Uh-oh. Did you keep your receipt?
This week's unnerving market moves haven't just shaken everyday investors and portfolio hawks. They also have the potential to unsettle another important group: American consumers.
Analysts worry that the fresh wave of economic uncertainty could prompt consumers to postpone or cancel major purchases, whether a last-minute summer vacation, a car for a college student, or a bargain vacation home. Already made a recent big buy? That's where buyers' remorse could start kick in, analysts say, for every point the Dow falls.
For some consumers it already has. Some recent retailer surveys suggest that shoppers have been spending more time at the returns counter since the fourth quarter of 2008, says Deborah Mitchell, executive director for the Center of Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Wisconsin School of Business. "After the purchase is made, they're still thinking, 'Should I have bought that,'" she says.
There are some options for nervous buyers who are still planning a big splurge -- while wondering if the market is poised to fall further. Some industries have noticed, and are capitalizing on, the current wave of buyer's remorse by offering pricey and profitable buyer protection plans. Below, a guide for consumers planning to buy and options for those who've already put down their plastic:
Big-ticket retail goods
When it comes to refunds, the big box stores tend to be fairly generous. Wal-Mart and Target, for example, accept returns for up to 90 days. But consumers may face restocking fees of up to 25% on items like electronics and appliances, special orders and boxes already opened, says Edgar Dworsky, found of advocacy site ConsumerWorld. And customized products, like furniture, may not be eligible for cancellation, he says.
Consumers who paid with a credit card might find a little extra leniency. Select cards, including many from American Express and Visa, include so-called return protection, which offers a refund of up to $250 on purchases made within 90 days (and which the retailer won't take back). Not everything qualifies -- the item must be in brand-new, working condition, for example -- and issuers typically limit cardholders to $1,000-worth of claims per calendar year.
Another modest recourse: buy-back programs from stores like Best Buy, which offer a guaranteed sell-back rate for gadgets if you purchase the protection when you buy the item. They're not a great deal in most situations, but might be the only option on a non-returnable product.
Once you've driven a new leased or purchased vehicle off the lot, your choices are limited, says Alec Gutierrez, the manager of vehicle valuation for Kelley Blue Book. Returns are typically permitted only if the car turns out to be a lemon. Barring that, what can you do? One option is to sell or lease the vehicle to someone else, though that may not be the best financial move, says Jesse Toprak, the vice president of industry trends and insights for TrueCar.com: "A lot of times, getting rid of a vehicle in a panic is a worse financial decision than keeping it." Losses can easily total more than $1,000 once you factor in the car's already depreciated value, title fees, taxes and any interest on a lease -- often enough to offset the likely savings on a cheaper or more fuel-efficient vehicle.
Even would-be buyers having second thoughts aren't completely off the hook. People on a waiting list or with a vehicle on order may lose some money if they change their minds, says Alec Gutierrez, since dealerships may declare the deposit (which can total as much as $500) nonrefundable. But at least you won't be responsible for the rest. "Until you sign on the dotted line, take delivery of the vehicle and drive it off the lot, you are not obligated the buy that car," he says.
The options for bailing on an upcoming trip vary dramatically, depending your departure date and travel provider, says Ed Perkins, a contributing editor for SmarterTravel.com. Some fare classes of airline tickets are refundable, but most people who buy tickets online end up with the cheapest options, which aren't. The big U.S. carriers will allow you to use that ticket value toward another flight, plus a change fee of up to $150 on domestic flights, or up to $250 on international flights. (Southwest is the only airline that does not charge a change fee.)
Cruises may offer penalty-free cancellation depending on how far in advance of the departure date you're cancelling. Princess Cruises, for example, lets you cancel at no charge up to 80 days before. At 79 to 60 days out, it will keep your deposit, and the fees continue to escalate from there. And on some lines, villas and specialty suites would require even greater notice to avoid penalties.
Hotels vary widely, Perkins says. Many allow penalty-free cancellation up to 24 hours in advance of the reservation, though others are non-refundable or keep the first night's fee as a penalty but refund the rest.
Travel insurance, now pitched by everyone from tour operators to airline booking sites, is the surest bet for refunds -- but only if travelers opt for a policy that allows them to cancel for any reason. Of course, this option isn't cheap: they typically cost 35% to 50% more than a standard policy. And in some cases, the actual refund may be just 75% of the total cost, says Chris Buggy, director of marketing for Travelers Insurance Service.
Most states offer a three business-day right to cancel purchases like health clubs and dating services, says consumer advocate Dworsky. Some of these monthly services also offer money-back guarantees or free-trial periods, though experts warn that consumers who miss that trial period -- sometime even for a single day -- risk getting wrapped into a lengthy contract or membership.
Cancelling your monthly cell phone service could trigger an early termination fee of several hundred dollars; at AT&T, for example, that's up to $325. But consumers who want to simply scale back cell (or cable) bills can typically downgrade their plans without a penalty.