Layaway, the practice of paying for products or services in installments before you get them, is getting a lot of attention these days. The Wall Street Journal, NPR, the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, Consumer Reports, to name a few, have done stories on layaway recently. I wrote a post about it earlier this month, for what it's worth. It's a hot topic.
It's easy to see the merits of a layaway program. I can think of several right off the top of my head.
There's no interest. Sometimes these programs will have fees attached, but generally, you save far more money by paying for something on layaway that paying for it over months or years on credit.
No impulse buying. Layaway programs aren't for people who want to buy something right away. I suppose you could impulsively agree to purchase something on layaway, but given that most purchases take several weeks or months to pay off, you can back out or usually put the money toward something else. So you're not likely to wind up with buyer's remorse after going through a layaway program or end up thinking, "Why did I spend so much...?"
It forces you to plan. While layaway was popularized during the Great Depression (although it was practiced long before that), and it endured as a popular way to pay for products and services into the 1970s, an entire generation or two has been weaned on the idea of being able to instantly buy everything from a bag of potato chips to a TV and worry about how to pay for it later. You just can't do that with layaway. You have to figure out how much money you'll put aside every week or month and when you'll be able to have what you're buying. You could make an argument that before getting a credit card, everyone should first have to pay for a product -- or numerous products -- on layaway first.
I kind of doubt it.
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
Underrated in America: Layaway