New savings plans grow when you use plastic

PERSONAL FINANCE

November 13, 2005|By EILEEN AMBROSE

Consumers can earn all sorts of rewards for using plastic, from frequent-flier miles and cash back to contributions to a college plan when charging purchases at certain merchants.

Two new reward programs are tapping into that nagging feeling that we should be saving more. The programs promise to squirrel away a bit of money into savings accounts for consumers who use American Express credit cards or Bank of America debit cards.

Americans have plenty of reasons to build a nest egg. College for the kids. Unexpected emergencies. A down payment on a home. And perhaps the largest looming expense, retirement. Yet, on the whole, we are poor savers and have only gotten worse in recent months. From June through September, Americans spent more than they took home, according to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Can programs that help us save if we spend be an answer? Consumer advocates are divided.

"We have been so unsuccessful in getting Americans to save. Most of us who are interested in that say, `We welcome every conceivable kind of idea,' " said Lewis Mandell, a finance professor at State University of New York at Buffalo.

Others are wary, saying the programs might entice people to spend more or give consumers a false sense that they are salting away enough. They argue that there are more effective ways to save.

"Saving 5 cents to 10 cents here or there is not really a savings plan," said Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney with Consumers Union in San Francisco.

American Express and Bank of America said their programs are in response to customers who wanted an easy way to save. The companies say their programs don't encourage spending but instead reward customers for purchases they would typically make.

Bank of America's program is called Keep the Change. To participate, you need Bank of America checking and savings accounts, plus a debit card. Each time you use the debit card, the bank will round up the purchase to the nearest dollar, putting the extra change into your savings account. So, if you spent $2.75 on a skinny latte, the bank will debit your checking account $3 and divert 25 cents into savings.

For the first three months, Bank of America will match the money going into the savings account penny for penny. So, on that coffee drink, 50 cents goes into savings. After three months, the bank will contribute 5 cents for every dollar saved, up to $250 annually.

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, said he likes the Bank of America program because it's tied to a debit card rather than a credit card.

A debit card takes money directly out of the customer's bank account.

"You can't spend money you don't have," Brobeck said.

Even nickels and dimes can add up to make a difference to some, he said, adding, "It isn't a lot of money, but keep in mind, when we surveyed women, over 40 percent had emergency savings of less than $500. A good portion of those don't have emergency money at all."

The caveat with the debit program is to make sure you don't overdraw your checking account, said Greg McBride, senior analyst with Bankrate.com. "One overdraft charge will erase months of savings that's taking place 50 cents at a time," McBride said.

Bank of America charges $19 for the first overdraft and then increases it, eventually to $34 for the fourth occurrence.

With the American Express One card, 1 percent of each purchase is transferred into a savings account, currently earning 3.5 percent. The company also kicks in $25 after your first purchase. And even if you carry a balance, interest doesn't accrue on new purchases unless you decided to add them to the balance at the end of the month, said spokeswoman Desiree Fish.

The American Express program, as with other card rebates, "only makes sense if you pay the balance in full every month," McBride said. Otherwise, the interest you pay on the balance can wipe out the reward, he said.

For example, by charging a $100 purchase, your reward is $1 and will earn 3.5 cents in the savings account in a year's time, McBride said. But if you carry a $100 balance at today's average interest rate of 13 percent, you would pay $13 in interest over the year.

In both programs, customers are subject to fees or penalties, as with any other debit or credit card.

Bank of America customers can avoid account fees by directly depositing paychecks into a checking account and by keeping a minimum balance of $300 in the savings account. The American Express card comes with a $35 annual fee that's waived the first year.

Still, some consumer advocates say there are better ways to save than spend-to-save reward programs.

"It's an interesting marketing technique, but I honestly don't feel it's in the best interest of people who are seriously trying to save for their financial future," said Don Blandin, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Investor Protection Trust.

Experts say the best way to save is "pay yourself first," basically putting aside savings, whether it's $5 or $50, before you do anything else with your paycheck.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by contributing to a 401(k) or other workplace plan, in which your employer deducts money out of your paycheck before you see it and puts it in a tax-deferred investment account. Many employers also match workers' contributions.

To build savings outside a retirement account, consumers can ask their banks or credit unions to automatically transfer, say, $25 or so a month from their checking account into a savings account, experts said.

Shop around for a savings account, McBride said. The typical account pays 0.5 percent interest, but consumers can find rates as high as 4 percent, he said.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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