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Know rules of layaway

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NEW YORK — Should savvy shoppers cheer the widespread return of layaway programs for the holidays?

Retailers are running advertising blitzes touting their layaway programs as the holiday shopping season kicks-off. And the resurgence of the old-fashioned purchasing method is generating buzz on social media sites and praise in personal finance blogs.

But paying a store to set aside merchandise while you slowly pay the balance, over a few weeks or months, may not be the best financial decision.

For starters, the fees associated with the programs can be more costly than credit card interest. Also, many programs lock in the item’s price at the time it’s put on layaway, that means shoppers may miss later sales. Plus, if good intentions lose out to poor planning and a payment is missed, shoppers may end up losing money when the layaway is canceled.

Proponents of layaway programs say they encourage families to set holiday budgets and avoid the January debt hangover.

But even strong supporters emphasize that before signing up, it’s important to make sure the program’s rules are clear, that you’re confident you’ll be able to make timely payments, and it’s part of a larger holiday spending plan.

“What you don’t want to do is commit to layaway and then start making purchases with your heart, not your head, and start charging those,” said Gail Cunningham, the spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Do that and you’ll have to pay off the layaway and face charge card expenses after the holidays.

Refund and exchange issues are the No. 1 complaint about layaway programs with the Better Business Bureau.

Layaway programs generate few complaints with the agency, but Katherine Hutt, a BBB spokeswoman, said the majority center mostly on merchandise return or refund policies.

Each store will have its own policy – and some might return only a sale price even if the item was full price under the layaway. Check to see whether there are complaints about a particular store’s policy.

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