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Lay it away - Martha Carr

Tis the season to spend more money than we have in our wallets. That may explain why layaway is making a mild comeback this holiday season.

Before the Great Recession entered the national landscape in 2008, layaway had been discontinued by everyone but Kmart, who looked quaint for keeping up the tradition. However, Sears and Toys R Us and their sister chain, Babies R Us, have reentered the picture with some qualifications on the type of eligible items.

Toys R Us and Babies R Us have mostly just bigger-ticket items, such as outdoor play equipment, video equipment or strollers. That's still a big help.

Kmart has capitalized on the economic realities by heavily promoting layaway as a useful household tool, for not only the holidays, but getting kids ready for school.

Layaway used to be a commonplace part of the national holiday tradition for generations. Picking out the presents a little early and making installment payments along the way, not only made it possible for households to come up with a reasonable budget, they were even able to let the store hide the presents till the last possible day.

It was a continuation of the philosophy of only buying what we can afford in the here and now, but stretched over a little time.

For a generation, however, the slack has been taken up instead by the plastic in our pockets, and Americans have come to believe that 'buy now, pay later' is an entitlement rather than a family financial responsibility that's used with extreme caution.

Now, the February financial hangover is a holiday cliche, and not a very good one.

General purpose credit cards started in 1958, when Bank of America mailed out 60,000 cards to the residents of Fresno, Calif. By the year 2000, the numbers had grown to 159 million credit cardholders nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

By 2006, there were 173 million, and it's estimated there are now 181 million credit card holders in America, with an average of nine cards, carrying 1,177 billion dollars in just credit card debt.

That means that in 1980, the average cardholder carried a mere pittance of $518, and by 1990 it was $2,700, and now it's up to $5,100 for each cardholder for a lot of things we could have probably lived without, that may even be stuffed in a closet and forgotten, but still not paid off.

It's also estimated that it's taking consumers twice as long to pay off the debt as it was 20 years ago, at higher interest rates. That means, if you buy a bike for Junior this Christmas on your Visa card, by the time you finally pay it off, he can give it to his son, but it will have cost as much as a car.

In the 1970's, it was difficult for a woman to get credit in her own name and was a big rallying cry for the women's movement. However, in a backhanded kind of progress even high school students, male or female, are able to obtain credit, and according to a report by Sallie Mae, 84 percent of all students have credit cards and are using them.

We have all bought a lot of shiny new thingamabobs, and as a consequence, we have raised an entire generation who has never seen us operate any differently.

But it's never too late to try something that's worked well in the past, and teach not only our kids but ourselves that working toward a bigger goal is a worthwhile pursuit. We can stop trying to fulfill childhood fantasies and make up a holiday budget about what's reasonably affordable, and go put it all on layaway.

If more Americans chose that option, more retailers would offer the service despite the hassle of having to store the merchandise.

Then, when we're trying to convince our kids to study in high school in order to get into a good college, or hang in there when the going is tough during their first years up the career ladder, they may believe us. They saw us practicing our own advice, and they even got to play with the results.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. her latest book is the memoir, "A Place to Call Home." www.MarthaRandolphCarr.com. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.