All You Need to Know About Variable-Rate Certificates of Deposit (CD)

By Laurel Tincher · May 31, 2024 · 8 minute read

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All You Need to Know About Variable-Rate Certificates of Deposit (CD)

A variable-rate certificate of deposit (CD) is a financial product that locks up your money for a set period of time (or term) and has a fluctuating interest rate. This varying rate of return is what sets it apart from traditional CDs, which pay a fixed rate, meaning you know exactly how much money your money will earn.

When interest rates are high, a variable-rate CD can help pump up your returns, but the opposite holds true, too. Depending on your financial goals, style, and comfort level, a variable-rate CD may or may not be a good option for you.

What Is a Variable-Rate Certificate of Deposit?

A variable-rate certificate of deposit, or CD, is a financial product that you can purchase from a banking institution, broker, or credit union. All types of CDs are a savings account that have fixed investing terms. That means they hold your money for a certain amount of time, be it six months or several years.

You pick a term that suits you best. During that time, your money earns interest, but you are not supposed to withdraw any funds early or you are likely to be assessed a penalty fee. (No-penalty CDs are sometimes available but usually with lower interest rates.) When the term ends, your CD is said to have matured, and you may withdraw the funds plus interest or roll them over into a new CD. Usually the total amount of interest is also received at the end of the investment term.

More specifically:

•   Traditional CDs pay a consistent rate of interest that you are informed of at the start of the term.

•   With variable-rate CDs, however, the interest rate fluctuates throughout the term.

This means, you, the investor can potentially earn more on your deposit when interest rates go up. Or you could earn less if interest rates go down. Several market factors influence interest rates. These include the prime rate, treasury bills, a market index, and the consumer price index (CPI).

One last note: CDs are insured. Certificates of deposit are time deposits protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). If the bank holding the CD were to fail, you’d be insured up to $250,000 per depositor, per account ownership category (such as single, joint, or a trust account), per insured institution.

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Special Considerations of a Variable-Rate CD

Here are a few key things to consider when looking into investing in variable-rate CDs. This type of CD is generally most profitable if purchased when interest rates are low, because it’s more likely that the interest rate will increase during the investment term. For this reason, there is a higher demand for these CDs when interest rates are low.

There are four main factors that influence interest rates. These are:

•   Consumer Price Index (CPI): The federal government uses the Consumer Price Index to calculate changes in the amount that consumers pay for certain products and services. Whatever the current CPI is can affect how interest rates fluctuate.

•   Market Index Levels: Another factor that affects interest rates is the performance of investment portfolios, such as major market indices. Some indices that are often analyzed include the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the Nasdaq Composite Index.

•   Prime Rate: The prime rate is the interest rate that banks charge customers who have the highest credit ratings. These customers are the least likely to default on loans, so they get the best interest rates.

•   Treasury Bill Yields: The U.S. Treasury sells Treasury bonds in order to raise money, and they also pay interest on those bonds. The interest rate associated with Treasury bonds depends on the amount and time period of the bond.

It’s worth noting that, during times of high inflation, CDs may not be your best option. If inflation surges, even a variable-rate CD may not be able to keep pace. At the end of your term, you may find that your investment has lost ground versus inflation.

Another factor to consider before you lock in on a variable-rate CD is the fee for early withdrawals. Some variable-rate CDs have higher fees than others. If there’s a good chance you may end up withdrawing funds early, before a CD’s maturity date, you should check those penalties and make sure they aren’t too steep.

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Pros of a Variable-Rate CD

All CDs are known to be very safe investments since they are federally insured up to $250,000, as noted above. In addition to that security, there are several benefits to investing in variable-rate CDs.

High Yield on Investments

Variable-rate CDs are secure, insured accounts that can provide a higher rate of return than other types of savings accounts. For instance, when you buy a fixed-rate CD, you might miss out on the opportunity to earn a higher interest rate if the market ticks upward. Variable-rate CDs, however, can respond to market conditions. If you buy a variable-rate CD when interest rates are low, you can potentially earn more as rates increase.

Profitable When Interest Rates Are Low

When interest rates are low, demand for variable-rate CDs increases, as does the profit potential. That’s because it is more likely that interest rates will increase after you purchase one. The interest rate can tick upwards and earn you more money on your money.

Lower Withdrawal Fee

Generally, variable-rate CDs come with lower penalties on early withdrawals than other types of CDs.

Recommended: How Can I Buy a Bond?

Cons of a Variable-Rate CD

While there are several reasons variable-rate CDs make good investments, they do come with a few downsides to consider before you invest.

Low Interest Rates

Although a variable-rate CD provides the opportunity to snag higher interest rates, it also creates a significant risk of earning a lower rate if market rates go down. If you buy a variable-rate CD when interest rates are low with the hopes that they will increase, there is no guarantee that this will happen. This means they will continue to earn a low interest rate for some or all of the duration of the CD term. In this case, you may have lost out on the possibility of earning a higher return elsewhere.

Paying Extra for “Bump-Up” Feature

Although interest rates can increase or decrease with most variable-rate CDs, there are some that have a “bump-up” feature. This allows for a one-time rate boost (or possibly a few rate hikes) during the CD’s term, but you may well have to pay extra for this “bump-up.” This is because the initial interest rate is typically lower than it would be on a fixed-rate CD.

Inflation Can Outpace Your Rate and Wipe Away Profit

There is a chance that inflation will increase during the term of a variable-rate CD, as noted above. If this happens, inflation could end up being higher than the interest rate you’re earning. That could effectively cancel out your earnings.

Variable-Rate CD: Real World Example

All this talk of varying interest rates can be hard to get a handle on without a concrete example. So consider the following:

•   A CD that has a three-year term and a guaranteed repayment of the principal deposit.

•   The starting rate is 4.00%.

•   During the term of the investment, the rate drops from 4.00% down to 2.00%.

•   To determine the amount of interest you’d receive, you’d take the difference between the initial rate and the final rate, which is 2.00%.

•   So at the end of the term, the investor would receive their initial deposit plus 2.00% interest. That’s half what it was when you started.

Obviously, you, the CD account owner, would be happier if the reverse were true, which it could be!

What Happens if I Redeem a CD Before It Matures?

Most CDs have fees for early withdrawal; these typically involve losing interest that’s been earned and occasionally a bit of the principal. (Generally speaking, you don’t receive earned interest until a CD matures.)

However, some variable-rate CDs do offer early withdrawals with no penalties for fees. These CDs usually have a lower interest rate, so you are paying for this flexibility.

Recommended: How Can I Invest in CDs?

The Takeaway

CDs provide a safe place for your money to grow for a specific period of time. Most of them have fixed interest rates, but variable-rate ones are also often available. These can come with some risks. Time things right, and you could earn a healthy return on your investment. But if rates don’t head in a positive direction, you may not even be able to keep up with inflation.

CDs aren’t the only game in town for earning interest. Also consider the kind of interest you can earn from checking and savings accounts.

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Are variable-rate CDs issued by the government?

Variable-rate CDs are not issued by the government, but the FDIC, an independent agency of the federal government, insures them up to $250,000 per depositor, per account ownership category, per insured institution.

What determines the rate on a variable-rate CD?

Several factors can affect the interest rate of variable-rate CDs. These include the prime rate, market indices, treasury bills, and the consumer price index.

Do CDs have fixed interest rates?

Many CDs have fixed interest rates, but variable-rate CDs have interest rates that fluctuate throughout their term. It’s up to you which type you invest in.

Photo credit: iStock/Vladimir Sukhachev

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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 recurring deposit of regular income to an account holder’s SoFi Checking or Savings account, including payroll, pension, or government benefit 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, or are non-recurring in nature (e.g., IRS tax refunds), do not constitute Direct Deposit activity. There is no minimum Direct Deposit amount required to qualify for the stated interest rate.

As an alternative to direct deposit, 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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