Making Ends Meet
4:45 PM EST, December 8, 2011
Some of my college friends had their daddies' plastic. Others worked long hours to earn money while they studied.
I made some money teaching children's theater classes. I had a small pot of cash from my student loan, and a modest flow of spending money from my caring parents.
While most of my friends would go clothes shopping at the mall or swankier shopping centers, I had a different modus operandi — the layaway at Value City. Or as my mother-in-law later taught me to call it, VC Boutique.
I'd get the brands my friends were buying, only the prices were slashed. Still, sometimes the cost was more than I could pay for in one setting. My mom had instilled in me a healthy fear of credit card debt, and imparted the usefulness of the layaway. As I headed into adulthood, the practice felt smart, sensible and pleasing.
It reminded me of walking as a wide-eyed little girl to the back of the store to the layaway counter. When my mom only made a payment and left with nothing, I was filled with wonder, imagining what might lie in the storage room beyond the cashier. On days when we'd do a pick-up — usually for birthdays, back to school or Christmas — the anticipation of ripping open those thick plastic bags and boxes was nearly too much to bear.
That was part of the joy even as I grew older and used the layaway myself. Though I carefully chose items, somehow when I picked them up, it was always a sort of surprise. I guess the delayed gratification increased the emotional return.
Even when I had my first child, I'd head to the department store in early September and layaway some toys, clothes and other goodies to kick start my holiday shopping. Knowing I had the ball rolling and paying it off in chunks I could afford put a stride in my step.
Eventually, stores began to phase out layaway. I'm not sure if a more "gimme now" generation had ceased to use it, or if companies determined that it didn't benefit the bottom line. I created my own twist on layaway. When I saw something I wanted, but wasn't sure about, I'd ask the store to hold it. Most would only do so for 24 hours. If it was important enough to stay on my mind and I could figure a smart way to pay, I'd go back, and if not, they'd put it back on the shelf. Most of the time, it went back on the shelf.
To my delight, though, a number of stores have brought back the layaway in recent years. A discount store that stopped layaway in 2006 reintroduced it this year. A popular toy store brought layaway back in 2009 for big ticket items only, then expanded it this year to include all products. A longstanding department store revamped its program last year to include online payment. Consumer websites attribute the layaway resurgence to people tightening their belts and using less credit in a tough economy.
Most stores offer eight to 12-week contracts with a 10 to 20 percent down payment and a $10 fee if you cancel. Some require you to spend a minimum amount, usually around $50. Service fees are generally $5, a small price to pay compared to credit debt and interest.
To me, it's still a fun, responsible way to shop.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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