Last Updated on 29 January 2021 by Dan
Hello everyone! If there’s one section of the economy right now that’s still going gangbusters, it’s online shopping. No matter if we’re giving ourselves a little treat to get through this or getting in those essentials it’s become a major focus of the way most of us shop. Increasingly, I’ve seen a payment option being offered online to pay for your purchase in instalments with an organisation called Klarna, so I investigated further….
NB: In the interests of transparency – when I write reviews I usually ensure I have tried and tested the product myself to reach a conclusion per our editorial policy. In the case of today’s review I should be clear I have not used Klarna directly, but have undertaken significant research on the topic.
How does Klarna work?
Klarna is actually technically a bank! Started in 2005, it’s one of the most successful fintechs in terms of growth in the last few years, coming out of Sweden – the growth rate and success story has been phenomenal, as it’s now involved in $21bn of online sales.
So as to how it works, let’s say you buy a table. If you purchase though Klarna you might split it into 3 payments – paying a third now, a third in 30 days and the final third in 60 days. Now the marketing spiel has this as allowing you to enter a “try before you buy” arrangement – you hand over very little cash before you’ve actually seen your table, something people worry about in the internet age.
The selling point to you as a consumer is that you pay no interest on the bit that you’re paying later, and it doesn’t go on your credit report. You do pay interest and potential hits to your credit report if you make those payments late.
Klarna can also offer through some merchants slightly longer term payment plans which are more similar to classic consumer lending. In these cases there may be impact your your credit rating and interest to pay – it depends on the individual arrangement.
So you can easily understand the business proposition that Klarna is selling – if you’re a company is makes it easier for people to buy your goods, and if you’re a consumer you may have more flexibility with that purchase.
Is using Klarna a good idea?
So…. if you only rigidly used Klarna in the way that the marketing says, dutifully borrowing for a very short term period and paying it back you might actually conclude it’s a good thing. In fact, you’re actually making a small gain because you’re borrowing money at no cost.
The danger or catch of Klarna is unfortunately much more subtle. They are a company and they need to make profit. Now they make some of their money by charging the merchant a small cut for you using the service, which is fair enough, particularly if it generates a sales lead.
However, also you don’t make profit by handing out money for free. Thus, on the consumer side of the business there’s a calculus in there that a number of consumers will miss their payments and go into debt with Klarna.
Whilst this is potentially likely to be on smaller purchases, it represents the beginning of the debt cycle – you couldn’t pay the thing off, so now you have to pay it back with interest…. which makes it even harder to pay off etc. etc. It’s an easy trap to fall into, with buy now now pay later approaches.
We at the Wilderness take a very simple and hard line – never use Klarna or buy now pay later services unless you absolutely, 100% need to.
Why I see Klarna as problematic
And there’s a few reasons I’m particularly wary of debt traps here, and see it as more of a risk than elsewhere:
The first is that Klarna is largely targeting themselves at young millennials, people in the 18-30 age bracket who may not realise the impact of this kind of thing, and are also on the lower incomes that may place them in a vulnerable position of finding they can’t make a payment and starting this off. In some but not all cases, they may be less likely to think about the longer term impact to their finances.
The second is that Klarna is largely focused on the purchase of non-essential goods – most of the retailers I’ve seen it appear on have been clothes sellers for example. Sometimes you’re forced to take on debt for the really unexpected and severe shocks in life, but I’d always say borrowing for what is ultimately a non-essential purchase is a pure no-no.
Thirdly is that Klarna creates bad psychological purchasing habits – we don’t like to admit it but we’re creatures of habit, and setting up a mindset where we buy something because we want it now, and we’ll worry about affording it later is not a healthy place to be for your money management – especially again for those in the millennial bracket.
It creates an illusion that everything is free, because money does not change hands. That’s already something can be an issue with a credit card, but when you don’t even see the numbers tick down on your bank account it’s even more difficult to manage.
If I can build on this point a little, various studies have shown that we humans are absolutely terrible at mental accounting – we often likely to be in come cases quite wildly optimistic about our ability to handle financial issues in the future, and this can lead us into trouble.
I struggle to think of a situation where you’d absolutely need to have some new clothes right this second, and couldn’t wait till payday when you have the certainty than you can afford something because you know it’s gone out of your bank account.
Are Klarna clear on their fees?
In fairness to Klarna, their app is quite clear in terms of laying out what you owe and when you owe it, and you can set up reminders and notifications to make sure you don’t miss those deadlines by accident and incur charges you don’t need to. I see you can also ask once for a further 10-days without interest being charged again to clear a balance.
However I definitely have to give black marks to Klarna for a real lack of transparency on their fees and charging structure if you do miss payments.
The nice bits of “interest free” and “no credit rating” impact are literally all over their website, but good luck trying to find details of precisely what interest you’ll pay if you do miss a payment, with them instead “inviting you to call an adviser to discuss your options”.
I hope (I really do) that you would never sign a loan agreement without being clear how much you’re agreeing to pay back so I find this concerning. I found a range of estimates on what the interest might be online, but was unable to fix this down.
Whilst it markets itself as a whizz-bang new exciting fintech company, what Klarna is doing is really rooted in an older business model of catalogue shopping. You’d have received glossy brochures of clothes through the mail, which you could order on credit, but it had a reputation to leading some people into financial trouble who bought things despite being in a position they were unlikely to be able to pay it back.
It’s the same business model, just with a larger selection of catalogues from many online retailers.
Where you’re buying anything that’s an non-essential good, I would strongly advise against using a service like Klarna over simply paying for the product then and there. Why build a debt problem you don’t need?
Martin Lewis over at MoneySavingExpert has a rather excellent mantra which feeds throughout his whole website, and it’s very linked to what we believe at the Wilderness as well. It’s to challenge your purchases and ask two key questions:
“If you’re skint, ask if you need it and if you can afford it. If you’re not skint, ask will I use it and is it worth it?”Martin Lewis
Both questions there are important, but the first one is really important for what it can mean for your finances. Klarna encourages you to go against than mentality and conclude you might need something even when you’re in the skint bucket, and we can never encourage that here.
(P.S – On a similar money management topic, I’ve written about why you should never pay off just the minimum on your credit card, which I believe has some crossover with use of services like Klarna – you may want to take a read).
Jennifer at Monethalia has an excellent most on why Buy Now Pay Later schemes are a debt trap in general.
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