You know all the rules about getting ahead financially. You understand that you’re supposed to keep your expenses under control, stay out of debt, and save as much of your salary as you can. And you know that if you stick to these rules for long enough, you’ll eventually end up with a nice big balance in the bank. At that point you’re left with another question: What should you do with it?
If you just let it keep piling up in the bank, your money stays safe and is available to you if you need it – but at today’s interest rates, it won’t earn much. As the balance keeps climbing higher and the interest payments stay pitifully small, you’re likely to wonder whether you’d be better off moving your funds to some other sort of investment – but if so, what?
The answer depends partly on what you’re saving your money for. When you’re saving for retirement, stocks (or a mix of stocks and other investments) are your best bet because they offer the best returns over the long run. However, for short-term savings, such as your emergency fund or personal savings, you need an account that keeps your money safe until you need it – while also bringing in a little interest to add to it.
What to Look For
If you’re saving up for a long-term financial goal, such as retirement, then your top priority is to grow your money over the long term and build an adequate nest egg. You don’t need to worry much about the day-to-day ups and downs in your balance, just as long as the general trend through the years is upward.
However, other financial needs are more immediate. For instance, you need to build up an emergency fund to pay for unexpected expenses, such as major medical bills or damage to your home from a flood. You also need some personal savings to cover large but less urgent expenses, such as a vacation, a new car, or a new piece of furniture. Or you might be saving for an expense you expect to have in a few years, such as a wedding or a down payment on your first house.
For short-term savings that you intend to tap within one to five years, your main goals are as follows:
- Make Sure the Money Stays Safe. Stocks can swing wildly up and down in response to changes in the market and in the performance of particular companies. It’s possible to recover from these losses over the long term, but for money you expect to need within a few years, stocks are a poor choice. For instance, suppose you’re saving up to buy a house, and the money for your down payment is invested in stocks. If you happen to find the perfect house the day after the market takes a big dive, there’s a good chance your portfolio will no longer be big enough to cover your down payment – and you won’t have time to wait for your account to recover. So a safe investment for your savings can’t just be a good bet in the long term – it also has to protect you from the short-term ups and downs of the market.
- Keep It Earning a Small Return. When it comes to investing, a basic rule of thumb is that the lower the risk, the lower the return. Therefore, if your primary goal is to keep your savings safe until you need them, you probably won’t be able to earn much on them in the meantime. Still, there’s no point in stuffing your savings in your mattress – or a modern-day equivalent, like an interest-free checking account. Earning a high return shouldn’t be your top priority, but you might as well earn a little interest on your money instead of letting it sit around doing nothing.
- Keep the Savings Liquid. When you need to draw on the money in your savings, you’re likely to need it right away, or at least within a few days. If your money is tied up in something physical, such as a house or a collection of art, you can’t get at the cash until you sell off your assets, which could take weeks, months, or even years. So keep your savings in cash, or a conservative mutual fund that can be converted to cash within a few days.
- Don’t Leave It Too Accessible. Although you want your money where you can get it when you need it, you don’t want it to be too easy to access. If you keep all your savings in your checking account, it’s easy to dip into them for everyday expenses, eating away at the balance. Putting them in a separate account, such as a savings or money market account, means you can’t get at them without making a transfer first. That helps you keep a clear division in your mind between your checking balance, which is for day-to-day use, and your savings, which are for big expenses – planned or unplanned.
There are several types of investments that meet these basic criteria. Some, such as savings accounts and CDs, are ultra-safe, but provide very little interest. Others, like some bond funds, aren’t quite as safe, but they offer a chance to earn a better return without excessive risk.
The easiest thing to do with your savings is simply keep it in the bank. Bank accounts are easy to access and very safe, because they’re insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) up to a maximum of $250,000. Accounts with credit unions are insured for the same amount through the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). So even if your bank or credit union goes out of business, you’re guaranteed to get your money back.
The biggest drawback of a bank account is that interest rates are very low. For instance, according to the FDIC, as of May 2016 the average interest rate on savings accounts nationwide is 0.06%. So, if you put $10,000 in a savings account, over the course of a whole year, it earns only $6 in interest.
Granted, the main point of a bank account is to protect your money, not to earn interest. But right now, interest rates are so low that they can’t even keep pace with inflation. The website US Inflation Calculator, which tracks inflation rates based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that the inflation rate as of March 2016 – that is, the amount that prices had risen since March 2015 – was 0.9%. In practical terms, this means that a basket of goods that cost $1,000 a year ago now costs $1,009.
However, this inflation rate is quite low by historical standards. For instance, since 2000, the inflation rate has averaged around 2% per year. In the 1990s, it was closer to 3% per year, and in the 1980s, it was more than 5% per year. Add these costs up over the years, and a basket of goods that cost $1,000 in 1996 would cost over $1,500 today.
If you’d put that same $1,000 in a savings account in 1996, and it had earned only 0.06% interest per year over the next 20 years, then by 2016, you’d have only $1,127 – not enough to pay for that basket of goods. If you wanted to keep $1,000 worth of purchasing power in your savings account at all times, you’d have needed to keep adding money to it, at the rate of about $18.50 per year, to keep pace with inflation over that 20-year period. If you didn’t add any money, the real value of your account would have gradually dropped, even with the interest it was earning.
Fortunately, there are some bank accounts out there that earn higher interest rates. In addition to basic savings, banks offer money market accounts rewards checking – a type of checking account with interest rates above the average. These accounts typically provide more interest than others, but they also tend to have more restrictions. Which account is best for you depends mainly on when and how you need to access your money.
1. Savings Accounts
Perhaps the simplest and most convenient place to store your money is a basic savings account. Savings accounts are almost completely liquid: You can get your money out at any time, through any branch or ATM. And, because they’re guaranteed by the FDIC or NCUA, they’re as safe as any investment can be.
The specific features of savings accounts include the following:
- Interest Rate. Right now, the average U.S. savings account pays only 0.06% in interest – not enough to keep up with inflation, even at its current low rate. However, this 0.06% interest rate is only an average. There are some accounts out there, particularly at online banks, that earn significantly higher rates of around 1% per year – more than 10 times the national average. Credit unions also tend to offer higher interest rates than banks, though the average difference between the two is fairly small. So with a little effort, you can probably find an account that offers enough interest to keep your savings balance more or less on par with inflation.
- Account Balance. Some banks let you open a savings account with as little as $1. However, the accounts that offer the best interest rates often require a minimum balance, which can be anywhere from $50 to $25,000. Some banks don’t require a minimum amount to open the account, but they do require you to keep your average balance above a certain level to avoid bank fees.
- Check and Debit Card Use. With a savings account, you can withdraw money through an ATM or through the teller window at the bank. However, you generally can’t write checks on your account or make payments from it with a debit card.
- Transactions Per Month. Savings accounts are governed by a law called Federal Regulation D, which says that you can only make six transfers or withdrawals from your account each month. However, this law applies only to transactions by check, debit, phone, Internet, or automatic transfer. You can make any number of deposits and withdrawals directly at the bank or ATM. There’s no limit on the number of deposits or transfers you can make into your account.
2. Money Market Accounts
Back in the 1980s, when interest rates were much higher than they are now, there were legal limits on how much interest a savings account could offer. Many customers responded by taking their money out of banks and putting it into money market mutual funds, which invested in short-term bonds, to earn a higher rate. This was bad news for the banks, which no longer had enough money in their coffers to make loans.
So to help the banks, Congress passed a law called the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982. It allowed banks to offer a new type of account, called a money market account, that paid interest at the money market rate rather than the capped savings rate.
Like a savings account, a money market account is safe, liquid, and FDIC-insured (or NCUA-insured) up to a maximum of $250,000. However, it’s different from a savings account in several ways:
- Interest Rate. Money market accounts generally pay a bit more interest than savings accounts at the same bank.
- Account Balance. When money market accounts were first created, it took a minimum of $2,500 to open one. That rule is gone now, but many banks still require a higher minimum balance for a money market account than for a basic savings account. The minimum balance can be anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000.
- Check and Debit Card Use. With a money market account, you can make a limited number of transactions by check – usually three per month. Some money market accounts also allow transactions by debit card in place of or in addition to check transactions.
- Transactions Per Month. Like savings accounts, money market accounts are controlled by Regulation D. This means you’re limited to six transfers or withdrawals each month – not counting withdrawals made at the teller window or ATM. Your three checks per month count toward this limit.
3. Rewards Checking Accounts
As a rule, savings accounts pay more interest than checking accounts, and money market accounts most of all. However, there is one exception to this rule: Rewards checking accounts, also known as high-yield checking accounts, often pay higher interest than either savings or money market accounts at the same bank or credit union. However, you do have to meet certain requirements to earn those high interest rates.
The pros and cons of rewards checking include the following:
- Interest Rate. According to Bankrate, the average interest rate for a rewards checking account in 2016 was 1.65%. The highest rate available for a money market account, by contrast, was only 1.11%.
- Account Balance. Unlike savings accounts, many rewards checking accounts do not require you to keep a minimum balance in the account to avoid fees. However, many accounts cap the amount of money on which you can get the top interest rate. Bankrate reports that the most common balance cap is $25,000, but some accounts set the cap lower.
- Check and Debit Card Use. A rewards checking account, just like any other checking account, lets you write as many checks per month as you like. However, you shouldn’t plan to make all your transactions by check. According to Bankrate, 93% of all rewards checking accounts require you to make a certain number of debit card transactions each month to earn the maximum interest rate. Some banks require these transactions to be the kind where you swipe your card and sign a physical receipt, rather than typing in a PIN.
- Transactions Per Month. Checking accounts aren’t subject to Federal Regulation D, so with a rewards checking account, you can make as many transactions each month as you want. This includes any combination of checks, debit payments, automatic transfers, and other types of transactions.
- Other Requirements. Nearly all rewards checking accounts require you to receive your monthly statements electronically, rather than getting a paper copy in the mail. Most of them also require you to sign up for either direct deposits to your account or automatic bill payments from it.
If you don’t meet all these requirements, the interest rate you earn on your account drops sharply. The “default rate” on most rewards checking accounts is just 0.05%. That’s more than you get with the average checking account, but not as much as you could earn by keeping your money in a money market account or even a basic savings account.
Because of the way rewards checking accounts are structured, this type of account isn’t suitable for a nest egg that you just want to sit untouched, collecting interest, until you need it. You have to keep the account active, and you can’t let the balance creep over the maximum. However, this type of account can be a good choice for your personal savings, as long as you can resist the urge to spend down the balance.
Another problem with rewards checking accounts is that they’re not available everywhere. Bankrate reports that the majority of high-yield checking accounts are offered at small local banks or credit unions, rather than major national banks. However, if you can’t find this type of account at a bank in your area, you can open one at an online bank.
Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
A certificate of deposit, or CD, is basically a fixed-term loan that you make to your bank. You agree to let the bank keep your money for a specified amount of time, such as six months, one year, or two years. In exchange, the bank agrees to pay you a guaranteed rate of interest when the CD matures – that is, when the loan term is up. The longer the term of the CD, the more interest it pays.
For example, suppose you put $1,000 into a 1-year CD with an APY of 0.5%. At the end of the year, when your CD matures, it will be worth $1,005. At that point, you can choose to take the cash or put it into a new CD at whatever interest rate is available.
Like other bank accounts, CDs are insured by the FDIC (or the NCUA for accounts at credit unions), so you can’t lose money on them. They also offer somewhat better interest rates than regular savings. As of April 2016, the average 1-year CD paid 0.28%, and the average 5-year CD paid 0.83%, according to Bankrate. These are the rates for regular CDs; jumbo CDs, with a value of at least $100,000, pay slightly more.
The downside of a CD is that it ties up your money for a fixed period of time. It’s possible to cash in a CD before it matures, but you typically pay a penalty for doing so. According to Bankrate, for a CD with a term of less than a year, you usually give up three months’ worth of interest if you withdraw your money early. The penalty increases to six months’ worth of interest for 1-year and 2-year CDs and a full year’s interest for 5-year CDs.
One way around this problem is to choose no-penalty CDs, which let you withdraw your money in full at any time. No-penalty CDs, also known as liquid CDs, don’t pay as much as regular CDs, but they usually provide a bit more interest than a basic savings or money market account. Liquid CDs with terms ranging from 3 to 18 months, at rates from 0.03% to 0.87% APY, do exist. There aren’t very many financial institutions that offer them, but many of those that do are online banks, which are accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
4. CD Ladders
Another way to work around the problem of CD penalties is to build a CD ladder. To do this, you split up the total amount of money you want to invest into several equal sums. Then you invest them in multiple CDs with different maturity rates, such as three months, six months, one year, and two years. Each time one of your CDs matures, you can either cash it in or roll over the money into a new CD.
With a CD ladder, you avoid tying up all your money in a long-term investment. You can keep some of your money in long-term CDs, earning the highest available interest rate, and some in short-term CDs, where you know it will be available within a few months. Even if you need to cash in one of your CDs in an emergency, you only pay the penalty on that one, rather than all of them.
A CD ladder also helps you take advantage of rising interest rates. Right now, if you put your whole nest egg into a five-year CD, your money is tied up for the next five years earning less than 1% interest. A chart of historical CD interest rates at Bankrate shows that this is the lowest rate CDs have earned in more than 30 years. If interest rates rise over the next five years, bumping the payment for CDs up to 2%, 4%, or even higher, you can’t buy a new CD at that higher rate unless you cash in your old one and pay the penalty.
Now imagine that you decide to split up your nest egg and build a CD ladder instead. As soon your shortest-term CD matures, you can immediately buy a new one at the higher interest rate. If interest rates continue to rise, you can keep rolling over your CDs as they mature, buying new ones at higher and higher interest rates. And if interest rates ever start to fall again, you can always decide to cash in your CD when it matures and invest the money elsewhere.
At today’s low interest rates, no bank product – savings, reward checking, money market, or CD – is going to earn you much more than 1% on your investment. That’s enough to stay current with inflation, at least for now, but not enough to build up your savings over time.
So if you want to increase the size of your nest egg, you need to look at other types of investments that offer a better return. Earning a higher return usually means taking on a bit more risk – but sometimes you can also boost your return if you’re willing to invest more money or tie it up longer.
5. Treasury Securities
Treasury securities are basically loans that you make to the U.S. Government. They’re sold through auctions, so the actual value of a security depends on what investors are willing to pay for it on that particular day – just like stocks and bonds. You can buy them through brokers, some banks, or the online marketplace at TreasuryDirect.
Treasury securities come in three types, all sold in $100 increments:
- Treasury Bills. Known as T-bills for short, Treasury bills are short-term securities that mature in anywhere from four weeks to a year. Instead of paying interest on a fixed schedule, T-bills are sold at a discount from their face value. For example, you could buy a $1,000 T-bill for $990, hold it until it matures, and then cash it in for $1,000. Treasury bills don’t tie up your cash for very long, but they also don’t pay very much. In auctions at TreasuryDirect in early 2016, discount rates ranged from 0.17% for a 4-week T-bill to 0.66% for a 52-week T-bill. Still, that’s more than you could earn with a CD of the same length.
- Treasury Notes. These medium-term securities range from 2 years to 10 years in length. Their price can be greater than, less than, or equal to their face value, depending on demand, and they pay interest every six months until they mature. You can sell a Treasury note before it reaches maturity, but you can’t always get full value for it. If interest rates have risen since the time you bought it, investors have little reason to buy your note, since newly issued notes pay more. In early 2016, the interest rates for 5-year Treasury notes fell between 1% and 1.5% – better than you could do with a 5-year CD.
- Treasury Bonds. These extra-long-term securities take 30 years to mature and pay interest every six months. Like Treasury notes, they can be sold at any time, but you could lose money on the sale. This makes Treasury bonds a poor choice for any funds that you’re likely to need in the short term.
Treasury securities are very safe because they’re backed by the U.S. Government. So unless the government defaults on its loans – an extremely unlikely scenario – you’re guaranteed to get your principal back, along with any interest that’s due to you, on any Treasury securities you hold until maturity,
However, if you have to sell a Treasury security before it matures, you could lose money on the deal – especially when interest rates are rising. You also risk losing purchasing power if the inflation rate increases beyond the interest rate you’re earning. Both these risks are much lower with Treasury bills, since they mature so quickly that you can’t get stuck with them for long in a changing economy.
6. Money Market Funds
Money market funds are a type of bond mutual fund that invests in low-risk, short-term securities, such as T-bills, CDs, and municipal bonds. This is the type of fund that attracted so many investors back in the early ’80s, eventually leading to the creation of the money market account. However, a money market fund isn’t the same as a money market account: It’s a security that’s bought and sold on the open market, and it isn’t backed by the FDIC. You can buy shares in a money market fund through brokerage houses, mutual fund companies, and some large banks.
Like any mutual fund, money market funds are liquid – you can buy and sell your shares at any time. Money market funds give you a same-day settlement, meaning that the cash shows up in your account the day you make the sale. They’re also more accessible than most funds, because most of them allow you to make transactions from the account by check.
Money market funds are also considered a safe investment because they deal only in stable, short-term securities. However, this doesn’t mean that these funds are risk-free. For one thing, their earnings are uncertain because interest rates fluctuate. However, the bigger risk is that the principal itself could lose value.
The share price of a money market fund, known as its net asset value (NAV), is supposed to remain fixed at $1 per share. Fund managers work very hard to maintain this NAV, because if it ever drops below $1 – a problem called “breaking the buck” – the investors lose some of their principal. This is very rare, but it’s not unheard of. It happened once in 1994 and again in 2008, leading the government to set up a temporary insurance program and set stricter rules for money market funds.
Another risk of money market funds is that, even if you don’t lose your principal, it could lose purchasing power as a result of inflation. CNBC reports that in February 2016, the interest rates on money market funds were down to 0.1%. That’s barely more than you get on the average savings account, and nowhere near enough to keep pace with inflation. So as a place to park your cash, money market funds provide no real benefit compared to banks.
7. Bond Funds
Other types of bond mutual funds offer higher returns in exchange for a bit more risk. You can find recommendations for the top-rated funds in various categories, including bond funds, in U.S. News.
Three types of bond funds covered by U.S. News are generally viewed as relatively safe investments:
- Government Bond Funds. These funds invest in Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities issued by government agencies, such as Ginnie Mae. However, while these securities are government-backed, the funds themselves are not and can fluctuate dramatically in value. The safest government bond funds are short-term (investing in securities that mature in one to four years) or mid-term (investing in securities with maturities of four to ten years). Long-term funds, which invest in securities that take longer than 10 years to mature, are riskier, because they’re more likely to lose value in response to rising interest rates. Short-term government funds recommended by U.S. News have returned between 0.15% and 1.65% over the past year, while the top picks for mid-term funds have returned 0.65% to 1.83%.
- Municipal Bond Funds. These funds invest in municipal bonds, or “munis,” issued by state and local governments. These are somewhat riskier investments than Treasuries, since there’s more chance that a city or state could go bankrupt than there is for the U.S. Government. However, municipal bonds offer one big benefit: The interest on them is exempt from federal tax, and some bonds are free of state and local taxes as well. So, even though these bonds generally have lower yields than taxable bonds, they can offer a better return once you factor in the lower taxes. According to Standard & Poors, municipal bonds have yielded an average of 4.87% over the past 10 years, tax free – a much better return than Treasury securities.
- Short-Term Corporate Bond Funds. These funds invest in bonds issued by corporations, with maturities ranging from one to four years. These can sometimes provide better returns than government or municipal bond funds, but they’re also riskier, because companies are more likely to default on their debts. They also don’t offer the tax advantages of government and municipal bond funds. Your best bets in this category are investment-grade bond funds, which invest in companies that have very good or excellent credit.
Bond funds are fairly liquid investments. You can buy and sell shares at will through a mutual fund company or a brokerage house, and you can usually add to your investments at any time. They also offer the chance for a higher return than you can get with bank accounts or Treasuries.
However, the higher return of bond funds also comes with a higher risk. Walter Updegrave, writing for CNNMoney, recommends that you evaluate your risk tolerance before investing any of your emergency savings in any bond fund – even a short-term one.
When deciding where to stash your cash, you aren’t limited to just one choice. For instance, you can decide to keep $5,000 in the bank to cover your personal expenses, put your $20,000 emergency fund into Treasuries, and then put your $2,000 vacation fund into something riskier like a bond fund or a mixed portfolio. After all, if that account loses money, it’s not a disaster, since you can always take a cheaper vacation – and if it ends up growing fast, you can take a fabulous one.
One more option you shouldn’t overlook is to pay down your debts, if you have any. If you currently owe $6,000 on a credit card that charges 15% interest, paying off that debt gives you a guaranteed 15% return on your investment. So as long as you have enough in the bank to cover your day-to-day needs, it makes sense to focus on paying off high-interest debt before putting more money into low-interest savings.
Remember, all the investment choices covered here are meant for your short-term needs – personal savings, emergency funds, a new-car account, and so on. Sticking to safe investments isn’t a good way to grow your money over the long term. So keep an eye on your nest egg as it grows, and when it starts to look bigger than it really needs to be, move some money to a longer-term investment. That way you can keep some money safely on ice for the short term and work your way toward long-term financial independence at the same time.
Where do you keep your savings?