Mistakes to avoid when investing in CDs

woman and a fever line

If the Federal Reserve begins pushing interest rates higher in December and into 2017, CD savers could (hopefully) be entering a new era of rising returns.

Granted, the expectation of how much deposit rates will increase for savers has been significantly tempered, given that the Fed's first hike, last December, produced almost no upward movement on banks' rate sheets.

In addition, the pace at which the Fed will be willing to raise rates has also been downgraded, with no hikes announced at the first seven meetings of this year.

Still, even if the Fed raises rates a small amount just a couple of times a year, and it continues for a few years, deposit rates are still likely to climb. Just not as high and as fast as we had hoped.

In any case, maximizing your CD earnings will require more than just opening the most convenient or obvious certificates.

In fact, there are as many pitfalls as there are opportunities. So be careful to avoid these costly CD mistakes.

Here are 6 costly mistakes to avoid when investing in CDs.

Mistake 1. Not being ready for the Fed rate hikes.

CD savers who don't follow Federal Reserve headlines do so at their own peril, as they could easily lock in a CD yield right before the Fed announces a rate hike.

The Fed's rate-setting committee meets every six to seven weeks to decide whether it will modify the federal funds rate.

That rate is the interest commercial banks pay to borrow money from each other through the Fed, and it's the lever the Fed uses to manage short-term interest rates across the broad economy.

For seven years, the Fed kept this rate near zero as a stimulus to help the economy recover after the 2008 financial crisis. During that time, savings, money market and CD yields languished at historic lows.

Last December, the Fed finally reversed course and pushed the federal funds rate up by a quarter of a point. And it had planned to continue adding a percentage point a year until it reached 3.50%.

Now the projections are quite different, as recent economic data have not instilled enough confidence in the Fed to further raise rates yet, with it forgoing a second hike all year so far.

If the Fed does continue to make increases over the next few years, though — even if very slowly — what might we expect national bank averages to do in relation to the federal funds rate?

The only other time the Fed methodically raised rates from an exceptionally low level was in 2003. Back then, the federal funds rate had plateaued at 1.00% and was incrementally boosted to 3.50% over the next two years.

When the federal funds rate was 1.00% in 2003, the average 1-year bank yield was 1.26%, and the average 5-year yield was 3.02% APY.

By the time the Fed increases reached 3.50% in 2005, the 1-year CD average had climbed to almost 3.00% APY and approached 4.00% for the 5-year average.

In stark contrast, today's national averages for 1- and 5-year CDs are an anemic 0.31% and 0.81% APY.

No one knows if commercial banks will respond similarly this time around. Certainly, looking at what happened to rates in 2003-2005 could suggest undue optimism because the last seven years of Fed history are completely unprecedented.

But it's reasonable to anticipate that higher CD yields would be triggered if the Fed continues to hike rates.

Mistake 2. Buying long-term CDs that are costly to exit.

Because the Fed's increases are likely to take place over the next several years, committing to today's rates for a 4- or 5-year CD can hurt you twice.

First, you'll underearn future yields by a significant margin in the later years because rates will have climbed in the earlier years.

How much do CDs pay?

Term Average APY Top deal
6-month CD 0.19% 0.95%
12-month CD 0.31% 1.30%
24-month CD 0.46% 1.55%
36-month CD 0.57% 1.70%
60-month CD 0.81% 2.27%
As of Nov. 9, 2016

Second, locking in your funds for such a long period prevents you from moving into any better-paying CDs that arrive.

In an era of rising rates, liquidity and flexibility offer you an edge, so always be sure to review the early-withdrawal penalty for any bank where you're considering opening a CD.

A typical penalty is six months' interest, and on a 5-year CD, that can be a reasonable forfeiture in exchange for being able to move your money to a better-paying CD.

But other banks charge 12 or more months' interest. Some even assess penalties that can subtract from your principal.

So when faced with the choice between two long-term CDs of similar merit, opt for the one with the most lenient early-withdrawal penalty.

Mistake 3. Putting all of your money in one basket.

When money experts talk about diversity, they usually mean divvying up your savings among different types of investments, such as domestic and foreign stocks, bonds and CDs.

But holding a diverse portfolio of CDs with a range of maturity dates is important, too.

The classic way to do this is through "laddering," or buying an assortment of certificates in increasing terms.

That provides a regular supply of maturing CDs that can be reinvested at higher returns.

Additionally, it's useful to diversify across banks.

If you're investing in CDs and it's more than $250,000, you'll definitely want to deposit your funds in multiple institutions because federal deposit insurance maxes out at $250,000 per depositor per bank.

Even if you don't have that much, capturing the very best yields will typically require buying CDs from more than one bank, since it's rare for one institution to offer a leading rate in all terms.

To find the best returns at any time, search Bankrate's database of the top CD rates from around the country.

Mistake 4. Not shopping around for the best returns.

Buying CDs from the bank where you already have your checking account may seem practical. But in most cases, convenience is the only advantage you're gaining and at a significant cost.

That's because most of the nation's biggest banks pay below-average returns.

Fortunately, dozens of national banks offer CDs paying three, four or even five times more than the national averages.

For instance, the top nationally available 3-year CD currently pays 1.70% APY, while the national average is a paltry 0.55% APY.

Credit unions and community banks are another source of chart-topping CD rates, with local offers often outpaying the nation-leading banks.

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Mistake 5. Putting the wrong money into CDs.

CDs are a smart place for money you don't need in the short term but aren't comfortable putting in riskier investments, like the stock market.

Savers can err in either direction here. Put money into CDs that you end up needing in the near term, and you'll be slapped with an early-withdrawal penalty that may wipe out the advantage you gained by opening a CD instead of a savings account.

But if you're holding money for five years or more (some CDs have terms as high as 10 years), many financial advisers would tell you to invest in stocks instead. At today's depressed returns, chances are high that the stock market will do better over the long term.

Of course, this advice may change if CD returns climb to more attractive levels, making them worthier alternatives.

Mistake 6. Letting your CD automatically roll over.

When a CD approaches maturity, the bank will notify you that the term is ending. If you do nothing, the bank will automatically roll the proceeds of your expired CD into a new CD with a similar term.

Letting the bank do this is almost always a mistake.

As you've learned above, you should choose your CD terms wisely based on what's happening with the Fed. Just because you have a 3-year CD maturing doesn't necessarily mean you should replace it with another 3-year CD.

Even more important is shopping around for the very best rates. Although it's possible that the bank with your existing CD offers the best current rate, it's more likely you'll find a stronger yield elsewhere.

Joining the savviest of CD savers is as simple as avoiding these mistakes. Steer clear of them, and you'll not only earn the highest yields but enjoy useful flexibility that will serve you well if rates begin rising.

What mistakes would you add to avoid when investing in CDs?

  • pizzapizza

    I'm new to CD investing, I looked into a 5 yr. CD at 2% yield, penalty for early withdrawal is 6 months interest plus $25 on partial withdrawals. Another CD was paying 1.75% with 3% penalty. Which penalty is

    • tyrannosaur

      3% penalty sounds a lot. Re: partial withdrawals - not an issue if you close out the entire CD at once. Five years is a long time, btw. Since you are new you may wish to look at a shorter duration to get the hang of things.

  • Flunking_retirement

    We have big cd coming due for rollover. Is there any way to get out from under a humonguos tax bill with this damn thing? Like breaking it up into small er ones or rolling over to an existing Roth?