At today’s low interest rates, no bank product – savings, reward checking, money market, or CD – is going to earn you much more than 1% on your investment. That’s enough to stay current with inflation, at least for now, but not enough to build up your savings over time.
So if you want to increase the size of your nest egg, you need to look at other types of investments that offer a better return. Earning a higher return usually means taking on a bit more risk – but sometimes you can also boost your return if you’re willing to invest more money or tie it up longer.
Treasury securities are basically loans that you make to the U.S. Government. They’re sold through auctions, so the actual value of a security depends on what investors are willing to pay for it on that particular day – just like stocks and bonds. You can buy them through brokers, some banks, or the online marketplace at TreasuryDirect.
Treasury securities come in three types, all sold in $100 increments:
- Treasury Bills. Known as T-bills for short, Treasury bills are short-term securities that mature in anywhere from four weeks to a year. Instead of paying interest on a fixed schedule, T-bills are sold at a discount from their face value. For example, you could buy a $1,000 T-bill for $990, hold it until it matures, and then cash it in for $1,000. Treasury bills don’t tie up your cash for very long, but they also don’t pay very much. In auctions at TreasuryDirect in early 2016, discount rates ranged from 0.17% for a 4-week T-bill to 0.66% for a 52-week T-bill. Still, that’s more than you could earn with a CD of the same length.
- Treasury Notes. These medium-term securities range from 2 years to 10 years in length. Their price can be greater than, less than, or equal to their face value, depending on demand, and they pay interest every six months until they mature. You can sell a Treasury note before it reaches maturity, but you can’t always get full value for it. If interest rates have risen since the time you bought it, investors have little reason to buy your note, since newly issued notes pay more. In early 2016, the interest rates for 5-year Treasury notes fell between 1% and 1.5% – better than you could do with a 5-year CD.
- Treasury Bonds. These extra-long-term securities take 30 years to mature and pay interest every six months. Like Treasury notes, they can be sold at any time, but you could lose money on the sale. This makes Treasury bonds a poor choice for any funds that you’re likely to need in the short term.
Treasury securities are very safe because they’re backed by the U.S. Government. So unless the government defaults on its loans – an extremely unlikely scenario – you’re guaranteed to get your principal back, along with any interest that’s due to you, on any Treasury securities you hold until maturity,
However, if you have to sell a Treasury security before it matures, you could lose money on the deal – especially when interest rates are rising. You also risk losing purchasing power if the inflation rate increases beyond the interest rate you’re earning. Both these risks are much lower with Treasury bills, since they mature so quickly that you can’t get stuck with them for long in a changing economy.
Money Market Funds
Money market funds are a type of bond mutual fund that invests in low-risk, short-term securities, such as T-bills, CDs, and municipal bonds. This is the type of fund that attracted so many investors back in the early ’80s, eventually leading to the creation of the money market account. However, a money market fund isn’t the same as a money market account: It’s a security that’s bought and sold on the open market, and it isn’t backed by the FDIC. You can buy shares in a money market fund through brokerage houses like Ally Invest or TD Ameritrade, mutual fund companies, and some large banks.
Like any mutual fund, money market funds are liquid – you can buy and sell your shares at any time. Money market funds give you a same-day settlement, meaning that the cash shows up in your account the day you make the sale. They’re also more accessible than most funds, because most of them allow you to make transactions from the account by check.
Money market funds are also considered a safe investment because they deal only in stable, short-term securities. However, this doesn’t mean that these funds are risk-free. For one thing, their earnings are uncertain because interest rates fluctuate. However, the bigger risk is that the principal itself could lose value.
The share price of a money market fund, known as its net asset value (NAV), is supposed to remain fixed at $1 per share. Fund managers work very hard to maintain this NAV, because if it ever drops below $1 – a problem called “breaking the buck” – the investors lose some of their principal. This is very rare, but it’s not unheard of. It happened once in 1994 and again in 2008, leading the government to set up a temporary insurance program and set stricter rules for money market funds.
Another risk of money market funds is that, even if you don’t lose your principal, it could lose purchasing power as a result of inflation. CNBC reports that in February 2016, the interest rates on money market funds were down to 0.1%. That’s barely more than you get on the average savings account, and nowhere near enough to keep pace with inflation. So as a place to park your cash, money market funds provide no real benefit compared to banks.
Other types of bond mutual funds offer higher returns in exchange for a bit more risk. You can find recommendations for the top-rated funds in various categories, including bond funds, in U.S. News.
Three types of bond funds covered by U.S. News are generally viewed as relatively safe investments:
- Government Bond Funds. These funds invest in Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities issued by government agencies, such as Ginnie Mae. However, while these securities are government-backed, the funds themselves are not and can fluctuate dramatically in value. The safest government bond funds are short-term (investing in securities that mature in one to four years) or mid-term (investing in securities with maturities of four to ten years). Long-term funds, which invest in securities that take longer than 10 years to mature, are riskier, because they’re more likely to lose value in response to rising interest rates. Short-term government funds recommended by U.S. News have returned between 0.15% and 1.65% over the past year, while the top picks for mid-term funds have returned 0.65% to 1.83%.
- Municipal Bond Funds. These funds invest in municipal bonds, or “munis,” issued by state and local governments. These are somewhat riskier investments than Treasuries, since there’s more chance that a city or state could go bankrupt than there is for the U.S. Government. However, municipal bonds offer one big benefit: The interest on them is exempt from federal tax, and some bonds are free of state and local taxes as well. So, even though these bonds generally have lower yields than taxable bonds, they can offer a better return once you factor in the lower taxes. According to Standard & Poors, municipal bonds have yielded an average of 4.87% over the past 10 years, tax free – a much better return than Treasury securities.
- Short-Term Corporate Bond Funds. These funds invest in bonds issued by corporations, with maturities ranging from one to four years. These can sometimes provide better returns than government or municipal bond funds, but they’re also riskier, because companies are more likely to default on their debts. They also don’t offer the tax advantages of government and municipal bond funds. Your best bets in this category are investment-grade bond funds, which invest in companies that have very good or excellent credit.
- Bond funds are fairly liquid investments. You can buy and sell shares at will through a mutual fund company or a brokerage house, and you can usually add to your investments at any time. They also offer the chance for a higher return than you can get with bank accounts or Treasuries.
However, the higher return of bond funds also comes with a higher risk. We recommend that you evaluate your risk tolerance before investing any of your emergency savings in any bond fund – even a short-term one.
Pro tip: You can also purchase fully secured bonds through Worthy for as little as $10. These bonds have a 36 month term and will earn a 5% return. You can cash out at any time with no penalty. Bonds through Worthy are used for small businesses.