When you heard about the secret Santas paying off people’s layaway accounts, did you think how odd it is to be hearing about such accounts at all?

Layaway accounts sound like a relic of the past, but they are making a comeback—and that this is happening is a very good omen.

James Surowiecki has a fascinating piece in the current New Yorker magazine about the return of layaway. Using such an account is the opposite of the “buy now, pay later” mentality.

Surowiecki reports that layaway accounts first became widespread during the Depression—so it’s not too surprising that our current economic travails have re-introduced layaway. Credit now, as during the Depression, is currently less easy to obtain than it has been. But Surowiecki says that for many consumers layaway isn’t just a necessity—it is a way of learning to “spend smarter.”

Here is how the system works:

The key to understanding the appeal of layaway is that most layaway programs require shoppers to make regular payments. Typically, you pick out the product you want, make a down payment, pay a service fee (typically five dollars), and then make regularly scheduled payments over a period of time until you’ve paid off the full price. There are no interest payments, and if you don’t make all the payments you get your money back, minus a cancellation fee. It’s the exact opposite of installment credit, where you get the product, and then pay for it.

Critics of the system point out that this doesn’t make sense from a purely financial angle. After all, you could put your purchase on your credit card, pay it quickly, and save the cost of the down payment. But this isn’t how most people operate. Many people who are quite able to pay off their credit card debts at once and on time don’t do so.

Surowiecki’s most important point is that layaway can teach the consumer to think about spending in a certain way:

Layaway, by contrast, fosters virtue: it forces you to save, because if you don’t make the payment you don’t get the product. It’s what psychologists call a “commitment device,” a way to get yourself to do something that you want to do but know you’ll have a hard time doing if left purely to your own devices….

It’s common to think of American consumers as reckless dupes, myopically focussed on the present and easily led astray by their desires, with the buying binge of the years leading up to the crash proffered as Exhibit A. But consumer choices don’t occur in a vacuum; they’re always shaped by social and economic norms. Americans have been big spenders for decades now, but as Sheldon Garon observes in his new history of consumption, “Beyond Our Means,” that’s in large part because our economic system is set up to encourage overspending. And what the revival of layaway makes clear is that, while many shoppers are prone to spend what they don’t have on what they shouldn’t buy, they can also be sophisticated about their weakness, and savvy about finding ways to control it. They know that sometimes you have to have your hands tied in order to grab what you want

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to create a layaway plan for the federal government?

Candidates, are you listening?