As the holidays approach, should you use layaway as part of your gift-buying strategy?
Layaway programs let you pay for items over time by making periodic payments until your merchandise is paid in full. Not every store offer is the same, however. Some charge for canceling a layaway. Others charge a fee for the service.
Here are 10 things you need to know before using layaway.
1. Is a minimum purchase required?
Ask the store personnel where you're considering layaway if there's a minimum purchase required. For some retailers, it's at least $100 in overall spending. Others won't let you put certain low-priced items on layaway.
"I'm a fan of layaway because it's a way you can avoid using credit cards and stay out of debt," says Hank Coleman, founder of the advice website MoneyQandA.com. "But don't let layaway rules force you into buying extra items or unnecessary stuff just because you're not spending all your cash up front."
2. Is a down payment needed?
Most retailers require an initial payment ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of the merchandise. So putting $300 worth of winter coats on layaway at Burlington Coat Factory would mean forking over $60, since the company requires a 20 percent down payment.
3. Are fees involved?
Up-front service fees of $5 or $10 were once the norm for layaway plans. Today, many retailers are eliminating up-front service fees in order to make their layaway programs more attractive.
Wal-Mart, Kmart and Toys R Us now offer "free" or "no fee" layaway, for example.
"Up-front fees are being waived," says Connecticut Better Business Bureau spokesman Howard Schwartz. "But consumers still need to know about cancellation penalties, because in some cases those ... savings on the front end can be offset by penalties or fees on the back end."
4. What is the cancellation policy?
You need to know what happens if you change your mind, decide to cancel, miss a payment or can't pay your final balance. Does your merchandise get immediately returned to inventory? Are "restocking fees" or other penalties imposed? What happens to the money you've paid thus far? Do you forfeit those funds or can you at least get a store credit or a gift card?
If some form of credit isn't refunded, it's best to decline a retailer's layaway plan.
5. When must I pay for the merchandise?
Some stores have deadlines for when you have complete the payments, often 60 or 90 days, and also impose rules about when you must make interim payments. Have a clear idea about whether a retailer requires you to pay weekly, monthly or even on a specific day of the month.
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