A Beginner’s Guide to Investing in CDs

By Janet Siroto · May 20, 2024 · 12 minute read

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A Beginner’s Guide to Investing in CDs

A certificate of deposit (or CD) has many of the same low-risk benefits as a savings account, but a CD holds your money for a fixed time period in exchange for a higher rate of interest than the standard savings account.

You may be familiar with CDs as part of your savings strategy (say, keeping money secure and earning interest until you are ready to buy a house), but they can also be used as a part of a portfolio’s cash allocation. CDs generally pay a higher interest rate than you can get with other cash accounts. Owing to their lower risk profile and modest but steady returns, allocating part of your portfolio to CDs can offer diversification that may help lower your risk exposure in other areas.

Here’s a closer look at the ins and outs of investing in CDs.

Key Points

•   Certificates of deposit (CDs) offer higher interest rates than regular savings accounts by locking funds for a fixed period.

•   CDs are available through banks, credit unions, and brokerages, with varying terms and minimum deposits.

•   Early withdrawal from a CD incurs penalties, typically costing several months’ interest.

•   Investment strategies like CD laddering, barbells, and bullets help manage liquidity and returns.

•   CDs are insured up to $250,000, providing a safe investment option with predictable returns.

How to Buy CDs

Investors can buy CDs at many, if not most financial institutions, such as banks, credit unions, or brokerages. Not all institutions might offer CDs, and others may have limited options, but generally, if you’re looking to buy CDs, you might want to start at your bank, where you might hold a savings account.

Again, a certificate of deposit is similar to a savings account in that you can stash your money for a long period of time, but CDs possess some distinct features you need to understand in order to gauge whether they’re a good fit with your plan. Here are some aspects of CDs to keep in mind.

1. A Fixed Deposit for a Set Time Period

Investors purchase a CD for a fixed amount of money: e.g., $1,000, $5,000, or more. Some banks have a required minimum deposit; others don’t. Generally, you cannot increase the amount of your savings (although you can always buy another CD). Some banks offer jumbo CDs, which might require a minimum $100,000 deposit.

Unlike a savings account, which is open-ended (and allows you to access your cash at any time), you typically purchase a CD for a set period of time during which you can’t withdraw the funds without a penalty. Typical CD terms can vary from one month to five years, so check with the institution that issues the CD.

2. Guaranteed Interest Rates and Insurance

Because investing in CDs is less liquid than a savings account, the interest rate tends to be higher. CD rates are quoted as an annual percentage yield (APY). The APY is how much the account will earn in one year, including compound interest. Banks generally compound interest daily or monthly.

When the period is up, also known as the CD maturity date, the CD holder can receive the original investment, plus any interest earned. The interest rate can vary considerably, depending on the institution. Also, longer-term CDs tend to offer higher rates than shorter-term ones.

The money in a CD is protected by the same federal insurance (FDIC) that covers all deposit products, whether at a bank, credit union, or other institution.

3. Early Withdrawal Penalties

CDs can offer higher yields because customers are promising the bank that they will deposit their money for a set period of time. As a result, investing in CDs means the money is usually locked up until it reaches its maturity date. Withdrawing the money before the CD matures may trigger a penalty, which could effectively eliminate any interest rate gains.

The penalty for an early withdrawal on a CD is often stated in terms of interest: e.g. you would owe 60 days’ worth of interest, 150 days’ worth of interest, and so on. The penalty is usually charged according to the simple interest rate on your account, not the compound interest you might have earned over time.

Before purchasing a CD, it’s best to look at its disclosure statement, which should tell you the interest rate, how often interest is paid, the maturity date of the CD, and any early withdrawal penalties.

Note: There are penalty-free or no penalty CDs. These allow you to withdraw funds before the maturity date without a fee, but they typically have lower interest rates than other CDs.

4. Terms Vary Widely

It’s important to shop around for the best CD rates and terms. Brick-and-mortar banks may pay lower rates, while online banks and credit unions may pay higher rates. Because the interest rates on CDs are based on the federal funds rate, similar to mortgages and other financial products, it’s also a good idea to see whether the Federal Reserve is about to raise or lower interest rates before deciding whether it’s a good time to invest in CDs.

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CD Investing Strategies

CDs can be incorporated as part of your financial plan in various ways. They can act as short-term savings vehicles — a way to secure your money for a down payment or a large purchase within five years, say. Or they can be part of a longer-term strategy. Here are some examples.

CD Ladder

A CD ladder uses a combination of shorter-term and longer-term CDs to maximize different rates of return and deliver several years of steady income.

Hypothetically, say you want to invest $10,000 over a 10-year period. You could create a CD ladder by purchasing five CDs of different maturities all at once, and reinvesting them as follows:

•   Deposit $2,000 in a 1-year CD. When that CD matures, roll over the money plus interest into a 5-year CD.

•   Deposit $2,000 in a 2-year CD. When that CD matures, again roll over those funds into another 5-year CD.

•   Do the same for a 3-year, 4-year, and 5-year CD. As each one matures, you roll over the funds, plus any accumulated interest, into a 5-year CD.

The result will be five different CDs that mature one year apart, allowing you to withdraw your funds plus interest. This strategy ensures some diversification of interest rates, so your money isn’t locked into a flat rate for the full 10 years. It can be reassuring to know that, if you need access to cash, you can expect one of the CDs to be on the verge of maturing at regular intervals.

CD Barbell

The CD barbell is like a CD ladder, but without buying any mid-length CDs: Here you invest a certain amount in a short-term CD (say, a 1-year CD), and the rest in a 5-year CD as a way to hedge your bets.

The barbell strategy allows you to take advantage of both short- and long-term rates. When the short-term CD matures, you can either reinvest at the short-term rate, if that makes sense, or shift the money over to a longer-term CD.

CD Bullet

Instead of buying a few CDs of different maturities at the same time, the bullet strategy allows you to invest different amounts at different times, as a way of saving for a specific goal like a down payment.

This strategy could allow you to invest one amount in a CD to start, save up more for a year or two and buy another CD that matures at the same time as the first, and so on. Then you have, say, three CDs that mature at the same time, with interest, allowing you to withdraw the lump sum from each one for your goal.

For example:

•   You could invest $5,000 in a 5-year CD today.

•   Then, in two years, invest $3,000 in a 3-year CD.

•   Last, save up money for another two years and buy a $2,000 1-year CD.

•   All three CDs mature at the same time, and you can withdraw all the money, plus compound interest.

Benefits of Investing in CDs

Investing in CDs can offer some investors specific benefits.

Peace of Mind

CDs are generally considered one of the safer options for investors. Like traditional savings accounts or high-yield savings accounts, CDs are insured for up to $250,000 per depositor, per account ownership category, per insured institution, when they are purchased through an FDIC-insured bank or an NCUA-insured credit union. In the very rare instance of the CD-issuing bank failing, your deposits would be covered up to $250,000.

Predictability

CD interest rates are usually fixed and will deliver a predictable yield at the end of their term. The same is not necessarily true of traditional savings accounts, which may lower the amount they pay if interest rates drop. The ability to calculate exactly how much you’ll be paid at the end of the CD’s term makes it easier to know how that CD will fit into a financial plan.

A Variety of Options

Thousands of banks and credit unions across the country offer a diverse selection of CDs, which come with many interest rate options and with maturity lengths from a month to a decade.

There also may be different styles of CDs to choose from (you’ll learn about bump-up and add-on CDs in a moment). But, as always, be sure to check the terms.

Drawbacks of Investing in CDs

Of course, like any other investment, CDs can come with their share of potential downsides.

Illiquidity

One of the main drawbacks of a CD is that most of them are relatively illiquid, meaning you can’t access the funds whenever you like. An investor’s money is tied up until the maturity date, and early withdrawals may trigger penalties in the form of lost interest payments or, in some cases, lost principal.

Though there are some CDs that offer penalty-free withdrawals, investors must often accept lower interest rates in trade.

When choosing a CD, it’s best to carefully consider a maturity date you know you will be able to meet. An emergency fund can help you avoid the temptation to tap CD investments when the unexpected happens.

Inflation Risk

Despite the fact that CDs tend to offer higher returns than traditional savings accounts, they can still be subject to the same inflation risk. When inflation is high, CD returns may be unable to outpace it. That means the money sitting in the CD may lose purchasing power before reaching maturity.

Taxes

When investors withdraw money from CDs after the maturity date, they pay no taxes on the principal withdrawn, but the money earned is taxable on state and federal levels as interest income.

The taxes will reduce the amount of money a CD investor will actually get to take home. It’s a good idea to carefully consider taxes when shopping for a CD and deciding on an APY.

Opportunity Cost

Money that’s tied up in a CD can’t be put to work anywhere else — a problem known as opportunity cost. CD interest rates may be higher than some other bank products, but stocks, bonds, and other investments may offer much higher returns. That said, higher returns are often associated with higher risk.

CD investors may be opting to avoid risk or using the accounts to diversify a portfolio that already holds a mix of stocks and bonds.

Types of CDs to Invest In

Above, you learned about the basic structure of a traditional CD, but there are a few other types that may offer features that are more desirable. In some cases, these may come with tradeoffs or additional risk factors, so be sure to weigh the pros and cons and terms of each.

1. Liquid CDs

If you’d prefer a CD that allows you to access your savings before the maturity date without paying a penalty, a liquid CD may offer a solution. These CDs don’t charge a penalty for early withdrawals, but they may offer lower interest rates as a result.

2. Bump-up CDs

Some investors dislike the idea of locking up their cash at a fixed rate, when in theory rates could rise, and you’d lose out on the higher rate of return. A bump-up CD may help address that concern by allowing you a chance to “bump up” to a higher rate.

3. Add-on CDs

If you don’t have the specific amount required to open a CD, another option could be to open an add-on CD, which allows you to make additional deposits.

4. Variable Rate CDs

Like a variable rate loan, a variable rate CD doesn’t pay a fixed interest rate. Having a variable rate may give you higher or lower rates at some points, but the point is that the rate isn’t guaranteed, so you have to be willing to take your chances.

5. Uninsured CDs

If you’re willing to forgo federal insurance on your deposits, you might be able to get a higher interest rate.

In all cases, be sure to check the terms of the CD you’re about to buy, in case there are restrictions or caveats that might make a certain CD less desirable. For example, there are some CDs offered by foreign banks, but denominated in US dollars, which may offer competitive rates but they are not federally insured.

6. Brokered CDs

A brokered CD is a lot like a traditional CD but is purchased through a broker, typically using a brokerage account. This setup can provide access to a wide range of CDs from different financial institutions.

It is also possible to trade brokered CDs on the secondary market. Finding a buyer may be difficult, however, which could mean accepting a lower price for the sale. Brokered CDs may come with additional fees.

The Takeaway

Although CDs are sometimes dismissed as simple savings vehicles, in fact investing in CDs can offer a steady if modest rate of return, and some peace of mind — factors that may appeal to some investors, especially over time. It’s also possible to use different strategies like a CD ladder to create an income stream or maximize different interest rates over time.

If, however, the idea of locking up your money for a set period of time doesn’t suit your needs, you might consider a high-yield checking and savings account instead.

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FAQ

Where do you go to invest in CDs?

Investors can purchase CDs at many financial institutions, such as banks, credit unions, or brokerages, although not all institutions will offer them.

How much does a $10,000 CD make in a year?

The ultimate yield on a $10,000 CD in a year will depend on the associated interest rate and compounding frequency, which can vary. But assuming the interest rate is 3.00%, an investor could earn $300 after one year if compounded annually.

Are CDs considered low-risk?

CDs are generally considered to be lower-risk investments, especially compared to assets like stocks.

How much money do you need to invest in a CD?

There are minimums to purchase a CD, which vary, but a ballpark figure is around $500, depending on where you buy them.


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