Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Clubs and Layaway

Christmas clubRemember Christmas Clubs, and layaway programs at department stores? Local banks and credit unions offered Christmas Club savings programs where you could put in a set amount each week, one dollar, five dollars, ten dollars, and withdraw it before Christmas to do your Christmas shopping. [I found out that 72 percent of credit unions still offer these Christmas clubs.]

Then there was layaway. You could buy your gifts early, maybe getting a good sale price, where you put down a deposit, paid a small fee, and could make payments on your purchase until you had paid off the total amount. There was no interest, just the layaway fee. [I also learned that a number of discount department stores like Walmart and K-Mart and Toys R Us still have layaway programs.]

layaway-signI knew about layaway. My first real job with an hourly wage was as a stock clerk in the layaway department at McKelvey’s. We kept layaway items in a separate stockroom near the customer service area. Once to several times a day, a floor stock boy would circulate through the store and pick up layaway items. My job was to sort these into numbered bins after putting the customer’s last name and the last two digits of their layaway receipt on the box. It was also my job to find layaway items and bring them out to the customer when they paid off their items.

Christmas could be especially crazy. It seemed that just as soon as you sorted one batch of packages, the floor stock boys would bring more. The weekend after Thanksgiving was the worst. The bins would be really full, to the point that we sometimes had to use an extra room for storage. But it could also be fun, particularly when you were bringing kids toys out that you realized were going to go under a Christmas tree, or a new dress or coat that a husband was buying for his wife.

Returns were never fun. Maybe it was an impulse buy (and we had some customers who seemed to have more than their share of these). Maybe it was an unexpected emergency and the money was needed elsewhere. We gave full refunds except for the layaway fee. The sales people in the department never liked to see you because returns were charged against their sales. This was just a case of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

I think layaway and Christmas clubs were popular back then because people weren’t nearly as comfortable with credit. Some were working people who remembered the Depression when banks called mortgages and they lost everything. They remembered the tight times during layoffs or a work injury. Maybe they were just saner in wanting to avoid debt or just leery of the small print that often came with credit agreements. I know there were some people who thought that it was nobody else’s business to know about their finances, which you had to disclose on a credit application. They had a point. Later on I worked in customer service and had to call local credit bureaus and look at credit reports. There were some who probably wouldn’t have qualified for credit.

Christmas clubs and layaway allowed you to keep life on a cash basis, saving as you go or paying as you go. Maybe the Christmas wasn’t as big as you would want, but either way, on Christmas Day, you knew it was all paid for, and that was worth some Christmas cheer.

Do you have stories of how you or your parents used layaway and Christmas club programs to buy on a cash basis?

One thought on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Clubs and Layaway

  1. we used to use a Christmas club account – and this year, after my hub and I going to an antique store next to the gym we were going to, after working out, and he spying – almost hidden – a Remington painting – I actually put it on layaway and, it being a snow scene, even though I paid it off by March for his birthday I thought at the time it would be more appropriate for Christmas, since we’ve had snow for the past several years but of course, no, it’s supposed to be 70 degrees here this year but still the store has stored it for me all year and I just picked it up last week

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