Every few weeks, someone emails me asking for the best short-term investment.
They're usually saving up for their first home and they want that money to work for them, not just sit around. They don't want to throw it in some bitcoin or anything crazy like that, they just want some kind of return on it. The 0.01% they get just isn't doing it for them.
When I think about my money, I like to think of it as being in time capsules. Anything I need within the next five years needs to be safe.
100% no questions asked, non-volatile and safe.
I still want to get a few cents in interest though. With inflation, anything in cash is losing purchasing power each and every day. If I can slow down that process, I'm all the happier.
What is a “Safe” Investment?
For the purposes of this list, I look at two types of safe investments. 100% safe and “mostly” safe (low-risk).
When you talk about investments, they come in two main varieties – debt and equity.
With debts, you lend your money to an entity and they pay you interest. With equity, you give your money to an entity and you can sell that ownership stake at a later time, hopefully for a nice gain. Neither are inherently safe or risky.
With debts, the safety of that loan depends on the entity. Most safe investments are structured as loans. Riskier investments are often structured as ownership.
With a loan, I'll give you a little extra interest if you promise you won't ask for your money back sooner than I expect. If you lend me money for 12 months, I'll give you one interest rate. If you lend me money for 30 years, it's higher. If you want your money back earlier, maybe I'll take some of that interest back. (this is, essentially, a certificate of deposit too)
With ownership, you buy a piece of me, my business, or some other asset. You may get a periodic payment (dividends) but the return is based on equity appreciation and when you sell the asset. It's riskier because the ownership piece can go up or down in value. Sometimes it can go up and down in value independent of the asset, as often happens with publicly traded stocks.
Safe investments are loans to entities deemed safe. Lending money to the United States Government is safe because it's likely to be repaid. Lending money to your cousin and his new business venture is less safe. Lending money to your 6-yo nephew is even less safe.
Safety does not mean you will not lose money or purchasing power. Inflation is an ever-present spectre and it's why you could get a pack of baseball cards for 5 cents many many years ago (though you could probably still find bazooka gum for a nickel!).
Interest rates are also a concern. As interest rates rise, any fixed interest rate investment loses relative value. If you try to sell it on the market, it'll be worth less than what you paid to get into it (in the case of a bond fund). If you hold it until maturity, you'll still get all your safe money back in many cases. Safe mostly means your principal is protected.
What are some safe short-term investments?
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Earn Bank Deposit Promotions
Earn bonuses at banks running huge sign-up promotions. Banks are competing heavily for business, including giving you a few hundred bucks to deposit some money, set up a direct deposit, and wait.
I keep an updated list of the best bank promotions with a minimum $100 bonus.
You have to keep an eye on the minimum deposit amount (often to avoid a maintenance fee) and other requirements but the money is out there just for the taking.
Online Savings Account
Your brick and mortar bank pays you nothing in interest (don't let the 0.01% APY fool you, that's almost a joke if it weren't an insult!) but online banks will pay you at least 1-2% each year. You won't get rich, you won't even beat inflation, but you're beating brick and mortar banks.
If your #1 bank isn't online, you're giving up easy money. Online banks have solved nearly every banking situation for their customers. With large ATM networks, or ATM surcharge refunds, powerful smartphone apps including remote check deposit, and responsive online customer service – there really is no reason you don't have an account.
(one exception, depositing cash is still difficult but how often do you do that?)
Certificates of Deposit
Certificates of deposit are the textbook example of trading flexibility for more interest. Certificates of deposit are popular because they're FDIC insured and will not lose value. Certificates of deposit are really easy to compare because most banks offer the same terms.
The only difference to look at (beyond the interest rate) is the early withdrawal penalty, what you pay (or surrender) by closing a CD early. Most banks will take out 90 days of interest on CDs with a term shorter than 12 months, 180 days on terms greater than 12 months. Banks that offer 60+ month CDs may take as much as 365 days of interest.
One anomaly in the typical schedule is Ally Bank, who only charges 60 days of interest on CDs with a term of 24 months or less. As far as I know, they're the only bank that charges just 60 days of interest on a 2-year CD.
You can increase your overall return by taking advantage of CD ladders. This is when you stagger your savings into longer maturity certificates of deposit. More details are in the linked article explaining how to use them for emergency funds.
Brokered Certificates of Deposit are slightly different than regular bank Certificates of Deposit, so I broke them out into their own category. They're called “brokered” CDs because you buy them through a brokerage firm, like Vanguard or Fidelity. A brokered CD is still initiated by a bank, so it has the same FDIC insurance protections as regular CDs, they're just purchased through brokerages.
What's nice about brokered CDs is that the brokerage will sell you CDs from a variety of banks. This can include better yields at obscure banks you may have never thought about. This also means you could, in theory, sell the brokered CDs on the market but generally speaking the market is small for these.
Brokered CDs can also come in two varieties – callable and non-callable. Callable means the bank can “call” the CD and buy it back. Regular CDs can also be callable and non-callable, though most are non-callable. Callable CDs typically have higher interest rates because you take on more risk – the bank can simply call the CD if they can get rates lower.
Lastly, the minimum deposit amount for most brokered CDs will be much higher.
Rewards Checking Accounts
Rewards checking accounts were really popular about a decade ago and have since fallen a bit out of favor. Back then, you could get 5% APY at an online bank and regular banks were looking to compete. Some offered as much as 10% APY on your savings as long as you met a few requirements.
Among other simpler requirements, like electronic statements, the most important requirement was using their debit card at least ten to fifteen times each statement period. Banks were able to give you 10% APY on your savings because they were passing on some of the transaction fees from the debit card.
Nowadays, rewards checking accounts are harder to come but still available. There is a hidden cost. If you use your debit card 10-15 times a month, that's potential cashback you're surrendering by not using a cashback credit card.
Treasury securities are bonds sold by the United States Treasury, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government.
There are a ton of Treasury bond products (this is just a very brief recap of each):
- Treasury Bills: T-bills are bonds you buy at a discount to its face value (par value). When the bond matures, you're paid the par value.
- Treasury Notes: T-notes are bonds you buy at face value but pay interest every six months until they mature (maturity terms are 2, 3, 5, 7, and 10 years).
- Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS): TIPS are marketable securities (so you can sell them on the secondary market) whose principal is adjusted by the CPI (Consumer Price Index). When the TIPS matures, you get get the adjusted amount or the original principal, whichever is greater (ie. deflation doesn't hurt you).
- Treasury Bonds: Treasury bonds are only available with a 30 year term and pays interest every six months until it matures.
- Floating Rate Notes (FRNs): FRNs are two year notes that can be sold below, at, or above face value. When it matures, you get face value.
- Series EE Savings Bonds: Series EE bonds are bonds that earn a fixed rate of interest, announced every May 1st and November 1st, for up to 30 years. Interest is subject to federal taxes. Qualified taxpayers can exclude all/part of the interest if it is used to pay for qualified higher education expenses.
- Series I Savings Bonds: Series I bonds are bonds that earn a fixed and floating rate of interest, adjusted and announced every May 1st and November 1st based on the CPI, for up to 30 years. Interest is subject to federal taxes. Qualified taxpayers can exclude all/part of the interest if it is used to pay for qualified higher education expenses.
Alternatively, you can invest in mutual funds that hold Treasury bills (among others). This is “riskier” than holding the bills directly because it's a fund that can be transacted and has an independent value. When interest rates rise, the value of the fund will fall (since the value of a Treasury bill will go down as interest rates go up).
But in return for this risk, you get the flexibility of redeeming your shares when you want without the same penalties.
Tax Lien Certificate Auctions
When a property owner fails to pay a local or county tax, the government will put a tax lien on the property. Then the government auctions that tax lien to the public periodically. Investors can buy the tax lien at auction, pay the government, and then go collect the lien plus interest, set by the law in the state. If the property owner doesn't pay the lien during the redemption period, the holder of the lien can foreclose. Liens are first in line for payment, ahead of even first mortgages.
These are “safe” in that the lien is supported by the property. There is risk involved though. When you go to the auction, the list of properties may be out of date (some people pay off the lien between when the list of properties is published and the auction). You win an auction and the lien is on a piece of property worth far less than you expected or some other property, such that you wouldn't want to foreclose.
There's also quite a bit of work. You have to do your property research ahead of time, you need to try to collect on the lien, and you need to follow up because liens can expire worthless. It's not like filling out a form and depositing money into a CD… so do your homework.
Low Risk Investments
The list of 100% “safe” investments is very short. You just saw it. 🙂
There are, however, relatively low-risk investments that may make sense.
There's a term in investing known as the risk-free rate. It's the rate of return you can get on an investment with absolutely zero risk. For most investments, the risk free rate is whatever the latest auction of the 30-year Treasury bond is offering. Technically, it's not risk-free. The United States Government can collapse. But when your money is in United States dollars, a government collapse would make all of your money worthless and whether you had a 2% return or a 10% return is irrelevant. You better have some guns and gold. 🙂
Low-risk investments are investments that give you a bit more than the risk-free rate… but not that much more.
Municipal Bonds and Funds
Municipal bonds are bonds issued by a municipality, like a county or other local authority. The funds can be used for a varity of things, from construction to schools, but they're backed by the municipality that issued the bond. The interest you earn is exempt from federal taxes and usually most state and local taxes. They're low risk because the municipality can (and some have) default on that obligation. You may have heard that Puerto Rico has been struggling to make bond payments, those bonds are municipal bonds.
A municipal bond can be a general obligation (GO) bond or a revenue bond. A GO bond is a bond that isn't backed by some kind of revenue source. A revenue bond is a bond that is secured by a revenue source, like a toll road or some other tax, like hotel or gas taxes.
You can buy municipal bonds from the municipality, often with high dollar limits, or you can invest in them through bond funds, like any other corporate or government bond fund. For example, Vanguard's (VWITX) is a municipal bond fund that invests in a variety of municipal bonds with an intermediate-term (5-6 years). Every mutual fund company has a variety of these types of muni bond funds.
Short Term Bonds and Funds
This is slightly riskier but you can invest in short-term corporate bonds for a slightly higher yield. Much like other bonds, they're backed by the underlying entity, which in this case are companies. Companies are more likely to default than municipalities, so the risk is higher. Much like muni funds, you can find short term corporate bond funds too.
That concludes the list of low risk investments we're aware of and comfortable suggesting.
I'm of the mind that if you need it to be safe, stick with the safe “investments” and avoid low risk. Low risk is not the same as no risk! If you need the cash in the near future, you'll regret putting it in any kind of risk for a couple percent interest!