STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A lot of Americans do not have enough savings. A study this year by the FDIC, the people who insure your bank accounts, found that almost half of us would not have $400 to cover an emergency cost. Now, there's a new program in all 50 states that gives you the chance to win money if you do manage to save. Wal-Mart is running it. A disclosure here - the Walton Family Foundation connected to Wal-Mart is a frequent sponsor of NPR. Here's Sally Helm of our Planet Money podcast.
SALLY HELM, BYLINE: I talked to Alicia Scott a few weeks ago, and she had just won the savings lottery.
How much money was it?
ALICIA SCOTT: One thousand dollars. Thank you. Thank you, God.
HELM: That thousand bucks was loaded onto Scott's Wal-Mart money card. She keeps all of her money there. It's a prepaid card issued by Green Dot Bank, and it's kind of like a gift card, except that you can spend the money anywhere. The card also has this thing that's like a savings account. It's called the vault. When she can, Scott puts some of her money away in the vault, and that's why she got the $1,000 payment. She won the prize for saving.
DANIEL ECKERT: Yeah, it taps into a key insight that's being driven from behavioral economics.
HELM: That's Daniel Eckert, a Wal-Mart executive. He helped create the program with Green Dot and with a group called Commonwealth. Eckert says research shows that if people have the chance to win money for saving, they'll save more. So the program works like this - if you keep money in the vault, you get entered into a sweepstakes. Every month, one person wins a thousand bucks, and hundreds of other people win $25 each. If the research is right, that should make people save more.
And is it working?
ECKERT: It is. We're pretty excited about it. It's still early days, and we're seeing some really great results so far. You know, we saw immediately a 45-percent increase in users of the prize savings vault.
HELM: So more and more Wal-Mart customers are saving, and that's good for their financial security. It's also good for Wal-Mart. There's no fee for prize savings, but Wal-Mart and Green Dot Bank do make money from other fees on the card. And, of course, the money card does work at Wal-Mart.
So do you guys partly want people to save more money so that they can ultimately spend more money at Wal-Mart?
ECKERT: No, it's - again, this was really about a critical insight that we saw in our shopper base. We saw a growing crisis in the United States around having access to, for lack of a better phrase, rainy-day funds.
HELM: Another reason that Eckert says this program is a big deal - a lot of Wal-Mart customers don't have a conventional bank account. I talked to Andrew Davidson about this. He's an expert in payments and consumer trends at Mintel. And he said that Wal-Mart is reaching a group of people that aren't profitable for conventional banks.
ANDREW DAVIDSON: There really is a gap in the marketplace. At The moment, a lot of these consumers need sort of survival services. And really why - this is why this money card really comes into play and is really quite effective.
HELM: If you're a bank, these first-time account holders might seem risky, especially if they're likely to have low balances. But if you're Wal-Mart, the picture is different. After all, people without a lot of money do shop in their stores. Offering these financial services and these thousand-dollar prizes can make for more loyal, more profitable customers. I asked Eckert, the Wal-Mart exec, about this.
I mean, are you guys, like, becoming a bank?
ECKERT: (Laughter). We have no plans or intentions to be a bank. I think we're great at being a retailer.
HELM: Of course, offering more banking products doesn't hurt the retail side of Wal-Mart's business. Alicia Scott, the woman who won a thousand bucks through the Wal-Mart program, she told me that she plans to spend all of that money at Wal-Mart.
Sally Helm, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.