smart spending

Will these 3 trends curb your spending?

Emptying piggy bank
Highlights
  • Studies have shown you are less likely to spend when using cash.
  • Financial reform lets stores refuse credit cards for tabs under $10.
  • Layaway may help consumers develop a talent for a key budgeting skill.

The business of business has been to do everything possible to separate us from our money.

From store music that sparks a buying mood to impulse items placed at eye level, it's a battle between consumers' willpower and businesses' ability to entice spending.

But now, because of a desire to cater to consumers' newfound thrift, businesses may actually help you budget. But such help could be a hindrance, unless you understand the pitfalls.

Will the $10 rule make you cash-conscious?

"Studies have shown that you are less likely to spend when you pay cash," says Michael Collins, faculty director at the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin.

That's because counting out bills forces us to see how much a purchase is costing, whereas credit cards dull that reality, he says.

Especially at independent retailers, you're likely to start seeing signs urging cash payment for smaller purchases, says J. Craig Shearman, vice president of government affairs for the National Retail Federation.

The recent financial reform lets stores refuse credit cards for tabs under $10, legitimizing a practice that was already widespread among smaller merchants who are particularly hard hit by credit transaction fees, says Shearman.

Now that the law specifically allows it, Shearman predicts retailers will be posting prominent requests: "Cash preferred."

But it will only significantly enhance your budgeting if you start carrying cash for larger purchases, and not just for the quick, low-cost buys, says Collins.

"The impact (of cash) is greater with more expensive items," he says. "You're less likely to spend $100 on an item at a clothing store, for instance, if you pay out cash."

Still, forking over cash for the impulse candy or coffee buys at the corner store may also cut down your weekly expenditures, Collins says.

Should you use layaway to ditch debt?

An old idea, the layaway plan -- which entails paying a small amount in regular intervals toward a purchase and then taking it home only after it's paid for -- has made a resurgence.

After years of dormancy, for instance, Sears relaunched its layaway in late 2008, says Salima Yala, division vice president for financial services at the retailer.

The service has been popular, Yala says, not only with the credit-challenged consumers of this recession, but with others who want to cultivate new buying habits.

Moreover, the website eLayaway.com, which launched in 2006, claims to have 100,000 registered members and offers selected items for layaway from 100 retailers as well as layaway plans for sporting events.

Using layaway may help consumers develop a talent for delaying gratification, a key budgeting skill that was lost during the decades Americans overused credit, says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Despite the merits of the approach, Loewenstein says, it could backfire if you later change your mind about wanting the item or need the cash you've put up for other purposes.

No federal laws specifically govern layaway plans, says Elizabeth Lordan, a Federal Trade Commission spokeswoman. Many states and some localities do have such rules, however.

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