Cash or charge? Salvation Army's iconic red buckets now take plastic

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You know the drill: you're walking out of the store, shopping bags in tow, when a bell-ringing Salvation Army guy in earmuffs gives you the look. Maybe you feel around in your pockets for a sec, or maybe you just skip right to the dramatic shrug; either way, chances are that you don't drop the proverbial nickel in the drum.

Aside from stinginess, there is a very good reason that many customers hold off on giving money to the Salvation Army: they often don't have any cash on hand. After all, between credit cards, debit cards and gift cards, there is hardly any reason to carry money for shopping, and the added bulk and insecurity of bills and change only increase the difficulty of holiday shopping. Of course, no cash translates into no cash donations, which tends to leave the bell ringers high and dry.

But now, in many parts of the country, there's no excuse if you don't have any dollar bills or coins in your pocket.
Last year, the Salvation Army experimented with new buckets that were equipped with wireless credit card readers. In Colorado Springs, Colo., one of the two cities where they tried out the buckets (the other was Denver), donations rose by $64,000, an 11% increase over the previous year. While only $5,000 of this came directly from credit cards, it seems likely that some of the increase in cash donations may also be a result of the machines. After all, with shoppers unable to fall back on the no-cash excuse, it's harder to walk away.

This year, the Salvation Army has expanded the card reading bucket program to thirty cities. The machines, which take Visa (V), Mastercard (MA) and American Express (AXP), also allow no-fee debit card transactions. According to the charity, the machines tend to inspire larger donations; this may be partially due to the fact that they issue a receipt, which tax-savvy givers could apply to their deductions.

Bell ringers also appreciate the new buckets, for much the same reason that customers do. While it's hard to imagine what kind of Scrooge would rob a Salvation Army collector during the holidays, such crimes are apparently quite common. The new, credit-equipped buckets are more likely to be filled with receipts instead of bills, making them a far less attractive target.

As the Salvation Army attempts to keep donations high in tight economic times, the new buckets seem like a logical step. It will be interesting to see if the card readers are what it takes to ring in a merrier Christmas for the Salvation Army amid rising unemployment woes.

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