What Are I Bonds? 9 Things to Know Before Investing

By Rick Orford · May 14, 2024 · 7 minute read

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What Are I Bonds? 9 Things to Know Before Investing

Investors with a long-term savings outlook who are looking for a safe investment may want to consider investing in Series I Savings Bonds, commonly known as I Bonds. I Bonds are similar to most bonds in that they are essentially a loan to an entity (in this case the U.S. government), with the promise to return your money, typically with interest. I Bonds are different in that they may offer some tax breaks as well. Here are nine important things to know before you invest in I Bonds.

9 Important Things to Know Before You Invest in I Bonds

1. I Bonds May Offer a Higher Rate, But Not a Fixed Rate

For those looking for low-risk investment returns, I Bonds may be a good option, but they are not traditional fixed-income securities. I Bonds are a type of savings bond offered by the U.S. Treasury and backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. They are unique in that they offer two types of interest payments: a fixed rate and a variable rate, which together provide the bond’s composite rate (or yield).

The fixed-rate portion is determined when the bond is purchased, and remains the same for the life of the bond. The variable rate gets adjusted twice a year, based on inflation rates. Investors may hold I Bonds for up to 30 years.

To illustrate how the rate can change, in May 2022, when inflation was high, I Bonds paid a composite rate of 9.62%. But when inflation cooled, the variable rate dropped and the composite rate dropped as well. For instance, in November 2022, the composite rate fell to 6.89%. Currently, the composite rate on Series I Savings Bonds issued as of May 1, 2024 is 4.28%.

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2. Your I Bond Principal Is Guaranteed

Because I Bonds are backed by the U.S. government they have a low risk of default and offer tax-advantaged interest income. Furthermore, the principal is guaranteed. This means (unlike traditional, non-government bonds) that the redemption value will never decrease. This is one of the advantages of savings bonds as a whole. As a result, I Bonds are considered low-risk investments.

3. I Bonds Offer Some Tax Breaks

Tax-efficient investors may want to consider certain I Bond features. Because I Bonds are exempt from municipal or state taxes, this can be a boon for some investors. That said, while federal taxes usually apply, they could be deferred until the bond is ultimately sold or matures; whichever happens first.

Additionally, I Bond investors may use the interest payments for qualified higher education expenses, and receive a 100% deduction (this is called the education exclusion). Some restrictions apply, including:

•   You must cash out your I Bonds the year that you want to claim the education exclusion.

•   You must use the interest paid to cover qualified higher education expenses for you, your spouse, or your dependent children the same year.

•   You cannot be married, filing separately.

4. I Bonds Are Similar to E Bonds & EE Bonds

Investors who are familiar with the Series E Bond may also find I Bonds appealing. While Series E Bonds are no longer available from the Treasury, they can still be purchased from other investors who currently hold them. Historically, Series E bonds were also known as defense or war bonds.

Series E bonds were replaced by Series EE bonds (aka “Patriot Bonds”) in 1980. Today, like Series I Bonds, investors can buy EE Savings Bonds from TreasuryDirect .

An interesting feature of Series EE Savings Bonds is that, over a 20-year period, these bonds are guaranteed to double in value. And should the interest not be enough to double the value, the U.S. Treasury will top it up, giving the bond an effective interest rate of 3.5% per year during that period.

While I Bonds don’t offer the same guarantee, your principal is guaranteed and the bonds are designed to keep pace with inflation.

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5. I Bonds Are Easy to Purchase

Investors can purchase electronic I Bonds online through TreasuryDirect in denominations over $25. The maximum amount of electronic I Bonds someone can purchase is $10,000 per calendar year.

In paper format, investors may use their tax refund to purchase up to $5,000 a year.

6. I Bonds Are a Long-Term Investment

In general, the primary risks in buying bonds revolve around redemption. What if you need your money before maturity?

I Bonds are generally a long-term investment. To start with, investors must understand that they have their money locked up for one year. After that, investors who redeem their I Bonds before they’ve held the bond for five years will forfeit the last three months of interest. (You can redeem an I Bond after five years with no penalty.)

As a result, those looking for a shorter-term investment may want to consider investing in Treasury bills.

7. Other Investments Might Offer Better Returns

One possible advantage of investing in stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs is that investors could potentially make a profit if the stock or fund does well. For instance, historically, stocks have been shown to be one of the best ways to build wealth over time. However, there is also risk involved, and you could lose money if the investment performs poorly.

TIPS, or Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, are also a type of government bond designed to protect investors from inflation. The principal amount of a TIPS bond will increase with inflation, while the interest payments remain fixed. I Bonds are similar to TIPS but offer additional protection against deflation.

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8. It’s Hard to Predict an I Bond’s Return Over Time

To maximize your return on investment when purchasing I Bonds, it is essential to understand the differences between the two interest rate components of the bond, and how they can play out over time.

I Bonds offer a fixed interest rate, which remains the same for the life of the bond, and the inflation-protection component, which adjusts with changes in inflation rates twice per year.

So if you buy an I Bond, the composite rate would be the same for the first six months after the issue date. After that, your rate would adjust with the current inflation rate. If inflation goes up, so would the rate of return. If inflation goes down, the bond’s inflation rate would likewise decrease.

And if you hold onto your I Bond for 10, 20, or 30 years, you would likely see some years with higher inflation rates and some years with lower inflation rates.

9. You Must Meet Certain Criteria to Buy an I Bond

To be eligible to buy I Bonds you must be:

•   A United States citizen, no matter where you live,

•   A United States resident, or

•   A civilian employee of the United States, no matter where you live.

Also, investors can only purchase I Bonds with U.S. funds. You cannot buy them with foreign currency.

The Takeaway

If you’re looking for a generally safe and reliable investment option, I Bonds may be worth considering. They offer tax breaks and other benefits that can make them a low- risk choice for your long-term savings goals. That said, because I Bonds come with a composite rate of return, it’s hard to predict how much your money will actually earn over time.

With I Bonds, your principal is guaranteed. If you buy a $1,000 I Bond, no matter what happens, you will get your $1,000 back.

If you’re interested in savings vehicles, there are alternatives to government bonds, including savings accounts with a higher APY (annual percentage yield). By exploring your options, you can choose the best option — or options — for you.

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Photo credit: iStock/Bilgehan Tuzcu

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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.

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