But be warned: If you change your mind and cancel your order, most retailers are still charging cancellation fees. Also, you must be able to pay for the item in full within the required time period, and a down payment is usually required. Best Buy, for example, requires a sign-up fee of 5 percent of the item's cost, plus a 25-percent down payment.
And not all products will qualify to be put on layaway at most stores so check ahead with the retailer to see if the item you're buying qualifies.
Beyond the economics, there are some advantages to layaway. If you are a cash-strapped parent of a child who has a gift on their wish list that they must have, it may make sense to stake your claim. Putting the toy on layaway guarantees you'll have it, and keeps it hidden from prying eyes that may find it tucked away on that shelf in the closet.
That may explain why toys tend to be one of the most popular types of products that are put on layaway.
Toys 'R Us spokeswoman Jennifer Albano said most customers who use layaway are buying either higher-ticket items such as electronics or bigger gifts such as a train table, a dollhouse or a bike.
The bottom line is the terms vary from retailer to retailer, so consumer advocates caution shoppers to read the fine print. But here are some highlights:
- Sears and Kmart, which offers layaway all year long, have some of the most comprehensive policies. Sears is waiving the $5 and $10 fees it usually charges during two separate periods, from Sept. 29 through Oct. 29 and then again from Nov. 2 through Dec. 3. Online payments and layaway reservations are allowed, and merchandise can be delivered to shoppers' homes or picked up at the store.
Kmart also allows online reservations. Its service fee is eliminated until Nov. 17.
Cancellation fees still apply at both Sears and Kmart, and can be as high as $20 for 12-week contracts.
- Wal-Mart charges $5, but it refunds the amount in the form of a gift card when customers pick up their merchandise.
- Toys 'R Us offers free layaway through Dec. 16. It initially planned to waive its customary $5 layaway fee until Oct. 31, but extended it, saying the response from its customers has been "fantastic." (Read More: Toys 'R Us Pays It Forward, When 'Layaway Santas' Pay It Off)
- Target does not offer layaway.
Of course, you could skip layaway and still make sure you have the toy your child is asking for this year.
When It Has to Be Voodoo Purple
Toys 'R Us has introduced a new program that allows customers to reserve any of the 50 toys on its Holiday Hot Toy List. But there are a few catches. First, act fast. The reservation must be made in person at a Toys 'R Us store by Oct. 31, and it requires a 20-percent nonrefundable deposit to make the reservation. Once reserved, shoppers will have until Dec. 16 to pick up the item. (Read More: Hot Holiday Toys 2012)