The holiday rush is over, and it's time to settle down and enjoy all the goodies Santa left under your tree. If you received any of the popular electronics items - VCRs, camcorders, CD players, audio and video equipment, etc. - this Christmas, you may be wondering what steps to take to insure long-term care.

Unfortunately, warranty cards and owner manuals often get tossed out with the gift wrappings, but that can be a mistake, says the Consumer Credit Institute. "Take time to read the warranty information and complete the registration cards for gifts that include them. It's usually a very simple form and may save you repair costs if a gadget breaks within the covered period," adds the institute, the consumer education arm of the American Financial Services Association.Keep warranty information for products in a separate envelope with your other personal papers so you can find the material if and when you need it.

"An important consideration is whether or not you want to buy a service contract," says Thomas P. Friel, group vice president, Electronic Industries Association/Consumer Electronics Group. "A service contract is designed to complement a manufacturer's warranty," he says, but may or may not be a good idea. To help you decide, here are answers to common questions people ask about service contracts:

What is the difference between a service contract and a warranty?

A product warranty comes automatically with the purchase of most electronic products. It is the manufacturer's guarantee that the product will work, and it explains what the manufacturer will do to correct a problem with the product during the warranty period.

Service contracts are a kind of repair insurance that frequently covers parts, labor and transportation charges and are separate from warranties. They are often sold by companies that have no relationship to the manufacturer or the retailer.

How can I be sure the service contract doesn't overlap the warranty?

Read the warranty, paying particular attention to the time period it covers and to what it covers - such as the entire product or just certain parts. If the warranty on a TV offers long coverage on the picture tube, for example, you may feel you don't need a separate service contract.

Must I buy a service contract when I'm buying the product?

Usually not. Ask the salesperson for sufficient time to study your options before making up your mind. Don't allow yourself to be pressured into making a decision. Don't forget that your new electronic product warranty will cover most repairs for at least 90 days and sometimes over a year. Shop around if you can. Look for a contract that has low or no deductibles, covers the most parts and types of repairs, provides for routine service and can be used if you move.

How can I tell if the service contract is worth the money?

Read it carefully, weighing its cost against maintenance and repair bills you might face in the future. Note deductibles. If you have to pay a fee for every service call, you may be better off without the contract. Be aware of other "surprises" such as no coverage for extended maintenance, no protection if you move to another area, repair service only on specific parts, and no pickup and delivery service.

Check to see that it covers labor and parts, that the service center is authorized to repair the particular product and that it covers routine maintenance.

What can I do if I buy a bad service contract?

You can't change a contract you've already bought. Learn from the experience, shop around, read carefully before you buy.

How can I tell who is selling the service contract?

Ask the salesperson for the name of the company. The retailer may be selling it for a service company. Ask to see the contract. Then check the company out with the Better Business Bureau or the local consumer protection office. Contact the manufacturer to see of the service contract company is authorized to service the product.

Are service contracts renewable? Some aren't and say so. That's another good reason to read the contract carefully, since the older the product gets the more likely it is to need repairs. Find out if it will cost more money the second and third time around.