Two new cards, American Express' One and Bank of America's Keep the Change card, promise to stash away a little something in a savings account for every purchase made. It's a simple concept: spend more, save more.
With the One card (in case you've somehow missed the Ellen Degeneres television campaign), American Express will put one percent of every purchase into a savings account that accrues interest at the rate of 3.15 percent. Bank of America's card works slightly differently, rounding every debit card purchase to the next dollar and depositing the change into a savings account, almost like an electronic piggy bank. Both companies offer a little something extra to sweeten the deal: American Express waives the $35 annual fee the first year and awards new cardholders a $25 bonus deposit; Bank of America will match 100 percent of the amount saved for the first three months, then five percent annually, up to $250 a year.
In theory, these cards come at a great time. The U.S. household savings rate fell below zero this summer, the lowest rate since the Great Depression. The companies say their customers told them they were looking for easy ways to save.
But like miles and coffeemakers, these cards are a better deal for the credit card companies than they are for the consumer. For one thing, unlike other rewards programs, this time they get to keep the bonus cash in accounts within their own corporations instead of cutting a check or issuing an airline ticket. The cards also encourage consumers to increase the use of plastic versus cash, boosting card companies' fees from merchants. Finally, like most reward cards, the actual freebie value is pretty paltry compared to what consumers have to spend: Factoring in the card's annual fee after the first year, One cardholders have to spend $3,500 before anything gets deposited into the savings account.
But the bigger problem is the message it sends to credit-obsessed consumers. On the American Express card, customers who religiously pay off their balance will indeed accrue a small amount of savings at the end of each year. But for the roughly 60 percent of cardholders who don't, it's
just another way to accrue a balance, in which case any hope of savings is wiped out by interest rates. "Spend more, save more" is a catchy slogan, but in the real world it doesn't quite work that way. In fact, in the real world, if you're really, genuinely trying to save, the last thing on earth
you need is another credit card.
Leigh Gallagher is a senior writer for SmartMoney magazine and a regular contributor to "Cavuto on Business".