It’s the holiday season and consumers everywhere are looking for great gifts at low prices! Do you have your eye on a large refrigerator/freezer complete with ice maker and filtered-water dispenser? Perhaps a large-screen 3-D TV is on the family wish list. Unfortunately, this is the time of year to remind people that the no-interest offers being sent your way via snail-mail and email are a marketing tool that has been used for years to benefit businesses, not consumers.

It certainly sounds good on the surface. After all, it would be fantastic to spring an amazing gift on your parents, spouse, or family. Doesn’t it sound even better when there’s no down payment required? Of course, it does! But what about the fine print squeezed into a small area at the bottom of the contract? You may even have a salesperson who reminds you that interest-free is only valid when the purchase is paid off before the time allotted for the zero-interest period is up. The decision is on your side of the fence and it’s hard to say no, especially if the family is looking on and anticipating the fun they’ll have with whatever you’re buying.

Sometimes a minimum payment is set by the store or finance company. It’s up to you to determine how much to pay to reduce the balance to zero before time expires. Additional charges like sales tax and delivery fees are included in your contract and considered part of the total to be paid to qualify for no interest. A $600 purchase at 10% tax and $15 delivery fee suddenly turns into $715 due in less than six months. And let’s not forget the service policy you’re encouraged to purchase in case something goes wrong after the warranty expires. The store comes out ahead, not you, with a tempting offer that quickly turns sour.

If there are other charges on your account, guess where the money is applied first? That’s right, your monthly payment for prior purchases, service fees, and interest. It’s up to you to designate additional funds you pay be applied to the qualified purchase. The fine print usually states the waived interest offer is eliminated if a payment is late or missed. In that case, interest is backdated to the time of purchase. The good feeling that arrived with the offer rapidly disappears when you realize you should have read the fine print.