Jessica Swesey is peeved, and the 36-year-old mom from Oakland, Calif., USA, is not alone. Her concern, which millions of Americans share, may be affecting your own retirement plans.
Swesey and her husband are trying to do things right – even while raising a three-year-old, they are managing to put a little money away every month – but the cash in their savings account is earning them nothing. Actually, less than nothing: When you factor in inflation, the Sweseys are losing ground every day. “Our rates just got lowered again, to less than 0.5 percent,” says Swesey, a project manager for a digital marketing agency.
“We’re hearing this all the time,” says Jon Teran, a member of the Rotary Club of Covina, Calif., and an investment adviser with Capstone Pacific Investment Strategies. “They’re asking, ‘What can I do to get more interest on my nest egg?’ Because when you consider inflation and taxes, many people are losing money – and they’re starting to get fed up.”
But what looks like a disadvantage in one area – such as your bank account – can be an advantage in others. The Sweseys turned low interest rates in their favor by buying a home two years ago. Now every time they pay their monthly nut, they reap the benefits of mortgage rates that are the lowest they’ve been in decades.
They’re also paying attention to other asset classes – maybe a beaten-down Internet stock like Facebook, or real estate investment trusts (REITs), which are rebounding after the lengthy housing bust.
Should you stay in safe havens during volatile economic times? Or should you sail out and take a risk on investments that might get you closer to your retirement goals? “It seems people are willing to take more and more risks to get that return,” Teran says. “My message is that whatever you do, be very careful.” Here are some tips to help you as you weigh your options:
Ponder the purpose of your savings.
The money you have in safe harbors, such as a savings account, might be there for a reason. Maybe it’s your emergency fund, containing a few months’ worth of expenses in case you lose your job or face sudden medical bills. Or perhaps you’re saving up for a house or an investment property and will need to tap those reserves to come up with a down payment in a year or two.
If that’s the case, you shouldn’t be gambling with that money by shifting it into riskier asset classes like equities. As of the end of October, the national average on money-market deposit accounts is 0.49 percent, and interest checking accounts are only slightly better, at 0.52 percent. But accounts at FDIC-insured institutions are guaranteed up to $250,000, or $500,000 for couples with a joint account, so you know your money is safe.
Also, remember that not all bank accounts are alike. Sites such as Bankrate.com have consumer-friendly search engines that let you compare what different banks offer. “There’s a real difference between settling for the average and pursuing the highest interest rates out there,” says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. “If you look at regular savings accounts, the average pays 0.1 percent, and the top yields more than 1 percent. Now, that may not blow anyone’s hair back. But you’re getting 10 times the average interest rate by shopping around.”
With your longer-term cash, look to other asset classes. If you won’t need to tap into those savings within the next few years, you can focus on long-term averages, which are roughly 10 percent a year for stocks and 6 percent a year for bonds. In the wake of the financial crisis, stock prices have climbed back to multiyear highs, with the Dow Jones industrial average above 13,000 as of the end of October.
In terms of risk, bonds offer a midpoint between cash and equities. “We’ve seen money coming into bond funds from both sides,” says Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Chicago-based research firm Morningstar. “On the one end people are fed up with the volatility of equities, and on the other end they’re fed up with earning next to nothing on their cash.”
Often they’ll choose a popular core bond fund. But investors are also looking to bonds from emerging markets, such as the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), which offer higher returns than the U.S. government. Recent 10-year Treasury bonds, for instance, were offering 1.66 percent a year.
Blue-chip companies are also enjoying renewed popularity. “Investors these days are interested in anything that pays dividends,” Benz says. The average dividend yield on S&P 500 companies is roughly 2 percent a year – which is better than what you’d get from any Treasury bond, and which carries with it the potential of stock-price appreciation.
Don’t forget real estate. Interest rates are hovering near record lows, and the Federal Reserve has signaled its intention to keep them there until the economic recovery strengthens. Rates for a 30-year fixed mortgage were at 3.52 percent at the end of October, and home prices have fallen by about 35 percent from their 2006 peak. The National Association of Realtors’ Housing Affordability Index is at its most attractive levels since data collection began in 1970.
Housing cycles tend to be long. If you are in the market for a home that you could envision living in for years to come, have enough savings for the down payment, and can comfortably afford the monthly mortgage payment, then it may be time to pull the trigger. In doing so, you’ve neatly flipped the interest-rate problem on its head. For most Americans, their homes end up being by far the largest portion of their estates.
Stay nimble for when interest rates change.
The economic conditions today won’t always be this way. Interest rates will rise again, savings accounts and CDs will start to offer higher rates, and then you can revisit your retirement playbook. You may find that you’ll want to back away from the added risk of fixed income or equities in favor of the guaranteed returns of bank products.
For savers who are desperate for returns right now, keep this in mind before rewriting your retirement plan: “The economy goes in cycles. At some point, they’ll raise interest rates again,” Teran says. “Yes, savers are fed up and frustrated right now. Just remember that there’s a time and a place for risk.”