Last weekend a pink ice-cream van parked in Shoreditch and handed mermaid-themed treats to young people fizzing through the shops as lockdown lifted. It was a promotion by leading “buy now, pay later” (BNPL) service Klarna, whose pastel-pink logo is on the checkout page of fashion sites like H&M and Urban Outfitters, and the mermaid element interested me because I have hovered often over that logo, then pulled back with the dready feeling that it could lure me to the rocks.
If you had asked me 20 years ago what I thought would be fashionable today, it would have taken some time, many sugary drinks and four or five relationships before I settled on “debt”. Debt as the new feminism. Debt rebranded as a naughty little treat. Debt as an aspirational lifestyle choice. And yet, here we are.
A press release I received this morning from another BNPL company, Laybuy, was promoting a new campaign, “to get women talking more openly about their money worries and adopt better financial habits for the future”. We have long become accustomed to brands promising women that empowerment will come with the purchase of a jazzy new stiletto or lipstick, but this is new. This is the promise of empowerment through debt. Empowerment through buying whatever you want, whenever you want it. The object you buy is not important, it’s the buying itself that’s transformative. Empowerment through postponing the tricky businesses of securing money, until a later date when the thirst for scented candles has lessened.
The branding of ladydebt is comforting and familiar, in bubblegum colours and Instagram filters, in noisy promotions for International Women’s Day, the language (“female financial wellness”, “financial fitness”, “people say we’re too pink and too weird”) reflecting fourth-wave feminism in a way that leaves you quite slumped and confused, and suddenly in possession of three new going-out tops and a complicated massage tool.
The rise of the new female-focused BNPL companies (Klarna alone is used by more than 200,000 retailers, with over 10m UK customers, average age of 33) comes at a time when women’s wallets are uniquely bruised. The pandemic recession has led to more job losses among women than men, the gender savings gap is widening, and the gender pay gap is on track to remain until 2059. A popular theory for the pay gap is that women lack confidence to ask for a pay rise, but in 2016 this was proved false. Yet the idea continues to stick, meaning not only are women left poorer, they are also left feeling guilty for not asking for more. It’s these complicated sort of plays that today’s modern banks trade in.
The women they market to came of age after the financial crash, landing in adulthood at a time when housing prices far outstripped wages and the prospect of raising a family in the way their parents did, owning a home, a car, secure in a job, was virtually impossible. But the structures remained, the desires remained, ideas of what success looks like, ideas of what security felt like, and here is where the new BNPL services slipped in.
They offer a generation for whom saving seems pointless the chance to spend thoughtlessly, and they market it as selfcare. Sometimes the link is obvious – in 2020, the year the company’s valuation exceeded £7.48bn, Klarna ran a series of Instagram adverts banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for irresponsibly encouraging customers to use the service to “boost their mood” during the pandemic. Sometimes it’s oblique: they sell themselves as shortcuts to sensible spending, a way of looking after yourself, with added treats.
Many of the problems that come with these companies are well tested, and include debt collectors, but others are brand new and more sinister. One of them I noticed when hovering over that logo, ready to check out – some sites have a BNPL set as the default payment method, which means with a single touch, you can get into debt. And without realising you’ve borrowed a penny. Their selling point, the smoothness of use, means it is equally easy to amass debt accidentally. To slide slowly into the water, eventually hitting rock.
Has it ever been easy to talk about money? Has it ever been a conversation unstained by the circumstances in which we grew up, unweathered by class, wiped clean of expectation, shame, self-worth, guilt? Money, a filthy thing, wrapped in so many layers of secrecy and undigested anxiety it must not be spoken of in polite company, is too bright to look at directly. Especially for a generation where it has become abstracted into pinkish pixels, so when a company arrives on your Instagram feed offering to take care of it, the appeal is clear. It has always been hard to talk about money, but with their illusion of empowerment, and their insistence they’re here to listen, to help women discuss their money worries, this growing industry is making it even harder.