Just save already: Bank gimmicks for saving only sound good

While there's a lot to dislike about the banking system, there's a trend among banks that is positive: encouraging customers to save money.

And yet -- and I hate to be negative on something that seems to scream for a positive reaction -- I sense some serious problems with these programs. Not saving money is a terrible mistake, but saving money the way banks have been suggesting could potentially be a bigger mistake.

U.S. Bank is the latest bank to jump on the encouraging-savings bandwagon. It joins such banks as Bank of America, which has its Keep the Change program, and Wachovia, which offers the Way2Save plan. U.S. Bank's is called S.T.A.R.T., which stands for Savings Today and Rewards Tomorrow. It began this month and is being tested in Cincinnati, Dayton and Seattle, although any U.S. Bank customer can call and ask to opt in. Just dial 1-800-720-BANK (2265).

The idea is simple and admirable, Set up "recurring transfers," reads the web site, "from your U.S. Bank Five Star checking account into your U.S. Bank Five Star Savings account, and the rest is easy. Just sit back and watch your savings grow."

True enough, and if that's what you do, I think it's a great idea. The problem is that the bank offers three choices for saving money, and only one of them is a smart strategy.