At a time when the rate of personal money saving has reached record lows, how does a bank convince its customers to put money aside? In Bank of America's case, it tells them to "keep the change."
The Charlotte, NC-based financial giant's new "Keep the Change" program enables Bank of America's debit card holders to automatically deduct a small portion of a purchase into a linked savings account.
Under the terms of the program, if a shopper pays $3.25 for an item, the total cost of the item is rounded up to the nearest whole dollar -- $4.00 in this case - and the 75-cent difference is automatically transferred to their savings account at the end of the day.
Bank of America said it will match 100 percent of each transfer for the first three months, and will contribute five percent a year thereafter.
The new system is being touted as a way for customers to save money in a simple fashion. Bank of America executive Diane Morais calls it "an electronic change jar. People can now turn those everyday purchases for groceries, gas and meals into a simple way to save."
It also encourages customers to use their debit card.
Banks earn a fee for every use of a debit or credit card in a transaction. These fees, called "point of sale fees" (POS) range from 25 cents to $2 per transaction. The cost of processing the transaction is borne by the retailer, who may in turn charge the customer more for goods they purchase.
Mitch Goldstone, owner of online photo store 30 Minute Photo and an advocate of lower fees for card transactions, calls the new program "an underhanded scheme."
"This is going to lead to higher charges and more costs that will be on the backs of consumers and merchants," he said.
Goldstone said that a substantial number of debit card transactions, no matter their size, are processed as credit card transactions, which have even higher fees and end up costing consumers more in the long run.
Goldstone is one of several plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits against Visa, MasterCard, and several major banks, including Bank of America, that are out to reduce or remove the "interchange fee" from credit card transactions.
Ed Mierzwinski, consumer advocate and program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), expressed similar sentiments about the new program.
"The savings are diminished compared to how much more the bank will make in these transactions. They are trying to increase the use of debit cards to increase their profits," Mierzwinski said.