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Savings Guide 2006

Savvy savers

  There's more to saving than stuffing your extra cash in a mattress.
'Spend-to-save' credit card: Can it work for you?

Can you really save by spending? Several card issuers believe it's possible, and they've issued the plastic to prove it.

Spurred on by reports of record low savings rates and consumer feedback that they're interested in putting more money aside for rainy days, several card issuers have introduced credit or debit cards that have a savings component.

"I think what makes it notable is that we're in an environment right now where there's been a lot of attention focused on the lack of savings," says Lynne Strang, spokeswoman for the American Financial Services Association, a trade group for credit and financial institutions. "We're not saving enough."

With these new credit cards, a certain percentage of what cardholders spend is deposited into the user's savings account. It's similar to a rewards card, but in this case the reward is money in the bank instead of airline tickets or travel points.

"It's a means to put something away for bigger-picture items," Strang says.

Other versions
Monica Beaupre, spokeswoman for American Express, which launched its version -- the One Card -- in October 2005, agrees. "We wanted to be able to offer consumers who weren't sure how to kick-start that savings plan a way to do that," says Beaupre.

One Card users get back 1 percent of the amount of their purchases ($1 for every $100 spent). It is deposited into a savings account with a 4.25 percent annual yield, she says. The company also puts in $25 the first time the account holder uses the card and suspends the annual $35 fee for the first year. Cardholders can add to the savings account as they wish. The interest earned is a variable rate so it will change periodically. The accounts are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Emigrant Bank also offers a card for customers who have a savings account with its online division, EmigrantDirect.com. With Emigrant's card, the reward depends on the balance of the account. If the account holders have less than $10,000, they receive deposits twice a year equal to one-half of 1 percent of their total card purchases for the past six months. If the balance is $10,000 or higher, the users receive 1.4 percent of their purchase totals. The money goes into a savings account currently offering a 5.15 percent return.

"It's encouraging them to keep their money in the savings account," says Janet Martin, chief administrative officer of Emigrant Bank. "If someone had $8,000, we've seen them put that extra $2,000 in."

On the debit card side, Bank of America launched its "Keep the Change" program at roughly the same time. When a consumer uses the card, the total purchase amount is rounded up to the next highest dollar, and the difference between that and the actual cost is swept into a savings account. For the first three months, Bank of America matches the savings dollar for dollar. After 90 days, it matches 5 percent.

"It's been a very successful program," says Diane Wagner, spokeswoman for Bank of America. As of August 2006, 3 million customers saved an average of $60 each, not including the matching money, Wagner says. "It gets you into the habit. If you're spending, you can also be saving."

Over the long term
Can you save by spending? Opinions are mixed. While some contend that it's a great way to save almost invisibly while you do what you normally do, others worry that consumers will spend more to get more savings and just dig themselves deeper into debt.

"I really like these types of accounts," says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, who estimates that there are probably about 50 cards on the market that offer some type of savings option. While some will set money aside in a 529 (education savings account), others "will let you put money in a high-yield savings account or even a brokerage account," he says. "It just depends on what you want."

Two he likes: the Citi Upromise Platinum Select MasterCard, which is tied to a 529 account, and the Fidelity Investment Rewards Visa card, which can be linked to several types of investment accounts, including brokerage accounts or IRAs.

-- Posted: Oct. 1, 2006
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