Suze Orman’s Secret Savings Account

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OK, so maybe it isn’t a secret anymore: Suze Orman’s Save Yourself account promotion at TD Ameritrade (Stock Quote: AMTD) has been around for about three years now and in a world mired by financial complexity, it stands out as a surprisingly crystal-clear offer.

Open a Save Yourself account at TD Ameritrade, make 12 consecutive monthly deposits of $100 or more, and you’ll get a one-time $100 bonus. The account is FDIC-insured, earns interest in addition to the bonus, and carries no hidden fees or gotchas. You don’t even have to be a woman to sign up.

But is this a program you need to join, like right now? Who better to answer that question for us than Suze Orman herself.

“There really are no strings attached to this,” she assured me. The $100 bonus is about establishing a “reward system for consistent behavior.”

“If people could just get in the habit of putting money away every single month, then they would get into the habit and see that they don’t miss that money,” Orman explained—until you start saving, you don’t realize how painless it can be to set aside a small portion of your income each month.

She reminded me that the bonus works out to a great ROI, so long as you keep the money in there and contribute $100 every month for a year. “You’re getting a better return than anywhere else in the United States today” in terms of FDIC-insured online savings accounts. Bold claim, Ms. Orman.

It’s hard to dispute, though. HSBC Direct’s (Stock Quote: HBC) popular online savings account pays 1.35% APY—a little more than $16 in interest accrued after a year, assuming you deposit $1,200 initially. Doesn’t come anywhere close to Suze Orman’s end-of-the-year guaranteed Benjamin.

Like many young Americans, I can be greedy: why settle for $100 when you could potentially make much more in a riskier investment elsewhere? She asked which I would prefer: an account that provides a 15.5% return “absolutely within a year,” or one elsewhere with “the possibility of you making 30% in a year… ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?”

Greed checked—for now anyway. Although she gave some insights into how she is investing her own money (gold and municipal bonds are a large part of the mix), Orman says that her “thing isn’t about calling the stock market or oil or gold. That’s for everyone else. My thing is personal finance—finding ways for people to invest so they get more bang for their buck.”

“Nobody gets it,” she lamented, telling me about folks who “screw themselves” by tapping into their 401k plans when they get behind on the mortgage, or who rely on a credit card industry that is “playing highway robbery with everybody.”

Credit card lenders like Citibank (Stock Quote: C), Chase (Stock Quote: JPM), Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC)… All of these large institutions “should be ashamed of themselves.”

She sees what is happening to many people as “really sad, it’s really sad, what can people do? They need an emergency fund.”

Oh, right: an emergency fund. A way to Save Yourself, so to speak. I asked her just how much, exactly, needs to be squirreled away in one of these emergency funds.

“All you need is eight months to a year, truthfully, in an emergency fund,” she said—that’s eight months to a year of living expenses. You don’t need your next fifteen years sitting in a savings account.

But even so, eight months of living expenses is a lot of money—especially in this environment. For many people, that comes out to at least $15,000. At $100 per month, it would take more than a dozen years (before interest is taken into account) to set aside that much.

So in reality you should be setting aside much more than $100 per month: $800 to $1,000 per month is probably more reasonable, if you can stomach that level of sacrifice.

Nobody said saving yourself would be easy. If it takes someone famous like Orman or a tempting one-time bonus of $100 to get you into gear, then fine. But honestly, folks, we all need to start sacrificing and saving.

The funny thing about this plan is that they are incentivizing you to be doing something that you really should be doing anyway. If you were falling off a cliff and someone offered you a rope, would you ask for $100 in addition to the rope? $100 or not… grab the rope, people!

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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