October 25, 2020

Are Buy Now, Pay Later Apps Better Than a Credit Card?

You might think BNPL saves you money and time, but it can cost you big if you’re not careful.

If you’ve noticed a lot more “buy now, pay later” apps popping up when you check out with online retailers, it’s because they’ve become increasingly popular.

This comes as no surprise when you consider how younger generations are hesitant to use credit cards. According to a new study on buy now, pay later (BNPL) apps done by The Ascent, 67% of millennials don’t have a credit card. For some, that’s because they can’t get approved, and others prefer to avoid credit. Many don’t think it makes sense to use a credit card for small, everyday purchases and are worried about the impact of credit cards on their credit scores.

Which one is better: BNPL apps or credit cards? The answer, as you might expect, is: It depends.

Better for ease of approval: Buy now, pay later

One of the main draws of BNPL apps is that they typically don’t require credit approval, and most don’t even involve a hard pull on your credit report.

This is good news for folks with bad credit or no credit at all, and it’s helpful for anyone who wants to keep credit inquiries to a minimum. Having multiple new inquiries on your credit report in a short period of time — and credit card applications are considered an inquiry — can cause your credit score to drop.

Shopping with an online retailer and paying with a BNPL app at checkout is certainly convenient. It means you don’t have to fill out a lengthy application and wait to see if you’re approved. However, just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s a wise choice.

Better for improving your credit score: Credit cards

Using a credit card regularly and paying it off in full and on time each month is one of the best ways to build credit. Of course, credit cards don’t inherently improve your credit — responsible credit card usage does. Late payments and delinquent accounts can completely wreck your credit score. And, as discussed above, the credit card application itself can ding your score slightly.

Many BNPL apps, on the other hand, don’t report on-time payments to the credit bureaus. This means you won’t get credit for them — pun intended. On the other hand, any failure to make your payments can be reported to the credit bureaus and damage your score.

Credit cards have the potential to either help or hurt your credit depending on how you use them. In contrast, a lot of BNPL apps only have the potential to drag down your score if you fail to pay off your balance.

Better for avoiding interest: It depends

Every BNPL option has its own set of terms and conditions, so it’s important to read the fine print before making a decision. Some come with an interest-free period, while others charge interest rates of up to 30%. You typically won’t be charged any fees to use a BNPL service if you take advantage of an interest-free promotion and pay off your full balance within the interest-free period and on time. That said, most of these services do charge late fees and returned payment fees if you don’t have sufficient funds in your bank account to make one of your scheduled payments.

The decision between a BNPL app and a credit card comes down to interest, so you should know the interest rate on your credit card. You can find that information on your monthly statement. If the BNPL app you’re considering charges interest, compare the rate to what your credit card would charge. In either case, you’ll likely pay a premium to put the purchase on credit, as the interest rates on credit cards and BNPL apps are extremely high.

Often, BNPL apps will offer an interest-free period, which is what can make them so enticing. A typical interest-free offer will break up the total cost of your purchase into four installments, asking you to pay 25% of the purchase price up-front and then make the remaining three payments every two weeks.

If you do this, you’ll have six weeks to pay off the purchase and won’t have to pay any interest. This makes it a slightly better deal than a credit card, which typically has a grace period of 21 days, or three weeks, before interest is assessed on a purchase.

However, if you miss a single payment or fail to pay off the full purchase by the end of the interest-free period, even if you only have a few dollars left to pay off, you could be in for a rude awakening. BNPL interest rates are typically far higher than those charged by credit cards. Some even charge what’s called “deferred interest,” meaning interest accumulates on the original purchase price, not the remaining balance. What’s more, some of these services charge late fees as a percentage of the original purchase value, which can be very costly.

In other words, BNPL services can save you money on interest, but they can also cost you a lot more if you’re not careful. They also give you a very short period of time to pay off your purchase interest-free, especially when compared to 0% intro APR credit cards with 18-month introductory periods.

Better for big purchases: Credit cards

Most BNPL apps are meant for smaller items — think a few hundred dollars — rather than major purchases. If you’re looking to finance something in the thousands of dollars range, you might have trouble finding a BNPL app that will help you out. Credit cards tend to come with higher credit limits, especially if you have good credit and a decent income.

That being said, financing an expensive purchase on a credit card is typically not a good idea either, due to the high interest rates. The only time you should consider putting a big-ticket item on credit is when you can take advantage of a good 0% intro APR credit card. Even then you need to be certain you can pay off the balance before the introductory period ends. Otherwise, you’ll end up getting slammed with massive interest fees.

Saving enough money to pay up-front is almost always the best way to pay

In most cases, the best way to pay for a purchase is to save up the money first and buy it outright. This ensures you’ll avoid interest fees, debt, and potential credit damage.

This isn’t always possible, but it is a best practice you should exercise for any non-essential purchases. Instead of swiping your credit card or using a BNPL app, open a free savings account specifically for that goal and transfer money into it once each week. Wait until you have enough money saved to buy the item you’ve had your eye on.

It won’t get you instant gratification, but it also won’t cause you to stress about making your payments or land you in debt. And that is priceless.

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