How to Take Advantage of Savings Bonds Right Now

Photo illustration to accompany article on how to buy savings bonds ©Getty Images

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With so much volatility in the stock market, some investors are looking for a safe haven to invest their money. And nothing signals stability and security like savings bonds. Backed by the full faith of the U.S. government, savings bonds offer an incredibly safe way to save and build money over time. 

Because savings bonds are essentially a loan to the government, bond purchases lead to an increase in overall national debt, but ultimately allow the government to spend and stimulate the economy. An increase in bond buying can be particularly beneficial for the government in times of a financial crisis.

In response to the growing $1 trillion budget deficit, the U.S. Treasury Department has started issuing a 20-year note for the first time in three decades and boosted the three, 10, and 30-year bond auctions to record amounts. 

So if you’re wondering whether a savings bond is right for you during this time, here’s how they work. 

How Do U.S. Savings Bonds Work? 

When you purchase a U.S. savings bond, you’re essentially becoming a creditor for the United States government. 

Think of it like taking out a loan. When you borrow money, you’re given an interest rate that will accrue on the balance until you finish paying off the loan. The longer you take to pay it back, the more you’ll pay in interest. Savings bonds work similarly; the difference is you’re the lender and the government is the borrower, and you can ask the government to pay you back at any time.

Since U.S. savings bonds are backed by the U.S. Treasury, they’re often considered one of the lowest-risk investments in the world, meaning you will never lose any of your principal investment. But this low-risk also means they provide a low return on interest.

How to Buy a Savings Bond  

While savings bonds used to be issued on little pieces of paper, those days have come to an end. Savings bonds can now be purchased online from TreasuryDirect, the U.S. Treasury’s electronic savings portfolio platform. If you’re attached to paper bonds, Series I bonds can still be purchased in paper form using your IRS tax refund when you file your annual tax return.

Purchasing a savings bond is fairly straightforward. When you buy a savings bond, you’ll choose an amount between $25 and $10,000 and decide whether you want to buy a Series EE or Series I bond. (Series I paper bonds are limited to $5,000.) 

You will pay half the price of the face value of the bond. For example, you’ll pay $50 for a $100 bond. Once you have the bond, you choose how long to hold onto it for—anywhere between one and 30 years. To get the full return of double your initial investment (plus interest), you’ll need to wait the full term to the bond’s maturity. While you can cash in a bond earlier, your return will be based on a maturation schedule that rises over the course of the bond’s term.

The Treasury promises Series EE savings bonds will reach face value in 20 years, whereas the Series I savings bond has no guarantee of value in maturity. Keep in mind both reach full maximum value at 30 years. 

The interest that compounds over time with a savings bond depends on its series. The government adjusts bond rates on series EE bonds in May and November each year. For example, a Series EE bond has a fixed interest rate of 0.1% and a Series I Bond has a rate of 1.06%, which will adjust for inflation every six months. Both rates are current until they go through their next adjustment November 1st, 2020.  

How to Calculate the Value of Savings Bonds

Savings bonds are considered one of the safest investments you can buy.  The basic theory is that the value of a savings bond increases over time, but it’s easy to lose track of its worth over a long period of time. 

Luckily, the TreasuryDirect’s savings bond calculator makes it simple to find the value of a purchased savings bond. To calculate the value of your savings bond, you’ll need to know the bond series, face value, serial number, and issue date. 

For example, if you purchased a $50 Series EE bond in May 2000, you would have paid $25 for it. The government promised to pay back its face value with interest at maturity, bringing its value to $53.08 by May 2020. A $50 bond purchased 30 years ago for $25 would be $103.68 today.  

Here are some more examples based on the Treasury’s calculator. These values are estimated based on past interest rates. Future interest rates will vary. 

Face ValuePurchase Amount20-Year Value (Purchased May, 2000)30-Year Value (Purchased May, 1990)
$50 Bond$25$53.08$103.68
$100 Bond$50$106.16$313.52
$500 Bond$250$530.80$1,036.80
$1,000 Bond $500$1,061.60$2,073.60

Pro Tip

The longer you hold a savings bond—up until its point of  maturity—the more it’s worth when you cash it in.

How to Cash in Your Savings Bond

Cashing in a Series EE or Series I savings bond is relatively easy. When it’s time to exchange your savings bond for cash, all you need to do is log into your account on TreasuryDirect and follow the instructions to redeem your bond. The cash value will be credited to your bank account within two business days.

Bear in mind, all newly-issued savings bonds are electronic, and paper savings bonds can be converted to electronic bonds. If you have a paper savings bond, you’ll have to take it to a bank along with a photo ID to exchange it for cash. 

Before you cash in your savings bonds, it’s always good to check what they’re worth. Most savings bonds stop earning interest after 30 years, but you can redeem your savings bond before that period. You do have to wait at least a year after purchasing a savings bond to cash it in. The only exception to this rule is if you’re affected by a natural disaster. 

However, it’s usually wise to wait at least five years, or you’ll lose the last three months of interest when cashing in. It’s important to take the interest rate on your bond and your financial needs into account, but it’s generally better to wait until your savings bond has fully matured. 

How to Get the Most Out of Savings Bonds

To maximize your return with a savings bond, and there’s a few key things to consider. 

Because savings bonds traditionally have low returns, Yusuf Abugideiri, partner and senior financial planner at Yeske Buie, a financial advising firm with locations in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., recommends holding onto a savings bond until maturity to get the full return. This is especially the case for Series EE bonds since the Treasury promises to double any investment once they’ve reached 20 years of maturity. 

“You’ll get more out of a savings bond if you’re receiving interest over the full term, rather than cashing it out before maturity,” Abugideiri said. “Once you get past five years, you won’t have to pay any penalties, but you haven’t received all of the interest you could earn.” 

So, if you buy Series EE bonds, it’s best to plan to hold onto them for the full 20-year period if you can. 

If you do decide to redeem your savings bond early, Abugideiri says there’s the option to take that money and invest it in other ways to earn more down the line. “If you cash out with no penalty, take the interest you got up to that point, and put that money to work in a different way, then that might be a way to further increase your returns,” Abugideiri said.

How to Gift a Savings Bond

While they won’t come with a huge payoff, savings bonds are still a financially prudent gift. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to buy and give an electronic savings bond.

  1. Go to www.treasurydirect.gov, and log into your TreasuryDirect account or open an account in your name.
  2. Click on BuyDirect. On the purchase page, either select an existing registration from the drop-down list or create a new registration for the recipient by clicking “Add New Registration.”
  3. Have the recipient’s name and Social Security number on hand to register. Be sure to click the box, “This is a Gift.”
  4. Buy the type of savings bond you wish (Series EE or Series I), in a specific amount ($25-$10,000).
  5. Deliver the savings bond gift to the recipient’s TreasuryDirect account.
  6. Print out a gift certificate to give to the recipient.

Gift savings bonds usually take at least one business day to be issued in a TreasuryDirect account. Once  issued, you can go back into your account and deliver it to the recipient. To receive the gift, the recipient must have his or her own TreasuryDirect account. 

The Bottom Line

If you’re thinking about investing in savings bonds, it’s important to know how they work and the impact they can have on your investment strategy. You are loaning your money to the government for a long time, and the government promises to pay you back with interest later. 

“The overall economy is the real concern,” said Troy Harmon, CFA, and chief investment officer at Henssler Financial, a Georgia-based financial advising firm. “I think the numbers can confirm we are in a recession currently.” During tough financial times, Harmon says savings bonds are a good way to diversify your portfolio and manage your risk. The returns are not as lucrative as stocks could be, but they are guaranteed. 

Lisa Bernardi contributed to this article.