Young financial technology businesses and a few dozen credit unions have been testing lottery-style rewards programs to encourage consumers to save.
So-called prize-linked savings differ by provider, but the main idea is to give customers a chance to win a gift in exchange for, say, making a deposit into a savings account.
In trying to make a chore more thrilling, firms are attacking a huge problem for many Americans: they lack the savings to cover even a minor emergency.
A Federal Reserve study published in July found that the majority of Americans could not afford an unexpected $400 expense unless they borrowed money or sold something.
Legal restrictions have prevented prize-linked savings programs from becoming mainstream. However, a bill to ease limitations in federal law is pending in Congress. The American Savings Promotion Act, passed by the House in September, could serve as a catalyst for making the programs commonplace in the U.S. if state laws also loosen.
The programs, which date back to rollouts in 2009 by a cadre of credit unions in Michigan, have succeeded in getting people to put money away despite low interest rates and even when doing so is personally difficult.
The programs, which are legal for credit unions in Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington in addition to Michigan, are aimed at people who may have never saved before. As of April 2013, 62 credit unions had made the programs available. From 2009 to 2012, they produced 40,000 new accountholders.
Banks, which have struggled to attract customers with their digital personal-finance tools, have had to sit on the sidelines because of anti-lottery and consumer protection laws.
However, there have been signs in recent weeks of the restrictions potentially softening. Besides the advancement of the federal legislation, New York enacted a bill that will take effect in 2015 and make such programs legal for credit unions. It would also make them legal for New York banks provided the federal legislation is enacted.
BANKS' WIDENING INTEREST
The Doorways to Dreams Fund (D2D), which helped create the initial credit union pilot called Save-to-Win, said many banks have expressed an interest in rolling out a lottery-like savings program once they are legal.
In doing so, banks could provide services to underserved consumers and help fulfill requirements spelled out in the Community Reinvestment Act, said William Stern, a partner in Goodwin Procter's business law department and member of its financial services group.
Getting policymakers to change the law can be challenging because sweepstakes often come with a stigma "pay to lose" and require explanation.
"If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win," said George Hofheimer, chief knowledge officer for Filene Research Institute, a think tank that helped with the initial Save-to-Win pilot.
Already, tech firms are readying for a time when it is legal to expand the programs.
PayPerks, a company that partners with prepaid issuers and others, would like to use prize-linked savings to boost interest in its prepaid issuer partners'savings purses (the prepaid card's equivalent of a savings account).
"There is real need for innovative solutions like PLS to encourage people to get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck model and to accumulate some savings," said Arlyn Davich, chief executive officer and co-founder of PayPerks.
Hofheimer said he could see credit unions across the nation banding together on bigger prizes should the federal bill pass.
He acknowledges another serious obstacle: loan growth will have to improve to the point that many overly liquid financial institutions will thirst again for more deposits.
On the other hand, banks have long struggled to get customers engaged with the personal finance tools available on their websites and mobile apps and have been refining the experiences in recent years to try to forge longer-lasting digital relationships.
"They are not necessarily looking for deposits, but they are looking for new ways to create a [deeper] relationship and tether," said Bryan Claggett, chief marketing officer at personal financial management firm Geezeo.
Banks such as Wells Fargo and KeyCorp have been testing apps that forecast short-term cash flows. Bank of America also created Keep the Change, which automates transferring money into a savings account after each time consumers swipe their debit cards. B of A declined to disclose enrollment numbers but said customers have saved more than $6 billion since the program launched in 2005.
The efforts coincide with the rise of numerous makers of direct-to-consumer mobile apps, which seek to encourage people to make choices that will benefit them in the long run. SaveUp is one of them. The company's app makes money through advertisers and sponsors, while users get shots to win prizes after they save money or repay debt.
"There is an engagement problem with financial products," said Sammy Shreibati, co-founder of SaveUp. "How do you get people to just open savings accounts and [save] for a rainy day? That's what we are trying to work on."