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Site offers incentives to lower student loan debt

Taps loyalty program model to help customers ease payments

Freshmen at Stonehill College attended an American Student Assistance workshop to teach them about debt.

DEBEE TLUMACKI FOR THE GLOBE

Freshmen at Stonehill College attended an American Student Assistance workshop to teach them about debt.

After getting a degree from the University of Phoenix in 2010, Crystal Knapp was seized with the kind of paralysis familiar to many recent grads: How was she ever going to pay off those steep college loans, for her $65,000?

Struggling to find a well-paying job in her field, Knapp was inspired to try a simple search on the Internet — “ways to get rid of student debt faster” — that brought her to an unusual rewards program that helps participants earn small amounts to whittle down their college debts.

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Knapp enrolled in the program, SmarterBucks, and by using the site to shop at participating vendors, such as Staples Inc., Walmart Stores Inc., and J. Crew Group, she earns cash back from her purchases that goes directly to her student loan payments. She also racks up extra bucks by filling out surveys and writing blog posts about her experience, and so far has earned about $800 in over a year.

“I wasn’t expecting to get rich off of it, but it definitely helped, and it only takes a little bit of my time,” said Knapp, 31, a mother of two who lives in New Hampshire and works at a bank as a finance specialist.

The SmarterBucks program is one of several new efforts by technology firms to use apps, games, and other online financial tools to help motivate consumers to improve their finances, save money, and pay down debt. SmarterBucks, for one, is focused on student debt, offering grads the chance to earn extra money that is applied directly to their loan payments.

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The site is an offshoot of SimpleTuition, a Boston company that offers consumers student loan comparison tools and information on financial aid.

The basic idea is a twist on classic loyalty programs, which reward customers with points that translate into discounts, airlines miles, or cash back. In this case, participating merchants pay SmarterBucks a referral fee, up to 10 percent, on every purchase that originates from its site. SmarterBucks then rewards half of that amount to the member who made the purchase — in the form of direct payments to their student loan servicers.

SmarterBucks also pays customers up to $5 for taking surveys from vendors and for selling back books and electronics through its site.

While SmarterBucks has some 135,000 enrolled members, only 15 percent so far earn cash on a regular basis, at about $25 to $30 per month on average, said cofounder and executive vice president Patrick Kandianis.

“The challenge for all these rewards entities is that a lot of people sign up, but getting them to develop earnings habits is difficult,” said Kandianis.

SmarterBucks hasn’t generated much revenue for SimpleTuition yet, nor has it helped members make a big dent in their student debts. But Kandianis said the site is at least prompting many of its members to face up to their student debts, which most would rather not have to think about.

Another website, SaveUp, has a broader mandate. It seeks to encourage members to develop better financial habits.

The San Francisco company also has an unusual approach to motivate members: chances to win prizes such as airline tickets, money for mortgage payments, and even a $2 million jackpot in exchange for growing their savings accounts and paying off debts.

The idea is similar to public lotteries: huge paydays that draw customers by the droves despite their infinitesimal odds. Only SaveUp uses the lure of a winning ticket to encourage members to develop better financial habits.

SaveUp acts as an organizing tool to help members keep track of their finances and then rewards them when they take steps to improve their bottom line. Participants can link all their financial accounts, including bank, student debt, credit cards, and retirement through the site.

They then can earn credits for paying bills or making student loan payments, lowering other debts, or increasing savings.

The credits are used to play games that have payoffs if they win, with prizes ranging from a $100 Visa gift card, a trip to Hawaii, to as much as $50,000 to pay off student loan debt.

Sponsors pay for the prizes, while advertisers and business partners, such as credit unions that use SaveUp to sell financial services to customers, contribute to the company’s bottom line.

The idea, similar to SmarterBucks, is that people will keep coming back to face their debt, because SaveUp gives them a fun reason to do so.

Chief executive Priya Haji called SaveUp “a gummy vitamin in personal finance.”

SaveUp is free to use. Its members are mostly young professionals earning $50,000 to $100,000 a year. No one has won the $2 million jackpot since the company was founded in 2011, and only a few members so far have won prizes larger than $100.

But Haji said up to 20 percent of SaveUp members log into their accounts every day, staying in close contact with their financial situation.

“People understand that their chances of winning big prizes are small,” Haji said, “but they also know that what they’re doing is helping them, not harming them.”

Her concept for SaveUp is based on extensive research by the Doorways to Dreams Fund, a nonprofit in Allston that develops financial literacy games and advocates for the legalization of prize-linked savings accounts.

These are savings tools that allow depositors at financial institutions to enter raffles for cash prizes. They are more commonly found outside the United States, but in recent years have been approved for use by credit unions in eight states, though not Massachusetts.

This fall, SaveUp joined forces with Boston student loan guarantor and financial literacy educator American Student Assistance to help its members practice sound financial management.

About 3,000 American Student members have registered so far, and in that time they have collectively paid down $2.5 million in debt — some $1.3 million of which were student loans, according to the group.

“You have to give [debtors] the right information at the right time, constantly giving them real-time reasons for putting what they learned into practice,” said American Student Assistance spokeswoman Allesandra Lanza. “The reward piece is really important.”

Clarification: This story did not indicate the full scope of prizes awarded by one of the sites. SaveUp says 50 members so far have won cash prizes of $500 or more, including 21 prizes over $1,000.

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