Are you sitting on a pile of U.S. savings bonds? If not, should you be? For safety-first investors, savings bonds still hold an edge over bank certificates of deposit. Savers put more than $631 million into these bonds last year. Those of you sitting on a pile might find, to your surprise, that some of them currently yield 4 or 5 percent.
Savings bonds come in two flavors — EE bonds, at fixed interest rates, and I bonds, at floating rates that change with inflation every six months. You have to hold them for at least one year. If you sell before five years are up, you pay a penalty equal to three months' interest. Bonds generally stop paying interest after 30 years.
Almost all savings bonds today are sold electronically, through treasurydirect.gov. You can invest up to $10,000 a year for each type of bond (double that if your spouse buys, too). An additional $5,000 is available in the form of old-fashioned paper I bonds, if you ask that your tax refund be paid that way.
I bonds are the most popular. At this writing, a new bond yields 1.48 percent — and before you turn up your nose, consider the competition. A five-year CD might pay 2 percent, but it offers no inflation protection. You're taxed on the interest every year unless you buy through a tax-deferred individual retirement account. You also pay taxes at all levels — federal, state and local. The income from savings bonds is tax deferred and then taxed only by the feds.
A quick word about EE Bonds. New bonds are paying (if you can call it "paying") just 0.1 percent. If you hold them for 20 years, you'll earn at least 3.5 percent, thanks to a guaranteed catch-up payment. Still, not appealing.
If you've owned savings bonds for years and are ready to cash them in, be sure to find out exactly what each bond is worth. Without that information, you might make one of four big mistakes, says Jackie Brahney, marketing director of savingsbonds.com, a service that helps you manage your bond portfolio.
Mistake 1: You cash in the oldest bonds first. They might be your highest earners.
Mistake 2: You look only at the bonds' face amount when deciding how many to redeem. That might bring you more taxable income than you want. Bonds that add up to $3,000 on their face might be worth $6,000 or more, once the interest is counted.
Mistake 3: You cash in so many bonds at once that the cumulative, taxable interest puts you into a higher bracket.
Mistake 4: You redeem a bond in the day or week before a six-month interest payment is due to be paid.
Free calculators at treasurydirect.gov and savingsbonds.com will tell you what each of your bonds is worth. For as little at $5.95 a year, Brahney's service will value the bonds and brief you, monthly, on what they currently earn and how much interest they've accumulated. Knowing your bonds can save on taxes and raise your earnings, too.
Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW.
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