Delaying gratification

Layaway deserves a resurgence


Once upon a time, long, long ago, a Great Depression encompassed our land, leaving consumers with little money available for big-box purchases.

Merchants, having inventory to move, were greatly distressed. They needed a plan to stimulate sales.

And so, they created the Layaway Plan.

By its terms, if a shopper would put down a small deposit and make regular payments over a period of several weeks, the store would hold the desired item in a warehouse until payment was made in full.

Shoppers happily obliged. With their merchandise reserved, a possible price increase would be avoided.

The payments were manageable and interest-free.

Henceforth, refrigerators, davenports, washing machines and the like began disappearing from showroom floors and into shopper’s homes.

And all was well and good in our land. And no one had to go into debt.

Is this a fairy tale? 

Today’s buy-now, pay-later, “instant gratification” generation may think so.

But doing without until you’d saved enough money to pay in full was a way of life for their Depression-era great-grandparents.

To the older generation, a wait to bring purchases home (usually 60 to 90 days) was almost a positive thing.

It gave people something shiny and new to look forward to during bleak times.

And by not having to pay interest, it also made them feel good about managing what little money they had.

Creating a monster

But, ironically, this very mindset unwittingly helped set in motion today’s free-spending culture.

It happened in stages.

The children of Depression-era parents continued to carry the cautious and conservative financial habits of deferred gratification that they had learned while growing up.

But they raised their children with a dramatically different philosophy about money.

Weary of doing without, they felt their kids should have an easier time of it, and were willing to cosign loans and dig into their own savings to make it happen.

But as often happens, things that come too easily end up losing value.

Being repeatedly bailed out, the children grew up with little respect for money and began to believe that “money grows on trees.”

The convenience and availability of credit cards, allowed a great many of people to spend extravagantly.

Living beyond one’s means became routine.

New hope

But — as often happens — what goes around, comes around.

In the 1980s, layaway virtually disappeared.

However, some merchants, such as Sears, Wal-Mart, Marshalls, Toys R’ Us and T.J. Maxx, are bringing it back.

Today’s consumers — at least while shopping at these stores — have the opportunity to put away the plastic and do as great-grandpa did.

And maybe even “live happily ever after.”

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Writer her at c[email protected].