To avoid problems and make better decisions, use this checklist BEFORE you make a purchase.

  • Decide in advance exactly what you want and what you can afford.

  • Don’t buy on impulse or under pressure. This includes donating to charity. Do your research.

  • Ask family, friends and others you trust for advice based on their experience. Gather information about both the seller and the item or service you are purchasing.

  • Review product test results and other information from consumer experts.

  • Get advice and price quotes from several sellers.

  • Make sure that the seller has all appropriate licenses. Doctors, lawyers, home improvement contractors and many other service providers must register with a state or local licensing agency.

  • Check out a company’s complaint record with your local consumer affairs office and Better Business Bureau.

  • Get a written copy of guarantees and warranties. Compare their features.

  • Get the seller’s refund, return and cancellation policies.

  • Ask who to contact if you have a question or problem.

  • Read and understand any contract or legal document you are asked to sign. Make sure there are no blank spaces. Insist that any extras you are promised be put in writing.

  • Consider paying by credit card. If you have a problem, you can dispute a charge made on your credit card.

Staying on Track

Regardless of how you pay for your purchases, remember to:

  • Keep track of your spending. Incidental and impulse purchases add up. Jot down what you spend after every purchase.

  • Save your receipts. You need them for returns and exchanges. Check credit and debit card sales and return receipts against your monthly bills and statements, and report any problems to the credit card issuer promptly.

  • Ask for gift receipts. Many retailers offer gift receipts that code the price. That way, if the recipient returns the item, they’ll get the same value even if the item has been discounted further.

  • Ask about refund and return policies. Many merchants may have different refund and return policies for sale items. For example, clearance merchandise may be on final sale, meaning no refunds or exchanges.

  • Keep good records. Whether you’re ordering by mail, phone, or online, it’s important to keep detailed information about the transaction, including your order number, shipping costs and dates, warranties, and refund and return policies. Some online merchants do not process returns at their retail locations.

  • Ship early. If you’re sending gifts to out-of-towners, factor in extra time for shipping. If you wait until the last minute, you may pay a hefty price for express or overnight shipping.

  • Keep an eye on your wallet. Don’t flash cash. Keep an eye on your credit or debit card during transactions, and get them back as quickly as possible. If your cards are lost or stolen, report the loss or theft immediately to the card issuers.

Layaway Programs

If you’re not keen on paying with plastic and don’t have the cash on hand, you may want to ask about a layaway program. Layaway purchase plans are designed for customers who want to buy merchandise without using credit or paying the full price immediately.

Layaways are not credit purchases. When you buy an item on credit, you take the merchandise home with you. When you use layaway, you typically make a deposit — usually a percentage of the purchase price — and pay over time until you have paid for the item in full. In exchange, the retailer holds the merchandise for you.

To avoid problems, get the store’s layaway policy in writing. It should include:

  • the terms of the layaway plan: how much time you have to pay for the merchandise; when your payments are due; the minimum payment required; and possible charges, like a service fee, for using the plan. Find out if there is a fee or a penalty for missed or late payments: Will your contract be canceled? Will the merchandise be returned to the sales floor?

  • the refund policy: If you decide you don’t want the merchandise after you’ve made some or all the payments, you may expect a refund. But retailers’ policies may differ: Some give you all your money back; others may charge a non-refundable service fee; and still others may offer a store credit for the amount you paid.

Information Courtesy of:

Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Action
Federal Citizen Information Center

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