In the famous opening sequence of one of my favorite Brooklyn films, Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero sees a $27.50 shirt in the window of a clothing store and does what countless other working-class Brooklynites of days gone by have done: He stops in and leaves a deposit to buy the shirt on layaway. He then goes to his boss and tries to get an advance so that he can have the shirt for that night.
Layaway—the practice of paying over time for an item you can’t afford, sometimes with a fee attached for the “service” of holding the item for you—emerged during the Great Depression and remained popular until the 1980s, when credit cards became more widely available. It was still common at the small businesses of Brooklyn in my youth. I remember buying Champion sweatshirts, Z Cavaricci jeans, and Ralph Lauren rugby shirts at local boutiques using their layaway plans. But it wasn’t just for fashion: Furniture, jewelry, sneakers, electronics—pretty much anything aspirational that a lower-income family might want could be financed via layaway. Which is a great thing if you are a local business catering to a community that is unbanked or under-banked, or with low or no credit access. Often, these were, and still are, Black and Latinx communities.
Indeed, layaway was a concept so interwoven in the lives of communities of color that it permeated our music. The 1972 Isley Brothers song “Lay Away” and Gloria Estefan’s 1993 Christmas ditty, “Love on Layaway,” use the concept as a metaphor for longing in love. But, as time went on and the aspirational, shiny-suit era of the late ’90s gave way to the early aughts, the cultural understanding within communities of color was that layaway might be a means to an end, but what we should be striving for is outright ownership.
In the 1999 song “Player’s Holiday,” a member of the group T.W.D.Y. speaks of layaway as a tool they are proud to no longer need. Having been poor was okay, as long as you weren’t any longer. (Jenny wanted everyone to know that she was still from the block—she used to have a little, but now she has a lot.)
When R&B singer Jon B. and Afro-Dominicano rapper AZ released the song “Layaway” in 2001, they used the concept as a metaphor for pushing off a materialistic love interest. But it was in 2004, on his instant classic College Dropout, that Kanye West fully recast layaway as a shameful practice of the have-nots. While he does reminisce about using layaway to keep up appearances during his hustle to the top, in his hit song “We Don’t Care,” he equates using layaway with selling bootleg mixtapes and committing income-tax fraud by falsely claiming child tax credits.
In that era, hip-hop was an important and influential cultural force in Black and Puerto Rican and other Latinx communities, and despite his troubled image now, there was no voice more influential than Kanye West’s in that moment. This was largely because that album reflected an aspirational attitude rooted not in crime and drug hustles, but in a middle-class experience that hip-hop had not seen from major-label artists. If Kanye could rap about something as relatable as working at the Gap and still say layaway was for herbs, then layaway was finished. Since then, when layaway pops up in lyrical references now—whether from Nikki Minaj, Clas Classic, or Stunna Girl—it’s almost exclusively as a dis.
Now, listen—it wasn’t that layaway ever went away. I still see signs promoting it at mom-and-pop furniture stores in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. Indeed, the Great Recession brought layaway back, bigger than ever: Chain stores like KMart, Sears, and Target all launched programs. Some of them, like Target, specifically packaged these programs with other financial services targeting low-income minority customers, such as check-cashing. But many of them were directed at the fiscally strapped population at large, and rebranded for white America as “fiscally responsible” and “smart.” As the nation’s economy recovered, layaway faded out again. And now it’s cycling back.
A couple of years ago, I was buying a top from a major retailer online. It wasn’t particularly expensive—less than $100—but when I was going to check out, I was offered—much as I was at my local V.I.M. in the ’90s—the “opportunity” to finance my purchase over four incredibly affordable installments, this time using a service called Klarna. I was tickled: “They basically gentrified layaway,” I texted a friend.
From a certain perspective, buy now, pay later (BNPL) services like Klarna and Afterpay are—like gentrified neighborhoods—upgrades from layaway. You can get your item immediately and pay for it over time. But viewed through another lens—mine—they look like trouble: “How many young people are gonna be spending way more than they have?” I texted my friend.
My instincts were not wrong. The other day I read an alarming piece about BNPL in New York explaining that consumer debt had increased to $52 billion as of March. Be it the subprime-mortgage crisis or the predatory credit-card lending of the aughts, anytime someone figures out how to monetize consumers spending money that they don’t have, the consumer is almost always the one who suffers in the end.
The irony is that while layaway might have been stigmatized as a service for the “poor,” no one who used it was getting into debt. You brought your item home when you were done paying for it. Plain and simple. (The rent-to-own phenomenon and fallout are a newsletter all on its own.) What’s particularly seductive about BNPL is that you not only have the immediate satisfaction of getting the item, but it is pitched to fiscally uneducated young people as a responsible decision. As one woman told Refinery 29, “I knew I had the money in my bank account to pay for my purchase but the allure of spreading out my costs and a discount seemed too good to pass up.”
In Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero leads with his appearances: He wants that shirt he can’t yet afford because he can imagine the cut he’ll make walking into the 2001 Odyssey. Today, it’s imagining the “likes” that this dress or vacation or pair of sneakers might rack up when posted to TikTok or IG. The instinct is as old as time. But I always remember the little exchange between Tony and the shop owner in that opening sequence. As Tony walks away after leaving the store owner $5, the owner calls out to say that he forgot his receipt. “I trust you!” Tony yells. “You shouldn’t,” the man shouts back.
A lesson for the ages.