For people very averse to risk, who just want to keep their savings safe and earn some modest interest payments, the past five years have been a disaster.

In March 2009, the stock market crash reversed itself, and anyone who jumped into stocks at precisely the right time would have seen their investment roughly triple in the five years that followed.

One reason that many people believe the market soared is the federal government took extraordinary steps to keep interest rates low to boost the economy. That's been great for borrowers and investors, but terrible for savers.

So, someone who managed to plunk $10,000 into the stock market at precisely the right time five years ago would have more than $30,000 today, but, according to the Wall Street Journal, someone who put $10,000 in a money market account instead would have earned just $26.

Ouch. It's got to be painful to watch inflation eat away at your savings.

State of rates

The good news for risk-averse savers is that interest rates are creeping up, and returns offered on federally insured bank certificates of deposit aren't quite as insulting these days. Interest rates on uninsured but rea- sonably safe bonds, such as the mini-bonds state-owned utility Santee Cooper has been advertising, are also higher now.

For example, it's pretty easy now to find 5-year certificates of deposit with interest rates above 2 percent. That's not much, but it's better than what was available a year ago.

Of course, a 5-year CD involves tying up your money for 60 months, and typically you'll be charged a penalty for any early withdrawals. Some CDs do now offer penalty-free withdrawals or interest rate adjustments, but they are likely to offer lower interest rates initially.

Now, nobody's going to get rich - probably won't even keep ahead of inflation - earning interest rates in the low single digits, but that's far better than earning the fraction-of-a-percent interest some banks offer on savings accounts.

For example, take the Wall Street Journal's estimate that $10,000 in a money market account would have earned just $26 in interest over five years. If that same $10,000 earned just 2 percent interest, that would add up to more than $1,040 over five years (including interest on the interest payments).

Here are some tips for finding the best interest rates available:

Shop around. If you're looking for a federally insured certificate of deposit, do you need a bank with a local branch? Online banks often offer higher rates. is one place to start, when comparing rates.

Don't overlook checking and savings accounts. Some banks offer interest rates on checking and savings that are competitive with one-year CD rates, plus cash incentives from $50 to $250 to open a new account. Often, those offers require minimum balances, direct deposits, online bill payment or a combination.


One of the risks today, as interest rates appear more likely to rise than fall, is that what seems like an attractive rate today may look pretty low in a few years. Remember that six years ago, before the stock market took a dive, 5-year CDs were paying above 3.5 percent interest.

One time-tested strategy is to "ladder" longer-term CDs. For example, put a little money in a 5-year CD every year. Then, if interest rates go up, the average rate on your CDs goes up.

Savings bonds are another time-tested way to save, but bonds can range from safe U.S. Treasury bonds to risky "junk" bonds, and then there are bond funds.

It's important to know that bonds and bond funds respond differently to rising interest rates.

With a fixed-term bond that you buy, like a Treasury bond, you expect to get the full value of the bond when it reaches maturity. In contrast, bond funds can be expected to decrease in value when interest rates rise quickly. That's because when people buy and sell bonds, they will pay less for a bond carrying a lower interest rate than those currently available, so as interest rates rise, bond prices fall.

So, for people unwilling to lose any money to fluctuations in the stock and bond markets, some bonds are fine, but bond funds carry risk to principal.

I mentioned Santee Cooper's mini-bond sale, and that's an example of how owning a bond can work. If someone buys Santee Cooper's 2023 capital appreciation bonds, they buy the bonds at a discount to face value, and in 2023 collect the full face value, which works out to 3 percent interest.

Another option is to buy interest-bearing bonds. Buy Santee Cooper's 2024 (10- year) interest-bearing bonds, and you'll get regular interest paid semi-annually at a rate of 3 percent, and when the term ends you get back the money you invested. That's more like a certificate of deposit, though without the federal insurance.

Santee Cooper's mini-bond interest has an added advantage of being excluded from S.C. and federal income tax, so interest rates are higher than they seem.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552