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Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen
Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen Alex Wong—Getty Images

This One (Missing) Word From Yellen Could Change Your Finances

Updated: Mar 18, 2015 2:33 PM ET

The news is in: The Fed dropped "patient" from its most recent statement, and that's got financial pundits talking. Why is that one word so important?

Well, contrary to the impression you might be getting from the headlines, the Federal Reserve didn't actually do much of anything today. Instead, the world is excited because the word "patient"—or in this case, the lack thereof—is being read as a coded signal about what the Fed will do some months down the road.

Specifically, everyone wants to know how patient Janet Yellen and her Fed colleagues will be before raising interest rates in the face of mounting positive economic reports. The conventional wisdom said that if the Fed dropped that word from today's statement, it would mean that a rate hike could come as soon as June. And, indeed, "patient" was conspicuously absent from today's statement.

Why does that matter to the average Joe? Because an interest rate hike is likely to have wide-reaching effects on your finances—some good, some bad. And even though the Fed won't raise rates today, the market is likely to respond if it thinks an increase is incoming. So far the market has reacted positively because, while the Fed did remove the patient language, it also appeared more dovish about the economy, and signalled any rate change would be more gradual than previously expected. That said, higher rates are still really a matter of time, and it's worth thinking about effect that would have.

Here's what higher rates could mean for you:

  • Bond prices will go down and yields will go up. Higher interest rates mean higher bond yields, and a corresponding drop in bond prices. That's good for anyone who is about to buy bonds and for those living on savings, who want their investments start throwing off more income. On the other hand, higher interest rates will decrease the value of current bond holdings.
  • The stock market may take a hit. Interest rates near zero have meant easy money for investors, and some argue this has inflated the stock market beyond justifiable levels. A rate hike would signal loose monetary policy is coming to a close, and that could put a chill on equities.
  • Savings and CDs will look better. If more risky investments are hurt by higher rates, the opposite is true with the really safe stuff. Savings accounts and CDs should start giving higher returns, and the difference between a checking and savings account may start to actually matter again.
  • Mortgage rates. Because the federal funds rate affects the price banks can borrow at, higher rates mean it's more expensive for you to borrow as well. With interest rates near zero, mortgage rates are currently close to a historic low. If the Fed decides it's feeling less patient, expect buying a home to get more expensive. And if you have an adjustable rate mortgage, you could see the size of your monthly payments start to increase.

One could be forgiven for wondering why the Fed would ever raise rates if it could cause this much turbulence. The truth is the Fed can't let things run hot forever without causing even more problems. Low interest rates combined with a strong economy is a recipe for inflation.

The Fed also wants to make build up some ammunition to fight future economic battles: If interest rates remain are close to zero, they can't be easily be lowered to spur a recovery if another crisis comes along. That's why, ultimately, rates will have to go up at some point, and that will certainly require some getting used to. And when that does happen, patience will be a virtue.

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