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Updated on Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Certificate of Deposits (CDs) are some of the highest-yielding deposit accounts offered at most banks and credit unions. But, they come with a catch: your money is locked away for a certain period of time, and generally you can’t unlock it without paying an early withdrawal penalty.
It’s also no secret that interest rates are changing these days. That can also affect the returns you get from saving with CDs.Things only get more complex if you’re attempting to create what is called a CD Ladder, which can be used to take advantage of higher APYs while staggering investments so all your cash isn’t tied up for a very long time.
If you want to save money by creating your own CD ladder, you need to juggle your own financial goals with shifting interest rates and early withdrawal penalties. It’s possible that CDs may not even be the right investment tool for you. How are you supposed to decipher what’s the best course of action when there are so many competing possibilities? Fear not. We’ll help you decide whether CD ladders are the right investment tool for you and how to get the most out of them in this guide.
What is a CD ladder?
A CD ladder is a series of several CDs that are structured with varying terms. By staggering the terms, you ensure that each CD finishes its term at regular, predictable intervals. That way, you’ve got access to a steady stream of cash while still earning higher rates than you might through a regular savings or checking account.
The main disadvantage of CD ladders is that your money is locked away for a certain length of time. This differs for each CD and is called its term. CD terms can range all the way from one month to ten years. Generally, the longer the CD term, the higher the interest rate you can get.
Logically, you’d think that the best thing to do would be to put all your money in long-term CDs, right? Unfortunately, doing so has two specific risks.
You could miss out on rising rates. If the Federal Reserve raises interest rates (as they have been doing for the past two years), many banks and credit unions soon follow by raising the rates on their own deposit accounts. But, if you’re locked into a long-term CD, you could be stuck in a high-interest rate environment with the poor interest rates from yesteryear. That means you won’t be earning the maximum amount of interest possible.
It’ll be hard to tap into your savings in a pinch. Secondly, what if something happens and you need access to that cash? Can you predict what’ll happen in five years—a home purchase, major medical bills, or some other unexpected large expense? If your money is locked away in long-term CDs, you could be out of luck unless you pay a potentially-substantial early withdrawal penalty.
Luckily, there’s an easy solution that lessens these two risks: a CD ladder.
How to create a CD ladder in 3 easy steps
A CD ladder is a pretty intricate strategy. You split your money up into equal parts and match each pot of cash to a partnering CD. Then, you line them all up in a precise order and wait for the interest to accumulate.
Sound confusing? Let’s break it down with an example to show you exactly how it works with a basic five-year, five-CD ladder.
To start, let’s assume that you have $5,000 that you want to invest in a CD ladder (although this will work with any amount of money).
Step 1: Open up five separate CDs
Divide your cash into five equal parts. What we’re going to do is open five separate CDs. So, divide your cash into five equal pots of $1,000 each.
Search and compare to find banks with the best rates on CDs. Go to your bank of choice, either in-person or online. It’s possible to open up accounts at different banks or credit unions if they offer better rates on some CDs, but keep in mind that that will increase the complexity of this strategy. Open up five separate CDs with each pot of cash all at once and on a staggered schedule. Here’s what you’ll have when you leave the bank:
- $1,000 in a one-year CD
- $1,000 in a two-year CD
- $1,000 in a three-year CD
- $1,000 in a four-year CD
- $1,000 in a five-year CD
Mark the date that you open all of these CDs on your calendar so that you can keep up with the CDs’ maturity dates.
Step 2: Each year when a new one-year CD matures, renew it ….and convert it into a five-year CD
Every year on your CD maturity date, one of your CDs’ terms will be up. For example, if you open a CD on May 26, 2018, then your one-year CD will come due on May 26, 2019. Your two-year CD will come due on May 26, 2020, and so on.
With most banks, when a CD becomes due, it will automatically roll over into another CD of the same term length (a one-year CD will automatically roll over into another one-year CD when it matures, for example). After it automatically rolls over, you will have a grace period of around one to two weeks where you can withdraw the money, add more money, and/or change the CD to a different term length — penalty-free.
Instead of letting your CD roll over into another one-year CD, you’re going to want to switch it up. Before the grace period ends, you’ll want to renew it into a five-year CD instead. Then, in 2020, you’ll do the same thing: you’ll renew the now-mature two-year CD into a five-year CD, and so on.
If you open up all of your CDs in 2018, it’ll look like this:
- 2019: renew the one-year CD into a five-year CD
- 2020: renew the two-year CD into a five-year CD
- 2021: renew the three-year CD into a five-year CD
- 2022: renew the four-year CD into a five-year CD
- 2023: renew the five-year CD into another five-year CD
The reason we do this is because the five-year CDs pay out vastly higher rates of interest than the shorter-term CDs. If you can keep all of your money in the highest-earning CDs, you’ll get the maximum amount of cash possible.
Step 3: Decide whether you need to pull the money out or not
The other reason we do this strategy is because if we need to withdraw the money, we get free access to one new CD per year on our CD maturity date. In our example, that means you can withdraw $1,000 (plus whatever interest the CD earned) once per year without paying an early-withdrawal penalty.
Each time a CD becomes due, you should ask yourself: Do I need to withdraw this cash for any reason? If the answer is no, then keep your money in a CD ladder. If it’s not already invested into a five-year CD, then go ahead and renew it into a five-year CD. If it already is invested into a five-year CD, then just let it auto-rollover into another five-year CD. As long as you don’t want to withdraw the cash, your CD ladder will be fully on autopilot from this point forward.
Mini CD ladders: Explained
The five-year CD ladder sounds great, but if you’re like a lot of other people, you might need more frequent access to your money than once per year. That’s where a mini CD ladder might come in handy.
Rather than setting it up so that a new CD becomes due once per year, you can choose shorter term CDs and stagger them so that they mature every few months instead.
Let’s look at another example—the three-month, four-CD ladder.
You would divide your cash into four equal pools and open up four new CDs with these terms:
- Three-month CD
- Six-month CD
- Nine-month CD
- Twelve-month CD
One new CD will become due every three months. When it does, you would renew it as a 12-month CD with a higher rate. That way, you can access your money once every three months instead of once every year.
If you want even more frequent access to your money, it might be possible to restructure this in a different way. Some banks have one-month CDs, although they’re not as common as three-month CDs. If you open 12 one-month CDs and renew each of them into 12-month CDs, then you could even get access to your cash every single month instead of every three months. The downside of the mini CD ladder is that you won’t earn as much, because five-year CDs carry better rates than a twelve-month CD.
What is the best CD ladder strategy for me?
CD ladders are already pretty straightforward. Open CDs of different lengths, and renew them to longer-term CDs when they come due.
But, it might surprise you to know that there are a lot of different CD ladder strategies. Whichever strategy works best for you depends on your individual situation, and what financial possibilities keep you up at night.
For example, do you worry that you’ll make a mistake by locking your money away in low-rate, long-term CDs if interest rates start to rise (a fair concern, given recent decisions by the Federal Reserve)? Or are you the type of micro-manager who optimizes every little decision so that they can maximize their monetary returns?
If so, good news. These are some of the best CD ladder strategies for different people.
Best if you don’t need frequent access to cash:
The five-year, five-CD ladder
This is the baseline CD ladder strategy we outlined above. You open up five CDs with staggered term lengths so that one new CD comes due each year, and then renew it into a five-year CD. After four years, all of your CDs will be in five-year CDs earning the maximum amount of interest.
This type of CD ladder strategy works best for folks who know they won’t need very frequent access to their money. If you choose this strategy, it’s a good idea to keep a separate emergency fund of three to six months’ worth of expenses tucked away in a high yield savings account. You definitely don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you can’t access money for a year when you really need it.
Best if you need frequent access to your cash:
The five-year CD ladder with low early withdrawal penalties
One of the main reasons to invest in CD ladders is so that you don’t have to pay steep early withdrawal penalties. These penalties are typically tallied up as a certain number of months of interest depending on the term of the CD. For example, TD Bank will charge you 24 months’ worth of interest if you take your money out early from a five-year CD
These early withdrawal penalties are pesky enough, but high fees like this could actually eat into the principal you’ve deposited into the account, especially if you haven’t earned enough interest to at least cover the early withdrawal penalty. This means you might actually end up with less money than you deposited into the account at the end of the day—not to mention how it’ll hurt your returns even if you have earned enough interest to cover the penalty.
One way to get around this is to search for CDs with low early withdrawal penalties. What exactly is a low early withdrawal penalty? According to Ken Tumin, founder and editor of DepositAccounts.com (also a LendingTree-owned company), a below-average early withdrawal penalty for a five-year CD is six months or less.
Searching for CDs with low early withdrawal penalties is the best strategy if you want to earn the most money possible but also think that there’s a high likelihood you might need to break into one of your five-year CDs outside of the once-yearly maturation date. With this strategy, you will minimize your loss if and when you need to withdraw the money early.
Maximum work for higher yields:
Juggling CDs at multiple banks
It’s very possible that the top prize for highest CD rate for each term length in your CD ladder is held by a different bank. For example, Bank A might have the highest rate for one and two-year CDs, while Bank B might have the highest five-year CD rate.
If you’re an intrepid optimizer, it’s possible to earn the most money by splitting up your CDs among different banks, according to Tumin.
If it sounds a bit complicated, it is. “Each year, you’ll have to worry about transferring the money to the [bank with the] best five-year rate,” says Tumin. It also requires a lot of organization to remember the details of your many accounts. But, there is a way to limit the chaos.
Tumin’s recommendation is easy. “Choose at least two or three internet banks, but no more than three to keep things simple,” he says. “If one bank no longer becomes competitive, you can easily keep the CD ladder going with the other banks.”
It’s also a good idea to maintain a savings or money market account at the same bank for each of your CDs — as long as the account has no minimums and no monthly fees, since it will probably be empty much of the time. This bank account is strictly meant to be a temporary holding account for the CD money you hold within the same bank.
“If you need to access the money before maturity, it’s much easier to have the CD funds (minus the early withdrawal penalty) transferred to a savings or money market account that is at the same bank,” Tumin advises. “Once it’s in the savings/money market account, it’s easy to open a new five-year CD at another bank.”
Hedging your bets against rising interest rates:
The barbell CD ladder
The barbell CD ladder is the best CD strategy if you’re worried about rising interest rates while most of your money is locked away into lower-rate CDs. With this strategy, you divide your money yet again: half into a high yield savings account (a separate savings account from your emergency fund), and half into a five-year CD ladder.
The advantage of keeping your money in a high yield savings account is that if interest rates rise, you can immediately withdraw that cash when you see fit and invest it into CDs.
Of course, the trick is knowing when to pull the trigger and move your money from the savings account into a CD. If you do it too soon, interest rates may rise again, and if you’re too slow, you may lose out on potential gains. It’s a balancing act and since it’s impossible to predict the future, there’s no way you can really know when the right time is for sure. You just have to do it and hope for the best.
How do CD ladders hold up to other investments?
CD ladders are just one of many investment choices you can make. To see how they stack up compared to other common options, we’ll show you what you can theoretically earn in 10 years with a $10,000 deposit using each of the following choices: a five-year, five-CD ladder, the stock market, a high yield savings account, and just keeping the cash stuffed under your mattress.
Five-year, five-CD ladder
For this scenario, let’s assume that you start out with the standard five-year, five-CD approach. You will start by putting $2,000 each into five CDs of the following term lengths: one year, two years, three years, four years, and five years. Each year when a CD comes up for renewal, you renew it into a five-year CD.
After the fifth year, we’ll assume that you continue keeping all of the CDs in five-year terms for another five years. According to Ken Tumin, the average yield on a 5-year CD ladder is about 2%, so we are using that as the hypothetical return on investment. Of course, rates ebb and flow all the time, so this is merely an estimation.
One of the safest options. The FDIC and NCUA insures your money up to $250,000 at each bank or credit union, respectively.
The stock market
For long-term investments (retirement, for example), the stock market remains the gold standard for investing. Over the last six decades, the S&P 500 (one of the most common measures of the stock market as a whole) has returned about 7% per year.
We can’t predict the market’s returns, obviously, but we’re going to assume that someone investing in a broad-based S&P 500 stock market index fund would earn 7% on their investments each year for 10 years. Here’s how they would fare.
Very high. People can and do lose significant amounts of money in the short term while investing in the stock market.
High yield savings account
High yield savings accounts offer the maximum amount of liquidity. If you might need your cash at any moment, it’s a good idea to keep it in a high yield savings account. The tradeoff is that you’ll earn less interest than you might with the five-year, five-CD ladder.
We used the highest rate (1.50% APY; current as of 12/12/17) for personal savings accounts available nationwide that were listed on DepositAccounts.com. We assumed a $10,000 deposit saved up over a 10-year period.
Very safe. Anything you keep in a bank (including CDs or savings accounts) is insured up to $250,000 by the FDIC or NCUA for banks and credit unions, respectively.
Under your mattress
Who hasn’t heard stories from their grandparents about saving up their extra cash in a hidden mason jar or under their mattress? Back in the days when banks failed in the Great Depression, losing your life savings was a real concern. Thankfully, these days the FDIC and NCUA programs make your deposits safe at each bank or credit union up to $250,000.
Now, the danger lies in not earning any interest on your money. Inflation eats away your money’s value at a rate of around 3% or more per year. That means if you’re not earning at least 3% interest, your money is probably losing value rather than gaining value.
If you started out with $10,000 in 2007 and kept it stuffed away in your home for ten years, here’s what would happen.
Very unsafe. That money could easily be stolen or lost in a fire, not to mention what’ll happen as inflation erodes its value.
Is creating a CD ladder worth it?
Whether or not a CD ladder is worth it depends on your individual situation and what your goals are.
According to Tumin, there are four things you need to keep in mind when deciding if a CD ladder is worth it for you: liquidity (how easy it is to access your cash), simplicity (how much work do you want to put into pulling off a master-CD-ladder?), maximizing your yield, and your investment time frame (do you want to invest indefinitely, or complete the CD ladder at a certain point in time?).
We’ve outlined several CD ladder strategies above that you can use to meet your goals. Compare them to your other options: will keeping your money in a high interest savings account, the stock market, or some other investment option work better for you?
In general, CDs today are earning far below what they used to. In July 1981, for example, you could get a one-month CD on the secondary market (i.e., buying it from an individual who has a CD, rather than a bank or credit union) with a whopping interest rate of 17.68% APY. Today the rates for a similar three-month CD are averaging 0.240% APY—quite a difference!
That means that today, CDs are generally not going to be your highest-earning option. This is especially true if you hold a large number of short-term CDs, as the mini CD ladder strategy calls for.
“I don’t think other CD ladders with shorter-term CDs are worth it,” says Tumin. “They don’t really provide much more liquidity,” especially if you opt to invest in five-year CDs with low early withdrawal penalties.
In fact, almost all CDs except for five-year CDs earn even less than a high yield savings account. Currently, banks are offering as high as 1.50% APY on high yield savings accounts—just under the current average interest rate for five-year CDs (1.57% APY).
If your CD investing strategy involves anything other than holding long-term five-year CDs (not counting the start of the CD ladder strategy when you hold CDs of several term lengths), then CDs may not be worth it when compared to a high yield savings account.
FAQ: CD ladders
A grace period is the amount of time you have to withdraw, add funds, or change the CD to a different term length after it has matured. You typically have a one to two-week grace period after your CD matures.
It’s called a “grace” period because usually your CD will automatically roll over into another CD of the exact same term length. Normally this means you would then owe early withdrawal penalties if you take the money out early. Instead, banks offer you a “grace” period where you can withdraw the money without paying any early withdrawal penalties.
There are several other types of CDs:
- Callable CDs offer higher interest rates, but the banks may cash them out for you at any time if they desire.
- Bump-rate CDs offer staggered, increasing interest rates over time.
- No-penalty CDs have lower interest rates, but no early withdrawal penalties.
It is possible to use them in your CD ladder, however you need to choose these CDs carefully. For example, what kind of monkey wrench would be thrown into your plan if you invest in a callable CD and it is indeed cashed out by the bank early? Or, would a no-penalty CD really offer rates that beat out a high yield savings account?
A jumbo CD is just a regular CD, but for a very large amount of money. Each bank or credit union has their own definition of what a “jumbo” CD is. For example, to invest in a USAA jumbo CD, you’ll need to bring at least $95,000 to the table. CIT Bank, on the other hand, requires a slightly larger minimum deposit of $100,000 to qualify for a jumbo CD.
Jumbo CDs typically offer much higher rates than regular CDs and can help you earn even more money in a CD ladder if you’re able to take advantage of them.
For most people, no. We compared the outcomes from a five-year, five-CD ladder above with the typical returns you could expect from a stock market. A hypothetical $10,000 investment in a CD ladder earns $1,531.11 in interest over a 10-year period.
Compare that to typical stock market returns for the same amount of time and money: $9,781.51. The stock market far, far outperforms the CD ladder. If you’re saving for a very long-term goal like retirement, it makes more sense to grow your money in a high-yielding investment like the stock market, even if it is riskier.
This post has been updated. It was originally published Dec. 19, 2016.