Stashing your cash in safe accounts with decent yields has become tremendously difficult over the past year or two. The average annual yield on taxable money-market mutual funds has been a tiny five-hundredths of 1% (0.05%) lately. That means about $5 in annual interest on a $10,000 investment. The yield is even less for tax-exempt money-market funds. Short-term US Treasury bills, an ultrasafe investment, are not paying much more — about 0.4% for a one-year bill and about 0.9% for a two-year bill. And one-year certificates of deposit (CDs) typically are paying 2% or less, compared with as much as 5% last year.
There are better alternatives if you know where to look. How much you get depends in part on how long you are willing to lock up the money without touching it and how many hoops you are willing to jump through. What to do if you might need the money in the following time frames…
IF YOU NEED ACCESS TO THE MONEY
Use a high-yield money-market account (MMA) at a bank or credit union. Unlike money-market funds that are available at brokerages and mutual fund firms, these MMAs are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (FDIC) or the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), which means that they can’t lose principal on account balances of $250,000 or less per depositor through December 31, 2013. (On January 1, 2014, the standard insurance amount is scheduled to return to $100,000.) MMAs have been paying substantially higher interest rates than money-market funds. However, rates fluctuate. Typically, you can make up to six withdrawals a month from an MMA, three of which can be checks written on the account, but withdrawal restrictions can vary from bank to bank. You will find the best deals on these accounts at Internet-based banks, small banks, troubled banks and credit unions. (To find credit unions near you, go to www.creditunion.coop.)
Caution: Don’t fall for limited-time introductory teaser rates that may hide your true yield.
Examples of attractive yields recently:* Flagstar Direct, offering an annual yield of 1.81% (800-642-0039, www.flagstardirect.com)… Ally Bank, 1.7% (877-247-2559, www.ally.com)… Navy Federal Credit Union, Merrifield, Virginia, 1.7% with a $100,000 minimum balance (888-842-6328, www.navyfederal.org).
Open a high-yield checking account at a small bank. Some smaller banks offer “rewards” checking accounts with annual yields as high as 4% or even 5%, and they may reimburse ATM fees from other banks. The accounts are FDIC-insured, but they come with a long list of requirements and may be available only in states where the institution has branches. You typically must accept e-mailed statements… set up direct deposits… and use your debit card at least a specified number of times per month. If you fail to meet any restrictions, you may forfeit all of your interest for that month or earn a much lower rate, typically 0.5% or less. Also, these accounts pay high-yield interest only on a limited balance, usually up to $10,000 or $25,000. Anything over these amounts earns interest at low rates.
Attractive yields: Union State Bank in Atchison, Kansas, offers a 5.01% yield up to $25,000 and 1.5% above that (913-367-2400, www.mybankusb.com)… Bank of the Sierra in Porterville, California, offers 4.51% up to $25,000 and 1.01% above that (open to residents in all states, 800-455-5080, www.bankofthesierra.com)… Florida Bank of Commerce in Orlando, Florida, gives you 4.01% up to $50,000 and 1.01% above that (407-246-7772, www.fbcbank.com).
Open a checking account at an online bank. These accounts typically are available nationwide and have no account minimums or maximums, ATM charges or monthly service fees. They are FDIC-insured.
Attractive yield: Charles Schwab Bank, 0.75% (866-855-9102, www.schwab.com). To open a Schwab high-yield checking account, you must link it to a Schwab brokerage account, but there are no minimum balance requirements.
IF YOU MAY NEED THE MONEY
ON A FEW DAYS’ NOTICE
Open a high-yield savings account at an online bank. Interest rates are competitive with those of bank money-market accounts, and you can sometimes do slightly better. Savings banks make sense if you have low-maintenance banking needs. You typically get bare-bones banking services with no ATM/debit card access or check-writing privileges. Instead, you link your online account to your existing checking account, and you can transfer money between them electronically. Transfers from savings to checking usually take two to three business days.
Attractive yields: Shore Bank Direct, 2.15% (800-905-7725, http://shorebankdirect.com)… Discover Bank, 1.85% (800-347-7000, www.discoverbank.com)… UFB Direct.com, 1.75% (888-580-0049, www.ufbdirect.com).
IF YOU MAY NEED THE MONEY
WITHIN A FEW MONTHS
Buy a nine-to-12-month liquid, or “no penalty,” CD if you want to lock in a rate but retain flexibility. You can earn rates competitive with those of standard one-year CDs without locking up your money as long. If you make an early withdrawal, you get back your full balance plus accrued interest. If interest rates rise, you can reinvest at a higher rate. But watch out for the fine print. Some liquid CDs require higher minimum deposits than standard CDs do. Some allow only a limited number of penalty-free withdrawals or require that you hold the CD for a specified minimum period, say, 90 days, before withdrawing the money.
Attractive yields: Wilshire State Bank 12-month Flex CD, 2%, $10,000 minimim, Los Angeles (866-886-2265, www.wilshirebank.com)… Ally Bank 9-month CD, 1.75% with no minimum (877-247-2559, www.ally.com).
IF YOU NEED THE MONEY
WITHIN ONE YEAR
Consider jumbo one-year CDs.
Attractive yields: Ally Bank is offering a 2.05% yield for one-year CDs of any size (877-247-2559, www.ally.com)… Bank of Internet USA is paying 2.02% with a minimum of $1,000 (877-541-2634, www.bankofinternet.com)… UmbrellaBank.com, 2.02%, $1,000 minimum, Birmingham, Alabama (866-862-7355, www.umbrellabank.com).
If you withdraw the money early, you may be penalized several months’ interest or more.
IF YOU MAY NEED THE MONEY
WITHIN THREE YEARS
Consider three-year CDs at banks and credit unions. Some offer rates much higher than what you likely are getting in your money-market fund currently.
Attractive yields: Alliant Credit Union, available to residents in the Chicago metropolitan area, paying 3.25%, $25,000 minimum (800-328-1935, www.alliantcreditunion.org)… Hudson City Savings Bank, in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, paying 3%, $500 minimum (866-448-9498, www.hcsbonline.com)… Melrose Credit Union, open to residents in all states, paying 2.98%, $5,000 minimum (800-235-0118, www.melrosecu.org).
For three-year CD rates, go to http://bankdeals.blogspot.com.
Invest in stable-value funds in your workplace retirement plan. They gained 4.58%, on average, during last year’s market meltdown. These funds invest in high-quality corporate and government bonds with a twist — the funds back up the bonds with insurance company contracts, known as wrappers, that guarantee the principal and accumulated interest even if the bonds in the funds’ portfolio decline in value. Over the last decade, stable-value funds have returned about 4% annually, on average, with little risk.
Among the drawbacks — you usually can’t shift money in these funds directly to a money-market fund in the 401(k) — only to another stock or bond fund. And in very rare circumstances, they can lose money.
Get access to special CD rates at member-only institutions. Groups such as AAA, Costco and USAA offer a variety of rates on checking, savings and CD products that are available only to their members and often beat those of banks and credit unions.