One bank lent a 7-year-old girl the money to build a rabbit hutch. Another gives out stuffed Rocky Raccoons to tykes who open savings accounts. A third sets up mock banks in elementary schools, encouraging children to apply for positions as tellers and customer service managers.
Banks large and small are reaching out to children. Some are offering special products like no-minimum savings accounts; others are adopting local schools.
Generally, children's accounts are money-losers. But as banks seek ways to hone their competitive edge, some have begun to view children's accounts as publicity boons.
"Some banks have gone full force and have children's savings programs as marketing tools," said Patricia Boerger, a manager at the American Bankers Association. "They use them to get more accounts and to bring children-and their parents-into the branch often."
Other factors may come into play. Organizations that promote children's savings said the Clinton administration's emphasis on education and the family seems to have rubbed off on banks. Some bankers have concluded that youth programs are good ways to fulfill Community Reinvestment Act requirements.
Ms. Boerger said she sees more banks offering formal savings programs for children, giving away stickers and superballs with each deposit. Though no reliable data exist on how many banks do this or the number of accounts they have, the ABA is starting to take inventory, she said.
Last Thursday the ABA Education Foundation sponsored its first "National Teach Children to Save Day." As part of the program, more than 2,500 banks sent representatives to schools.
Neale S. Godfrey, who runs Children's Financial Network Inc., a private educational company in Mountain Lake, N.J., has been sounding the drum beat for decades. She said more banks are now adopting schools, a trend she encourages.
"I would say 20 years ago it was tough to get people on board that it was important to teach our children about money," said Ms. Godfrey, a former president of the First Women's Bank in New York.
Among the growing number of banks that sponsor mini-branches in local schools is First Chicago NBD Corp., which has set up 118 in-school banks since 1991. Children may deposit as little as a quarter at a time and can take turns updating passbooks, taking money, and tallying receipts.
The trick, bankers said, is to get children to save money habitually, not just when they get lump sums on birthdays and holidays. By sending out newsletters, distributing coloring books, and devising cutesy account names, banks hope to capture the attention of children who may one day become profitable customers.
KeyCorp, for instance, offers a "DinoSaver" account, which requires only a $10 deposit. In three years, the program has attracted 240,000 customers.
"We consistently open 6,000 to 8,000 accounts every month and it shows absolutely no sign of slowing down, which is kind of surprising, three years into it," said Patrick Durbin, the product manager at KeyCorp.
Twice a year, the bank gives out dinosaur replicas to underage depositors. A quarterly newsletter, DinoTales, records the name of each child who has made nine deposits.
The bank is bracing for June, when the sequel to the movie "Jurassic Park" will be released and the bank will offer miniature velociraptors.
"We're going to be swamped," Mr. Durbin said.
Other banks are using the Internet to lure in computer-happy kids, posting homework tips and video games on their Web sites. CoreStates, for instance, enables surfers to download "CoreStates Whack-a-Mole" and "CoreStates Internet Man." The Federal Reserve Bank of New York sells comic books through its Web site with stories of funky teens with buzz cuts learning to manage a checking account.
Savings Bank of Rockville, Conn., features Rocky Raccoon on its home page and sends employees dressed in Rocky costumes to schools, where children can place deposits in a wooden box featuring the rodent's picture.
"We give out Rocky stickers and Rocky dollar bills," said Laurie Rosner, marketing director for the $350 million-asset bank. "We write notes to the child, things like 'You just reached $20-way to go, Timmy!'" Rocky also appears at civic functions. He was, the bank contended, more popular than the Easter Bunny at this year's annual Easter egg hunt in downtown Rockville.
"We lose money on this," Ms. Rosner stated bluntly. "But this is our way of giving back to the community. We can teach kids the value of starting to save early, and we can communicate directly to the parents."
William McGurk, president of the Savings Bank of Rockville, put it this way: "You've got to grow your customers here. There's not a huge influx of citizens into Connecticut."
There is one bank that serves children strictly for educational purposes. The Young Americans Bank in Denver says it is the only bank in the world exclusively for children. With $10 million of assets and 17,000 accounts, the 10-year-old bank is the pet project of a cable industry entrepreneur, Bill Daniels, who subsidizes it.
Anyone under 21 can open a checking or savings account, buy a certificate of deposit, or apply for a credit card or a loan. The average age of customers is 16.
"We are seeing more banks offer these kinds of services, but not nearly what we do," said Jillene Heap, a vice president at Young Americans Bank.
Ms. Heap has lent money to an 8-year-old boy who wanted to build a greenhouse and grow tomatoes. She has made loans to teens to buy cars and musical instruments.
Clifford Brody, a Washington-based banking consultant, has set out to expand the number of banks that offer children's products. His company, Kids Own America, has just convinced American Airlines to allow families to use frequent-flier miles to pay account fees for high-interest-rate children's passbook savings accounts. Mr. Brody said he now hopes to get banks on board.
It all started when his son was 7 and had saved up $200. He talked to a friend who worked at the local Charles Schwab & Co. office. "She said there was no break for kids' accounts," Mr. Brody said. "If he were to spend $200 on shares, he would have had to spend $30 of it on commissions."