'Layaway angels' and gold coins: Americans find new ways to warm hearts (VIDEO)

'Layaway angels' and the phenomenon of jewelry and coins being dropped into Salvation Army kettles shows Americans may be looking for social connections in their giving this holiday season.

H. Lorren Au Jr./AP
Yoneira Noriega, left, and her mother Anna Noriega leave the Kmart layaway department with their gifts Monday in Costa Mesa, Calif. The happy shoppers arrived at the store to learn that an anonymous donor had paid off the balance of their Christmas gift purchases. A man paid $16,000 to a Kmart in Costa Mesa to pay off more than 200 lay aways there.

From Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles, anonymous philanthropists known as “layaway angels” are paying off tens of thousands of dollars in layaway items for struggling families.

The Salvation Army, too, is seeing evidence of a shift in altruistic behavior at their iconic red kettles. Even as overall coin-dropping is down from last year, people in cities like Atlanta and Kokomo, Ind., are dropping off valuable items, including gold krugerrands, gold bars, and even diamond wedding bands, in large numbers.

Taken together, the two trends highlight a subtle change in how some Americans are choosing to give during hard economic times. And, it seems, those who are donating this holiday season may be searching for more emotionally satisfying ways to give.

“Emotions matter to people, and in order to give you need a good story, and that could be a factor,” says Keith Brown, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia.

The “layaway angels” phenomenon, which began in Michigan, has settled more than 1,000 layaway accounts with a value of $400,000, according to Kmart. The layaway option, a pre-credit card retail invention that allows customers to gradually pay off the price of an item, has itself made a comeback as credit card use has dropped amid high unemployment and stubborn economic uncertainty.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

In Orange County, Calif., one man saw a local story about the layaway angels phenomenon and promptly called the Costa Mesa Kmart, where he spent over $15,000 to settle hundreds of layaway accounts. Other angels had already settled $8,000 worth of layaway accounts at the store.

The “layaway angels” phenomenon likely taps into a search for social connections between those who give and those who receive, Scott Huettel, a psychology professor at Duke University, tells ABC News.

"In layaway, they're going in, finding and helping specific people, rather than just giving an amount that could help anyone," said Professor Huettel. "Having an identifiable person to help turns [out] to be a greater motivator rather than thinking about the general greater good."

While expensive coins being dropped into Salvation Army kettles isn't a new phenomenon, the trend seems to have accelerated this year, even as the nonprofit charity has seen overall donations dwindle by up to half in some locations – a drop attributed to factors ranging from the growth of internet shopping to the lack of snow in many parts of the country. (The Salvation Army notes that snow seems to trigger an emotional holiday response that results in more clink per kettle.)

Elsewhere, individual “mystery givers” are picking up the slack. In Joplin, an anonymous donor who identifies himself in notes as “Santa,” has given over $500,000 over the past eight years, all in the form of $10,000 checks wrapped in dollar bills. True to form, the Joplin philanthropist dropped off five checks at five different locations in the last week.

In Minneapolis, donors have dropped off six envelopes stuffed with $1,000 in cash in the last few days. In Raleigh, N.C., the Salvation Army opened one kettle to find a pair of diamond wedding rings wrapped inside a bill. In Miami, a $2,000 diamond and sapphire ring was dropped in a kettle.

Meanwhile, dozens of Salvation Army bell-ringers from Atlanta to Fort Collins, Colo., have found gold krugerrand coins worth $1,600 a piece and other valuable collector coins, including one worth $1,700 dropped recently in a Gettysburg, Pa., kettle. (Other noteworthy finds have included Scrabble pieces and even a dead goldfish.)

The surge in gold coin gifts combined with the overall drop in kettle giving “speaks to a split in the economy, where the well-off are doing well and are giving larger gifts and everyday people are struggling more,” says Professor Brown at St. Joseph's.

Both trends also likely fit into recent research showing deep links between displays of caring and competition for status. “Activating status motives can lead people to shy away from luxury and instead choose self-sacrifice,” according to a paper titled “Going Green To Be Seen,” published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“The layaway angels case is interesting, because it's unclear to me how people are gaining status from this” the way they do by purchasing, for example, a hybrid car over a luxury car, says Brown. “This comes off as more purely altruistic.”

On the other hand, he adds, “We think of these people as anonymous, but do they gain some kind of status from this type of giving? I suspect they do.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.