THE COLLAPSE of the silver market may give a much-needed psychological boost to the Federal Reserve's effort to cut back on consumer credit. There is nothing like the spectacle of the rich guys getting their comeuppance to make us feel a little less put-upon when the cashier announces regretfully that VISA says we have exceeded our credit limit. It is just like Bache Halsey Stuart Shields and the Texas millionaires. Very American.

Very American, as well, were the impulses that got many of us into the casual use of credit cards and overdraft privileges in the last few years. As our real incomes diminished (or the raises that looked so good turned out not to buy as much as we had expected), it was altogether too tempting to have now and pay some other time, in installments small enough that it wasn't really necessary to think seriously about them. Enough of us did this to make the net increase in outstanding consumer credit last year almost $36 billion. And thousands of personal financial bubbles of middle-income families have been bursting all over the country, just as the silver bubble of Nelson Bunker Hunt burst this past week. The Hung empire is left, apparently, with several million to spare. Unfortunately, most Americans don't have that kind of cushion, and some find themselves genuinely destitute.

Inflation does a funny thing to one's brain. News of the fall in the price of silver leaves a lot of people relieved, on the one hand, that they can take the newly priceless silver salad forkks out of the back of the closet and use them again. But, on the other hand, they are a little miffed to have to discard the illusion that a cache of 15-year-ago wedding presents might be a hedge against the cost of kids' college education.

There is a speculator in all of us, and most of us firmly adhere, unless forced to do otherwise, to the great American adage that "if it looks tight, close your eyes and go fast." With luck, the crash of the silver market will force us to open our eyes, maybe even to slow down.