And that doesn’t just mean making a list and checking it twice. It means giving your budget the once-over, too, and figuring out how much you want to spend on gifts.
Depending on the answer, you may be considering whether it’s better to buy those special items for loved ones on credit cards or via a store’s layaway program. You may ask yourself: Which option is best for my budget?
Buying more, buying earlier
Holiday retail spending in November and December 2015 is projected to reach $885.70 billion, up 6 percent from 2014, according to a report by eMarketer, a digital research and insights company. No matter how much of that big number is coming from you, weighing the cost-benefit of credit card use vs. an alternative such as layaway could be important to your savings and maybe even your credit score.
People are also spending sooner for the holidays: year -over-year trends show a majority of people now are finishing more than half of their purchases before Dec. 10, according to a study by the National Retail Federation, which noted the average 2014 holiday shopper completed 52.9 percent of buying before Dec. 10, up from 49.9 percent in 2013.
Building your budget
Creating a budget is the first step to avoid post-holiday debt, according to the National Federation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), a nonprofit financial counseling organization. The group suggests that shoppers start by writing down household and personal expenses for November and December. Then for each month, they should subtract the total of expenses from their monthly take-home pay. What remains each month can be a starting point for shoppers to gauge how much they might be able to afford to spend.
While the NFCC recommends using cash when possible, it offers tips when considering using credit cards vs. a layaway program. While the two choices may seem similar, they are actually quite different, beginning from the initial purchase. Credit card purchases allow you to take the item with you instantly, and pay back your credit company later. Layaway requires the item to stay at the store until you’ve completed paying for the item.
Credit card considerations
If you must use your credit, try to only use one card during the holidays, suggests the NFCC. Of your credit cards, use the one with the lowest interest rate and don’t use more credit than you can afford to pay off in 90 days or less.
Using credit cards can also impact your credit score while using layaway will not. The NFCC recommends not maxing out lines of credit, which may also reduce the chance that you’ll be approved for additional credit.
But, if your aim is to build credit by using and paying off your credit card purchases on time, as the NFCC recommends, using a credit card could be a financially healthy choice.
The layaway option
If you want to use cash to purchase gifts, but don’t have enough cash on hand to pay for them, layaway can be a choice to pay over time, especially for shoppers without a credit card or who want to keep their holiday debt in check.
However, you should investigate the potential layaway fees at each store before enrolling in any program since policies can differ from store to store and terms and conditions may vary by state.
For example, at Wal-Mart, which made news in August for starting its holiday layaway program unseasonably early this year – on Aug. 28 for a Dec. 14 payment due date – there are a few special rules. The layaway program at Wal-Mart is available in stores only, does not require an opening fee, and instead requires a deposit of $10 or 10 percent of the purchase price, whichever is greater. To cancel, all payments will be refunded, minus a $10 fee. Additionally, the layaway program does not apply to all products, including wireless phones that require contracts.
According to the NFCC, items to check in each store’s policy include:
1. Initial Fee: What, if any, fee will the store charge to set up the layaway plan?
2. Price Drop: If the item goes on sale during layaway, will the store adjust the price of an item? Not all may.
3. Cancellation: If you change your mind and want a refund of the payments you’ve already made, will there be a cancellation fee? Some stores may charge you to cancel.
4. Payment Schedule: How long do you have to pay for the item, and what happens if you miss a payment?
If you don’t understand the rules or additional fees of a layaway program before you make your purchase, you could end up spending more on the item than you originally budgeted. Do your research ahead of time to avoid a headache at the register.
The information contained in this blog post is designed to generally educate and inform visitors to the Equifax Finance Blog. The blog posts do not give, and should not be assumed to provide, personalized tax, investment, real estate, legal, retirement, credit, personal financial, or other professional advice. Before making any financial decision, you should always consult with the appropriate professionals who can explain your options, rights, and legal responsibilities, and advise you on any tax, legal, credit, or business implications that may result from those decisions. The views and opinions expressed by the authors of blog posts are their own views and may not be the views or opinions of Equifax, Inc. and/or its affiliates.