Last year around holiday-time, we heard a lot about layaway: “It’s coming back!” “Helloooo, 1980s, your purchase-plan just called.” In particular, Kmart earned buzz with its layaway program last year, and now offers layaway items on Sears’ purchases as well.
But is layaway really a big deal?
Let’s back up. First, a layaway plan is an installment purchase plan offered by a retailer. Typically, you take the item you want to the counter, pay a deposit, then come back every so often as agreed upon to make more payments, until finally you pay it off and get to take your booty home. If you change your mind, you’re typically charged a cancellation/re-stocking fee. Oh, and layaway contracts also generally charge a minimal service fee.
Sounds pretty good, right? It’s essentially a debt-free payment plan. Probably less expensive than your credit card interest rate, plus the store holds your merchandise until it’s all paid for, which is a great bonus if you’re the parent of a sneaky kid (or spouse of a spoil-the-surprise-by-going-through-the-present-hiding-places person).
One of the biggest problems with layaway, though, is that it’s not widely available. Kmart/Sears and Burlington Coat Factory (plus Burlington’s affiliated “Baby Depot) both offer the programs. Some TJ Maxx stores offer it, but only some stores, and never for jewelry purchases.
The one net-based layaway program I found is called eLayaway, and if you want to purchase layaway items from a store you’ve heard of, expect to be overcharged: a new iPod nano through eLayaway costs $20 more than it would through the Apple store, and a new Nintendo Wii costs a bargain-busting $50 more via eLayaway than at Best Buy, and that’s before you add in the program fees.
Layaway is also unlikely to get reported on your credit bureau, in the way that a credit card is. The one exception to this is a special program offered through eLayaway.com; The eLayaway Advantage program helps members build their PRBC Bill Pay Score, which is a new credit risk score (or “alternative credit score”) that unfortunately not many lenders use. This will cost you, though: eLayaway Advantage membership costs $8.95 per month, which may or may not be more expensive than a secured credit card, depending upon the number of months your membership lasts.
Ultimately, layaway is a decent option for those adverse to running up debt, or who want to keep their purchase a secret for as long as possible. Just be aware that it’s not an option at most stores, and if it is, check the fine print.