Savings I-Bonds May 2014 Interest Rate Update: 1.83% or Higher

savbonds4Since inflation-linked savings bonds (“I bonds”) are based on CPI numbers announced two weeks earlier, we can make predictions about upcoming savings bond rates before their official announcement. This also allows us the opportunity to know exactly what a current bond purchase will yield over the next 12 months, instead of just 6 months.

New Inflation Rate
September 2013 CPI-U was 234.149. March 2014 CPI-U was 236.293, for a semi-annual increase of 0.91566%. Using the official formula, the variable component of interest rate for the next 6 month cycle will be approximately 1.83%. The new fixed rate won’t be announced until May 1st (speculation below). You add the fixed and variable rates to get the total interest rate. If you have an older savings bond, your fixed rate may be different.

Purchase and Redemption Timing Reminder
You can’t redeem until 12 months have gone by, and any redemptions within 5 years incur an interest penalty of the last 3 months of interest. A known “trick” with I-Bonds is that if you buy at the end of the month, you’ll still get all the interest for the entire month as if you bought it in the beginning of the month. It’s best to give yourself a few business days of buffer time though, since if you wait too long your effective purchase date may be bumped into the next month.

Buying in April

If you buy before the end of April, the fixed rate portion of I-Bonds will be 0.2%. You will be guaranteed the current variable interest rate of 1.18% for the next 6 months, for a total rate of 0.2 + 1.18 = 1.38%. For the 6 months after that, the total rate will be 0.2 + 1.83 = 2.03%. Let’s say we hold for the minimum of one year and pay the 3-month interest penalty. If you buy on April 30th, 2014 and sell on April 1, 2015, you’ll earn a ~1.31% annualized return for an 11-month holding period, for which the interest is also exempt from state income taxes. That is better than any 1-year bank CD that I can find right now, keeping in mind the liquidity concerns and the purchase limits. If you hold for longer, you’ll be getting the full 1.705% over the first year.

Given the combination of current low rates and the fact that you lose the last 3 months of interest (again, for holding less than 5 years), it might be better to wait long enough to grab 12 full months of interest by holding for 15 months (14 buying late). If you buy on April 30th and hold until July 1st, 2014, you’d achieve a annualized return of ~1.46% over 14 months.

Buying in May

If you wait until May, you’ll give up the opportunity to lock in the 0.2% fixed rate from April. Instead, you will get 1.83% plus an unknown fixed rate for the first 6 months. The next 6 months will be the sum of the same unknown fixed rate plus an unknown rate based on future inflation. If there is high inflation for the next 6-month period, buying in May may get you a higher rate sooner. My best guess for the fixed rate is that it will be somewhere between 0.0% and 0.4%.

Inflation appears to be picking up, so I’m not sure if it is best to lock in the guaranteed above-market rates for 12 months by buying in April instead of May. You could always wait all the way until in October for the next rate announcement, but if you have the cash now you’ll have the opportunity cost of lower rates until then. Besides, if rates spike, you’ll eventually get the benefit of any higher rates eventually in the future anyway.

Existing I-Bonds

If you have an existing I-Bond, the rates reset every 6 months depending on your purchase month. Your bond rate = your specific fixed rate + variable rate. Even at a low or even zero fixed rate, your existing savings bonds are paying more than current savings accounts and will continue to be hedged against inflation, so weigh carefully whether or not to redeem them.

Annual Purchase Limits
The annual purchase limit is now $10,000 in online I-bonds per Social Security Number. For a couple, that’s $20,000 per year. Buy online at TreasuryDirect.gov, after making sure you’re okay with their security protocols and user-friendliness. If you have children, you may be able to buy additional savings bonds by using a minor’s Social Security Number.

For more background, see the rest of my posts on savings bonds. I’m keeping all of mine for the foreseeable future, due to their tax deferral possibilities and other unique advantages. Compare the rates on these savings bonds to what you’re earning on your FDIC-insured bank deposits or even your TIPS and bond mutual funds, and you may find them a good addition to your portfolio.

Employer Health Insurance Wellness Programs: Helpful Feature or Profit Center?

healthLike many other folks, I have the majority of my health insurance premiums paid by my employer. I appreciate this and value it as part of my “total compensation” (a fact that they keep reminding me about).

My employer and health insurance provider recently teamed up to offer us a “Wellness program”. These used to be rewards-based programs where you earned points for activities like watching health-education videos, tracking your weight, creating a food journal, etc. You could then redeem those points towards gift cards and such. The idea was to encourage healthy behaviors like eating better and regular exercise with little pushes (“carrots”).

But instead of the “carrot”, it appears they may be switching to the “stick”.

Starting this year, if I don’t complete an in-person health exam, 30-minute online survey, and telephone coaching session annually, then the employer contribution towards my health insurance premiums will be cut by around 40%. For example, if my employer used to contribute $800 a month towards health insurance and I don’t jump through all the hurdles, my out-of-pocket costs will increase by $320 a month. This program is managed by a for-profit publicly-traded corporation called Healthways (ticker HWAY).

Healthways, Inc. provides well-being improvement solutions that help people improve their physical, emotional and social well-being, thereby improving their health and productivity and reducing their health-related costs.

I’m a skeptical person, so this basically translates to “Healthways makes money by making people cost less to insure.” They can do this in two ways:

  • Decrease health insurance claims by improving employee health through cost-effective strategies.
  • Decrease employer-paid premiums by increasing the employee-paid portion for lazy or forgetful employees.

I really don’t know how much these mandated tasks will improve worker health. I suppose some people who never see a doctor on their own may find out they have hypertension or high cholesterol. I know my wife and I pretty much went through the motions (took about 4 hours altogether including travel time) in order to prevent that huge premium hike. It was a financial no-brainer. On the other hand, I would love to see what percentage of workers fail to complete all the tasks by the deadline and how much extra money that brings in.

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Shopping for a new mattress bed is confusing and annoying. Sadly, that's exactly how it was designed to be. This Slate article talks about this maddening process and offers a few tips: Mattress makers intentionally hinder comparison shopping … [Read the rest]