Layaway Angels

During the 2011 holiday season, as layaway surged in popularity, a new phenomenon emerged: layaway angels. The generous condition has continued, with one example being actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry paying off all layaway accounts at two Atlanta Walmart stores, for a total of $434,000. He tweeted that at first he had hoped to remain anonymous, but ultimately wanted to explain the charitable decision and that only one penny is needed for those with items already on layaway to pick up their gifts. “I’m just really, really grateful to be able to be in a position to do this,” Perry said.

Benevolent benefactors have taken it upon themselves to pay off all of part of shoppers’ balance for items on layaway at Wal-Mart, Kmart and other stores. Some choose to remain anonymous while others revealed their names. They have been referred to as Secret Santas or not-so-secret Santas.

In one case, a man named David put nearly $16,000 toward the layaway balances of 1,000 Kmart shoppers in Laguna Beach, Calif. David’s gift sparked a chain effect and others stepped up to the tune of $8,000 more.

At other stores across the United States, layaway angels have paid off others’ balances in increments of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. There are stories from Bethlehem, Penn., Kalamazoo, Mich., Albuquerque, N.M., and many more. While 2011 wasn’t the first time someone stepped forward in this way, it’s the first year that it’s been a national trend making headlines.

Most stores have no restrictions on who can pay off someone’s items that are on layaway. However, due to privacy concerns, layaway angels probably won’t be told whom they helped. In some cases, the recipients of the generosity have come forward to offer personal thanks.

In several cases, the recipients revealed that had the donations not come through, they would not have been able to make the rest of the payments on their own and the gifts would not be given this Christmas. It would have been an especially stinging blow because some stores charge a layaway fee as well as a cancellation fee. In the case of Wal-Mart, those fees are $5 and $10, respectively. So, someone who cancelled their layaway would be out $15 with nothing to show for it. However, at all major retailers I’m aware of, any money paid toward the actual purchase of items on layaway (the payments) must be returned to the customer.

In other cases, recipients who weren’t in dire financial straits, but rather were using layaway to stretch out payments or conveniently “hide” presents from snoopy family members, decided to “pay it forward” and apply a similar amount toward someone else’s layaway balance.

Layaway angels are now part of a heartwarming 2011 Christmas, and many plan to continue to tradition next year. If you want to pay off someone’s layaway, you can call the store or go in in person. You can try asking for a couple of families’ layaway balances, a few that cost under $100, those that are about to expire, just toy items, or whatever works for you. In most cases, the store staff is excited to help make it happen and look forward to calling the fortunate recipients of your kindness.

There was one sad incident where a woman was turned away from two Houston, Texas Wal-Marts, where employees refused to let her secretly pay off another person’s layaway balance. A regional vice president later told KPRC-TV that there was no policy against it, and, “I was really disappointed that we didn’t handle it right. … There’s no reason we don’t support this. It’s the customers in Houston taking care of the customers in Houston.”

If you are in the position of needing or wanting your layaway balance to be paid off, cross your fingers. And, later, pay it forward!

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