Holiday shoppers on a budget are looking for more affordable ways to pay for big-ticket items and holiday gifts this year. To attempt to meet consumers’ needs, many stores are bringing back the option of layaway as an alternative to using a credit card. But not all layaway plans are created equal. Your Better Business Bureau Serving Northwest Florida offers tips on how to make the most of this option.

“Layaway services can be a great alternative to using a credit card,” said Norman Wright, president and CEO of your BBB|Northwest Florida. “However, it’s important that customers take note of the fine print and know what to expect, because policies may vary from one retailer to the next.”

Once considered an old-fashioned method of payment, layaway services are back in a big way, with many businesses now shaking the dust off their layaway programs for today’s beleaguered consumers. Buying items on layaway is different from putting them on a credit card because the buyer isn’t charged interest on the purchase (though they may be charged a flat fee) and can’t take the item home until it is paid off.

When purchasing items on layaway, the buyer must typically make a down payment of 10 to 20 percent and pay any service or plan fees for the store to hold the item. The customer then has typically 30 to 90 days to make payments to pay off the balance. Once it’s paid off, the customer can take the items home. To complement in-store layaway, some stores provide online layaway services for those purchasing items through the retailer’s website.

Additionally, a new industry of third-party businesses set up layaway plans online between customers and retailers that don’t already have a layaway program. Customers make periodic payments to the third-party layaway service provider. Once the item is fully paid for, the business then buys the item from the retailer and ships it to the customer.

When buying items on layaway, BBB advises consumers to get everything in writing and offers the following checklist of questions to consider:

• How much time do I have to pay off the item?
• When are the payments due?
• How much do I have to put down?
• Are there any storage or service plan fees?
• What happens if I miss a payment? Are there penalties? Does the item return to inventory?
• Can I get a refund or store credit if I no longer want the item after making a few payments?
• What happens if the item goes on sale after I’ve put it on layaway?
• Does the retailer or third-party layaway service have a good BBB rating?

For additional information and advice you can trust to be a savvy consumer this holiday season, start with