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Buying U.S. Savings Bonds in an Uncertain Economy

In a down economy, U.S. savings bonds are one of the safest investments you can make. Savings bonds are nonmarketable securities — when you purchase them, they’re registered to you and you can’t sell them to another investor.

Uncle Sam offers two types of savings bonds, Series EE and Series I, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and are considered the safest of all investments. Here’s more info on each type:

  • Series EE bonds: These bonds earn a fixed rate of return set by the U.S. Treasury. They’re accrual bonds, which means the interest accumulates and is compounded semiannually (rather than being paid to the owner as it’s earned each month). If you hold one of these bonds, you receive the interest when you redeem the bonds.

  • Series I bonds: The interest you earn from I bonds comes in two parts:

    • A fixed-rate component established when you purchase the bond

    • A second component that’s equal to the rate of inflation, adjusted semiannually (based on the consumer price index for March and September)

    Although the fixed-rate interest component for Series I bonds is low, these bonds help protect you against inflation. If inflation goes up, so does the interest rate you earn because the variable-rate portion is adjusted every six months; for example, when the fixed-rate component is 2 percent and the inflation adjustment is 5 percent, an investment in a Series I bond is guaranteed to return 7 percent. But remember, the total interest rate can also go down as the inflation adjustment decreases.

For both bonds, the purchase limit is $5,000 per Social Security number for each calendar year. You can easily purchase and redeem the bonds in electronic format through the Department of the Treasury’s Web site. If you purchase the bonds electronically, you can get any denomination of $25 or more, including penny increments. The purchase price is equal to the face value.

You can also purchase the bonds in paper form through various financial institutions and payroll savings plans. Paper I bonds are offered in denominations of $50, $75, $100, $200, $500, $1000, and $5,000; they’re purchased for their face value. However, you can get paper versions of EE bonds at half their face value; they’ll be worth face value at maturity. Paper EE bonds are offered in denominations of $50, $75, $100, $200, $500, $1000, $5,000, and $10,000.

The interest on both bonds compounds semiannually for 30 years, but you don’t have to hold the bonds for that long. You can redeem the bonds after 12 months, but you pay a three-month interest penalty if you redeem the bonds within five years of the purchase date.

As for tax treatment, U.S. savings bonds are exempt from state and local income tax. Federal income tax on interest earned can be deferred until redemption or final maturity, whichever occurs first. Tax benefits are available when you use the bonds for education purposes.

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