How to Use Buy Now, Pay Later Like a Pro

“Buy now, pay later” plans have become a common option at checkout when shopping in store or online. Some plans, like the pay-in-four option, are appealing since they typically don’t charge interest or require a hard credit check that impacts credit scores.

These plans may seem like another payment method next to debit or credit, but they are installment loans that divide your purchase into several payments, with the first one typically due at checkout. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s latest rule, as of May 2024, further clarifies that buy now, pay later lenders are credit card providers. They must provide some of the same legal protections and rights that apply to credit cards, such as the ability to get a refund after returning a product.

If you qualify for buy now, pay later, it can be easy to become overextended if you take on several plans, so using them frequently as a form of credit may be problematic.

Here’s how to use buy now, pay later the smart way.

Aim to use it strategically

A buy now, pay later plan can make sense to free up cash flow — if you know you’ll have the money to pay it off based on the terms. Review your budget to see whether a buy now, pay later purchase is truly affordable before accepting it. Given that they are loans, avoid reliance on these plans to cover basic necessities if possible. Frequent use of these plans to make ends meet could indicate that you need a financial strategy before an unexpected emergency or setback puts you in the red.

“They can look at their budget in general,” says Trent Graham, a program performance and quality assurance specialist at GreenPath, a nonprofit credit counseling agency. “What’s the cash coming in compared to the cash going out without use of credit? What are options or ideas on cutting back on expenses or increasing the income, one of the two, to balance that budget out?”

If possible, leave space in your budget for unforeseen expenses. Ideally, an emergency fund can cover unexpected costs that may arise to stay on track.

Avoid taking on too many plans at once

Buy now, pay later lenders may not report ongoing payments to major credit bureaus, so they might not have visibility into the number of plans you hold with different companies. As a result, it’s possible to become overextended.

If you do have several buy now, pay later plans open at the same time, keep on top of varying terms and due dates. Graham suggests staying organized with budgeting apps, a notebook, a calendar, or other ways to track and plan for these loans. Choose an option that works for you.

Pay on time

Buy now, pay later plans are a form of credit, but they don’t typically help build it. In some cases, in fact, they can harm your credit. Payment history usually isn’t reported to credit bureaus for buy now, pay later plans at this time, but missing a payment could have adverse ripple effects, depending on the lender.

Paying late can lead to fees or a frozen account that prevents purchases. Eventually, the debt can be charged off and may be turned over to a debt collector. These actions can be reported to credit bureaus and hurt your credit history. If you anticipate trouble paying on time, some lenders may allow changes to payment due dates.

Again, while it’s not recommended to juggle too many buy now, pay later plans at once, staying organized can keep them manageable. Among those who have opened credit cards, personal loans, auto loans, student loans or mortgages, customers who also have buy now, pay later plans were more than twice as likely to be delinquent on at least one of those products by 30 days or longer, according to a 2023 report by the CFPB.

Select your payment method thoughtfully

Some buy now, pay later lenders allow installments to be paid with a debit card, credit card or other options. Whether you’re required to sign up for automatic repayments or you select that option, choose the payment method thoughtfully based on your goals and the purchase amount.

Automatic payments with a debit card, for instance, could lead to overdraft or nonsufficient fund fees if there isn’t enough money to cover the payment. Paying with a credit card can avoid this issue, but if you carry a balance from buy now, pay later plans over several months, you could be paying interest charges. A large purchase could also impact your credit utilization ratio if it uses more than 30% of your available credit. It’s a key factor in credit scores.

Understand the terms

If you’re in a hurry to check out, It may be tempting to accept a buy now, pay later plan without reading the terms of the loan. But doing so could lead to unwanted surprises. The terms aren’t the same for all lenders, and they sometimes aren’t easy to find. Track them down on the lender’s website and read them carefully to know what to expect from the plan, including any potential fees.

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