NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A few years ago, a survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association found that more than 20% of Americans thought that winning the lottery was the best way to accumulate big money for retirement. Of course, “winning” is the operative word in that strategy. But there is a way to build your nest egg while playing the lottery – and winning is just an option, but not required.

Here’s how it works: Instead of buying a lottery ticket at a convenience store, you open a “Save to Win” account at a participating financial institution. With a low initial balance, often just $25, the account holder is enrolled in a certificate of deposit - - and entered into a raffle. With each deposit of $25 or more, up to ten per month, another entry is gained into the prize pool. Smaller cash and merchandise awards are offered monthly, with annual drawings for larger cash grand prizes – often tens of thousands of dollars. Your savings account balance grows while you still have a chance to cash in your lucky ticket.

The “gamification” of savings is working. Known as “prize-linked savings” (PLS), the behavior-based system motivates individuals to save. First launched through credit unions in Michigan in 2009, the initiative has slowly taken root into three additional states (Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington) and now is now available to 1.3 million consumers. Over 50,000 account holders have saved a total of more than $94 million, with an average savings account balance ranging from $921 to $2,662.

Stuart M. Butler, director of the Center for Policy Innovation at The Heritage Foundation, led a study released last year on prize-linked savings accounts, saying that by turning a behavior pattern into a habit, Americans can achieve the often neglected goal of systematic savings.

“Reduced to its essence, under prize-linked savings (PLS), the saver receives little or no interest and dividends on his savings.

Instead, the earnings from the investment are pooled and distributed as “prizes” in periodic drawings, typically with a few “grand prizes” and a large number of smaller prizes. Thus the inducement to save is not to earn a modest return on capital (very modest indeed with today’s low interest rates) but to have the chance of winning big while preserving capital -- unlike in a lottery,” the report said.

The Save to Win program, sponsored by the nonprofit Doorways to Dreams, is now offered at 62 credit unions.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet