Kara McGuire
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The peace of mind that comes with having emergency savings is worth far more than any interest rate.

But it's really too bad there's so little reward for funding a cash cushion. Interest rates on most bank savings accounts are close to zero. Even the so-called high-yielding savings accounts pay out less than 1 percent.

With interest rates so low, some banks have gotten creative, trying to attract deposits through programs that reward consumers once they meet their goals.

I'm not talking toasters.

Banks are paying cash bonuses and offering premium interest rates to attract your spare cash.

U.S. Bank created the S.T.A.R.T. program (which stands for Savings Today and Rewards Tomorrow) in late 2009. "We all have a desire to save, but it can be hard to get started and to stick with that plan," said Stephanie Miller, the bank's vice president of consumer product and segment management. With S.T.A.R.T., you choose how and when to save, whether it's a certain dollar amount per pay period, or a small dollar amount each time you use your check card.

After the account reaches $1,000, savers are given a $50 U.S. Bank Visa gift card. If they can keep at least $1,000 in that account for another year, they're rewarded with another $50. Miller said the interest rate is in line with other savings account interest rates at the bank.

So far, the program has netted more than $2.6 billion in savings deposits and consumers have earned more than $20 million in rewards.

Wells Fargo has the Way2Save program, which offers $1 transfers to savings with certain financial transactions as well as automatic monthly transfers from checking to savings. The first $500 deposited earns 3 percent interest for the first year.

With Bank of America's Keep the Change program, every debit card transaction is rounded up to the nearest dollar, with that excess amount going into a savings account. The bank also matches 100 percent of rounded-up savings for the first three months up to $250. For example, spending $32.17 on gas would amount to $1.66 deposited into savings.

Jim Bruene, editor of the Online Banking Report, said these savings programs make a lot of sense, although "in such a low-interest-rate environment, deposit margins are very tight so that doesn't leave a ton of cash available to fund prizes."

Miller says the cost is worth it because the S.T.A.R.T program is "a really great way to get consumers engaged with our bank, and when they continue to be a customer with us in the long run, that's really a great investment that we've made."

Savings goals

Banks aren't the only ones thinking about how to get Americans, who save far less than citizens in many European countries and China, to put more money aside for the future. Online personal finance management tools such as Mint.com and Hello Wallet provide users visual tools that encourage debt payoff and savings increases.

SmartyPig asks users to create specific savings goals and share those goals through social media. Fund the goals through automatic transfers from checking to your SmartyPig savings account, an FDIC-insured account opened through partner bank Birmingham, Ala.-based BBVA Compass. Once you reach your goal, redeem your cash for gift cards through partner institutions or a SmartyPig prepaid card and receive as much as 11 percent more than you saved.

One of the most interesting savings tools I've come across has got to be SaveUp, a company that rewards your positive financial behaviors with chances to win high-dollar-value prizes. Here's how it works: Link your savings account, 401(k) or consumer debt to SaveUp, which boasts bank-level security and has a strategic partnership with Turbo Tax maker Intuit. Then earn credits as you save, pay down debt and increase your financial capability by watching videos and taking quizzes. The credits are used to enter sweepstakes, funded through sponsorships and advertising.

Since the launch in November, users have saved $5.8 million in linked savings accounts and paid down $4.8 million in debt. Prizes given away include video game systems, Kindles and gift cards to retailers such as Banana Republic and Best Buy. There's still a chance to win the $2 million jackpot.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or kmcguire@startribune.com. Twitter: @Kara_McGuire