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Cash-Back Cards Aren't Money in the Bank

Many banks and credit card companies have started to offer consumers a way to save without trying.

These programs are offered as a way to help fight the decline in consumer saving habits: A survey co-sponsored by America Saves and the American Savings Education Council reported earlier this year that only 42% of Americans save enough money to meet the goals of their savings plan.

But, do savings plans linked to your check card or credit card actually help?

Not necessarily. There is a fundamental problem with linking saving to spending, according to Ken McDonnell, program director of ASEC.

The savings programs are often linked to credit cards, as in the case of One from American Express (AXP), or debit cards like Bank of America's (BAC) Keep the Change program.

While it's clear that Americans need help getting their savings on track, doing so while continuing to spend may not be the right way to go about it.

"All of the programs are tied to the fact that you need consumption," says McDonnell. "The problem is, you are still encouraging a bad behavior. The savings becomes the good behavior that becomes an excuse to use the card."

The benefits vary depending on the type of program. Say you buy a $3,000 flat screen TV. With the One card, you'd get $30 (or 1%) of that purchase deposited into a high-yield savings account earning 2.75%. If you pay your balance in full every month, then you just saved $30.

However, if you tend to carry a balance and have a high interest rate (upward of 15%), then that $30.83 ($30 plus $0.83 interest after one year) savings is costing you $450 per year in credit card interest ($3,000 x 15%). With a credit card, you are essentially borrowing money to put into a savings account.

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