Best Interest Rates on Cash – February 2019

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Here’s my monthly roundup of the best interest rates on cash for February 2019, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much extra interest you’d earn if you are moving money between accounts. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 2/3/19.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge megabanks like to get away with 0.01% APY, it’s easy to open a new “piggy-back” savings account and simply move some funds over from your existing checking account. The interest rates on savings accounts can drop at any time, so I prioritize banks with a history of competitive rates. Some banks will bait you and then lower the rates in the hopes that you are too lazy to leave.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
A common question is what to do with a big pile of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple and take your time. If not a savings account, then put it in a flexible short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • Marcus Bank has 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.35% APY with a $500 minimum deposit, Ally Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD is at 2.30% APY with a $25k+ minimum, and CIT Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD at 2.05% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit. No Penalty CDs offer a fixed interest rate that can never go down, but you can still take out your money (once) without any fees if you want to use it elsewhere. You may wish to open multiple CDs in smaller increments for more flexibility.
  • Sallie Mae Bank has a 1-year CD at 2.85% APY ($2,500 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 90 days of interest.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, beware that many brokers pay out very little interest on their default cash sweep funds (and keep the money for themselves). The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 2.48% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.32%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 2.73% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 2.83% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is more interest rate risk.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.97% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 3.07% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months.

Treasury Bills and Ultra-short Treasury ETFs
Another option is to buy individual Treasury bills which come in a variety of maturities from 4-weeks to 52-weeks. You can also invest in ETFs that hold a rotating basket of short-term Treasury Bills for you, while charging a small management fee for doing so. T-bill interest is exempt from state and local income taxes.

  • You can build your own T-Bill ladder at TreasuryDirect.gov or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current Treasury Bill rates. As of 2/1/19, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.41% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.56% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.30% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.19% SEC yield. GBIL appears to have a slightly longer average maturity than BIL.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2018 and April 2019 will earn a 2.82% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2019, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. There is a long list of previous offers that have already disappeared with little notice. I don’t personally recommend or use any of these anymore.

  • The only notable card left in this category is Mango Money at 6% APY on up to $2,500, but there are many hoops to jump through. Signature “credit” purchases of $1,500 or more and a minimum balance of $25.00 at the end of the month is needed to qualify for the 6.00%.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with unique risks. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop to near-zero quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. I don’t use any of these anymore, either.

  • The best one left is Consumers Credit Union, which offers 3.09% to 5.09% APY on up to a $10k balance depending on your qualifying activity. The highest tier requires their credit card in addition to their debit card (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases just above the $100 requirement, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on cash back rewards elsewhere. Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • If you’re looking for a non-rewards high-yield checking account, MemoryBank has a checking account with no debit card requirements at 1.60% APY.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
CDs offer higher rates, but some with a early withdrawal penalty. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider building a CD ladder of different maturity lengths (ex. 1/2/3/4/5-years) such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account. When one CD matures, use that money to buy another 5-year CD to keep the ladder going.

  • NASA Federal CU has a 15-month certificate at 3.20% APY and a 25-month at 3.25% APY ($10,000 minimum). 182 day early withdrawal penalty. Anyone can join this credit unions with via membership in partner organization (see application). Ally Bank has a 14-month CD at 2.85% APY (no minimum). 60 day early withdrawal penalty.
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 5-year Share Certificate at 3.53% APY ($60k min), 3.47% APY ($20k min), or 3.41% APY ($1k min). Note that the early withdrawal penalty is a full year of interest. Anyone can join this credit union via American Consumer Council.
  • You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 2-year non-callable CD at 2.65% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 3.10% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs listed by Fidelity.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy long-term certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 3.35% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity. Matching the overall yield curve, current CD rates do not rise much higher as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • 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). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. As of 1/9/19, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 2.86%.

All rates were checked as of 2/3/19.



Historical IRA Contribution Limits 2009-2019

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

ira_heartIndividual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) are way to save money towards retirement that also saves on taxes. For 2019, the annual contribution limit for either Traditional or Roth IRAs increased to $6,000 (it is roughly indexed to inflation). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ stays at $1,000 (for a total of $7,000). You can’t contribute more than your taxable compensation for the year, although a spouse can contribute with no income if the other person has enough income.

Historical limits. Since I enjoy visual aides, here’s an updated historical chart and table of contribution limits for the last 11 years. I’m happy to say that we’ve both done the max since 2004. Consistently saving for a decade can result in some fat nest eggs!

Year IRA Contribution Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $5,000 $1,000
2010 $5,000 $1,000
2011 $5,000 $1,000
2012 $5,000 $1,000
2013 $5,500 $1,000
2014 $5,500 $1,000
2015 $5,500 $1,000
2016 $5,500 $1,000
2017 $5,500 $1,000
2018 $5,500 $1,000
2019 $6,000 $1,000

 

Traditional IRAs. If you are covered by a retirement plan at work, deductibility of your contribution to a Traditional IRA is based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and tax-filing status. See the IRS page on IRA deduction limits. However, there are no income restrictions as to who can contribute to the full contribution limit for a Traditional IRA.

Roth IRAs. It doesn’t matter if you are covered by a retirement plan at work for the Roth IRA, and contributions to a Roth are never deductible (but they aren’t taxed on upon qualified withdrawal). However, the contribution limit and overall eligibility may be capped based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and tax-filing status. See the IRS page on Roth IRA contribution limits. But wait… high-income earners may be able to get around these income restrictions with a Backdoor Roth IRA (non-deductible Traditional IRA + Roth conversion). Yeesh, I really wish they would simplify all this stuff.

Saver’s Credit. If your income is low enough (less than $63,000 AGI for married filing joint), the Saver’s Credit can get you back 10% to 50% of your contribution (of up to $2,000 per person) when you file your taxes.

Also see: 401k, 403b, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2019

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF]

401k, 403b, TSP Historical Contribution Limits 2009-2019

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

401k_limitsEmployer-based retirement plans like the 401(k), 403(b), and Thrift Savings Plan are not perfect, but they are often the best available option to save money in a tax-advantaged manner. For 2019, the employee elective deferral (contribution) limit for these plans increased to $19,000 (it is indexed to inflation). The additional catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50+ stays at $6,000 (for a total of $25,000).

Here’s a historical chart of contribution limits for the last 11 years (2009-2019).

Year 401k/403b Elective Deferral Limit Additional Catch-Up Allowed (Age 50+)
2009 $16,500 $5,500
2010 $16,500 $5,500
2011 $16,500 $5,500
2012 $17,000 $5,500
2013 $17,500 $5,500
2014 $17,500 $5,500
2015 $18,000 $6,000
2016 $18,000 $6,000
2017 $18,000 $6,000
2018 $18,500 $6,000
2019 $19,000 $6,000

 

The limits are the same for both Roth and “Traditional” pre-tax 401k plans, although the effective after-tax amounts can be quite different. Employer match contributions do not count towards the elective deferral limit. Curiously, some employer plans set their own limit on contributions. A former employer of mine had a 20% deferral limit, so if your income was $50,000 the most you could put away was $10,000 a year.

For 2019, the maximum contribution limit when you include both employer and employee contributions is $56,000, an increase of $1,000. The employer portion includes company match and profit-sharing contributions.

The employee salary deferral max limit applies even if you participate in multiple 401k plans.

Sources: IRS.gov, IRS.gov COLA Table [PDF], IRS on multiple plans.

Webull App: Free Stock Trades + 2 Free Shares of Stock Referral Bonus

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Updated with new Refer-A-Friend terms, in effect 1/18/19. Webull is a new brokerage app that has unlimited free stock trades with no platform fees, free real-time quotes, and no minimum balance requirement. (Similar to Robinhood.)

Webull also has a referral program where new users can get a free share of stock worth between $3 and $300 for opening an account (no deposit required), and then an additional, second free share of stock worth between $4 and $1,000 for depositing at least $100 within 30 days of account opening. I believe the referring user also gets the exact same shares of stock. It’s like a lottery, and most people will get two shares of stock worth about five bucks each.

Here are the full odds for the opening share bonus ($3 to $300 value) from their Terms and Conditions:

$3 to $5 value, odds are ~1:1.02
$10 to $50 value, odds are ~1:55.6
$50 to $300 value, odds are ~1:500

Here are the full odds for the opening share bonus ($3 to $1,000 value)

$4 to $8 value, odds are ~1:1.02
$8 to $100 value, odds are ~1:74
$100 to $200 value, odds are ~1:166.7
$200 to $1,000 value, odds are ~1:2,000

Here is my Webull referral link. Thanks if you use it! I received a free share of ABEV worth about $4.46. I have also seen SNAP and some lucky ones got AAPL. You will need to sign-up initially either with a phone number or e-mail address, and then open an account after downloading the app (Android or iOS). Webull is a real SIPC-insured broker, and the application is the same (name, address, SSN, work questions, investing experience questions, etc). I did not have to make any deposit, make any trade, or even link a bank account to receive my first free share of stock. My account was approved and I claimed my free share within 12 hours.

(Note: I opened a cash account. Margin accounts will require a minimum balance of $2,000. I believe this requirement is the same for all brokers.)

Robinhood vs. Webull.

  • Robinhood definitely has a sleeker user-interface, which should appeal to younger users and those who want a simple trading experience. Webull has a more “busy” interface with charting, news, technical indicators, and stock screeners. You may like having more information, or you may want a cleaner app.
  • Robinhood offers free options trading. Webull does not offer options at all.
  • Both are primarily apps, but Robinhood has a web trading option now. Webull does not that I know of.
  • Webull has customer service available via Live Chat or phone number. Robinhood only has an e-mail address.

Both will make money from normal users via interest on cash balances and selling order flow. Robinhood’s premium features basically let newbie users access a simple version of margin (flat fee instead of interest rate). Webull has traditional margin accounts that allow shorting, and makes money by selling premium subscriptions to advanced quotes so serious traders can get the absolute best bids and offers across any of 13 different stock exchanges.

Firstrade is a more traditional online brokerage firm that also recently started offering free stock trades and free options trades.

Bottom line. Webull is a new entrant to the world of free stock trading apps. The feel is more of a full-featured traditional brokerage account in app form as compared to competitor Robinhood. The commission-free trades are the real draw, but new users who open an account and deposit $100 can also grab a couple of free shares of stock worth up to $1,000 (but probably about $5 each). It’s like a couple of free lottery ticket, so why not?

Merrill Edge + Preferred Rewards = Free Trades and Up to $900 Bonus For Moving Assets

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Merrill Edge is the self-directed brokerage arm formed after Bank of America and Merrill Lynch merged together. They are currently offering an increased cash bonus of up to $900 for moving “new money” or assets over to them from another brokerage firm. This new bonus is linked to the BofA/Merrill Preferred Rewards program, which is another reason to consider using them as it gets you free stock trades and better credit card rewards. Here’s an overview along with my personal experience as I’ve had an account with them for a few years now.

Cash bonus. Brokerage firms love to collect assets. The good news is they don’t require cash that will be earning zero interest, and Edge has no management fees if you stick with DIY. If you are holding shares of stock, ETFs, or mutual funds elsewhere, you can simply perform an “in-kind” ACAT transfer over to Merrill Edge. Your 100 shares of AAPL will remain 100 shares of AAPL, so you don’t even have to worry about price changes, lost dividends, or tax consequences. Any cost basis should transfer over too.

This specific offer is for accounts opened by April 30, 2019 and offers the following:

  • $150 bonus with $20,000 to $49,999 in new assets
  • $225 bonus with $50,000 to $99,999 in new assets
  • $375 bonus with $100,000 to $199,999 in new assets
  • $900 bonus with $200,000 or more in new assets

For comparison, here is an expired offer that was slightly better but probably the highest I’ve seen. Here is the standard offer that has been around for a while.

This offer includes both IRAs and regular taxable (CMA) accounts:

1 Offer valid for new and existing individual Merrill Edge IRAs or Cash Management Accounts (CMAs) opened by April 30, 2019. Offer is limited to one CMA and one IRA, with no more than two enrolled accounts per accountholder. Eligible Merrill Edge IRAs limited to Rollover, Traditional, Roth and owner only SEP IRA. The Merrill Edge IRA or CMA may be a Merrill Edge Self-Directed account, Merrill Edge Advisory Account or Merrill Guided Investing account. You may be eligible for a different or better offer. Please contact us for more information.

Note that last sentence! It’s not just boilerplate. After I did this bonus once with a partial transfer (just enough to satisfy the requirements), a Merrill Edge rep contacted me and offered me a custom bonus to move even more assets over. (The bonus ratios were about the same, but higher limits.) Therefore, if you are considering this and have more than $200,000 to transfer over, you may want to give them a call and see if they can offer even more money.

You can even transfer in Admiral Shares of Vanguard mutual funds that they don’t let you trade there, but you can only hold or sell them. You can’t buy more shares. You can, however, buy more shares of the corresponding Vanguard ETF if you wish.

Preferred Rewards bonus. The Preferred Rewards program is designed to rewards clients with multiple account and higher assets located at Bank of America banking, Merrill Edge online brokerage, and Merrill Lynch investment accounts. Here is a partial table taken from their comparison chart (click to enlarge):

bofa_pref1

At the Platinum and Platinum Plus levels, Merrill Edge will give you 30 and 100 free online stock trades every month, respectively. Bank of America’s interest rates on cash accounts tend to be quite low, so moving cash over to qualify may result in earning less interest on your cash deposits. Merrill Lynch advisory accounts also usually come with management fees. The sweet spot is if you have brokerage assets like stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs.

Credit cards rewards. With the Preferred Rewards boost, you can get up to 2.6% cash back towards travel on all your purchases on the Bank of America Travel Rewards Card. You can also get up to 5.25% cash back (on up to $2,500 per quarter) on your choice of gas, online shopping, dining, or travel with the Bank of America Cash Rewards Card.

Keep in mind that it will take a while for your “3-month average combined balance” to actually reach the required level and officially qualify. (This may be obvious, but if you put in the minimum, it will take 3 months.)

My personal experience. In terms of Merrill Edge, I’ve had an account with them for a few years now and my lightning review is that they have a “okay/good” user interface and solidly “good” customer service. I would add that I am not an active trader and only make about 10 trades a year. I have been quite satisfied with the account. I can also move money instantly between my Merrill Edge and Bank of America checking accounts, making it easy to sweep out idle cash into an external savings account.

The biggest financial benefit to this BofA/Merrill Edge combo has probably been the 75% boost to their credit card rewards, allowing me to get 2.625% cash back on basically all my daily purchases. The second biggest benefit has probably been this cash bonus, but that’s because I don’t make 100 trades over the course of a few years, let alone a single month.

Bottom line. Merrill Edge is currently offering up to $900 if you move over a significant amount of assets to their self-directed brokerage. This can simply be mutual fund or ETFs shares currently being held elsewhere. When you keep enough assets across Bank of America and Merrill Edge, their Preferred Rewards program can offer nice perks like waived bank fees, free stock trades, and boosted credit card rewards.

Investing $10,000 Every Year For the Last 10 Years, 2009-2018

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

keepcalmInstead of just looking at one year of returns, I prefer taking a longer view. Most successful savers invest money each year over a long period of time, these days often into a target-date fund (TDF). Don’t get caught up in the daily news reporting the recent performance of the Dow or S&P 500.

Investment benchmark. There are many possible choices for an investment benchmark, but I chose the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund. This all-in-one fund is low-cost, highly diversified, and available in many employer retirement plans as well open to anyone with an IRA. In the early accumulation phase, this fund is 90% stocks (both US and international) and 10% bonds (investment-grade domestic and international). I think it’s a solid default choice where you could easily do worse over the long run.

Investment amount. For the last decade, the maximum allowable annual contribution to a Traditional or Roth IRA has been roughly $5,000 per person. The maximum allowable annual contribution for a 401k, 403b, or TSP plan has been over $10,000 per person. If you have a household income of $67,000, then $10,000 is right at the 15% savings rate mark. Therefore, I’m going to use $10,000 as a benchmark amount. It’s easy to multiply the results as needed.

A decade of real-world savings. To create a simple-yet-realistic scenario, what would have happened if you put $10,000 a year into the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund, every year, for the past 10 years. You’d have put in $100,000 over time, but in more manageable increments. With the handy tools at Morningstar and a Google spreadsheet, we get this:

Investing $10,000 every year for the last decade would have resulted in a $57,000 investment gain. If, for example, you were a couple that both maxed out their 401k and IRAs at roughly $20k each or $40k total per year, that would leave you with a gain of roughly $230,000 over the last decade (and a total balance of $630,000).

Timing still matters, but not as much as you might think due to the dollar-cost averaging and longer time horizon. More importantly, you can’t control that part. You have much more control over how much you save. Here are previous results for January 2007 to December 2016 and January 2008 to December 2017.

Work on improving your career skills (or start your own business), save a big chunk of your income, and then invest it in productive assets. Keep calm and repeat. Our path to financial freedom can be mostly explained by such behavior. The only “secret” here is consistency. We maxed out both IRA and the 401k salary deferral limits nearly every year since 2004. You can build wealth with something as accessible and boring as the Vanguard Target Retirement fund. We received no inheritances and don’t pay a brilliant hedge fund manager.

Chart: Stock Market Declines Are More Common Than You Think

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

prepyourIf you invest in stocks, you know that they go up and down. Below is an S&P 500 histogram (source) showing the distribution of annual returns, which were negative 1/3rd of the time (and thus positive 2/3rd of the time). Not bad, you’ll take those odds, right?

sp500_hist2014

But as the last part of 2018 showed us, returns aren’t all about January to December. There can be big swings in a single month or two which leave people stressed or even panicked. Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) had an article about the recent market volatility which included an interesting chart tracking the largest intra-year gains and losses (defined as peak to trough, and trough to peak).

Bottom line. Stock market declines are more common than you think. Since 1979, the average intra-year decline was about 14%! At the same time, 33 out of out 39 years managed to end up with a positive annual return when measured from January to December.

Blooom Review 2019: Free 401k Analysis + Human CFP Financial Advice For $10 a Month

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Does the New Year have you motivated to give your retirement account a tune-up? As opposed to many other online advisors, Blooom.com (with three Os) focuses on providing advice for 401k, 403b, 457, and TSP accounts by offering both a free 401k analysis and charging a flat $10/month fee for ongoing portfolio management and CFP advice. They don’t require you to move any money over to them.

Free 401k analysis screenshots. Anyone can sign up for their free 401k analysis with no commitment. They don’t ask for last name or credit card information.

1. They ask you for first name, current age, and retirement age. You don’t need to be super-specific here, they just want some basic information to create your target asset allocation and time horizon.

2. They ask you short risk questionnaire. I’m still not convinced of the validity of finding your risk tolerance via a few multiple choice questions, but I suppose this is the most practical way to at least get you in the ballpark. They had me at 68% stocks and 32% bonds, which is actually really close to my actual stock/bond mix.

3. Provide your login credentials. Blooom will automatically pull in your 401k holdings and other information when you provide them your username and password. This is similar to how I track my own portfolio via Personal Capital. It took them a couple of minutes to crunch everything.

4. Analysis results and screenshots. They first give you an overall report card. Looks like I have a lot to work on:

Next, they told me about the fees that I am paying. It appears that because my fees were “difficult to identify”, they used an average number based on all of their clients. I’m guessing this is because I have a lot of non-mutual-fund holdings in my Solo 401k.

They then analyze asset allocation, identifying the mutual funds and assigning the proper asset class. They they compare with their recommended asset allocation for you:

Free 401k analysis review. My main concern about this analysis is that it only takes into account your 401k. If your 401k is your only retirement savings, then this is fine. However, my 401k is only a portion of my overall portfolio. In addition, I use tax-efficient asset placement, so my 401k mostly holds REITs and TIPs. While their asset allocation breakdown of my actual funds was mostly correct, I was never going to be close to their target mix. This prevented me from getting value out of this service.

Paid management service review. Here’s what the paid service includes:

  • Fee analysis. Each mutual fund you own charges an expense ratio that is quietly taken out of your balances daily. There may also be additional administrative fees charged by your provider.
  • Asset allocation advice. They will come up with a mix of stocks and bonds that are appropriate for your age, and time horizon. Their suggested asset allocation advice is in line with that of other robo-advisors.
  • Rebalancing service. Blooom will rebalance your assets periodically back towards your target values. They’ll help you maintain diversification across asset classes like US stocks, international stocks, safe bonds, etc.
  • Chat with Certified Financial Planners. You can e-mail or Live Chat with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) about any financial topic, not just 401ks.
  • Fiduciary advice. Blooom is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) and pledges a fiduciary duty under the law to give advice in your best interest only. This is an important detail!

Blooom has settled on a flat $10 a month fee for ongoing 401k management and advice. This is the same if you have $10,000 or $10 million. Flat fees end up being a high percentage of small accounts though, for example on $10,000 that ends up being 1.2% a year. My personal opinion is that if you have few thousand dollars or less, you should buy the cheapest S&P 500 index fund (or a low-cost Target Date fund) in your 401k and focus on increasing your contribution rate. You don’t need to pay $10 a month for advice right now. Asset allocation isn’t that important yet. Of course, the financial advisor access may be worth more than $10 a month by itself (see below).

While flat fees don’t work out mathematically for small accounts, you will start to save money as your account grows when compared to a percentage-based fee. Once you reach about $50,000 in assets, paying a flat $10 a month becomes cheaper than paying 0.25% of your assets annually.

If you had a solid low-cost, diversified Target Retirement fund from Vanguard, Fidelity Index Series, or Schwab Index Series, you may not need to pay for extra advice either. The asset allocation, rebalancing, and growing more conservative over time is all baked-in. The problem is that there are a lot of bad Target Retirement funds out there that have added layers of fees, stuffed with expensive questionable funds, and chase performance.

The hidden deal? You can get ongoing financial advice from a human CFP for only $10 a month! I think the most overlooked feature of the Blooom paid service is that they include the ability to Live Chat (text) or e-mail with Certified Financial Planners with no minimum balance requirement. A real human CFP, not some AI bot!

DID YOU KNOW blooom clients have access to a CFP? Just ping us on chat, email, Morse code, singing telegram, Pony Express… well, you get the idea, we are accessible.

You are welcome to ask questions about topics outside your 401k:

Ask our advisors any financial questions you have… even beyond 401ks! […] We go beyond retirement advice. Thinking about how a puppy or new car might affect you financially? Give us a whirl! Whether it’s $20 or $20,000, we want all our blooom members to make smart decisions about their finances.

I don’t know of any other place I can get a CFP to chat with me for ten bucks. For example, Betterment won’t let you have CFP access until you have $100,000 held with them (and 401k assets don’t count). You could always pay $10 for the first month and see how you like their CFP advice, as there is no contract on the monthly plan.

Bottom line. Blooom is an online financial advisor that manages 401k/403b/TSP employer retirement accounts. This works out if the majority of your retirement assets are in such a plan. They offer a free 401k/403b analysis to try them out. Above that, they will manage your funds and provide chat/e-mail access to a Certified Financial Planner for a flat $10 a month. This is one of the cheapest ways I know of to chat and email with a human Certified Financial Planner.

Disclosure: I have an affiliate relationship with Blooom. If you try out the free 401k analysis, I get nothing. If you end up being a paid member of Blooom through one of the links above, I will get a commission at no extra cost to you. All content and opinions remain my own.

Best Interest Rates on Cash – January 2019

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

Here’s my monthly roundup of the best interest rates on cash for January 2019, roughly sorted from shortest to longest maturities. Check out my Ultimate Rate-Chaser Calculator to get an idea of how much extra interest you’d earn if you are moving money between accounts. Rates listed are available to everyone nationwide. Rates checked as of 1/9/19.

High-yield savings accounts
While the huge megabanks like to get away with 0.01% APY, getting higher rates is as easy as transferring money electronically from your checking account to an online savings account. The interest rates on savings accounts can drop at any time, so I prioritize banks with a history of competitive rates. Some banks will bait you and then lower the rates in the hopes that you are too lazy to leave.

Short-term guaranteed rates (1 year and under)
I am often asked what to do with a big pile of cash that you’re waiting to deploy shortly (just sold your house, just sold your business, legal settlement, inheritance). My usual advice is to keep things simple and take your time. If not a savings account, then put it in a flexible short-term CD under the FDIC limits until you have a plan.

  • No Penalty CDs offer a locked-in rate with no early withdrawal penalty. That means your interest rate can never go down, but you can still take out your money (once) if you want to use it elsewhere. Marcus Bank has 13-month No Penalty CD at 2.35% APY with a $500 minimum deposit, Ally Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD is at 2.30% APY with a $25k+ minimum, and CIT Bank has a 11-month No Penalty CD at 2.05% APY with a $1,000 minimum deposit. You may wish to open multiple CDs in smaller increments for more flexibility.
  • First Internet Bank has a 1-year CD at 2.89% APY ($1,000 minimum) with an early withdrawal penalty of 180 days of interest.

Money market mutual funds + Ultra-short bond ETFs
If you like to keep cash in a brokerage account, beware that many brokers pay out very little interest on their default cash sweep funds (and keep the money for themselves). The following money market and ultra-short bond funds are not FDIC-insured, but may be a good option if you have idle cash and cheap/free commissions.

  • Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund currently pays an 2.44% SEC yield. The default sweep option is the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which has an SEC yield of 2.31%. You can manually move the money over to Prime if you meet the $3,000 minimum investment.
  • Vanguard Ultra-Short-Term Bond Fund currently pays 2.71% SEC Yield ($3,000 min) and 2.81% SEC Yield ($50,000 min). The average duration is ~1 year, so there is more interest rate risk.
  • The PIMCO Enhanced Short Maturity Active Bond ETF (MINT) has a 2.96% SEC yield and the iShares Short Maturity Bond ETF (NEAR) has a 2.98% SEC yield while holding a portfolio of investment-grade bonds with an average duration of ~6 months.

Treasury Bills and Ultra-short Treasury ETFs
Another option is to buy individual Treasury bills which come in a variety of maturities from 4-weeks to 52-weeks. You can also invest in ETFs that hold a rotating basket of short-term Treasury Bills for you, while charging a small management fee for doing so. T-Bill interest is exempt from state and local income taxes.

  • You can build your own T-Bill ladder at TreasuryDirect.gov or via a brokerage account with a bond desk like Vanguard and Fidelity. Here are the current Treasury Bill rates. As of 1/8/19, a 4-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.40% annualized interest and a 52-week T-Bill had the equivalent of 2.60% annualized interest.
  • The Goldman Sachs Access Treasury 0-1 Year ETF (GBIL) has a 2.24% SEC yield and the SPDR Bloomberg Barclays 1-3 Month T-Bill ETF (BIL) has a 2.16% SEC yield. GBIL appears to have a slightly longer average maturity than BIL.

US Savings Bonds
Series I Savings Bonds offer rates that are linked to inflation and backed by the US government. You must hold them for at least a year. There are annual purchase limits. If you redeem them within 5 years there is a penalty of the last 3 months of interest.

  • “I Bonds” bought between November 2018 and April 2019 will earn a 2.82% rate for the first six months. The rate of the subsequent 6-month period will be based on inflation again. More info here.
  • In mid-April 2019, the CPI will be announced and you will have a short period where you will have a very close estimate of the rate for the next 12 months. I will have another post up at that time.

Prepaid Cards with Attached Savings Accounts
A small subset of prepaid debit cards have an “attached” FDIC-insured savings account with exceptionally high interest rates. The negatives are that balances are capped, and there are many fees that you must be careful to avoid (lest they eat up your interest). Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. There is a long list of previous offers that have already disappeared with little notice. I don’t personally recommend or use any of these anymore.

  • The only notable card left in this category is Mango Money at 6% APY on up to $2,500, but there are many hoops to jump through. Signature purchases of $1,500 or more and a minimum balance of $25.00 at the end of the month is needed to qualify for the 6.00%.

Rewards checking accounts
These unique checking accounts pay above-average interest rates, but with unique risks. You have to jump through certain hoops, and if you make a mistake you won’t earn any interest for that month. Some folks don’t mind the extra work and attention required, while others do. Rates can also drop to near-zero quickly, leaving a “bait-and-switch” feeling. I don’t use any of these anymore, either.

  • The best one left is Consumers Credit Union, which offers 3.09% to 5.09% APY on up to a $10k balance depending on your qualifying activity. The highest tier requires their credit card in addition to their debit card (other credit cards offer $500+ in sign-up bonuses). Keep your 12 debit purchases just above the $100 requirement, as for every $500 in monthly purchases you may be losing out on cash back rewards elsewhere. Find a local rewards checking account at DepositAccounts.
  • If you’re looking for a non-rewards high-yield checking account, MemoryBank has a checking account with no debit card requirements at 1.60% APY.

Certificates of deposit (greater than 1 year)
You might have larger balances, either because you are using CDs instead of bonds or you simply want a large cash reserves. By finding a bank CD with a reasonable early withdrawal penalty, you can enjoy higher rates but maintain access in a true emergency. Alternatively, consider building a CD ladder of different maturity lengths (ex. 1/2/3/4/5-years) such that you have access to part of the ladder each year, but your blended interest rate is higher than a savings account. When one CD matures, use that money to buy another 5-year CD.

  • INOVA Federal CU has a 14-month CD at 3.00% APY and a 20-month at 3.15% APY ($200 minimum). 180 day early withdrawal penalty. Premier America CU has 15-month CD at 3.10% APY ($1,000 minimum). Anyone can join these credit unions with via membership in partner organization (see application).
  • United States Senate Federal Credit Union has a 5-year Share Certificate at 3.69% APY ($60k min), 3.62% APY ($20k min), or 3.56% APY ($1k min). Note that the early withdrawal penalty is a full year of interest. Anyone can join this credit union via American Consumer Council.
  • You can buy certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 2-year non-callable CD at 2.75% APY and a 5-year non-callable CD at 3.20% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs listed by Fidelity.

Longer-term Instruments
I’d use these with caution due to increased interest rate risk, but I still track them to see the rest of the current yield curve.

  • Willing to lock up your money for 10+ years? You can buy long-term certificates of deposit via the bond desks of Vanguard and Fidelity. These “brokered CDs” offer FDIC insurance, but they don’t come with predictable fixed early withdrawal penalties. As of this writing, Vanguard is showing a 10-year non-callable CD at 3.45% APY. Watch out for higher rates from callable CDs from Fidelity. Matching the overall yield curve, current CD rates do not rise much higher as you extend beyond a 5-year maturity.
  • 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). I view this as a huge early withdrawal penalty. You could also view it as long-term bond and thus a hedge against deflation, but only if you can hold on for 20 years. As of 1/9/19, the 20-year Treasury Bond rate was 2.86%.

All rates were checked as of 1/9/19.



My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation and Performance Tracking, Year-End 2018

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

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Here’s my final quarterly portfolio update for Q4 2018. This is how I track my real-world holdings, including 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excluding our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our household expenses. As of 2018, we are “semi-retired” and have started spending a portion of our dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, adds up my balances, tracks my performance, and calculates my asset allocation. I still use my manual Google Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it helps me calculate how much I need in each asset class to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here are my YTD performance and current asset allocation visually, per the “Holdings” and “Allocation” tabs of my Personal Capital account, respectively:

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Treasury Fund (VFITX, VFIUX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
Fidelity Inflation-Protected Bond Index Fund (FIPDX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I make a small bet that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than the more large and broad indexes, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I believe that it is important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surrounding it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith based on a solid foundation of knowledge and experience.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I have settled into a long-term target ratio of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. (Small changes to 65/35 or 70/30 are also fine.) With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Holdings commentary. On the bond side, I still like high-quality bonds with a short-to-intermediate duration of under 5 years or so. This means US Treasuries, TIPS, or investment-grade municipal bonds. I don’t want to worry about my bonds. Right now, my bond portfolio is about 1/3rd muni bonds, 1/3rd treasury bonds, and 1/3rd inflation-linked treasury bonds (and savings bonds).

On the stocks side, I made a few comments in my 2018 year-end asset class return review. US stocks went down in 2018, but international and emerging markets stocks did even worse. On the flipside, international and emerging markets are a lot cheaper based on various metrics. I remain satisfied with my mix, knowing that I will own whatever successful businesses come out of the US, China, or wherever in the future.

Performance commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio went down 6.9% in 2018. I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has lost 6% (excludes dividends), Foreign Developed stocks lost 14%, and the US Aggregate bond index was basically flat. Of course I didn’t want to see my value fall, but most of the change was due to a lower P/E ratio as opposed to lower earnings from companies.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund – one is 60/40 and the other is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of -5.9% for 2018.

I’ll share about more about the income aspect in a separate post.

Asset Class Returns by ETF, 2018 Year-End Review

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

yearendreviewAnother one in the books! I don’t track the market daily as I think the discussion is full of noise and after-the-fact justifications. I check my portfolio quarterly to see where to reinvest dividends. At the end of the year, I like to record the annual returns for select asset classes as benchmarked by passive mutual funds and ETFs. Here is the 2018 data taken from Morningstar after market close 12/31/18.

Commentary. In 2017, the performance of every asset class was positive. The lowest positive return was from short-term US Treasuries. For 2018, the performance of nearly every asset class was negative. The highest return was from… short-term US Treasuries. T-Bills and short-term Treasury bonds are slow, steady, and safe.

My favorite “keep-it-simple” multi-asset balanced fund, the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund (roughly 90% diversified stocks and 10% bonds) was down about 7.9% in 2018. (It was up about 21.4% in 2017.) The benchmark for our personal portfolio, a more conservative mix of 70% stocks/30% bonds as we are close to living off it, was down about 6.5% in 2018. (It was up about 15.1% in 2017.)

Despite their relatively poor performance this year, I’m still satisfied with my international and emerging markets holdings on a valuation basis. I’m getting an overall earnings yield on VXUS (Total World ex-US) of ~7.8%, and out of that a dividend yield of ~3.2%. This is compared to VTI (Total US) with an overall earnings yield of ~5.5% and out of that a dividend yield of ~2.0%.

On the bond side, I am also happy that interest rates are back to the point where you actually might earn more than inflation. Currently, the 1-year US Treasury yields 2.63% and a 10-year yields 2.7%. The 5-year TIPS has a 1.0% real yield and a 10-year TIPS has 1.0% real yield.

As usual, I have no predictions about stock prices. However, I am confident that the hundreds of business that I own through these ETFs and mutual funds will choose to distribute a portion of their profits to me in the form of cash dividends. I am also confident that my US government and municipal bonds will pay the promised interest on time. I’ll try my best to spend those dividends and interest and ignore the price swings.

Reader Question: Thoughts on Recent Stock Market Drop?

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

I don’t really enjoy talking about stock market movements, but given that it has been the most common reader question recently and I wanted to start answering more reader questions, here we are. My overall take is the same:

  • In the short term, nobody can predict the movement of the overall stock market. Especially over the next year. Sure, anyone can make a guess (“forecast”) and sometimes those guesses are right. But last time I looked, the billionaire list is overwhelmingly business owners, not market timers.
  • In the long term, I still believe that businesses will grow in value as product of human ingenuity and hard work. I like owning the entire haystack, knowing that I will own the next Amazon, Google, or Visa.
  • In the medium term, the awesome run during the last 10 years greatly increase the odds of modest returns over the next 10 years.

If you are already making withdrawals from your stock market investments (like me), that last bullet point may make you nervous. As a result of having modest expectations, my main goal is to not sell any shares. I don’t plan to spend 4% of my portfolio given the sequence of returns risk of a 40+ year time horizon. My plan is to limit my withdrawals to just the dividends distributed, whatever that might be.

Above is a chart of S&P 500 earnings, dividends, and buybacks over the last 20 years, via Axios. Dividends and buybacks are both ways that companies can direct profits to shareholders. However, you can see that the earnings jumped around and the stock buybacks tended to go up and down with those earnings, but the dividend payout had a much smoother ride. Companies raise dividends cautiously because they know that their profits can be cyclical, but their shareholders expect their dividends to be consistent.

If you are NOT making any withdrawals from your stock market investments, then your job is to tune out the short-term noise, and maintain the long-term faith in what you own. Why do you own stocks? Why do you own bonds? Why do you own real estate? I know that simple money rules may fit on a 3×5 index card, but you need a foundation of knowledge to keep you following those rules. Otherwise it’s just like saying being healthy is “don’t eat too much, and eat mostly plants”. Simple is not the same as easy.

This is also why financial advisors recommend a written “Investment Policy Statement”. That’s where you are supposed to write these things down when you are calm, so you can read it again when you are panicked.

Don’t anchor yourself to the high point of your portfolio. You reached $10,000 and now it’s $8,000? You reached $100,000 and now it’s down to $80,000? That high number was just a mirage anyway. Remember, the stock market is always either at an all-time high or in a drawdown. See: The Only Two States of Your Portfolio: Happy All-Time High or Sad Drawdown.