An Ode to Layaway

The butt of jokes no more, layaway is making a comeback. Put me on the 30-day plan!

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Many folks older than 25 spent their childhoods at the layaway counter, wayyyyyyyyy in the back of a store, watching Mama put away that fly winter coat, entry-level designer bag or warm boots until they were paid in full.

Now layaway is back! Over the past two decades, it had become little more than a joke to upwardly mobile types with wallets full of plastic. But in this economic downturn, racking up credit card debt is suddenly out. Big time. Take a look around at your favorite stores. For a small fee, you can now put an item on hold and pay for it over a set number of weeks. No credit check required. And if you lose your job in the new year—or tomorrow—there is no ugly balance to pay off.

Sears reinstated layaway this month after a 20-year hiatus. The retail giant is running television ads promoting the comeback, along with stores like Kmart. Everywhere you turn, stores for budget-conscious consumers, like T.J. Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory, are touting the return of the penny-pinching classic. For a millennial touch, there's even elayaway.com

To honor the resurgence of the practice that was created during the Great Depression, I decided to return to the South Florida branch of my childhood home: the Marshalls layaway counter. Yes, my mother had it BAD. Every Saturday, we did Marshalls and T.J. Maxx runs and found treasures to put on layaway. My mother always told the sales associate not to mail us a "layaway reminder note" because if it made it to the house, my dad would be flagged that we were out "damn shopping" again. Each month we would return to the counter to pick through the designer duds we had set aside, to decide which ones we really wanted and which ones we could live without.

The whole routine made me shy away from layaway as an adult. I'm too impatient. Either I want something or I don't. And those government-slow lines make me shudder. But this year seemed like the perfect time to revel in old memories. I went to Marshalls two weeks before Thanksgiving and found a pair of adorable, dark Seven jeans with tan stitching and squiggles on the booty for $29.99: a perfect gift for my mom. Off to the layaway counter I went. Normally, putting something worth $30 on layaway is a waste of time and money. The $5 fee for putting it away was more than the tax on the pants, but I wanted to start my reintroduction to layaway small.

The sales associate working the layaway shift warned me that I was turning my $30 purchase into a $40 one. God bless her. But, I thought to myself, it would be MUCH more if I put it on a credit card and didn't pay it off right away. Layaway fees tend to be WAY less than APRs.

I gave the associate the jeans; she put them on a hanger and covered them in plastic. I gave her $10 ($5 non-refundable fee and a $5 down payment). She gave me a receipt, detailing the $26.79 balance on the pants, after tax was added. Then the sales person gave me the layaway slip, a piece of paper with the serial number that matches the numbers stapled on the see-through plastic protecting my pants while in storage. Thirty days to pay off the jeans or it's back to the showroom floor they go, for another woman to purchase and walk around with tan squiggles on her booty.

I folded the receipt and put it in the zipper compartment part of my handbag, so that it wouldn't get lost amid the MAC lipsticks, ink pens and renegade change dancing in my too-large purse. "I'll see you in 30 days," I said to the associate. I could see I wasn't the only one kickin' it old-school this year. She walked through an open door into a cavernous storage room filled with stacked boxes and piled plastic bags—deferred bits of joy for frugal new times.

Natalie P. McNeal blogs at The Frugalista Files and is Geezeo's frugality expert.

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