Retiree Lois Ninnemann likes to belly up to the penny slots at the casino. The thrill of a big jackpot is a big reason she goes.

When she learned she could win cash prizes by opening a risk-free savings account at her South St. Paul credit union and stash away as little as $25 a month, she was all in. In June she won $1,000 and became one of more than 400 Minnesota credit union members who have split $51,000 in cash prizes simply for saving this year through the new WINcentive Savings Program.

The savings program might seem like a playful sales gimmick at first glance. But credit union leaders who have partnered with Boston-based nonprofit Commonwealth say research shows it’s addressing a serious national savings crisis.

Forty-six percent of Americans don’t have cash or savings to readily pay for a $400 emergency expense, according to a report issued by the Federal Reserve. One in three households reported having no savings at all, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“There are a lot of forces at work to help us consume and spend. The amount of energy devoted to saving is relatively modest,” said Tim Flacke, executive director at Commonwealth, a nonprofit that promotes financial security. “One function of living that close to the edge is it takes something special to get people excited and focused on saving. This gives them something to be excited about.”

Minnesota credit unions and Commonwealth lobbied legislators last year to change banking laws to allow the savings incentive program, which launched in January.

The idea is partly rooted in the United Kingdom’s Premium Bonds, a savings program in which monthly prize drawings determine the interest rate.

The promise of a potential prize makes people better savers, Flacke said. Americans spend $70 billion on lottery tickets each year, and Minnesotans spent an estimated $1.5 billion on charitable gaming last year.

“The core idea is that lotteries and prizes have always been powerful forces in shaping human behavior,” he said.

Good odds

The 14 participating Minnesota credit unions opened 3,536 WINcentive saving accounts this year through Aug. 31, with deposits totaling $2 million. The median account balance is $300.

“It teaches people to put a little aside every month to create that savings habit,” said Andrea Molnau, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Credit Union Network. “Even if they don’t win any of the drawings, they’ve still won because they’ve created a new egg or an emergency savings account.”

To be eligible to win, account holders must deposit at least $25 a month. Participants can save as much as $100 a month to get four chances to win.

“That’s what is attractive to us. We can tool it to anybody’s budget,” said Dana Garrett, president of North Memorial Federal Credit Union. “You look at $25. That is a couple of missed lattes each month.”

Prizes are plentiful: There are 50 $100 winners each month, 20 $1,000 winners each year and a $5,000 annual grand prize. Savers can win more than once.

The catch is that if you withdraw from the account more than twice a year, you’re out of the program. The idea is to allow for an emergency withdrawal while discouraging customers from adopting a save-and-spend cycle.

Garrett said that some of her customers who work at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale opt to have $12.50 automatically withdrawn from their paychecks and moved into savings.

“When you break it up into something as small as $12.50 in your net paycheck, you don’t even miss it,” she said.

When someone wins a prize, the word-of-mouth promotion persuades others to participate in the program.

Emergency cash

“I couldn’t believe it. I was just really excited about the whole thing,” said Ninneman, who picked up her prize money and a ceremonial oversized check at Wakota Federal Credit Union.

But as much fun as it is to celebrate a prize winner, Garrett said she sees firsthand the need to teach financial literacy and savings habits.

“We have folks who are in need of tires ahead of the winter season and they don’t have money,” she said. “We have people who have a furnace or water heater go out and they don’t have the money to fix it. We’ve done loans for as small as $500. We have folks truly in dire need.”

But being a better saver isn’t just about staving off crisis. Credit is tight, so people looking to buy homes and other big-ticket items will need to save first.

“The regulations have changed so much since the housing crisis. It’s a lot more difficult to get a mortgage these days,” said Amanda Kissner, director of community affairs at Wakota Credit Union. She said many people walk in with a salary that will cover a mortgage payment, but they lack good credit or enough for a down payment.

The biggest hurdle with WINcentive is talking some customers through the rules that limit withdrawals.

“A lot of people in our area live paycheck to paycheck. It’s hard to commit to that $25 a month. After they do save a little bit, a lot of our members notice the benefit,” Kissner said.

Ninnemann, 80 and a retired secretary, said she’s a good saver now but remembers how tight times were when she had two growing boys at home.

“I know what a struggle it was for my husband and me when they were young. There is just nothing left over at the end of the pay period,” she said. “The way to do it is to save right at the beginning.”