A look at UPromise: buying your way to college

I can't remember exactly when I became a UPromise member, but it was early in the company's history. It was July 12, 2000 when they debuted their service, aimed at helping parents save for their children's college education, and by the time my first daughter was born a little over a year later, I had drunk the water and was an enthusiastic member.

Like so many people, I imagine, I signed up, intrigued by their siren call that if you sign up at the UPromise web site and give them your credit card and debit card information and buy a product affiliated with UPromise, things you're presumably buying anyway, perhaps a brand of soap or cereal, a small percentage of your money will go into an account that would be used for your child's college education.
I remember reading enough about it at the time, articles like this one from USA Today, that I knew when I signed up that I couldn't expect this money--3 cents from purchasing a box of pretzels, maybe 7 cents after buying some paper towels--to pay for my child's education, or even much of it, which is why my parents and I began contributing what we could to a separate 529 for my daughters early on.

That said, I'm sure that I imagined that by 2008 I would have more in my UPromise account than I currently have: $57.60.

Still, I can't blame UPromise for those underwhelming numbers. If you've been to the web site and are anything more than a passive member, you quickly come to understand that you have to aggressively go after those savings (i.e., actually buy the products that have partnered with UPromise), and over the years, I haven't. Most of that $57 came about from me or my wife just blundering along in the grocery store and happening to buy products that were afflilated with UPromise. I also had a couple years where my bank gave me a new debit or credit card, and I'd forget to alert UPromise, which meant that we lost a couple of bucks that way.

Still, at this rate, when my first of two daughters goes to college in 2019, I'm thinking that the money that will accurred may buy us one college textbook. Maybe two.

But I come to praise UPromise and not dump on them because they are continually tinkering with their web site to make it more user-friendly. Their first move, pretty early on, was to create a CitiBank UPromise credit card, which I would have signed up for had I not felt that my debt was already out of control, and that I needed a new credit card like I need a case of smallpox. And although they encouraged parents to set up a 529 college savings account from the beginning, soon they made it so that you could link your child's 529 college education plans to UPromise, so that UPromise savings could go directly in there.

Then about a year ago, they brought out their UPromise tool bar. If you can stomach the thought of another toolbar crowding your screen, I can report that it is a good way to make the most of your UPromise account. Every time you shop online, if there are savings to be had, the UPromise toolbar will give them to you automatically, rather than the old way, where you had to shop through the UPromise.com web site. The toolbar also flashes a notice every time a few more cents or dollars, depending what you've been buying, is added to your UPromise total.

And now they have UPromise coupons, and I have to say, they're pretty ingenious. It works this way: If you're a UPromise member, you click on the part of their site that mentions their coupons (it's right in the middle of the home page, at least right now), and they have a smattering of coupons. Right now, for instance, there's a $1.50 coupon for Huggies diapers. So you'd click onto the coupon, and it goes into your account, and then when you're shopping, you buy the Huggies, and that $1.50 goes into your UPromise account. No clipping of coupons and remembering to pull them out at the checkout aisle. Very admirable.

In the end, of course, you may wind up not saving money. Perhaps those Huggies diapers are more expensive than another brand you usually buy. Theoretically, you could be better off buying diapers that are, say, $3 cheaper and then putting that $3 in savings in a money jar, which you'd eventually put into a savings account for your child. But, of course, most of us aren't that organized, and that $3 would instead go to something crazy, like, oh, I don't know, gas or milk, which is my way of saying that you do have to use UPromise as one tool in the college-saving arsenal. If you use it as your only tool, you're probably spending a lot of money on items you don't really need or wouldn't have been buying anyway.

In any case, I'm unorganized enough that I clicked onto several UPromise coupons last month, thought, "Wow, this'll move up the numbers on my account," and then I promptly forgot about buying the products the next time I went to the store. And now those coupons have expired, and the most of the coupons that they're offering this month, I'm not so interested in.

But UPromise has got me constantly thinking about my daughters' college education and that may be the best thing about this company. Along with actually helping to save some money, they really do help parents plan ahead and create a strategy to pay for a very important future financial expense. If that isn't promising, I don't know what is.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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