9 Great Savings Moves The 1990s are fast shaping up as the Decade of the Saver. Even though short-term yields are now falling, these simple strategies can still boost returns on your savings to as much as 9%.
(MONEY Magazine) – During much of the 1980s, savers had it easy. To earn yields of 9% or more, all they had to do was put their spare cash in a money-market fund -- almost any would do -- or a bank certificate of deposit. You can kiss those days good-bye. Average money fund yields recently stood at 7.84%, down from 8.6% a year ago. And after Iraq invaded Kuwait in early August, short-term interest rates threatened to fall further as investors fled stocks for the sanctuary of U.S. Treasury bills. Fortunately, there are still ways that you can earn attractive returns on your savings. To find them, MONEY reporters interviewed more than a dozen economists, money-market specialists and mutual fund advisers. Our search turned up nine strategies that can deliver returns of as much as 9%, with almost no risk to your principal. This is especially welcome news for adults under age 45, who are just starting to move into their peak earning years. They have given up on the dream of the speculative 1980s -- that they can reach their financial goals almost overnight with the right mutual fund or a few well-chosen stocks. After eight years of 18.8% average annual returns, the bull market in stocks that began in 1982 seems to be over. (For a more complete forecast of the economic outlook, see the story on page 66.) So these Americans have come to realize, as their parents and grandparents did before them, that the only sure way to meet future financial needs -- from college education for the kids to a comfortable retirement for themselves -- is to sock away money regularly. That's one reason the national savings rate, after bottoming out at 2.9% of after-tax income in 1987, rose to 4.6% for all of 1989 and recently was running at 5.1%. Putting more aside is only the first step, however. (For tips on how to boost your savings, see the box on page 72.) Equally important is earning the highest safe yield. For instance, $20,000 in a 5.2% passbook savings account will grow to $55,100 in 20 years. Over that period, if you can raise your yield to 8.5%, your money will swell to $102,200. Achieving that 8.5%, however, is increasingly difficult -- let alone 9%. The three-month T-bill rate, 8% at the start of the year and 7.6% recently, could drop to 6.75% by year's end, according to economist David Jones of Aubrey G. Lanston, a U.S. Government securities dealer in New York City. If he's right, yields on money funds -- which hold commercial paper with yields that track T- bill rates -- would head down as much as a percentage point from their recent 7.84%. Yields on bank certificates, recently 7.57% for six-month CDs, would drop about half a point to 7.1%. So savers will have to work harder and smarter. One who did just that: Mary Van Winkle, 37, of St. Louis. After her husband died of kidney failure in 1988, Van Winkle, a part-time hospital office assistant and mother of six- year-old Sarah, invested a $100,000 life insurance payout in a 7.75% money- market deposit account at Commerce Bank. Then she took an investing course at a local college and realized that she could prudently earn nearly a percentage point more with a mix of mortgage-backed securities, corporate bonds and utility stocks. Her current average yield on these investments: 8.7%. Even though 22% of her money is in gas and water company shares that obviously fluctuate in price, Van Winkle is confident of her strategy because her life goal -- a comfortable retirement -- is at least 25 years off. ''I am investing in these stocks for the long term, so short-term price fluctuations don't bother me,'' she says. Fortunately, her husband's parents have put money ; aside to pay for Sarah's college bills. (For the names of 20 select mutual funds that provide superior long-term total returns for the risks they take, see the story on page 116.) In following any of the nine strategies described below, keep both the size of your savings and your goals in mind. For instance, before putting money anywhere else, build up an amount equal to at least three months' expenses in a money-market fund for emergencies. Then, if children's education is your top priority, consider buying zero-coupon Treasury securities for them. If retirement is your major goal though and you are still under 40, think about putting at least 50% of your savings into utility or other conservative stocks. And be sure to use dollar-cost averaging -- regular purchases of the same dollar amount of stock -- so that your money will buy more shares when prices are down and help insulate you against market swings. Here are our nine savings strategies, starting with the simplest:
1 Earn higher interest on your bank balances. Switch the money you prefer to keep in federally insured bank deposits to accounts that pay the highest possible interest. Keep only the minimum required balance in your no-interest checking account or 5% NOW account. Move any additional money -- as well as any cash you have in a 5.2% passbook savings account -- to your bank's money- market deposit account, which will pay around 6.1%.
2 Shop for high-rate CDs out of town. Although the astronomical rates once paid by the S&Ls of Texas and other economically troubled states are only a memory, some above-average yields are still available at financially sound institutions. ''People often get nearly a full percentage point above hometown rates by sending money to a high-yielding bank out of state,'' says Warren Heller, research director of Veribanc, which rates the safety of banks and S& Ls. For example, savers could recently get 8.76% on a 2 1/2-year CD, top-rated for safety, from the First Deposit National Bank in New Hampshire (800-821-9049), compared with the 8.02% national average. (For other choices, see the Scorecard section of MONEY on page 17, which every month lists the top yields in the country and ranks the safety of the issuing institutions.) Stock brokerages also offer above-average rates on CDs, though the S&L bailout has crimped the supply. ''Buying through my broker is the most convenient way to get high-yield CDs,'' says Roe Hawkey, 70, of Willoughby, & Ohio. In April 1989 he and his wife Pat, 66, bought a five-year CD issued by the Bank of New York from Merrill Lynch. The certificate yields 9.1%.
3 Open a money-market fund account, and use it to pay bills over $250. Money funds do not carry any government insurance, but you still run almost no risk of principal loss. And with a fund, you can earn higher interest -- nearly 8% vs. 5% on a typical NOW account -- while waiting for your checks to clear. Because most money funds require that your checks top $250 or $500, use the fund for mortgage payments or other large bills; depend on your bank checking account to pay smaller bills. Or search out a money fund with no check-writing minimum, such as Fidelity Tax-Exempt Money Market Trust, used by Humberto Cruz, the supersaver profiled on page 73.
4 Switch excess cash from your money fund to a short-term bond fund. Once you have accumulated an emergency reserve of at least three months' expenses in a money fund, move surplus cash to a short-term bond fund. Investors were recently earning a 30-day average yield of 8.58% -- about three-quarters of a percentage point higher than that of the average money fund -- from funds that invest in bonds with maturities of five years or less. The highest safe returns are available from funds that hold the securities of top-rated corporations. Recently, one of the best-yielding funds sponsored by a leading management company was Vanguard Fixed Income-Short Term (800-662-7447). It offered 8.72%. Bond funds, in contrast to money funds, do not assure the value of your principal. But because short-term bond funds do not hold securities with maturities beyond five years, the losses you risk are less than a year's interest. Even if interest rates shot up by two percentage points, a typical short-term fund would lose less than 4%.
Savers who are willing to ride out greater price fluctuations may want to consider Scudder Short-Term Bond Fund (800-225-2470), which sports a 10.2% yield. The fund holds foreign bonds -- whose value moves in the opposite direction of the dollar -- as well as mortgage-backed securities and U.S. corporate issues. Tax-exempt bond funds may provide an even higher after-tax return for investors in the 28% bracket or higher (married couples with taxable income of more than $32,450; singles with more than $19,450). For instance, commercial real estate broker Larry Schedler of Destrehan, La., a suburb of New Orleans, boosted his yield from 5.5% to 6.0% when he moved $10,000 from a passbook account to the SteinRoe Intermediate Municipal Fund. ''I left some savings in the bank,'' he says, ''but I wanted to get a higher yield on part of my money.'' For Schedler and his wife Vernell, who are in the 33% federal bracket, their tax-exempt yield is equivalent to 9.04% on a taxable security.
5 Beat bank CD rates with two- to three-year Treasury notes. For a $5,000 minimum investment, you can earn 8% on two-year notes and 8.2% on three-year issues -- up to one-third of a percentage point more than on bank CDs of the same maturities. Better yet, interest on Treasuries is exempt from state and local taxes, which effectively adds half a point or more in yield for many investors in high-tax states such as California and New York. To avoid the usual $50 broker's commission, which would in effect cut a point off your first year's yield on a $5,000 purchase, you can buy Treasury notes directly from a Federal Reserve branch. Your own bank can advise you on how to get the necessary forms. (For more information on buying Treasuries, see MONEY, December 1988.)
6 Capture rising dividend yields with sound utility stocks. To meet long-term goals such as retirement, you may want to put up to 25% of your portfolio into electric and gas utilities that have boosted dividends at least 5% a year over the past decade. Such stocks offer both the prospect of growing yields and long-term capital gains. A utility with a 7% yield and 5% annual price appreciation would offer a long-term total return of 12% a year. ''Blue-chip utilities with good growth characteristics offer conservative investors the best of all possible worlds,'' says Geraldine Weiss, editor of the newsletter Investment Quality Trends (7440 Girard Ave., La Jolla, Calif. 92037; twice monthly, $250 a year). Weiss' top picks include Consolidated Edison, the New York City utility, recently traded on the New York Stock Exchange at $23.25. Con Ed currently pays a 7.8% yield and has hiked its dividend by an average of 10% a year during the 1980s. Even if its dividend increase were to fall to 5% annually, which some analysts are predicting, the payout in 10 years would represent a 12.8% yield to someone buying the stock now.
7 Buy zero-coupon bonds for long-range goals. With yields comparable to those of regular Treasury bonds, zeros pay no cash interest but sell at + substantially less than the face value amount that you receive when they mature and are redeemed by the Treasury. Such issues therefore are especially suitable for tax-deferred Individual Retirement Accounts and Keogh accounts, since otherwise you would owe annual taxes on interest that you do not receive in cash. If you have sufficient money from other sources to pay those taxes, you can also use zeros to save for college costs. Since the prices of long- term zeros are highly volatile, buy bonds that mature close to the time that you will need the money. As an alternative to Treasury zeros, consider zero-coupon Refcorp issues, which are issued to finance the federal S&L bailout and yield about three- tenths of a percentage point more (see Wall Street on page 53).
8 Include blue-chip growth stocks in your retirement portfolio. If you have 20 years or more until retirement, such stocks or stock mutual funds are the best way to increase your capital. Over the past 64 years, stocks have returned 10.3% a year on average, including reinvested dividends, about twice as much as the return on corporate and government bonds and triple that of money-market investments. ''To protect against inflation and get the best buildup, people should have at least 50% of their retirement assets in stocks,'' says Sheldon Jacobs, editor of the No-Load Fund Investor (P.O. Box 283, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10706; monthly, $89 a year). That means moving money into a growth fund or balanced fund if you have those options in a 401(k) company retirement savings account. For money in IRAs or Keogh plans of your own, Jacobs suggests keeping 80% in growth-oriented funds and 20% in money funds if you are under 45. Once you reach your late forties, move 5% of your assets to bond funds each year, up to a maximum of 30%. Cut your stock holdings back to 55% and reduce money funds to 15%.
9 Consider investing extra money for retirement in carefully selected deferred annuities. If you already have put as much as possible into both your tax-deferred 401(k) and IRA -- the combined maximum allowed this year is $9,979 -- and you want an additional tax-advantaged investment, take a look at annuities. They work best for investors in the 28% and 33% tax brackets who are willing to lock their money away for 10 years or more. The most attractive choices are variable annuities, which permit you to invest in stock and bond mutual funds without paying tax on capital gains or reinvested dividends and interest until the money is withdrawn. Your eventual payout depends on how well the investments perform. Financial planner Malcolm Makin of Westerly, R.I. suggests two such annuities: Best of America (800-848-6331), which is sponsored by Nationwide Life Insurance and offers a range of fund choices from leading mutual fund companies including Fidelity, Neuberger & Berman and Twentieth Century; and American Legacy (800-421-9900), sponsored by Lincoln National Life Insurance with American Funds as the money manager. These annuities are backed by strong insurance companies and have reasonable fees, according to Makin and other planners. Total annual costs run less than 2% of assets plus a $25 to $35 charge from the insurance company. (To learn how to avoid annuities with exorbitant fees, see ''The Cold Call Cowboy Says: Annuities Beat Mutual Funds,'' MONEY, November 1989.) Following one or more of these strategies can pay off whether you are a novice saver or have already built up substantial savings. In considering a change in your strategy, you'll also be forced to take another look at the basics: Are you saving enough and getting the highest safe return on your money? In the cold realities of the 1990s, savers who pass those tests will be the ones who head into the new century feeling truly secure financially.