For some, that means it's time to take advantage of major retailers' layaway plans. This option gives you the peace of mind that your gift will be there when you need it -- and enables you to spread your costs out over a manageable time period.
Even Consumer Reports senior editor Tod Marks is an advocate of layaway. He tells CNBC that "the fees, if any, are generally nominal," that "you don't have to worry that the store will run out of an item you want," and that it's a good way to "help restrain impulsive buyers."
Some retailers (looking at you, Walmart) go so far as to advertise that layaway "is a terrific way to save on the products you want."
But is all of this really true? Is layaway actually a good deal?
As Always, Pay Attention to the Fine Print
Two decades ago, when shopping on websites like Amazon.com (AMZN) wasn't yet an option, layaway made more strategic sense: It guaranteed that a hot-ticket item you wanted didn't get purchased by someone else before you had the funds.
Which brings us to the financial side of the transaction. And that's where things begin to get iffy.
Most of the major retailers have eliminated their upfront "service" fees for this holiday season, including Walmart (WMT), Sears (SHLD), and Toys R Us. Obviously, this makes the program easy to advertise -- and, no doubt, lures more customers into this offer. But, as the info I've compiled below makes clear, it's often what they don't advertise that can really bite buyers:
|Walmart||Sears||Toys R Us||Burlington|
|Deposit Required||$10 or $10% (whichever is greater)||$20 or 20% (whichever is greater)||10%||20%, + a $5 fee refunded on a "promotional card" if you pay balance by Dec. 24.|
|Payment Plan||At buyer's discretion, must be completed by Dec. 13||Every two weeks; must be completed after eight weeks.||20% within 15 days; 30% within 30 days; 40% within 45 days; 50% within 60 days; 60% within 75 days -- for holidays, item must be paid in full by Dec. 15.||At buyer's discretion, must be completed by Dec. 24|
|Refund Policy||You are refunded total payments made, less cancellation fee.||You are refunded total payments made, less cancellation fee.||You are refunded total payments made, less cancellation fee.||You are refunded total payments made, less cancellation fee -- on a store gift card|
|Effective Annual Interest Rate on $50 Item -- If Not Purchased||240%||360%||240%||240%|
|Effective Annual Interest Rate on $100 Item -- If Not Purchased||120%||180%||120%||120%|
As you can see, unless you follow the terms of the layaway contract perfectly, the deal is not as sweet as you might assume from the advertising. Just look at Burlington's refund policy -- yeah, you'll get your money back if you cancel. But it will be on a gift card that you have to spend at their store.
There's No Free Lunch in Layaway Land
If nothing else, let your one takeaway be those interest rates. Remember, that's the annualized rate for a "loan" on an item you didn't even end up taking home.
So despite all the fanfare and advertising that makes layaway out to be a good deal -- don't fall for the gimmick. As one Cornell professor bluntly puts it in a New York Times op-ed, layaway "isn't a signal that consumers have more choice. It's a signal that in today's cruel economy, there's no choice left."
Motley Fool contributor Adam Wiederman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.