Saving is in vogue again, and banks are beginning to get in on the action.
After all, if banks ultimately want consumers to build their checking account balances, use their debit and credit cards, qualify for car loans, and seek mortgages, then they need to help them improve their financial fitness by paying down debt and increasing savings.
We all know that the personal savings rate in the United States was near zero for the last few years, and that by December it had increased to 3.6%. But the more important story is about individual levels of emergency saving, that extra cash that the average consumer should have tucked away somewhere to cushion against unexpected expenses.
Low- and moderate-income households say they need $1,500 to $3,000 of emergency savings, according to a 2007 survey by the Consumer Federation of America. Yet fewer than half say they have at least $500 saved.
The lower the amount of emergency savings reported, the more likely households are to have concerns about paying their bills, making housing payments, bouncing checks, making the minimum credit card payment, and seeking payday loans.
That's why the CFA is promoting the third annual America Saves Week, which runs through Sunday.
The group's research and direct experience with consumers suggest that motivation, marketing, incentives, and convenience are critical to encouraging people to save. America Saves Week recruits dozens of partner organizations across the nation to shine a spotlight on saving and provide consumers with the help they need to get started.
A growing number of financial institutions are participating. SunTrust and Bank of America, for instance, are working with Virginia Tech to open savings accounts on campus. National City is promoting America Saves Week on its Web site and in branches.
While many banks are raising awareness about saving through marketing and promotions, a group of Michigan credit unions have launched an entirely new product focused on incentives. Save to Win is a certificate of deposit that pays savers a small rate of interest and the chance to win monthly cash prizes. The grand prize is $100,000.
Here's how Save to Win works: For every $25 saved, CD holders receive an entry ticket into both a yearend drawing for $100,000 and a monthly drawing for smaller prizes of $15 to $400. Only new savings counts, so a consumer who saves $100 and receives four entries in one month will only receive more tickets in following months if she saves additional money. Entries are limited to 10 per month.
To help account holders stick with it, they are allowed only one withdrawal per year and have to pay a $25 penalty for it. But at most of the credit unions they don't lose their entry tickets.
The effort is modeled on similar products offered in as many as 20 countries. A Harvard professor, Peter Tufano, had the idea to bring the concept to America. D2D Fund, the nonprofit organization he founded to fuel savings innovations for lower-income consumers, developed the offering and partnered with the Filene Research Institute and the Michigan Credit Union League to help recruit credit unions.
Save to Win taps into the same psychology that leads people to play the lottery. Michigan alone had $2.33 billion in lottery sales in 2008. But unlike the lottery, there's no downside with Save to Win. The product protects consumers' principal in a federally insured account, and those depositors who don't win a prize are still earning interest and building assets.
What's in it for the credit unions? They see it as part of their broader mission to serve the community.
They also are hoping for new members and an increase in deposits, and they believe the product will help differentiate them in the financial marketplace.
The early results are strong. Collectively, seven credit unions opened more than 2,300 new accounts in about a month and generated deposits of $329,500.
The product is also helping the credit unions reach emerging markets. In a preliminary online survey of account holders, 42% report annual household income of less than $40,000, and 68% have less than a college education. Nearly a third report having $2,000 or less in savings and assets; half say they play the state's scratch-off lottery.
Consumers spent $53 billion on the lottery last fiscal year. Imagine the good fortune for consumers, for bankers, and for the economy as a whole if we could divert even a small portion of that spending into personal savings and investment.
It's not such a crazy idea. If people participating in Save to Win are enticed by the lottery-like features but get hooked for the long term on the benefits of building a nest egg, they might start thinking differently about savings.
It's time to get creative about saving.