Government must promote savings

Chris Farrell Feb 24, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Well, given the way gas prices are moving, this may sound like an unfair question, but did you save any money this week? It is still America Saves Week, after all! We’ll forgive you if you blinked and missed it; there weren’t many signs.

I expected a blizzard of public service announcements yelling at us to save our dimes. I was kinda hoping for something like this:

Scrooge McDuck: Wait a bit laddie, you’re going to save a bit of that aren’t you?

Donald Duck: Oh yeah yeah yeah. Sure.

But instead, we got this:

Woman: you’ll also need savings, investments, pensions and other retirement accounts to make sure you have enough money to live comfortably.

Oy! The thing is, unless you have a retirement account at work, you’re largely on your own when it comes to savings.

Commentator Chris Farrell says it’s unfortunately that the savings bond is being slowly dismantled. Giving us even less incentive to put money away.

Chris Farrell: My Mom bought her first savings bond as a young mother in the early ’50s. She bought it right from the Treasury building in Washington D.C. I got my first savings bond when I was still in short pants.

Savings bonds are among one of the great brand names in American finance. Yet the government is shrinking the program. The annual amount an individual can buy has plunged. In 2007, it was $120,000. Today, it’s just twenty grand.

It’s getting more difficult to buy bonds, too. Starting this year you can no longer take your kids to the bank or credit union and buy a paper savings bond. You can only buy them online.

Why are we dismantling one of the most successful savings programs this country has ever seen? If we’re serious about saving, we should expand the program. People should be able to buy savings bonds everywhere, from the Treasury building to a bank, to a grocery store.

Why stop there? We could emulate the best small saver practices from abroad. Why not turn the postal service into a small savers bank, the kind they have in Germany and Japan. Why not put banks and credit unions in K-12 schools? And why not make the most of mobile technology? Those of us with smartphones should be able to put money into savings when ordering a coffee and bagel in the morning and at the drive-through with our hamburger and fries in the evening.

Oh yeah, and we should stop favoring borrowing over saving. We do it in the tax code and we do it in our legislation. Policymakers have consistently made it easier to borrow (think payday lenders) and gamble (think state lotteries). Even the legislation in the aftermath of the global credit crunch aren’t much help. They all boost sound borrowing and leave sound savings in the dust.

It’s great that we have America Saves Week, but the message that we should be socking money away is pointless without a commitment by government to create and sustain the institutions that will actually help us save.

Vigeland: Chris Farrell is the economics editor for Marketplace.

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