Eleanor Balaban saved $7 on a new pair of eyeglasses, 70 cents on a sackful of Christmas gifts, $29 on a water heater, 63 cents on flowers and $2 on craft shop materials and other merchandise on a number of recent shopping trips.

She did it neither with coupons nor by taking advantage of special sales but rather through her membership in a new "discounts-for-cash" program that has blosomed in the Washington area in the last three months.

A total of 15,000 individuals or families have joined the plan since the Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association began operating a local franchise for the nation-wide SaveSystem concept.

Card-carrying members of SaveSystem are eligible for discounts of 5 to 12 percent when they pay cash at the 2,000 participating stores in the Washington area.

It is all part of a national trend to offer the discounts to consumers who pay for their purchases with cash or checks rather than credit cards. The program is offered in more than a dozen states.

Most of the Washington area stores offering the discounts are small businesses, such as hairdressers, opticians, paint stores, tire stores and drycleaners. Those local chains that have joined include George's Radio and Television, Sherwin-Williams Paint Stores, Lum's restaurants and the Giant Pants Corrals.

The major retailers -- including all the large department stores -- have not joined the prgram and indicate they do not intend to.

The program works like this. Persons who want to join open an account of $10 or more at Washington Federal and are issued a plastic card, similar to credit cards, and a directory of the stores offering discounts.

The discounts are not offered on the spot. A shopper presents his plastic cash card when he is making a purchase and pays the full price either by check or cash. Once a month, the store sends a check for the amount of the discount to Washington Federal, where the money is posted to the shopper's account. The accounts draw interest at usual savings rates, currently 5 1/2 percent.

Washington Federal also benefits from the cash deals. It receives new deposits from consumers and the rebates submitted by merchants help swell the savings and loans reserves.

In addition, Washington Federal collects a fee -- ranging from 1 to 3 percent -- from the merchant for each transaction.

Lums Restaurant, for example, pays a 2 percent charge to Washington Federal as well as a 5 percent rebate for the customer's cash purchase. On a $10 meal, Lum's submits 70 cents to Washington Federal -- 50 cents for the customer's savings account and 20 cents for Washington Federal.

The stores, in turn, receive advertising in the form of listings by category in the directory and the new business attracted by the listings.

The idea for SaveSystem originated 10 years ago with a Missouri lawyer named John M. Wilson. But it took a lawsuit and the 1975 Fair Credit Billing Act to clear the legal hurdles standing between cash customers and discounts. Before 1975, merchants typically refused to give discounts because of their contract arrangements with credit card companies, which did not want credit customers paying more than cash customers.

Consumers Union sued American Express to stop that arrangement and won the case. Then the Fair Credit Billing Act was passed, giving a green light to cash discounts.

Since then, the cash discount programs that have sprung up have met with varying success.

Some supporters of the program, known as SaveSystem here and Savings Plus in some other areas, acknowledge that it has not grown as quickly as hoped.

"Slow" is how Martin J. Mercurio describes the volume of cash discounts paid by participating merchants in St. Louis, where a cash-discount program began about a year ago. Mercurio is the senior vice president of the Carbondelet Savings & Loan Association which has the franchise for that area.

Washington area merchants in the program also report that the crowds of cash discount customers have been thinner than expected.

"The number of customers qualifying for discounts hasn't been overwhelming," said Doug Cole, manager of the Giant Pants Corral at 1420 Wisconsin Ave. NW. "But we've been told by Washington Federal that it will pick up as more people become members and more stores join."

Cole said a qualifying cash customer who buys a $10 pair of jeans at his store would receive a $1 rebate that ultimately is posted to the person's account at Washington Federal.

"We have signs in the windows and we're wearing yellow ribbons on our chests to let customers know about the discounts," Cole said.

His store is one of 17 Pants Corrals here giving 5 percent discounts. The other 10 stores in the chain are not in the program, a spokesman said, because they are outside the immediate Washington area where SaveSystem is being promoted.

So far, however, the major retailers have not joined the program.

"It presents some problems for us," said a representative of the Woodward & Lothrop chain.

"A 5 percent discount is high," she said. "American Express costs us only 4.5 percent, so it doesn't make sense for us to pay a 5 percent discount to cash customers."

In additon, the Woodies representative said, the discount transaction called for in the SaveSystem procedure would add to the chain's cost for training clerks and programming registers.

The paperwork required for the cash discount could be more costly than a credit transaction.

"We're not ruling out the concept of a discount, but it is not something we are doing or something we feel we want to do," the Woodies representative said.

What's more, she said, if Woodward & Lothrop decided to have a discount for cash purchases, it could start one of its own.