Sounds convenient, but you might Pay Later

By 'Alapasita Pomelile August 06, 2021

How hard is it to spend money? With the advent of financial technology over the course of the last 40 years, we’ve moved from having to make regular trips to a bank to being able to use our phones to apply for credit, transfer funds, and Paywave up a storm. Now, it seems the tech giants are taking steps towards becoming financial institutions in their own right, with online payment giant Square buying Afterpay for NZD$41 billion and Apple recently announcing its own “buy now, pay later” offering.

As someone researching how lending and new types of debt can affect vulnerable consumers, I see these moves as yet another concerning shift in how we think about and who we trust to help us use money. Traditionally, we have processed our financial decisions through a relationship with banks: institutions that are bound by local regulation and have built up consumer trust over centuries providing products and systems that promise security and (as BNZ likes to say) helps customers “be good with money.”

I worry about the link between convenience and complacency.

In general though, banks have not been famous for convenience or world-beating customer experience. Conversely, tech companies are global operators that build their reputations by disrupting the status quo and offering innovation that delivers more and more convenience to their customers—often by circumventing the regulations and safeguards that have set the terms for local transactions.

Moving our “banking” into a global tech ecosystem will offer consumers a more frictionless financial experience: removing some of the complexity from our financial decision-making and giving us easier access to instant spending. For many, this innovation will feel like nothing but welcome progress. However, when I think about many people I have interviewed as part of my research into predatory lending, I worry about the link between convenience and complacency.

Apple’s “Pay Later” joins a plethora of easy to access, interest-free credit products that normalise spending money we don’t have and breaks down the traditional layers of complexity that comes with applying to borrow.

While we all appreciate the efficiency gains offered by technological innovation, our personal finances may be an area where we would be wise to hang on to a bit of this complexity and friction that forces us to be engaged in the process. The inconvenient processes that banks and lenders have ensure that creditors are adhering to the Responsible Lending Code and doing their due diligence to assess how affordable a loan might be for that particular borrower. We don’t like being told no, but these extra steps help to prevent borrowers from obtaining interest-free credit that they ultimately will find very difficult to pay back.

This frictionless consumer experience can allow people to disengage from their own financial reality, sliding into vast amounts of debt.

In my work around predatory lending, I have seen the harm that comes when the convenience and simplicity these credit products offer create an environment where it is all too easy for people to sign up as a “customer” to multiple creditors. This frictionless consumer experience can allow people to disengage from their own financial reality, sliding into vast amounts of debt. Once they’re in over their head however, they discover that what works to get out looks a lot like the practical, engaged budgeting methods that have served people well for generations. Not convenient, but sustainable, requiring their focus and discipline.

As consumers, we are right to welcome innovation that makes life easier for us. However, we need to think about what these new services are offered to us for and keep in mind the trade-offs when we start a financial relationship with a convenient global lender. We may need to become the friction that ensures that innovation doesn’t cause us (or those we love) to slip into consumer debt.

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