When you're saving for a long-term goal -- retirement, for example, or college for your toddler -- and you want to keep up with inflation, you need to be in the stock market. There's no way around it. But what about your short-term savings: the cash you've put aside for an emergency fund, the house you want to purchase in a few years or next summer's vacation?
That money doesn't belong anywhere risky, because you don't have time to recover from the ups and downs that are the trademark of stock-market investing. Half a decade ago, you could open a savings or money-market account with an online bank and get a 4% interest rate, no problem. But in this environment, you have to strategize, do a little more research and ultimately, settle for a bit less -- at least until interest rates start to head back up, which may not happen until next year or beyond.
In the meantime, here are some tips on how to find the best rates:
* Try your current bank. Because you're already a customer, it may be willing to give you a better rate, so go ahead and ask for a bit more than it's advertising. If not, you should still keep this bank on your short list, particularly if you're opening this account for emergency savings. Even if its rate is slightly lower than some others you find, it will be easier to pull money out if it has a branch nearby, and it will likely give you the option to link your savings and checking accounts, which makes transfers a piece of cake.
* Check rates online. Go to Bankrate.com, which allows you to compare the rates of CDs, savings accounts and money markets, both in your neighborhood and beyond. Online banks tend to offer higher interest rates on most of their products because they've eliminated many of the expenses that come with operating a brick-and-mortar location. Right now, online bank Ally offers savings and money-market accounts paying 1.28%, compared to the 0.20% or 0.15% being offered at banks near me, and Bankrate lists more than a few one-year CDs from online banks that are paying in the 1.5% range.
Just be sure that the account and bank you choose are FDIC insured. Don't just look for the FDIC symbol on the bank's website, but also check on the FDIC website, says Tom Posey, a fee-only financial advisor and president of Posey Capital Management in Houston. There, you can search for the bank using the "Bank Find" feature. FDIC covers up to $250,000 per depositor, per bank. And also make sure you're comparing apples to apples. Savings and money market accounts allow you to pull your money out at any time. When you invest in a CD, you're committing to a specific period of time, such as three months, six months, a year or even five years. Pull your money out early and, in most cases, you face a penalty. Which brings me to...
* Stay short term. These days, you don't want to tie up any savings in a long-term CD, even if you know it's for the vacation you're taking five years from now. "Avoid a long-term commitment, like a five-year CD, because interest rates are relatively low now and may go up in the next couple years," explains Posey. You want to stay flexible so if rates do go up, you can change your savings strategy without penalty and take advantage of the new rates (I wrote more about the advantages of short-term CDs in my last post.)
* Consider a credit union. Because credit unions are nonprofits, essentially owned and operated by members, they can often charge less interest on loans and pay more interest on savings. The downside, of course, is that most have membership restrictions requiring you to work in a certain occupation, belong to an association or live in a certain area. But if you're eligible to join one, it's an option worth looking into. Search for one in your area at findacreditunion.com or cuna.org.
* Try SmartyPig.com. This works best if you're saving for a short-term goal, like that house down payment, a new TV or a vacation. It basically functions as an online piggy bank. You sign up, tell the site how much you want to save and when you need to save it by, and it will do the math to tell you how much you should save each month. That amount will be deducted from your checking account each month and transferred to SmartyPig's FDIC-insured savings account, which is now paying 2.15%. Once you've reached your goal, you can have the money transferred back into your checking account, or, if you're saving for a specific purchase at a specific store, you can put it on a retailer gift card, which may come with a bonus of up to 12%.
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