CD vs. Savings Account: Which Is Best?

Two Ways to Save

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Savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs) keep your money safe and pay interest. They’re both an excellent choice for funds you might need to spend within the next few years, but they have different features that are important to know about. So, which is best for your money?

The answer typically depends on two factors:

  1. Easy access: Savings accounts are more flexible than CDs. You can withdraw funds without penalty at any time, and you can make ongoing deposits to a savings account. But that doesn’t mean you should rule out CDs.
  2. Interest rates: CDs provide a guaranteed interest rate that typically doesn’t change. If you think interest rates will rise soon, a savings account might make more sense. But if you’re happy with a CD’s interest rate and you’re willing to lock up your money, a CD can work well.

CDs Reward You for Commitment

CDs are time deposits that require you to commit to leaving your funds in an account for a minimum length of time. For example, you can buy CDs for terms as short as three months and as long as five years. In return, your bank or credit union offers to pay higher rates as you commit to longer maturities.

Best uses: CDs are ideal for funds you need at a specific future date. For example, if you know you’ll pay tuition in 19 months, an 18-month CD may help you maximize your interest earnings. Alternatively, if you have extra cash that you want to keep safe, with no intention of spending the money soon, a CD may be useful.

Higher rates: Banks typically pay higher interest rates on CDs than they do for savings accounts. That’s especially true as you go with longer terms (a 2-year CD should pay more than a 3-month CD). All other things being equal, rates tend to be higher on CDs vs. savings accounts.

Guaranteed rates: With a CD, you can predict exactly how much you’ll earn. Most banks set your rate at the beginning of the CD, and that rate never changes. That works in your favor if interest rates stay the same or drop, but you might miss out on extra earnings if rates rise significantly.

Penalties matter: You can usually cash out early, which might be necessary if you need emergency cash beyond what you have in a rainy day fund. But you typically pay early withdrawal penalties, which can wipe out any interest you earn—and eat into your original principal deposit. Some CDs, known as liquid CDs, allow you to withdraw funds early, but be sure you understand the details before you use those instruments.

Strategies help you avoid problems: CDs lock up your money, and you may get stuck with a low rate if interest rates rise. But you can use strategies like CD ladders and barbells to reduce risk and get the most out of your CDs.

Savings Account Keep Your Options Open

Savings accounts allow you to deposit and withdraw with minimal restrictions—although federal law limits certain withdrawals to six per month. They’re easy to work with and easy to understand.

Best uses: Savings accounts are ideal for cash you might need to access at any time, as well as money you plan to spend in the next six months or so. For example, a savings account is an excellent place for a small emergency fund or a cash cushion that you transfer to checking to avoid overdrafts.

No minimums: Savings accounts allow you to start small, so they work well when you have limited funds. After that, there’s nothing wrong with keeping significant balances in savings, as long as you do it intentionally. CDs, on the other hand, sometimes have minimum deposit requirements. Brick-and-mortar banks may require you to invest at least $1,000, but several online banks offer CDs with no initial minimums.

Floating interest rates: Unlike CDs, savings accounts feature interest rates that can change over time. Banks adjust savings account rates in response to the economic environment, competition, and their desire to take on deposits. If rates are rising, your savings account might pay more next month than it pays now (although banks be slow to increase rates). But if rates fall sharply, banks typically respond by paying less, while your earnings would not change if you were in a CD.

All or None?

Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between CDs vs. savings accounts. You can use both, and other alternatives may also meet your needs.

  • Keep enough cash in a savings account to meet any near-term needs. You’ll have easy access to that cash, and you won’t face penalties if you need to withdraw funds occasionally.
  • Consider using CDs for some of your excess cash if you have sufficient cash in savings, you like CD interest rates, and you’re not concerned about rates rising.
  • Look to other alternatives if CDs are too restrictive for your taste—but savings accounts don’t pay enough. Money market accounts have features of both CDs and savings accounts: They allow limited withdrawals, but they often pay slightly more than standard savings accounts. Cash management accounts may also offer higher earnings. Just be sure that your funds are FDIC insured if safety is important to you (NCUSIF insurance at credit unions is just as safe).