SLADE COLUMN: Several reasons to avoid using layaway plans

A Kmart worker in in Conover, N.C., handles a layaway purchase. (AP/Nell Redmond/File)

There was a chill in the air this week, a reminder that fall weather has arrived, which means we’ll soon be besieged with Christmas shopping ads.

Already, stores are urging shoppers to sign up for layaway plans, and we’re barely into mid-October.

The folks at website coupon say they conducted a survey and found that “more than one-third of U.S. adults are at least somewhat likely to purchase items on layaway this holiday season.”

My reaction: Why would anyone do that?

Layaway plans don’t help people spend less money, and in fact they can make purchases more expensive.

I understand that layaway plans are a sort of enforced saving method. You agree to buy a product for a certain price, make a series of payments and then get the item once it’s paid for.

That’s certainly better than taking on credit-card debt, but why not just save money yourself and then buy what you can afford?

Most layaway plans require a fee to set up the payment plan, which means that right from the start someone using layaway is agreeing to pay more for a product than people who don’t use layaway. A number of large retailers are temporarily waiving those fees, which usually range from $5 to $15, to encourage people to set up layaway plans early.

But what if you change your mind about the purchase, or learn that you could buy it elsewhere for less money? Sure, you can cancel a layaway plan and get your money back, but most stores will charge a fee for that as well, typically around $10 but as much as $25.

Right now, several of the largest retailers are offering layaway plans that either temporarily have no set-up fee but do have a fee if you don’t complete the purchase, or do have a set-up fee that’s refunded only if you complete the purchase. Either way, there’s a fee if you cancel the layaway purchase.

Another downside to layaway plans, and a big reason why stores love them, is that customers need to visit the store, or in some cases the store’s website, repeatedly to make layaway payments.

I have to wonder, if people don’t have the financial discipline to save money without a layaway plan, will they have the discipline to avoid making unnecessary purchases during the follow-up visits to the store to make layaway payments?

One way to avoid that is figure out how much you need to save over the next month or so for holiday gifts, and make those payments to yourself. Meanwhile, watch for sales and coupons that could help you get the things you want for less.

Afraid you’ll spend the money on something else? You could buy yourself gift cards to the store where you plan to shop, maybe get a small gift card each week while you shop for groceries (most supermarkets and drug stores sell gift cards to multiple stores).

And if you can’t end up saving enough for the presents you hope to buy, you can give those gift cards as presents, and go shopping after the holidays when everything will be on sale.

Looking ahead, if your budget is always tight and you have trouble saving but feel obligated to buy gifts during the holidays, start saving early next year. Some banks and credit unions still offer no-fee “Christmas club” accounts.

Gift-giving is a very personal decision, often tied up in tradition and family dynamics, but it also can be a big expense.

People who need to use layaway plans or take on credit-card debt in order to buy presents for others might want to start the holiday season by considering if they could spend less.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.