When it comes to saving, traditional bank savings accounts are about as plain-vanilla as it gets. But for many people, vanilla is the perfect flavor. Savings accounts are one of the safest places you can put your money. That’s because bank deposit accounts are federally insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and credit union deposit accounts are insured by the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). In other words, if your bank or credit union fails, you can count on getting your money back, up to a limit of $250,000 per depositor, per institution. There are a few exceptions to this rule, so if you don’t see the FDIC or NCUA logo displayed anywhere on a bank’s website or at a branch, ask about it. And if you already have $250,000 deposited at a particular bank, you’ll want to find a different bank to open a new account.
Are there other savings vehicles that are just as safe? Sure. CDs and money market accounts are also insured bank products. U.S. treasury notes, bills, and bonds are not insured, but they are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. government, and are considered risk-free from a credit perspective.
But what about liquidity? Savings accounts allow you to withdraw as much of your money as you want, pretty much whenever you want, without having to wait for the account to reach maturity. This type of liquidity is critical for people who wish to use their account as an emergency fund to pay for surprise expenses, or who are preparing for a large purchase but do not know exactly when it will occur. One caveat: savings accounts are restricted to no more than six withdrawals per month. That restriction is imposed by the Federal Reserve Board, so it will not vary from institution to institution. If you go over that limit, the bank will charge a penalty. If you go over that limit repeatedly, your account could be shut down.
Savings accounts also offer plenty of flexibility. In general, you should expect that higher interest rates will be offered for accounts with higher minimum balances, and that dipping below a minimum balance will incur a fee. That said, it’s not difficult to find a savings account with no minimum balance and no monthly fees. This flexibility makes savings accounts appropriate for a wide range of different needs, from parking large sums of cash for an indeterminate period of time to starting a nest egg with just a few dollars. A no-fee, no-minimum savings account is a popular tool for teaching children to save, because no kid wants to see bank fees chewing up his allowance. If you shop around, you’ll also be able to find savings accounts that offer ATM cards, checks, and rewards programs. And of course, online service is a given.
Then again, not everyone wants all the frills. In an increasingly complex world, many people want to keep their finances as simple as possible. Savings accounts offer a simplicity that’s hard to find in other places. You go to a bank, you open an account, you put in your money, you let it grow—albeit at a snail’s pace, and you take it out when you need it.