Money’s Top Picks
PenFed Credit Union: Best Credit Union
Barclays Online Savings: Best for Zero Minimum Balance
CIT Bank: Best for Account Options
American Express: Best for Prompt 24/7 Customer Service
Ally Bank: Best Online Tools
More on Money’s Top Picks
Gone are the days of hiding cash under the mattress, saving for that so-called rainy day. Now, the financially savvy save their money in bank accounts where saving rates can help it grow each year and stay ahead of inflation. Savings accounts present a low-risk alternative to stock market investments that allow your funds to retain their buying power while the cost of living continues to rise.
To find the best savings accounts in the U. S., we conducted over 200 hours of research, interviewed six experts, and vetted a total of 19 companies. The process included analyzing the number of complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for checking and savings accounts between 2017 and 2020.
We also looked into minimum balance requirements and annual percentage yields offered by these financial institutions to assess the returns offered to consumers, and analyzed fees, accessibility, mobile app availability, and customer support.
Since March 2020, rates have been in flux due to external economic factors related to COVID-19 and the ongoing health crisis. We would urge you to search for the latest numbers when shopping for a savings account, as some of the annual percentage yields (APY) below may have changed.
Additionally, in April 2020 the Federal Reserve Board amended the regulation that limits savings account transfers to six per month. This move comes as complications related to the coronavirus have made access to savings a more urgent matter.
PenFed Credit Union: Best Credit Union
Given their not-for-profit structure, credit unions usually offer low fees that benefit their members. PenFed is not the exception. What sets this credit union apart, however, is that it has a solid online infrastructure available throughout the United States, paired with branches in 13 states, Washington DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Anyone can open up a savings account with a $5 balance and not have to worry about any monthly maintenance fees.
PenFed’s Premium Online Savings Account offers a high-interest rate of 1.00% APY (as of July 2020) on your entire balance. The account is also federally insured by the National Credit Union Association (NCUA) for up to $250,000. All earned dividends are credited on a monthly basis, but daily balances over $250,000 do not earn interest.
The Premium Online Savings Account doesn’t feature access to ATMs, so while withdrawing cash is a possibility, you would have to pay a service charge each time. While this option may not be a great selling point for many, it could be a great fit for those looking for a savings-only option. And you would also have the ability to transfer money from your savings account to a regular checking account on PenFed’s mobile app. Other convenient app features include checking your transaction history and current balance, and depositing checks by snapping two pictures with your mobile phone.
PenFed, also known as Pentagon Credit Union, was founded to assist military personnel and their families. While they still offer products tailored specifically to the needs of military members, PenFed’s online savings account is available to anyone, whether or not they served in the Armed Forces.
COVID 19 and PenFed
PenFed put out a statement on their website urging their members to log in to their account and see if their products are eligible to skip a payment as a form of assistance.
Barclays Online Savings: Best for Zero Minimum Balance
Barclays does not require you to have a minimum balance in order to open an online savings account, nor does it charge maintenance fees. Naturally, you’ll need some funds in your account if you want to earn interest with their 1.00% annual percentage yield (as of June 2020), but there are no balance requirements that must be met month after month for fear of penalties or fines.
Barclays’ website has considerable functionality and provides a helpful tool in the form of its Savings Assistant. This tool helps users do the numbers in regard to their financial goals while encouraging long-term savings. If you want to save up for a vacation, you can fill out some basic information and calculate just when you’ll reach your goal.
The company’s mobile app allows you to check your statement balance, look up your FICO credit score, and deposit a check through a user-friendly feature. Like other online savings accounts, Barclays has no branches in the United States and no ATM access. As such, any withdrawals must be made by transferring funds to a separate checking account.
Barclays’ origins date back to 17th century Britain, making it one of the oldest banks still in existence. Stateside, the bank is federally insured by the FDIC up to $250,000.
COVID 19 and Barclays:
Barclays has updated its call center hours and added more customer support agents to better serve their clients. While some relief efforts are being offered to clients with products like loans, as of this writing there has been no change in policy regarding their online savings account.
CIT Bank: Best for Account Options
CIT Bank offers two online savings accounts: Savings Builder and Premier High Yield Savings. Savings Builder offers a 0.95% APY (as of July 2020) and requires an opening deposit of $100. This account offers two ways for you to earn that yield, either by making monthly $100 deposits or by maintaining a $25,000 balance. If you like the account but lack $25,000 in liquid funds, making monthly deposits is a good opportunity to still earn interest while saving.
The Premier High Yield Savings account, on the other hand, offers a 0.75% APY (as of July 2020) and has no fees or balance requirements, presenting a viable alternative to the Savings Builder account. Both accounts are FDIC-insured, have interest compounded on a daily basis, and offer easy check deposits through CIT Bank’s mobile app.
CIT Bank offers customer support around the clock through its website and automated phone service. Their mobile app also allows you to make transfers, check your balance and account history, and is well-reviewed by both iPhone and Android users.
COVID 19 and CIT Bank:
CIT Bank is urging clients who have been impacted by COVID-19 to reach out and discuss options. The company provided a phone number for deposit accounts and mortgages but didn’t provide a specific number for online savings accounts.
American Express: Best for Prompt 24/7 Customer Service
American Express is well-known for its credit cards. If you like to keep a lot of your banking under the same banner, Amex offers their Personal Savings account with 1.00% APY (as of July 2020). To open an account, you won’t be required to have a minimum opening balance, nor will you be charged monthly or annual fees. Like other online accounts, Amex limits withdrawals to six per month. Unlike others, Amex does not charge a fee if you exceed this amount. It does, however, reserve the right to refuse your withdrawal request.
What sets the Amex savings account apart from the rest is the company’s superb customer service, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Should you have any questions regarding your savings account, you can pick up the phone and speak to a live agent at any time — no automated responses. While this is just a small part of a large infrastructure that American Express has been building for over a century, knowing that you can reach out whenever you need — regardless of time zones — should be regarded as a plus. And yes, other banks do offer customer service around the clock, but American Express is the only one of the companies we reviewed that can quickly connect you with a live agent at all times.
Another notable feature is an easy online application process that requires some basic personal information to be completed. To fund your FDIC-insured savings account, you can link a checking account for transfers or mail in a check.
COVID 19 and American Express:
American Express has raised its six-monthly withdrawal limit up to nine. The company has also put a relief program in place, but the information seems to indicate it only applies to credit cardholders.
Ally Bank: Best Online Tools
Ally Bank’s most attractive feature is its buckets tool, designed to help you set goals and build your savings around them. The buckets program works by letting you set up multiple divisions (or buckets) within the same account so you can manage those funds separately. This empowers you to save and allows you to visualize these goals as individual targets you’re working to reach. As far as financial planning goes, this is a great feature that can simplify your savings process.
Ally Bank also offers “boosters,” which enable you to automate your savings with linked checking accounts. You can set a fixed amount to be saved or allow the bank to analyze your checking accounts to determine what money can be moved to savings without affecting your budget and expenses. You can be as hands-on as you like or entrust the company to make these transfers on your behalf.
Ally Bank’s Online Savings Account is FDIC-insured and offers a 1.10% APY (as of July 2020). It doesn’t require any minimum balances or maintenance fees and provides 24/7 customer support via email, online chat, or phone. The fees they do charge are considerably standard, from excessive transactions to overdraft items. Ally’s mobile app allows you to view balances, carry out transfers, and deposit checks by uploading two pictures.
COVID 19 and Ally Bank:
Ally Bank is providing relief in the face of COVID-19 for clients of their online savings account. Under normal circumstances, more than six withdrawals would be met with an excessive transaction fee. Should you incur this fee, the bank will refund it.
We began our research into the best savings account companies by compiling a list of 19 financial institutions and gathering their APY’s. We also looked up the number of complaints filed against these companies in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s database under checking and savings accounts between 2017 and 2020. After determining the average for both pieces of data, nine companies were discarded because their APY fell considerably below the determined return rate average of 1.17%, and/or the number of complaints exceeded the determined average of 639.
Further research into these preliminary picks shed light on fees associated with the account, minimum balance requirements, mobile app availability, customer support, federal backing, among other factors. On the surface, a lot of these financial institutions look somewhat similar. Annual percentage yields differ by small amounts. With this in mind, we dug deeper, looking into the fine print for any potential deal-breakers. Some of these financial institutions are bent on providing a high level of convenience along with decent return rates. We paid special attention to these kinds of offerings.
After taking into consideration all the above-mentioned factors, we cut our list down to five top picks that provide notable resources for consumers who want to save money without complications.
Traditional Versus Online Banks
For those who are less tech-savvy among us, stepping into a brick and mortar bank might present considerable benefits. From face-to-face assistance to the ability to safely deposit money in cash, traditional banking does have its perks.
While some big banks with physical branches do use online banking tools such as mobile apps and browser-based platforms, they still lack a lot of the convenience afforded by online banks. A recent survey found that nearly one-third of Americans say they have or are planning to open an online account. Nevertheless, traditional banks don’t seem poised to disappear anytime soon.
- Branches, debit cards, and ATM availability
- Clients can deposit cash at branches
- In-person service
- Some banks have been in service for over a century
- Return rates tend to be low
- Fees are higher
- Strict balance requirements
The very basis of online financial institutions is the convenience of banking on the go, from a mobile device or a computer. This cuts out the need to visit a physical bank, fill out forms, wait in line, and explain to the teller the purpose of your visit. And since a lot of online banks are federally-insured, they represent a low risk.
When it comes to high-interest savings accounts, online banks offer more benefits than traditional ones. “There’s a convenience,” said Tatyana Bunich, President of Financial 1 Wealth Management Group. “Online banks don’t have brick and mortar rents to pay, many of their fees are either reduced or do not exist. Therefore it can be less expensive in the long run to use an online bank.”
While there are a few drawbacks to having an account online, such as the inability to deposit cash, we would urge anyone interested to assess all available features and make an informed decision.
- Easy check deposits (eDeposits)
- Earn more returns on savings
- Lower balance requirements
- No real options for non-Internet users
- Limited ATM network
- Can’t deposit cash directly
Best Practices For Saving Money
Perks of Savings Accounts
Successfully saving money is habitual. While it can be difficult, the benefits are well worth it because those funds will serve as a form of protection against high-interest debt and other unadvisable financial practices.
After you’ve saved an amount you know will cover any unforeseen expenses, you can explore other ways of making your money work for you, such as looking toward the stock market and buying bonds and/or shares. Investment opportunities can make your money grow beyond what any annual percentage yield could offer. “In today’s market, it makes sense to have a moderate to conservative portfolio,” said José Ricardo Alicea Cruz, Investment Advisor Representative at MassMutual Financial Group. “And this needs to be aligned with the risk the client is willing to assume. Specifically, due to the current lack of security and the volatility that’s expected in the next six to twelve months,” he added.
But what do ordinary people — who don’t have the means to invest — get out of saving money? Setting money aside that might retain most of its buying power, depending on your account, can provide you security and peace of mind when faced with unforeseen expenses. And with the economy officially entering a recession, this is no time to be vulnerable in the face of financial uncertainty during an ongoing health crisis.
“Savings accounts are meant for people who are trying to save up for living expenses,” said Tatyana Bunich. “That money is not meant to grow. Savings accounts are meant for six months’ worth of living expenses set aside in case you lose your job [or] in case anything happens or for those one-time expenses.”
The Importance of Having an Emergency Fund
When it comes to the financial planning behind an emergency fund, a lot of factors come into play. Does the household have only one breadwinner? Are there potential health complications? Is the car you use to get to work giving you trouble? Keeping a rainy day fund for unexpected expenses can put a buffer between you and high-interest credit cards, Payday loans, and other debts that could impact your financial wellbeing. The biggest problem is that building up that buffer takes time and discipline.
About 40% of Americans would be unable to cover a $400 emergency, according to a 2018 report by the Federal Reserve. Close to half of the adult population would have to resort to other means, like loans or credit cards, to meet the demands of an unexpected emergency.
Experts agree that six months’ worth of expenses is the way to go. In the event of loss of employment, half a year would allow you the necessary time to search for a new job and hopefully land on your feet. “Six months is the industry standard. Again, most people don’t have it, but that’s always the goal,” said Bunick. “We’ve been in really good economic times these past ten years, so a lot of people really slacked off and did not have savings because unemployment was so low, the job market was so good, and the economy was booming.”
Unexpected expenses don’t always come in the form of an emergency. Car trouble, home improvements, and even last-minute travel arrangements can come at a high cost. Cash will always be a better alternative to debt. “I encourage my clients to refer to their savings as a curveball fund,” said Beth Agnello, Financial Planner at Fair Winds Financial Advice. “Because sometimes if we call it an emergency account, we think this is only going to be used if I’m diagnosed with something really terrible, or my house burns down, instead of the more routine bumps that we didn’t anticipate in life, which require cash,” she added.
Good savings needs to be risk-free, that’s why it’s essential to have your money in a federally insured bank or credit union. Also, the money needs to be liquid, so you can move it out should you find yourself in need. In these times of social isolation, a lot of people are finding ways to cut spending. If used properly, that extra money can serve as a silver lining to these unprecedented times.
Automate Your Savings
Funds like 401(k) plans and IRAs are usually regarded as beneficial because, among other reasons, your contributions can happen automatically. While your retirement fund continues to grow, you don’t have to give much thought to the money that’s being deducted from your paychecks.
When it comes to regular monthly savings, if establishing a habit of setting aside a fixed amount is too hard for whatever reason, leave it to the software to set the money aside for you. Just set the amount and then forget it — automation will take care of the rest. “What I encourage clients to do is to come up with a modest amount to start with, automate it, and then ratchet it up over time,” said Agnello. “Automatic is the way to go.”
The Long Road to Retirement (Without Debt)
Saving can help you build up a nest egg so your retirement is financially stable. When approaching retirement, you have to ask yourself about the costs involved in maintaining the kind of lifestyle you want to have. Usually, the first step is to determine the amount of money that will enable you to do just that. How much you contribute to your savings account should depend on how close you are to your goal, which should in turn be based on your particular needs and wants.
But then there’s the question of debt. Yes, you’re saving and preparing for retirement, but are you dragging high-interest debt into your twilight years? Once you’re living off your savings, pension, and/or Social Security, that debt can put a strain on your retirement plans. “The ideal [scenario] is to go into retirement without debt, without a mortgage,” said Agnello.
While there’s such a thing as good debt, like mortgages, the bad kind of debt can compel you to push back your retirement because your finances are simply not as solid as they should be. “Debt eats you up. It’s like the zombie apocalypse, debt never goes away,” said Howard Dvorkin, author, and Personal Finance Expert. “Debt just keeps charging interest. The problem I see is too many people going into retirement carrying credit card balances, which I have never seen before,” he added.
Managing Credit Card Debt
Without savings or an emergency fund in place, a lot of people will resort to credit cards to make ends meet. The biggest problem with credit cards is the high-interest rates, which right now are around 15%, according to the Federal Reserve.
And yet, credit cards do offer benefits. They help cardholders build credit, are accepted virtually everywhere, are great for online shopping, and some even offer reward programs and fraud protection. While these perks look great at first glance, you’re only going to really reap the benefits if you pay off your balance regularly or, at the very least, keep it below 30% utilization so your credit score isn’t affected. “Always pay down the credit cards no matter what, because you’re going to get charged 16% or 25% or even higher,” said Dvorkin. “You got to get rid of that or you’re never going to get ahead. That’s my attitude.”
But in the event of an emergency, should you rack up your credit card debt or withdraw from your savings account? Without exception, all the experts we spoke to agreed that using your savings is better. “The only time I would suggest that someone consider using a credit card to fund a short term need is if it’s a person who is very capable [of] managing debt,” said Agnello. “And that’s not most people.”
Inflation and APY
Inflation is the term used to describe the rise in costs of goods and services. Right now, the average inflation rate stands somewhere between 2.5 and 3%. The International Monetary fund projects a 2.24% annual rise in prices until 2021.
What does any of this have to do with savings? Well, if your savings account APY falls short of the inflation rate, you won’t be earning a return, you’ll be losing money. One of the most important factors involved with savings is the ability to retain your money’s purchasing power. This can only be done effectively if your APY cancels out inflation. “Get a reasonable return that keeps up with inflation so that your $50,000, whether it’s next year or three years from now, [still] has the buying power that it has today,” said Ron Guay, Fiduciary Financial Advisor at Rivermark Wealth Management.
Right now, the cash you have in your wallet is losing value bit by bit because the cost of living continues to increase. Just think back to what you could buy with $20 in 1995. According to an inflation calculator, $20 in 1995 is the same as $34.07 in 2019. Additionally, a product with a cost of $20 in 2019, would’ve cost $11.69 in 1995. That’s how inflation erodes the value of money across 25 years. “If inflation, historically speaking, has been at 2.5%, I need to acknowledge that every year is eroding the value of my money,” said Alicea Cruz. “In the nitty-gritty, people forget that the cost of living continues to increase and if we don’t invest our money, we’re going to have a problem in the future.”
Market Projections Timeline According Experts
Savings Account FAQs
What is an APY?
Annual percentage yield is how much money an account earns in one year, taking into account the interest rate and compound interest. The higher an APY, the more returns the savings account will earn in a one-year period.
Will the returns I earn be taxed?
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers your returns to be income. Therefore they are deemed taxable just like any other form of income.
Why should I be concerned about inflation?
With inflation, if your savings aren’t earning returns, the value of your money begins to erode. For example, twenty years ago the value and buying power of $100 was not what it is today. Simply put, if the rate of inflation is higher than your APY, you’re losing money.
Why do some banks and financial institutions require a minimum balance?
There are many reasons for this, including the bank’s need for liquidity. For some banks, the balance in their accounts represents the funds with which they offer other products such as loans and mortgages.
Which is better in an emergency: Racking up credit card debt or withdrawing from savings?
Based solely on the fact that all credit cards charge you some amount of interest, it would cost you less to withdraw from savings.
What are some differences between a savings account, money market account, and a certificate of deposit (CD)?
Here are the basics: Right now, savings accounts offer returns just over 1% with flexible or non-existent balance requirements. You might be able to get higher interest rates from a money market account, but you’ll need to meet stricter balance requirements. As for a certificate of deposit, your funds will be less accessible because in order to get the returns, your money needs to be tied up for a specified amount of time.
All three have effective but different ways of helping your money grow. As always, research the pros and cons to find the best savings account that suits you.
We ranked the companies on our list based on the following factors:
Rates and Maintenance
Some banks and credit unions charge setup or initial fees when you sign up with them. Others charge a monthly maintenance fee. And then there’s the possibility of getting slapped with penalties if your account isn’t meeting certain requirements.
We read the fine print of all the researched financial institutions to find what, if any, charges may be looming in the background waiting to deduct from your hard-earned dollars. Naturally, companies without any hidden fees or charges were ranked higher.
With interest rates and annual percentage yields, we found ourselves with a moving target. Given the state of the economy right now, yield rates have been fluctuating constantly. Also, there’s the ongoing health crisis to take into consideration — any number of factors could affect the account rates from one day to the next. While we discarded companies with a considerably lower yield than the determined average, we would still encourage you to do your own research to find the latest numbers when shopping for savings accounts.
Minimum Balance Requirements
We favored accounts that don’t require a minimum initial deposit. That said, we encountered accounts that do require you to keep a set balance month after month, in some cases as low as $5. In other cases, we found requirements of minimum monthly deposits of at least $100, a condition that isn’t entirely negative when you consider you’re being incentivized to save money.
Again, diving into the fine print is the way to go. Financial institutions can claim zero balance requirements across the board, but there might be other fees — some as low as 60 cents — that will be taken out of your account with your approval but without your knowledge.
Federal Backing and Consumer Complaints
Insured financial institutions… is there any other kind? A bank or a credit union that lacks any kind of financial insurance can fail and possibly leave you without your money. If your bank fails but is insured by an agency such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), your deposits are safe — at least up to the insured limit which tends to be $250,000. The other agency that provides this kind of protection is the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA).
Another factor that we looked into is complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). After establishing the average at 639, we only reviewed financial institutions whose filed complaints fell below that amount. Granted, complaints are just one part of a bigger story, but when a financial institution has four times the average amount, that might be considered a red flag.
All the accounts we reviewed have had comparatively few complaints filed against them and are all backed by the federal government.
App Availability and Customer Support
There’s a lot to be said about the convenience of having access to your bank or credit union with just a few taps on your smartphone. For those who want to monitor their balance regularly, a mobile app offers the ability to do this along with other perks, like depositing a check with ease or calling up your account history in a matter of seconds.
Customer support that’s available around the clock might not seem like such a strong selling point, but should you find yourself needing to speak to someone from your bank at unreasonable hours, you’ll be glad this feature is available.
What it comes down to is simple: Modern-day consumers are not only expecting the brands and institutions they patronize to be available around the clock, but actively demanding it. Twenty years into the 21st century, that is the kind of consumer that solid mobile apps and quality customer support are aiming to please. Savings accounts that provide this kind of access to consumers ranked higher on our list.