pandemic, but now you’ve got a job with a firm that’s “reinventing commerce” in a loft with reclaimed wood and catered lunches. Bars are open, your friends are coming back to the city, and your bank balance looks good, healthy even: COVID means living cheap, with free cash from the government and no student-loan payments. You lease an apartment and begin dabbling in the markets — they’re all surging. You pick up tips on Reddit, trade on Robinhood, buy crypto. One of your tokens turns a modest stake into real money almost overnight. By summer, your college crew is planning a reunion, and it’s time to invest in an adult wardrobe to signal your budding success. It feels weird to spend hundreds of dollars on outfits — but now there’s an app for that. On TikTok, try-on hauls from Shein teach you a killer finance hack: “Buy now, pay later.”

It seems smart, almost responsible. You know credit-card debt is how boomer-economy consumers wrecked their finances. And BNPL isn’t credit — it’s debit with fixed payments taken right from your bank account, and you’re told there’s no interest or late fees. It helps you plan your spending, letting you spend more now — so you do. You use Afterpay to buy sneakers from Reformation, and Klarna to defer payments on tickets from Live Nation, and Affirm to get a Peloton. Your approach to spending feels New Economy — the traditional laws of finance don’t apply.

But now it’s May 2022. Inflation is at a 40-year high, there’s war in Europe, and the NASDAQ just registered its worst month since 2008. Crypto is awash in scams; unicorns are talking layoffs. And soon, when the student-debt vacation ends, you’re going to start getting a three- or four-figure bill every month. Good luck finding the cash to make payments you still owe on fast fashion and that Peloton.

Read the full New York Magazine article.
Scott Galloway is a Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern.