Our family keeps a year’s worth of expenses (not income) put aside in cash reserves; it provides financial insurance with the side benefits of lower stress and less concern about stock market gyrations. In my opinion, emergency funds can have a better return on investment than what you see on your bank statement. In my opinion, having a solid cash cushion is the first step towards financial independence.
I don’t chase rates nearly as much as I used to, but it still pays to shop around. Chase Bank on a 1-year CD? 0.02% APY. Bank of America on a 10-year CD? 0.15% APY. Who buys these things?!? Meanwhile, the rates below vary from 1% up to over 3% annualized.
As of 11/6/2016, below is a roundup of the best rates backed by the full faith and credit of the US government (FDIC-insured, NCUA-insured, US Treasury Bonds, US Savings Bonds). I will try to sort them from the shortest to longest maturities.
- High-yield savings accounts
- Online savings accounts, everyone’s got one these days. Currently, the ones with a history of competitive rates are around 1% APY. These savings accounts can change their interest rate at any time, so if you’re going to just pick the highest one, be ready to move your money. I prefer the ones with a history of competitive rates, and I’ve been with Ally Bank for over 5 years. Their online savings is currently at 1% APY.
- Short-term guaranteed rates (under 1 year)
- If you’ve got a big wad of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, inheritance), I say just keep it safe until you’re ready to invest it properly. Palladian Private Bank has a 6-month promotional rate of 1.30% APY guaranteed (maximum initial deposit of $100k) for new accounts. After the first 6 months, the rate reverts back to their normal rate (currently 1.10% APY). Since the initial promo rate is fixed, this makes it the higher 6-month CD rate available.
- Flexible Savings Bonds
- Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation. “I Bonds” bought right now will earn a 2.76% rate for the first six months, and then a variable rate based on ongoing inflation after that. You must hold them for a year, and if you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest. While future rates are unknown, at the very minimum it will be competitive with the best 1-year CD rates. More info here.
- Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
- A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with high interest rates. The risks are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). The other catch is that these good features may be killed off without much notice. I pulled my money out of my NetSpend card after the eligible balance dropped to $1,000 (no longer worth the effort for extra $3 a month in interest).
- Insight Card is one of the best remaining cards with 5% APY on up to $5,000 as of this writing. Fees to avoid include the $1 per purchase fee, $2.50 for each ATM withdrawal, and the $3.95 inactivity fee if there is no activity within 90 days. If you can navigate it carefully (basically only use ACH transfers and keep up your activity regularly) you can still end up with more interest than other options.
- Rewards checking accounts
- These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with some risk. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Rates can also drop quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. But the rates can be high while they last.
- Consumers Credit Union offers up to 4.59% APY on up to a $20k balance, although 3.09% APY on a $10k balance might be easier to achieve unless you satisfy a long list of requirements. Note that the 4.59% APY requires you to apply and get approved for an additional credit card through them (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases small as well, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on 2% cashback (or $10 a month on after-tax benefit).
- Certificates of deposit
- If you have a large cushion, it’s quite likely to just sit there for years. Why not put some money in longer-term investments where you can still take it out in a true emergency and pay an early withdrawal penalty. For example, UNIFY Financial Credit Union (formerly Western Federal Credit Union) is offering a 5-year Share Certificate paying 2.00% APY ($1,000 minimum balance) with an early withdrawal penalty of only 90 days interest. For example, if you withdraw from this CD after 2 years and pay the penalty, your effective rate earned will still be 1.76%. Anyone can join this credit union via partner organization, it appears it might be free or at most a one-time $25 fee.
- Longer-term Instruments
- Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? Did you know that you can buy certificates of deposit via Vanguard’s bond desk? These “brokered CDs” offer the same FDIC-insurance and are often through commercial banks like Goldman Sachs. As of this writing, you can get a 10-year CD maturing 11/9/2026 that pays 2.10% APY. (Unfortunately, current long-term CD rates do not rise much higher even as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.) Prices will vary regularly.
- How about two decades!? Series EE Savings Bonds are not indexed to inflation, but they have a guarantee that the value will double in value in 20 years, which equals a guaranteed return of 3.5% a year. However, if you don’t hold for that long, you’ll be stuck with the normal rate which is quite low (currently a sad 0.10% rate). Think of it as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You really, really want to be sure you’ll keep it for 20 years.
All rates were checked as of 11/6/16.