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Best Strategy for Your Savings - Alternatives to CD Ladders

With interest rates so low, you may have second thoughts about buying new long-term CDs. For those with CD ladders, maturing CDs are rolled over into new CDs regardless of the interest rate environment. Instead of continuing or starting the traditional CD ladder with long-term CDs, you may want to consider alternatives. I thought it would be useful to review a few CD ladder alternatives that could provide better returns and more liquidity in today's very low interest rate environment. Some of these alternatives are variations of the traditional CD ladder that could provide a little better rate of return if interest rates do shoot up in the next year or two.

Alternative #1: High-Yield Savings Accounts

This maximizes liquidity, and rates will rise once the interest rate environment improves. However, while you wait for interest rates to rise, you are currently losing out between 1% to 2% in yield. That's about the difference between the top internet savings accounts (currently from 1.50% to 2.00%) and the best 5-year CD rates (currently from 3.25% to 3.50%).

Alternative #2: High-Yield Reward Checking Accounts

With reward checking you have about the same liquidity as the savings accounts, but rates can be just as high (and even higher) than 5-year CD rates. This may seem like the perfect alternative to the CD ladder. However, if you have a lot in savings, the reward checking balance caps will be an issue. Most have caps of $25K. Those that have larger caps usually have lower rates. Balances over the cap will earn a much lower interest rate. You can have multiple reward checking accounts to get around this cap issue, but this takes more work to meet the debit card usage requirements.

Another potential issue with reward checking accounts is that there's no guarantee on the yield. Back in 2007, there were many reward checking accounts paying 6% APY with no balance caps. Those who decided to keep all their savings in these accounts may have wished they had taken advantage of PenFed's 6% long-term CDs. Most of those 6% reward checking accounts are now paying under 4%.

Alternative #3: Low-Penalty Long-Term CDs without Laddering

When a CD ladder has been established, the CDs should be maturing at regular intervals. This serves two purposes: 1) Liquidity - A portion of your money can be accessed without an early withdrawal penalty and without too much time, 2) Higher interest rates - Each time a CD matures, you can roll it over into a new CD that can take advantage of higher CD rates (assuming interest rates are rising).

These two purposes can be achieved with low-penalty long-term CDs without laddering. An example of such a CD is the 5-year CD at Ally Bank that currently has only a 60-day early withdrawal penalty. If you need the money, you can just break one of the CDs. The money lost to the penalty is minimal. If rates have gone up so that similar 5-year CD rates are much higher, you can break the CDs and reinvest into the higher paying CDs. With a small penalty, it won't take much time for the higher paying CDs to make up for the money lost to the penalty.

One downside with a low-penalty CD is that the interest rate may not be the best. You will likely be able to get a higher rate on a CD with a more traditional early withdrawal penalty at another bank or credit union.

One potential issues with this approach is that the bank may not allow an early withdrawal regardless of the penalty. Some CD disclosures give the bank the right to refuse an early withdrawal request, and I have heard about cases in which this has occurred (see post).

A similar issue is if the bank increases the early withdrawal penalty during the CD term. Many have been concerned about this possibility at Ally Bank. There should be no chance of this based on the assurances I received from an Ally Bank official (see post).

Alternative #4: Short-Term CD Ladders

CD ladders don't have to invest in long-term CDs. CD ladders could start with 3-month, 6-month 9-month and 1-year CDs. When the short-term CDs mature, you roll those over into 1-year terms. The advantage of the short-term CD ladder is that you don't lock into long-term CDs at a time of very low interest rates. When interest rates rise, you'll quickly start to take advantage of the higher rates as your CDs mature every 3 months.

The problem with this approach is that you don't earn a yield that's much better than a savings account yield. In fact, most CDs with maturities under 1-year have yields less than the top savings account yields. Currently, it's hard to find 3-month CD yields above 1%. For 12-month CDs it's hard to find rates above 1.75%.

Alternative #5: Barbell CD Ladder

Instead of all long-term CDs in a CD ladder, you could use a barbell strategy in which only half of your money is in long-term CDs. The other half could be in short-term CDs, savings accounts or reward checking accounts. The long-term CDs will do better if interest rates stay low. The liquid accounts may do better if interest rates shoot up.

Bottom Line

If you want to keep things simple for your safe money, a traditional CD ladder with long-term CDs works well. It does not require you to predict future interest rates. These CD ladder alternatives may have better returns if rates shoot up in the next year or two. Rates will eventually rise, but no one knows when. The longer this rate environment continues, the better the traditional CD ladder strategy will be in terms of the best rate of return.

Related Pages: CD rates

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Previous Comments
No Stock 4 me
  |     |   Comment #1
Its another reason I'm looking at that SunTrust deal, the 2 CD's @3%, they  are kinda long term, but I have a feeling he way things are it may take at least a year and a half to even see regular rates back at 3%.

But I'm also doing that barbell thing., its just that 3% is looking better all the time with the way this crap is going. And Uncle Ben isn't in any hurry.

I'm just a bit leary about the rest of the banking system, and the financial problems, I mean even if your under this FDIC thing, you could still ged F'd if the banks decide to close up for a while and you can't get anything out.  This is one reason I take a hit on compounding and take my interest monthly, into a separate MM account, so at least I have access to something while the CD's mature.

No stock 4 me
  |     |   Comment #2
And here is what I mean about the financial situation with banks. I know SunTrust has its feet into a lot of this commercial stuff.


"The commercial real estate bust is in full swing.  This $3 trillion mortgage market is standing to push hundreds of banks into failure and adding additional strain to the embattled FDIC." 
No stock 4 me
  |     |   Comment #3
I seen where SunTrust is rated at D-, I think that's like 2 stars or whatever.

But than again it may be one of them "too big to fail" deals, like Wachovia was, and if it comes down to it , would be taken over by another big to fail bank.

 I moved money out of Wachoivia that was getting 6% only to find that they were taken by wells fargo, and all money stayed safe. I still have one CD I left there still getting that 6% till Oct 2011, so Its a crap shoot.
  |     |   Comment #4
I have talked to Ally bank and I have looked at their penalty clause as written. I see nothing about allowing the bank to "choose" not to let you withdraw funds if you pay the penalty which is clearly stated to be 60 days interest. I cannot find the caveat anywhere in it's document. I talked to a banking official at another bank and she informed me that it would be against bank regulations if they changed their policy retroactively. Comments ?
  |     |   Comment #5
The bottom line at this time is not ncecessarily to be selective in the bank or credit union, other than to assure yourself that they're members of the FDIC or the NCUA, but to provide that your overall rate or return is the most optimal for you.  This doesn't mean maximum, as your know. 

For me the barbell strategy is the most advantageous way of providing an optimal return without committing too much to long term.  For me long term is 3 yr max.  My reason for going a longer term route on a small % of my funds is the prospects for low inflation.  (Not because of the expectation of full employment since so many of our better jobs are still be exported to other nations, but because of the prospects of not having to provide a higher rate of return on treasuries in order to attract foreign funds.)

So long as other nations and their citizens continue to look to the U.S. as the safest haven for their money, then the prospects for higher rates of return by the U.S. remain low.  And, of course, this is truly ironic in view of our balance of payments problem, our overall debt (now $13 trillion and climibing), our inability to balance our own budget, the ever climbing debt issues of our individual states (CA in particular), and our own occupants to cut their spending to the point that their own levels of debt begin diminishing to levels more commensurate with their own levels of declinging real income.  Further, the Fed is not quite ready to start dumping about $1.7 trillion of junk.  By doing so would further exasperate the ongoing issue of defective mortgages, both those of individuals and those in the commercial sector.
  |     |   Comment #7
If you have IRAs, here are some points to consider when formulating your investment strategy:

1. Some institutions such as Navy FCU allow penalty-free early withdrawals from IRA-CDs at any time and for any reason.

2. Some institutions (perhaps many or all) will allow penalty-free mandatory (age 70-1/2 and above) withdrawals from IRA-CDs.

3. Some institutions offer fairly high regular IRA account interest rates (no CD required). I'm currently getting 3.16% APY on a day-of-deposit to day-of-withdrawal account at a credit union. There is no penalty for withdrawal. This is their regular rate which has been consistent for many years.

As always be careful about withdrawing IRA funds. If you don't want to have a taxable event, you should re-invest in a new IRA within 60 days.

across the pond
  |     |   Comment #9
and i thought we had problems
  |     |   Comment #11
Re: Anonymous - #5, Friday, May 28, 2010 - 11:20 AM

Your post is right on the mark and the barbell strategy is indeed the way to go under these circumstances.
  |     |   Comment #13
no stock 4 me bla blah blah
  |     |   Comment #14
Thanks for all the great info on your website.  I have 2 Ally "raise your rate' cd at 2%.  I'm going to look at that 5 year cd strategy you mentioned too.  Here is another recommendation too.  I have Managers PIMCO Bond (MBDFX).  Yield is 3.3% and YTD return 5.68%.  5 star rated.  Been a life saver for me lately wityh rates so bad.  Top Holdings:


% Assets

YTD Return %

10 Yr US Treasury Note Future Sep 2010



10 Yr US Treasury Note Future Jun 2010



2 Yr US Treasury Future Jun 2010



2 Yr US Treasury Note Future Sep 2010



2 Yr US Treasury Future Mar 2010










  |     |   Comment #15
One more thing..I purchased Managers PIMCO Bond (MBDFX) at E*trade.  No transaction fees to purchase or sell.  You just have to hold it for 90 days or $50 fee to redeem. I get a dividend check every month.  

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