Let's make America thrifty again

What if convenience stores sold savings bonds instead of lottery tickets? A call to turn our nation of debtors into savers.

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By Pat Regnier, Money Magazine assistant managing editor

Pat Regnier's column "The Bottom line," appears monthly in Money Magazine. Email him at pregnier@moneymail.com
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(Money Magazine) -- There was something odd about the commercial, but it took me a little while to put my finger on it. This not-too-young, not-too-old, not-too-hip hipster with sideburns is talking about his credit-card company. Seems it has a new Web site that helps him plan how he'll pay off his balance - someday.

The ad has the bright, soothing tone of a spot for, say, Lipitor or Advair. Credit-card debt is presented as if it's just another of those unfortunate but manageable conditions that a lot of people live with.

And that's the surprise. Aren't credit-card ads supposed to be about all the awesome stuff you can buy? Here's a lender all but admitting that many of its customers live beyond their means. We've come a long way, babies, when even the credit-card marketers are talking about Americans' chronic debt.

If you read this magazine, chances are you have your itch to spend mostly under control. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't worry about your neighbor's wobbly balance sheet. The personal savings rate in this country, which was above 10% in the early 1980s, has fallen to almost zero.

That savings could have been seed corn for future economic growth; instead, we've been relying on capital from abroad. Overextended borrowers are behind the still-unfolding mortgage crisis. Besides all that hardheaded economic stuff, a pervasive spendthrift culture makes it that much harder to teach our kids good money habits. Or for that matter, the general life skill of delaying gratification.

Now some smart folks are calling to bring back an old-fashioned virtue: thrift. What's needed are more institutions, both private and public, to encourage everyday savings, says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the Commission on Thrift, a project of an ideologically eclectic group of think tanks.

"Institutions build in ideas about what is and what is not smart to do," she says.

Your local bank or S&L used to cheerlead for thrift - remember Christmas clubs? - but that was before the financial industry discovered the charms of interest-only liar loans.

Of course, the government already spends a lot to get people to save. IRAs and 401(k)s cost the Treasury more than $100 billion a year in forgone taxes. Trouble is, high-income people, who'd probably save anyway, capture most of that benefit, according to a Tax Policy Center study.

And retirement is just one important kind of savings. There's rainy-day money. Or saving for a future purchase instead of pulling out the MasterCard.

Here's one really simple plan to reach all kinds of would-be savers: Make U.S. savings bonds ridiculously easy to buy.

Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School observes that the government has actually eliminated its marketing budget for EE and I bonds. Yet these are very effective savings tools, especially for the younger and lower-income savers that banks aren't trying to attract. (Bet you didn't know this: It's not uncommon, Tufano has found, for banks to turn down people for a basic savings account if they've bounced checks in the past.)

Tufano and Princeton's Daniel Schneider have proposed adding a line to tax forms so you could get part of your refund back in bonds. Aside from the convenience, this would send a signal that Uncle Sam thinks saving is a good thing to do with your refund. Another idea is to sell savings bonds in retail stores, perhaps in the form of gift cards. My grandmother would have loved that.

Tufano has also been studying a wilder notion. How about combining savings and lotteries? "The average household spends $514 a year on lotteries," says Tufano. "That's more than they spend on dairy products."

In Britain, savers can buy bonds that enter them in a lottery in lieu of paying interest; they're quite popular. Whitehead likes this idea too, although I suspect mostly for rhetorical purposes.

"The lottery infrastructure is so perfect, so well designed for capturing the extra buck or two," says Whitehead. She's calling attention to the vast sums that government already spends selling the hope of luck. It's time thrift got its own marketing campaign. To top of page

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