The Best Places to Store Your Cash

SmartMoney

Was the American infatuation with a frugal lifestyle that short-lived?

The personal savings rate fell in June to 4.6% of disposable income, according to data released by the Commerce Department Tuesday, after peaking in May at a revised rate of 6.2%, a 14-year high.

That drop may appear steep, but American consumers are still far from their old, spend-happy ways. May’s peak was largely a result of a $166.1 billion increase in income, thanks to one-time stimulus payments of $250 to Social Security recipients. (The June numbers reflect $250 one-time payments to individuals receiving veteran benefits, a $5.6 billion boost to personal income.)

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“The days of Americans living on borrowed money to support a lifestyle have come to an end,” says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. McBride expects the personal savings rate to plateau at 5% through the end of this year, up from the average 2.6% for 2008, and a marked improvement over the nadir of 0.8% in April 2008.

This new thriftiness is timely, considering that economists expect the unemployment rate to rise into the double-digits by the end of the year. And with one in three unemployed people taking longer than six months to find a job, an emergency savings account with at least six months’ worth of living expenses is a must-have for every American household, McBride says.

The problem is that traditional savings accounts have offered weak yields on that cash. It may feel wasteful to leave so much money stagnating in a vault instead of accruing interest.

“If you could find a rate between 1% and 2%, that’s probably the best you’ll do in today’s environment,” says Randy Rosen, the deposit research manager at Informa Research Services, a market research firm that has tracked bank deposit rates since 1983.

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Locking up your cash in a CD right now is a bad idea, says Richard Barrington, an analyst at interest-rate information web site Money-rates.com. With the Federal Reserve’s funds rate at an all-time low of 0% to 0.25% and the economic decline beginning to show signs of slowing down, rates could start to increase in the near future. “I can’t think of a good reason to lock into a six-month or one-year CD when you can get a savings account that’s offering a competitive interest,” Barrington says.

The average bank money-market account yields 1.21% as of Aug. 4, according to Bankrate.com, compared with 1.37% for the average six-month certificate of deposit.

That leaves consumers with little choice beyond savings accounts. “If you want a little bit of interest, safety and convenience, a savings account right now is just that,” says Benjamin Tobias, a financial planner with Tobias Financial Advisors in Plantation, Fla. “It’s a little bit better than putting your money in the mattress.”

On the flip side, consider that inflation has been practically nonexistent these days, so even with a paltry 2% yield your money is preserving its buying power, McBride says.

In an effort to attract and retain new customers, some banks are also offering interest-paying checking accounts that can pay as much as 4.51% APY. (See table for details.) But these accounts come with multiple strings attached, from establishing direct deposit and online bill-pay to making at least 10 or 15 debit-card purchases a month. “The difference between using your debit card nine and 10 times in a month is a difference of earning 0.25% and 4%,” McBride says. So before you jump ship, make sure these checking accounts are a good fit for your financial lifestyle.

Before you start chasing yields, make sure it’s worth your time and effort. “The difference between a 1% and 2% yield for the whole year is just $100 on a $10,000 deposit,” says Michael Kresh, a fee-only financial planner in Hauppauge, N.Y. “You have to think how much time you want to spend for that extra $100.”

Here are the banks that offer most bang for your buck these days:

Earn 2% or More With These Money-Market Savings Accounts

Bank APY
(%)
Minimum
Balance
ShoreBank Direct online savings account 2.15 $1
First Trade Union Bank savings account 2.06 2,500
Bank of Internet USA Advantage savings account 2.02 100
UFBDirect savings account 2.01 500
Discover Bank online savings account 2.00 500
Sources: Bankrate.com, Money-rates.com, bank web sites. All yields are non-promotional, but are subject to change at any time. Yields valid as of August 4, 2009.

Earn 4% or More With These Interest Checking Accounts

Bank APY Requirements
Community National Bank of Lakeway Area 4.51% on balances
up to $25,000
* Minimum of 12 debit card purchases (excluding ATM usage)
* 1 automatic payment or direct deposit transfer
* Receive your monthly account statement electronically
First Arkansas Bank & Trust Online 4.44% on balances
up to $50,000
*Minimum of 10 debit card purchases (excluding ATM usage)
* 1 automatic payment, bill pay transfer, or direct deposit transfer
* Receive your monthly account statement electronically
* Sign in to your online banking account at least once
Royal Banks of Missouri 4.3% on balances
up to $25,000
* Minimum of 10 debit card purchases (excluding ATM usage)
* 1 automatic payment or direct deposit transfer
* Receive your monthly account statement electronically
Liberty Bank 4.25% on balances
up to $25,000
* Minimum of 15 debit card purchases (excluding ATM usage)
* 1 automatic payment or direct deposit transfer, and 1 bill pay transfer
* Receive your monthly account statement electronically
Connexus Credit Union 4.15% on balances
up to $25,000
* Minimum of 15 signature-based check card purchases (excluding ATM usage)
* 1 bill pay transfer and 1 direct deposit transfer
* Receive your monthly account statement electronically
Ouachita Independent Bank 4.01% on balances
up to $25,000
* Minimum of 12 debit card purchases (excluding ATM usage)
* 1 automatic payment or direct deposit transfer
* Receive your monthly account statement electronically
Source: www.checkingfinder.com, bank web sites. Yields as of August 4, 2009.
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