Interest Rates Are Rising: Here's Where to Keep Your Cash

By Philip Brewer on 11 April 2018 0 comments

These past 10 years, interest rates have been so low it just about didn't matter what you did with your cash. There was a certain convenience to that — you didn't have to move money back and forth between checking and higher-rate accounts, because they paid almost the same. As a bonus, you didn't have to track money market returns to be sure the rate your account paid was still competitive, because they all paid just a fraction over 0 percent.

That has changed. The Fed has already started raising interest rates, and will probably raise rates another three-quarters of a percentage point this year. Already, rates are high enough that it makes a difference where you hold your cash, and that difference is starting to get significant. (See also: How to Benefit From Rising Interest Rates)

Let's take a look at where you should be holding your money, as well as a few reasons why you need cash on hand.

What cash to hold

There are four main reasons to hold cash: liquidity balances, planned expenses, temporary holdings, and an emergency fund. The size of your temporary holdings may vary quite a bit from time to time, but the others have pretty specific parameters that it's worth being clear about.

Liquidity balances

Your income arrives in chunks that don't precisely match the due dates of your bills. Liquidity balances are the cash you keep on hand to smooth that out, so that you can pay each bill when it's due. Sizing the cash demands of your liquidity balances is easy: It's the total of all the bills that might come due between income payments. Once you know this amount, you can set it aside for when you need it.

Planned expenses

Everybody has some expenses that are not regular monthly bills, but are nevertheless known in advance. Some of these are regular, they're just not monthly: tax payments, insurance premiums, tuition payments, etc. Others are irregular, such as discretionary payments on things like home improvements, airfare for your vacation, buying a boat, etc. Regular or irregular, if there's a near-term payment to make, it's good money management to hold some cash to pay it.

Temporary investments

Sometimes you have cash that you've decided to invest, but that you aren't ready to invest yet. Maybe you don't know exactly where the money should go until the next time you rebalance your portfolio. Maybe you expect market conditions to improve. Maybe you're accumulating money to meet the minimum balance of some fund. Whatever the reason, until you're ready to invest, you're holding the money as cash. (See also: How the Risk Averse Can Get Into the Stock Market)

Emergencies

Your emergency fund is cash set aside to handle a financial crisis — a job loss, a medical bill, a home repair, etc. Having the money on hand means that you won't have to turn to credit cards or other forms of debt to get through your emergency. Experts often recommend an emergency cushion of three to six months' worth of daily living expenses. Your unique situation — such as an expensive medical condition or a high-paying job that would be difficult to replace — may call for a larger fund. (See also: 5-Minute Finance: Start an Emergency Fund)

Where to hold your cash

In the U.S., we have a complex history of rules related to ceilings on the rates banks can pay, special exceptions to those rules, and free-market efforts to get around those rules. There are a lot of different kinds of institutions that hold cash and a lot of different kinds of accounts available at one or another of those institutions.

Whatever sort of institution you choose, you still need to figure out what sorts of accounts to use for your cash. Here are the usual suspects.

Checking accounts

For most people, a checking account is their main gateway into the banking system. Their paycheck is direct deposited into their checking account, and most of their bills are paid out of their checking account.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, banks had to pay reasonably competitive interest rates to pull in money to support their (highly profitable) lending. That became less and less true in the early 21st century, until the financial crisis put an end to it. At the moment, checking accounts pay so little interest that you might as well just ignore it.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't have a checking account — it's just no longer where you should hold your liquidity balances or your cash to cover planned expenses, until just a day or two before you need to make a payment. (See also: 9 Common Mistakes You're Making With Your Checking Account)

Reloadable debit cards

These are a relatively new invention, created for people who don't need (or can't manage) an ordinary checking account. As the name suggests, it functions as a debit card. There is usually some limited ATM access and some sort of bill-paying feature.

Once little more than fee-generating boondoggle for the banks, rule changes made them pretty fair for consumers a few years ago. Since these new rules went into effect, a reloadable debit card had been a reasonable place to hold your cash balances when rates were low, but now that interest rates are going up they're only reasonable for people whose circumstances make a bank account impractical.

Savings accounts

It used to be that you opened a savings account even before you opened a checking account. Now an ordinary savings account is almost pointless. At least at my bank, a savings account pays the same minuscule rate as a checking account, so I might just as well leave my excess cash in my checking account.

When you think about savings accounts nowadays, though, you're usually not thinking about a savings account at your local bank. You're thinking about an internet savings account. (See also: 6 Important Things to Look for in a Savings Account)

Internet savings accounts

These are just ordinary savings accounts, except they're at a bank that's willing to pay up to get your money, and that offers a convenient web interface for moving money to and from your checking account. The money moves by ACH transfer, typically in two or three days. This is quick enough to make these accounts very useful as a place to hold your cash.

Unlike a lot of other kinds of financial accounts (where the terms and conditions vary in complex ways), the terms and conditions of internet savings accounts tend to be relatively standard, making it easy for savers to compare one account to another and pick the one that offers the best deal. (See also: 5 Best Online Savings Accounts)

Money market funds

Money funds are a legacy of 1970s interest rate regulations. They pool money from shareholders, invest it in short-term securities, and share the return. Because they just share whatever return they get, returns go up quickly when interest rates rise. (Unlike savings and money market accounts, where banks that already have your money won't raise rates until they have to.)

Although very safe, investments in a money market fund are not guaranteed. In fact, one money market fund lost enough money during the financial crisis that it was unable to make investors whole. That prompted major players in the money market to simultaneously all try to get out of assets with even the slightest risk. Basically, that was the financial crisis.

Money market accounts

Created in the early 1980s as a carefully carved-out exception to interest rate regulations, money market accounts were created in a way that didn't cannibalize on checking or savings accounts (basically, they only allowed six withdrawals per month and only three of those could be by check). They had advantages over a money market fund: They paid an announced rate (instead of just whatever the fund could earn in the market), they were guaranteed to pay off at 100 cents on the dollar, and they had FDIC insurance. That's all still true. (See also: Money Market Accounts: Ideal for Emergency Funds)

Other possibilities

There are a lot of other places you might hold cash for the short term: Demand note accounts (basically an IOU from a major financial corporation packaged up like an internet savings account), cash management accounts (a money fund or money market account wrapped up inside a brokerage account), CDs, and Treasury bills.

Bottom line

It no longer makes good sense to just keep your money in your checking account — the simplest version of cash management. Now that you can earn a return that's more than a fraction above zero, the time has come to manage your cash more actively.

Simple, but not too simple

The easiest version of active management is just to shift most of your liquidity balances, near-term planned expenses, and temporary investments into some sort of higher-yield account.

Just do this: When your paycheck (or any other money) arrives in your checking account, transfer most of it to your higher-yield account. Two or three days before your bills need to be paid, transfer the necessary amount of money back to your checking account.

Not so simple

If you're into this sort of thing, you can get as fancy as you want.

If your finances are sufficiently under control, you can skip the step of having your income enter via your checking account only to be transferred to your higher-yield account. Instead, you can arrange to have your direct deposit go straight into your high-yield account. That gets you earning your higher yield a couple of days earlier, and potentially cuts the number of transfers you need to make in half.

Especially for expenses with due dates that are well-known but further off than this month, it may make sense to do something with CDs or Treasury bills.

It may be more convenient to keep your temporary investments closer to where the investments are going to be held — perhaps in a money market fund in the same family as the other mutual funds you hold, or one with your brokerage firm.

The possibilities are endless. But the time for just leaving your money idle in your checking account has ended.

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Interest Rates Are Rising: Here's Where to Keep Your Cash

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