As Salvation Army bells ring through crowded parking lots and wreaths deck storefront windows, stores are looking for new ways to help struggling customers fill their stockings this holiday season.In this credit-shy economy, layaway has emerged as Santa’s latest little helper. (Layaway allows customers to pay for an item in installments, though the customer doesn’t take the item home until it’s fully paid—a payment plan that tends to be favored during tough economic times.)Many major stores—Best Buy, Sears and Walmart, to name a few—are offering in-store holiday layaway programs this season, and elayaway.com (“the smart way to plan and pay”) is available for Internet shoppers at over 1,000 online retailers.GALLERY: Holiday Gifts That Give BackFor budget-conscious shoppers, layaway can be a great alternative to credit. “People are being more careful with their money, and layaway is another way to do that,” says YouBeauty Psychology Advisor, Art Markman, Ph.D. “At no point do you feel like you’re paying an overwhelming amount of money.”To participate in Walmart’s layaway program, for example, you pay a 10% deposit and a $5 nonrefundable service fee (standard practice for most layaway programs), then you pay off the rest on your own schedule.Of course, the most financially savvy option is to save your money in the bank until you’re ready to pay in full, but “a lot of people are really bad at saving,” says Markman. Between that lipstick you just had to buy and that gorgeous new winter coat (it was 50% off—a steal!), the savings you earmarked for holiday gifts wind up slimmer than expected.COLUMN: Stay Healthy During the Holidays“It’s hard to do long-term budgeting,” says Markman. “The short-term is always more appealing, and we don’t do a good job being able to forecast what is going to happen in our economic future.” Say the oven breaks down or the car needs a tune-up, layaway offers an out. For a cancellation fee ($10 at Walmart), any payment can be fully refunded.Layaway is better for your psyche, too.“People don’t like to be paying for something for longer than they’re going to be using it,” says Markman. In other words, paying off that sparkly holiday dress you adored back in December won’t seem quite as satisfying come April when you have nowhere to wear it.For a short-term purchase (like a holiday gift), Markman says you’re better off using layaway than credit if you can’t pay in full up front. “You have the anticipation of owning it, which is positive, versus the burden of paying it off, which is painful,” he explains.According to a Walmart representative, customers this season are “most interested in layaway on toys and electronics.” Giving kids a great holiday seems to be parents’ top priority, and Walmart bills their layaway program as “a worry-free way for our customers to fulfill their families’ Christmas wish list.” (Not to mention, a convenient way for Walmart to earn $5 extra on every purchase you make.)COLUMN: Holiday Diet TipsBut make no mistake: Layaway does take work. Stores like Walmart don’t send you reminders—they let you handle the payments. If you’ve put several items on layaway at several different stores, then managing the payments before they expire can take some serious organization. (At Walmart, for example, you have until December 16 to complete your payments before you’ll owe $10 per item in penalty fees—a hefty price for small-ticket items.) “Layaway is clearly more effort for the purchaser,” says Markman.If you know organization isn’t your forte, then layaway might not be the choice for you, but if you’re handy with Excel or calendar reminders, then what’s a little effort if it means Santa can stop at your house this year?