Know the payment deadlines
With the last generation of layaway, payment rules were often pretty flexible. You paid whatever you could, whenever you could. And when you finally wiped out the bill, the item was yours.
Today, "consumers need to understand that it's a little bit different," says Butler. Retailers often set a maximum payoff period -- usually somewhere from 30 to 90 days, he says.
Payments could be for a fixed amount. And the plan could involve fixed due dates, similar to any other type of bill.
If there's a billing cycle, don't assume that means 30 days -- find out exactly when each payment is due, Butler says.
Also, check on whether there are any special payment requirements. Some stores have a fixed date by which holiday layaway must be complete, and others may set a deadline by which a set percentage of the bill has to be paid. For example, Wal-Mart's current layaway policy requires final payment and pickup on or before Dec. 12 at the same store where the layaway plan was initiated.
An important question for shoppers to ask is whether payments are due on a specific date, says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action.
Then, determine if there are any additional payment deadlines that might come into play for your specific purchase.