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June 7, 2013

How to Put a Thrill Into Saving Money

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To move up the economic ladder in America, you need to save money. Savings allow people to get over bumps in the road without a disaster. Like when you get really sick and can’t work for a month. Or when you need to cover moving expenses to take a better job in another city. Or when you want to take a night class in bookkeeping to qualify for a promotion.

But about a third of Americans save nothing, especially those starting out nearer the bottom of the economic ladder. In most cases, that’s not because a family truly lacks any resources to save. Indeed, one study showed that American households with annual incomes of less than $12,500 actually put an average of about $650 each year into a rainy-day fund. The problem is that their rainy-day investment instruments were lottery tickets.

For the past three decades, the savings rate has declined, replaced by a culture of indebtedness and Powerball. In four of our most populous states, payday lenders and check-cashers outnumber even McDonald's outlets. No wonder so many Americans are stuck on the first few rungs of the economic ladder.

It’s human nature to play the lottery. It’s understandable that the chance of a big win — even though most times the ticket money goes down the drain — is more attractive than a savings account paying a pittance in interest.

But here’s a thought: We know that average Americans get much more excited about a small chance for big winnings rather than a guaranteed boring low return on their money. What if banks were to pool together the interest that’s so low you don’t notice it and instead used it for prize drawings, with your chances of winning based on the amount you saved? So instead of the 0.01 percent interest you could count on at the local Wells Fargo bank, you could instead get the chance every year of winning 10 grand, or a million bucks. If you “lost” in this “lottery,” you’d end up with a boatload of savings rather than a torn-up ticket.

Some financial institutions here and in other countries have figured out they need to appeal to the fun side of the brain, creating so-called “prize-linked savings.” This approach to savings appeals to the lottery instinct and has dramatically increased personal savings rates.

For instance, in 2009 a group of Michigan credit unions created “Save to Win.” For every $25 a customer places in a certificate of deposit, he or she gets a chance to win one of 75 monthly prizes of up to $3,750 and an annual prize of $10,000. Significantly, nearly half of the accountholders had never saved regularly before and most of those had annual household incomes of less than $40,000.

My native country of Britain is a leader in prize-linked savings. Back in 1957, the government launched premium bonds, which it smartly described as “savings with a thrill.” The bonds paid no interest, but bond buyers got the chance to win prizes. Today these range from about $40 — which appear fairly predictably in a bondholder’s mailbox — to $1.5 million. Thanks to this “thrill factor,” one-third of all Britons now own premium bonds, equal to $70 billion in savings. (Adjusting for population size, that would be nearly a half-trillion dollars here.)

So what’s stopping such thrill-seeking savers over here? Two words: red tape. State-chartered banks and credit unions need state laws to permit them to offer prize-linked savings. Several states have been following Michigan in making this possible, but other state legislatures need to follow. Meanwhile, federally chartered institutions need exemptions from laws that were intended to thwart money laundering but now hamper them from offering prize-based savings accounts.

First appeared in Washington Times.

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