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.

Keep the Change works differently because it is linked to your debit card -- there's no borrowing involved. When you make a purchase, the total is rounded up to the nearest dollar amount and those extra pennies are shifted from your checking to your savings account. But you're still only able to save a significant amount if you actually spend a significant amount.

If you have the willpower to make only essential purchases (e.g. groceries, utilities, medical expenses, etc.) using the debit or credit card and you pay off your credit card balances in full each month, then these are essentially reward cards that can provide a little added bonus at the end of the month. But if you have that kind of willpower, you probably already have an effective savings plan, and so don't need the benefits of these spend-to-save programs.

McDonnell's advice is to avoid the gimmicks and take control of your savings yourself. And that means setting a budget.

"Pick out financial goals," says McDonnell. "Do you want to purchase a home or a new car? Are you saving for retirement or for education? Figure out how much it costs, then set aside a little bit every month."

Once your goals are set, you can pay your savings as you would any other bill -- just not necessarily with your credit or debit card.

Peter McDougall is a freelance writer who lives in Freeport, Maine, with his wife and their dog.

More from Opinion

Throwback Thursday: Intel Edition

Throwback Thursday: Intel Edition

Intel's Next CEO Should Try Harder to Protect Its Flanks Against AMD and Others

Intel's Next CEO Should Try Harder to Protect Its Flanks Against AMD and Others

3 Warren Buffett Stock Picks That Could Be Perfect for Your Retirement Portfolio

3 Warren Buffett Stock Picks That Could Be Perfect for Your Retirement Portfolio

Wednesday Wrap-Up: GE and Facebook

Wednesday Wrap-Up: GE and Facebook

PayPal Strikes Again, Facebook, and AT&T -- 3 Tech Stories You Must Know

PayPal Strikes Again, Facebook, and AT&T -- 3 Tech Stories You Must Know