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.