The holiday season is upon us and consumers are already searching far and wide for the perfect gifts for their friends and loved ones. In today's cash-strapped society, many people are pulling the reins on their holiday gift budget in an attempt to keep their finances in check. It is possible, however, to head into 2013 with your household budget still intact, without skimping on holiday gift giving.

Many consumers are relying heavily on layaway programs offered by retail stores. Layaway programs allow consumers to place items on hold for weeks or months at a time, until the customer pays off the balance. These programs have increased in popularity in recent years, though it should be noted that not all layaway programs are created equal. Here is a look at the best retail layaway plans of 2012, along with all the pertinent details you need before you hit the mall.

The toy store giant Toys"R"Us is appealing to cash-strapped parents everywhere, with its flexible layaway program. Eligible items under the layaway plan include all toys, video game hardware, netbooks, cameras, baby gear, cribs and dressers, and select large toy items.

As of the date of this publication, Toys"R"Us is offering free layaway with no surcharge. Typically, Toys"R"Us allows customers 90 days to pay off layaway plans. For this holiday season, however, all layaway plans must be paid off and picked up by Dec. 16, 2012. Toys"R"Us' layaway program is only available in store, and you will need to go to the physical store location to pay on your layaway contract. Be prepared to show a photo ID and put a 20% deposit on your layaway contract.

Offering a highly competitive layaway program with just a few rules, Walmart's consumers can benefit greatly from the plan offered by the big box store. Eligible merchandise includes toys, electronics, small appliances, jewelry, refrigerators and select sporting goods, costing over $15 each. Walmart requires a $5 layaway charge ($5 is refundable to a Walmart gift card upon full payment), and all contracts must be paid off and merchandise picked up by Dec. 14, 2012.

The layaway program is only valid in-store and payments can be made at any Walmart cash register. When you open your contract, you will be required to place a down payment of $10 or 10%, depending upon whichever is the greater amount. Additionally, the minimum amount of your layaway contract must be $50 or more.

Kmart's layaway program comes with a $5 service charge and is valid in-store or online. Its layaway provides a high level of convenience to customers who can shop at their leisure from their home computer and make payments in-store or online. Kmart is one of the few stores offering layaway programs to online shoppers.

Kmart does require its customers to make the full payment by the eighth week. For purchases over $300, Kmart offers a 12-week option in-store. When you open your layaway contract, be prepared to make a down payment of $15 or 10%, with the greater amount of the two being taken.

The Bottom Line
The above retailers offer the best layaway programs of the 2012 holiday shopping season. While each retailer has its own special rules, each program allows consumers to pay for their holiday purchases over a longer period of time. Keep in mind that layaway deadlines are often strict, and if your merchandise is not paid for and picked up by the deadline, it could be restocked. Don't stretch your budget beyond its limits this holiday season. Instead, consider using a layaway program at a local retailer, where you can pay in smaller increments over the course of the weeks leading up to the holidays.

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