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Most holiday shoppers will be armed with cash, debit or credit cards during the busiest shopping season of the year, but for those on a tight budget, the layaway counter can provide an affordable way to buy gifts.

Layaway allows people to buy an item by putting down a deposit and pay off the rest in instalments, usually without interest.

Some stores do charge a service or storage fee. Once the item is paid off, you're free to bring it home.

This buying option may seem an antiquated way of doing things, especially in a society used to the immediate gratification of credit.

Layaway was introduced during the Great Depression but easy credit and boom times had made it mostly a thing of the past. The concept has become in vogue again, thanks in part to belt-tightening since the recession.

In September, Toys R' Us and Walmart in the U.S. announced they were starting their layaway plans a month earlier than last year due to demands from customers who said they needed extra time to pay the purchases off. Both companies, along with Kmart and Sears revised their plans and dropped the service charges for the holiday season.

The buying option, however, is more rare in Canada. It is not available at Toys 'R' Us and Sears in Canada and there's only a number of Walmart stores that still offer layaway north of the border.

But Doug Stephens, retail analyst and president of Retail Prophet Consulting, said the practice may soon become more prevalent in Canada.

"We're going to see it more and more in the very near future because it's no secret now that Canadians are coming into the end of their string on credit. We are significantly over-leveraged in this country."

According to Statistics Canada, household debt has risen to 163 per cent of disposable income. Last week, credit reporting agency TransUnion released a report that found Canadian debt loads grew at their fastest pace in two years during the most recent quarter.

"What (layaway) says to the consumer is that the retailer cares about them. In the sense that they appreciate the fact that many consumers right now are trying desperately to pay down credit, they don't want to take on more credit," explained Mr. Stephens.

Layaway, he says, keeps the consumer from walking away completely and simply abandoning the purchase. Customers come back to make their payments in instalments, which may result in more purchases.

"Rather than having a consumer walk in and walk out, at least it gives the retailer a sale, albeit an incomplete sale."

For Shirley-Anna Thomson, a wedding consultant at David's Bridal in Toronto, layaway came in handy when she bought her own wedding gown.

"For most people, it's the most expensive piece of clothing you'll ever purchase," said Ms. Thompson, who renewed her vows in August.

A month after the ceremony, it was her daughter's turn to walk down the aisle. The bride, her two bridesmaids and the best woman for the groom all used layaway for their dresses. Not only did layaway help with affordability, it gave the women a place to store their dresses ahead of the big day.

But experts suggest you research the buying option before you commit.

Layaway is unregulated and policy differs from store to store. Some require a deposit from five to 25 per cent. There are retailers that set a date for you to make payments while others let you decide.

Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith, manager of corporate communications at Consumer Protection B.C., warned consumers to "really read the fine print."

"Get (the policy) in writing," said Ms. Chabeaux-Smith. "Don't take a sales person's word for it."

Pay particular attention to the retailer's return and cancellation policies under the layaway plan. Some retailers forfeit the contract if a payment is missed, leaving you without the item and the deposit. Others are more flexible.

Alex Mackenzie, service director at The Bike Shop in Calgary, says the store returns the deposit if a customer cancels.

"We don't have a strict policy. We do it case by case," he said, adding that one customer finally took home a bike after 18 months.

Ms. Chabeaux-Smith said to clarify service, storage or delivery fees. She suggested not to be afraid to ask questions such as: "What happens if the item goes on sale if you have it on layaway?" Some retailers may adjust the price while others keep the original purchase price.

"Opt for the established retailers," she added.

Still, Steve Tissenbaum, retail management professor at Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Ryerson University, cautions against the use of layaway.

"In a way the retailer is becoming your banker," Mr. Tissenbaum explains.

"Rather than giving you the one per cent you get in a savings account, they're charging you a small fee for saving this money for you and not only that but saving that product for you."