For many people, cash and cash equivalents are highly liquid assets that can help offset risk in a financial plan or investing portfolio. Cash equivalents are low-risk, low-yield investments that can be converted to cash quickly and are thus considered relatively stable in value.
For companies, though, cash and cash equivalents (CCE) refers to an accounting term. Cash and cash equivalents are listed at the top of a company’s balance sheet because they’re the most liquid of a company’s short-term assets. A company’s cash on hand can be considered one measure of its overall health.
It’s important for people to understand the role of cash and cash equivalents in their own asset allocation.
What Are Cash and Cash Equivalents?
People keep their money in a variety of accounts and investments. Investments may include stocks, bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), real estate holdings, and more. Many investments fluctuate in value, and some investments can be quite volatile.
For that reason, people also tend to keep a portion of their portfolio in cash or cash equivalents, because while cash doesn’t typically grow in value, it also typically doesn’t fluctuate or lose value (although periods of inflation can take a bite out of the purchasing power of cash).
Cash refers to the funds in any account that are available for immediate use. Cash equivalents are short-term investment vehicles that can be converted to cash very quickly, or even immediately.
Difference Between Cash and Cash Equivalents
The primary difference between cash and cash equivalents is that cash equivalents are investment vehicles with a specified maturity. These can include certificates of deposit (CDs), money market accounts, U.S. Treasuries, and other low-risk, low-return investments.
If you’re considering opening a checking account, you wouldn’t be thinking about cash equivalents, but rather getting the best terms for the cash in your account. If you’re looking for added stability in an investment portfolio, you may want to consider cash equivalents.
How Do Cash Equivalents Work?
As noted above, the idea behind a cash equivalent is that it can be converted to cash swiftly. So the maturity for cash equivalents is generally 90 days (3 months) or less, whereas short-term investments mature in up to 12 months.
Cash equivalents have a known dollar amount because the prices of cash equivalents are usually stable, and they should be easy to sell in the market.
Types of Cash Equivalents
There are a number of cash equivalents investors can consider. Some offer higher or lower potential returns, and a wide variety of terms.
Certificates of Deposit (CDs)
A certificate of deposit, or CD is like a savings account, but with more restrictions and potentially a higher yield. With most CDs you agree to let a bank keep your money for a specified amount of time, from a few months to a few years. In exchange, the bank agrees to pay you a guaranteed rate of interest when the CD matures.
If you withdraw the money before the maturity date, you’ll typically owe a penalty.
The longer the term of the CD, the more interest it pays — especially in the higher-rate environment of Q4 2022 — but it’s important to do your research and find the best terms.
CDs are similar to savings accounts in that you can deposit your money for a long period of time, these accounts are federally insured, so they’re considered safe (although typically the yield is quite low). But you can’t add or withdraw money, generally speaking, until the CD matures.
There are a few different kinds of CDs that offer different features. Some bank CDs have variable rates that allow you to change the rate once during the term. There are also brokerage CDs, which are marketed as securities and sometimes sold by banks to investment companies.
Owing to their lower risk profile and modest but steady returns, allocating part of your portfolio to CDs can offer diversification that may help mitigate your risk exposure in other areas.
Note that a CD which does not permit withdrawals, even with the payment of a penalty, can be considered an unbreakable CD. As such, it wouldn’t be considered a cash equivalent because it cannot readily be converted to cash.
US Treasury Bills
U.S. Treasury Securities are another type of conservative investment. They’re a type of debt instrument or bond, and they’re backed by the U.S. government.
Treasury bonds (T-bonds) usually mature in 10 years or more, but treasury bills or T-bills can be purchased with terms that range anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks to a year.
Because Treasuries are popular, the market is active and they’re easy to sell if necessary. Still, Treasuries are affected by other types of risk, including inflation and changing interest rates.
While investors can expect to receive interest and principal payments as promised at maturity, if they attempt to sell the bond prior to maturity, they may receive more or less than the principal depending on current market conditions.
Other Government Bonds
Other government entities, including states and municipalities, may offer short-term bonds that could be considered cash equivalents. But investors must evaluate the creditworthiness of the entity offering the bond.
Money Market Funds
Don’t confuse money market funds and money market accounts. Money market funds invest your money, then pay a portion of the earnings to you in the form of dividends.
Because the funds’ short-term investments generally mature in less than 13 months, they’re generally considered very low risk. But unlike a savings or money market deposit account, they’re not federally insured. That means there’s no guarantee you’ll make back your investment, and it’s possible to lose money in a volatile market.
Savings and Money Market Accounts
A savings account has long been an essential money management tool. When you deposit your money in a member-FDIC bank savings account, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures it up to the maximum amount allowed by law, so you can be sure your money is secure. Another bonus: You can make regular deposits and withdrawals (within federal limits) without committing to a term length or worrying about withdrawal penalties.
But a savings account is usually a lower priority when you compare the interest rate offered to those of other bank products and cash equivalents. A money market account is also FDIC-insured, so it’s safe, and it pays interest like a savings account — but usually at a higher rate if you keep a higher balance. If your balance drops below a specified minimum, you might end up paying a monthly fee.
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Commercial paper refers to short-term debt issued by a corporation. These bonds carry different terms, maturity dates, and yields. Some can be considered cash equivalents.
Cash and Cash Equivalents vs Short-Term Investments
Investors might also consider including some short-term investments in their asset allocation as well, as these investments can offer higher returns vs. cash equivalents. The goal of short-term investments is to generate some return on capital, without incurring too much risk.
Short-term investments are also sometimes called marketable securities or temporary investments. Some include longer-term versions of the cash equivalents listed above (e.g. CDs, money market funds, U.S. Treasuries), and are meant to be redeemed within five years, but often less.
Cash and cash equivalents perform an important role in many investors’ portfolios. These assets are considered highly liquid and less likely to fluctuate in value, especially when compared with equities and other securities that offer more growth potential, but more exposure to risk.
If you’re looking for ways to add to your cash holdings, or have your cash work a little harder (but without increasing your exposure to risk), consider opening a SoFi Checking and Savings account, which has a competitive APY and make a plan for your goals, and SoFi members qualify for complimentary financial advice from professionals.
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SoFi members with direct deposit activity can earn 4.60% annual percentage yield (APY) on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Direct Deposit means a deposit to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government payments (e.g., Social Security), made by the account holder’s employer, payroll or benefits provider or government agency (“Direct Deposit”) via the Automated Clearing House (“ACH”) Network during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Deposits that are not from an employer or government agency, including but not limited to check deposits, peer-to-peer transfers (e.g., transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc.), merchant transactions (e.g., transactions from PayPal, Stripe, Square, etc.), and bank ACH funds transfers and wire transfers from external accounts, do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.
SoFi members with Qualifying Deposits can earn 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances. Qualifying Deposits means one or more deposits that, in the aggregate, are equal to or greater than $5,000 to an account holder’s SoFi Checking and Savings account (“Qualifying Deposits”) during a 30-day Evaluation Period (as defined below). Qualifying Deposits only include those deposits from the following eligible sources: (i) ACH transfers, (ii) inbound wire transfers, (iii) peer-to-peer transfers (i.e., external transfers from PayPal, Venmo, etc. and internal peer-to-peer transfers from a SoFi account belonging to another account holder), (iv) check deposits, (v) instant funding to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, (vi) push payments to your SoFi Bank Debit Card, and (vii) cash deposits. Qualifying Deposits do not include: (i) transfers between an account holder’s Checking account, Savings account, and/or Vaults; (ii) interest payments; (iii) bonuses issued by SoFi Bank or its affiliates; or (iv) credits, reversals, and refunds from SoFi Bank, N.A. (“SoFi Bank”) or from a merchant.
SoFi Bank shall, in its sole discretion, assess each account holder’s Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits throughout each 30-Day Evaluation Period to determine the applicability of rates and may request additional documentation for verification of eligibility. The 30-Day Evaluation Period refers to the “Start Date” and “End Date” set forth on the APY Details page of your account, which comprises a period of 30 calendar days (the “30-Day Evaluation Period”). You can access the APY Details page at any time by logging into your SoFi account on the SoFi mobile app or SoFi website and selecting either (i) Banking > Savings > Current APY or (ii) Banking > Checking > Current APY. Upon receiving a Direct Deposit or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits to your account, you will begin earning 4.60% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% on checking balances on or before the following calendar day. You will continue to earn these APYs for (i) the remainder of the current 30-Day Evaluation Period and through the end of the subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period and (ii) any following 30-day Evaluation Periods during which SoFi Bank determines you to have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits without interruption.
SoFi Bank reserves the right to grant a grace period to account holders following a change in Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits activity before adjusting rates. If SoFi Bank grants you a grace period, the dates for such grace period will be reflected on the APY Details page of your account. If SoFi Bank determines that you did not have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits during the current 30-day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, then you will begin earning the rates earned by account holders without either Direct Deposit or Qualifying Deposits until you have Direct Deposit activity or $5,000 in Qualifying Deposits in a subsequent 30-Day Evaluation Period. For the avoidance of doubt, an account holder with both Direct Deposit activity and Qualifying Deposits will earn the rates earned by account holders with Direct Deposit.
Members without either Direct Deposit activity or Qualifying Deposits, as determined by SoFi Bank, during a 30-Day Evaluation Period and, if applicable, the grace period, will earn 1.20% APY on savings balances (including Vaults) and 0.50% APY on checking balances.
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