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Last month I made a presentation to a bunch of high school students on the importance of basic financial planning skills. I had hopes of starting a conversation about saving for large purchases such a college education or a car. But the students were surprisingly interested in learning about EE savings bonds — those gifts that grandparents and other relatives give children to commemorate life events such as a birthday, first communion, or a Bar Mitzvah.
One student said he had savings bonds that were worth over $2,000. On special occasions, he said, his grandparents would give him a $50 EE savings bond. They told him that in eight years it would be worth $100 and then it would continue to double in value every eight years thereafter.
The Truth About Savings Bonds
Savings bonds that double in value every seven or eight years, however, have gone the way of encyclopedia salesmen, eight-track tapes, and rotary telephones. EE bonds sold from May 1, 2014 to October 31, 2014 will earn an interest rate of 0.50%, according to the US Treasury website. It’s not surprising that these interest rates are so low; what is surprising is that people are still buying these securities based on very old information.
You can buy EE savings bonds through banks and other financial institutions, or through the US Treasury's TreasuryDirect website. The bonds, which are now issued in electronic form, are sold at half the face value; for instance, you pay $50 for a $100 bond. The interest rate at the time of purchase dictates when a bond will reach its face value.
This rate is detemined by discounting it against the 10 year Treasury Note rate, currently about 2.2%.
Years ago, you could calculate when your bond would reach face value by using a simple mathematical formula called the Rule of 72. If you simply divide an interest rate by 72 you can determine the number of years it will take for something to double in value. So, let’s try it. 72 divided by 0.5% = 144 years. Ouch!!
Fortunately, the Treasury has made a promise to double your investment in a EE savings bond in no less than 20 years. Actually it’s a balloon payment. So if you happen to cash out your EE bond in it’s 19th year, 350th day, you’ll only get the interest earned on the initial investment. You need to wait the full 20 years to get the face value. At that point, you've effectively gotten an annualized return of 3.5% on your initial investment.
So let’s recap. If Grandma wants to buy a EE savings bond for a grandchild to cash in to cover some college costs, she ought to buy that bond at the same time she's pressuring her kids to start working on grandchildren. I joke, but, I think it’s very important to recognize the world has changed, and savings bonds don’t deliver the same solutions that many people remember from years past.
But back to the boy who stood up in class to talk about the savings bonds. What about the bonds his grandparents had purchased over the past several decades? Well many of those bonds may in fact be earning interest rates of 5% to 8%. It just depends on when they were purchased. The Treasury has a savings bond wizard that will calculate the value of your old paper bonds. Give it a shot. You may be pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised at the value of the bonds you have sitting around.
Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.