The thought of low risk investments makes many people feel comfortable about their money.
I remember the first time I stood at the top of the high dive at the rec center pool, I was a nervous wreck.
Until that moment, I never realized how afraid of heights I really was.
For many that have never invested before, they feel this same apprehensive feeling about where they place their money.
With the rising cost of living, it’s imperative that we invest (preferably with the lowest risk possible) to generate high yield returns.
High rates of return on your investments are wonderful because it means you don’t have to invest as much capital to reach your investing goals. Yet, the higher return you want, the more risk you’ll have to accept.
As you get closer to retirement (or if you are managing investments for your high school senior’s college fund), your appetite for risk drops precipitously. You simply cannot afford to see a huge drop in the market right before the time you need to begin withdrawing funds from the investment accounts.
If you find yourself in this camp, you may need to shift a large portion of your portfolio to low risk investments – or even look for ways to earn a decent return with no risk at all. Low risk investments will generate a lower return because you aren’t taking as much risk, but you might be okay with that at this point in your life. When you’re nearing retirement, capital preservation is more important that astronomical growth rates. You need to know your account won’t drop 25% in a year and severely impact your investing goals.
Best Low Risk Investments
When it comes to investing with a low appetite for risk, you will face a wide array of options – each of which can be confusing on their own. Here are a few of your best low risk investment options to consider for your portfolio – along with some ideas to earn cash with almost no risk at all.
1. Peer to Peer Lending
P2P Lending is a completely different type of investment. Instead of buying shares in a company (and its future profits) you are lending your money to someone else with the hope they will pay you back. If you screen your loans poorly, peer to peer lending can be extremely risky. However, screening properly and choosing only the best rated loans is a great way to secure a decent return with little risk on your part.
For example, one of the most popular peer to peer lending platforms, Lending Club, is averaging a default rate of just over 5%. If you screen your loans well and avoid some of these defaults, then you can earn some really nice returns.
Fortunately, peer to peer lending companies have worked to offer screening tools and portfolio settings for your investment gain. Instead of having to go through every single loan (which you can still do), their online tools allow you to target a certain rate of return and search only through loans that fit the bill. I have been investing in Lending Club and Prosper for several years and have had less than 3% default rate while getting a total annual return (after defaulted loans) of 8.33%.
What is even better is that you can invest as little as $25 in a loan to get started. So, if you want to avoid the bulk of potential risks – or simply spread it around – you can spread your investments out over hundreds of different loans if you want.
If lending money on the internet sounds scary, you can rest assured it isn’t. This is mainly due to the superiority of the company’s collection process. Lending Club in particular has done a great job in setting up their collection practices in order to protect their investors. (Lend Academy did a great interview with LC’s Head of Collections.)
Learn more about how I did with P2P lending in my Prosper vs. Lending club experiment or get started with Peer-to-Peer Lending with companies like Lending Club and Prosper. Depending on your appetite for risk and how much capital you have to invest, you could score some decent returns without the stress that comes with high risk investments.
2. Credit Card Rewards
The idea that credit card rewards could provide a low-risk return on your money might sound preposterous, but it’s not that off the wall when you really think about it. By picking up a cash back credit card, you earn “points” that translate into real money. And in reality, the “rewards” you earn with some of the top cards are far more lucrative than anything you might earn with a Certificate of Deposit or online savings account.
Here’s how these offers work:
Let’s say you picked up a Chase Sapphire Preferred® card and put your regular spending on it to earn the signup bonus. Once you spent $4,000 on your card in 90 days, you would earn 50,000 points worth $500 in gift cards or cash back. If you spent that $4,000 on bills you would normally pay like groceries, daycare, or utilities, and paid your card off right away, this is the closest thing to “free money” you’ll ever find!
Here are a few cash back offers that come with the lowest risk:
Chase Freedom® – The Chase Freedom® card offers $150 in free money after you spend just $500 on your card within 90 days. In addition to the signup bonus, you’ll also earn 5x points on your first $1,500 spent in categories that rotate every quarter, plus 1x points on everything else. Redeem your point for statement credits or gift cards, or use them to shop directly on Amazon.com. Read here to learn more about the Chase Freedom®.
Chase Freedom Unlimited℠ – The Chase Freedom Unlimited℠ offers an alternative to the traditional Chase Freedom card. With this new card option, you’ll earn an unlimited 1.5% cash back for every dollar you spend. In addition, you’ll also get a $150 signup bonus after you spend just $500 on your new card within 90 days. If you don’t like keeping track of rotating categories, this card is an excellent alternative. Best of all, there is no annual fee. Read here to learn more about the Chase Freedom Unlimited℠ card.
If you want to learn more about the easy money you can score with credit card rewards, check out our guide on the best cash back credit cards.
Very, Very Low Risk Investments
These investments are probably some of the most boring things you can do with your money, but if you are looking for the lowest possible risk, then this is where to go.
3. Certificates of Deposit
No matter how hard you look, you won’t find an investment more boring than a Certificate of Deposit. If you’re in the market for one of these low-risk investment vehicles, you can get one through your bank, credit union, or even through your investment broker.
With a Certificate of Deposit (CD), you deposit your money for a specific length of time in exchange for a guaranteed return on your money.
With a CD, you get a set interest rate for that period of time that will not change no matter what happens to interest rates. You are locked in until maturity of the term length, although you can usually choose to withdraw from the CD early for a penalty that is normally equal to 3 months’ worth of interest.
As long as you get a certificate of deposit with an FDIC insured financial institution, you are guaranteed to get your principal back as long as your total deposits at that specific financial institution are less than $250,000. The government is guaranteeing you cannot have a loss, and the financial institution will give you some interest on top of that. How much interest you earn is dependent on the length of the CD term and the current interest rates when you purchase your CD. Interest rates are generally fairly low at the moment, but you can usually get more interest if you get a certificate of deposit for a period of at least 1-2 years.
4. Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS)
The US Treasury has several types of bond investments for you to choose from.
One of the lowest risk is called Treasury Inflation Protection Securities, or TIPS. These bonds come with two methods of growth. The first is a fixed interest rate that doesn’t change for the length of the bond. The second is built-in inflation protection that is guaranteed by the government. Whatever rate inflation grows during the time you hold the TIPS, your investment’s value will rise with that inflation rate.
For example, you might invest in a TIPS today that only comes with a 0.35% interest rate. That’s less than certificate of deposit rates and even basic online savings accounts. That isn’t very enticing until you realize that, if inflation grows a 2% per year for the length of the bond, then your investment value will grow with that inflation and give you a much higher return on your investment.
TIPS can be purchased individually or you can invest in a mutual fund that, in turn, invests in a basket of TIPS. The latter option makes managing your investments easier while the former gives you the ability to pick and choose with specific TIPS you want.
5. Money Market Funds
A money market fund is a mutual fund created for people who don’t want to lose any of the principal of their investment.
The fund also tries to pay out a little bit of interest as well to make parking your cash with the fund worthwhile. The fund’s goal is to maintain a Net Asset Value (NAV) of $1 per share.
These funds aren’t foolproof, but they do come with a strong pedigree in protecting the underlying value of your cash. It is possible for the NAV to drop below $1, but it is rare.
6. Municipal Bonds
When a government at the state or local level needs to borrow money, they don’t use a credit card. Instead, the government entity issues a municipal bond. These bonds, also known as munis, are excempt from Federal income tax, making them a smart investment for people who are trying to minimize their exposure to taxes. Most states and local municipalities also exempt income tax on these bonds, but talk to your accountant to make sure they are exempt in your specific state.
What makes municipal bonds so safe? Not only do you avoid income tax (which means a higher return compared to an equally risky investment that is taxed), but the likelihood of the borrower defaulting is very low. There have been some enormous municipality bankruptcies in recent years, but this is very rare. Governments can always raise taxes or issue new debt to pay off old debt, which makes holding a municipal bond a pretty safe bet.
7. US Savings Bonds
US Savings Bonds are similar to Treasury Inflation Protected Securities because they are also backed by the United States Federal government. The likelihood of default on this debt is microscopic which makes them a very stable investment.
There are two main types of US Savings Bonds: Series I and Series EE.
Series I bonds consist of two components: a fixed interest rate return and an adjustable inflation-linked return. They are somewhat similar to TIPS because they have the inflation adjustment as part of the total return. The fixed rate never changes, but the inflation return rate is adjusted every 6 months and can also be negative (which would bring your total return down, not up).
Series EE bonds just have a fixed rate of interest that is added to the bond automatically at the end of each month (so you don’t have to worry about reinvesting for compounding purposes). Rates are very low right now, but there is an interesting facet to EE bonds: the Treasury guarantees the bond will double in value if held to maturity (which is 20 years). That equates to approximately a 3.5% return on your investment. If you don’t hold to maturity you will only get the stated interest rate of the bond minus any early withdrawal fees. (Another bonus to look into: if you use EE bonds to pay for education, you might be able to exclude some or all of the interest earned from your taxes.)
Annuities are a point of contention for some investors because shady financial advisors have over-promoted them to individuals where the annuity wasn’t the right product for their financial goals. They don’t have to be scary things; annuities can be a good option for certain investors who need help stabilizing their portfolio over a long period of time.
If you’re in the market for an annuity, however, be aware of the risks and talk with a good financial advisor first. Annuities are complex financial instruments with lots of catches built into the contract. Before you sign on the dotted line, it’s important to understand your annuity inside and out.
There are several types of annuities, but at the end of the day, purchasing an annuity is on par with making a trade with an insurance company. They’re taking a lump sum of cash from you. In return, they are giving you a stated rate of guaranteed return. Sometimes that return is fixed (with a fixed annuity), sometimes that return is variable (with a variable annuity), and sometimes your return is dictated in part by how the stock market does and gives you downside protection (with an equity indexed annuity).
If you are getting a form of guaranteed return, your risk is a lot lower. Unlike the backing of the Federal government, your annuity is backed by the insurance company that holds it (and perhaps another company that further insurers the annuity company). Nonetheless, your money is typically going to be very safe in these complicated products.
9. Cash Value Life Insurance
Another controversial investment is cash value life insurance. This insurance not only pays out a death benefit to your beneficiaries when you die (like a term life insurance policy), but also allows you to accrue value with an investment portion in your payments. Whole life insurance and universal life insurance are both types of cash value life insurance.
While term life insurance is by far a cheaper option, it only covers your death. One of the best perks of using cash value life insurance is the accrued value can not only be borrowed against throughout your life, but isn’t hit with income tax. While cash value life insurance isn’t for everyone, it is a clever way to pass some value onto your heirs without either side being hit with income tax.
Some Middle Risk Investments to Consider
If you don’t want to go “all in” on the riskiest class of assets, you can still generate higher returns by taking a few steps in that direction. Here are a few investments to consider to add a bit more risk to your portfolio.
10. Dividend Paying Stocks and Mutual Funds
One of the easiest ways to squeeze a bit more return out of your stock investments is simply to target stocks or mutual funds that have nice dividend payouts. If two stocks perform exactly the same over a given period of time, but one has no dividend and the other pays out 3% per year in dividends, then the latter stock would be a better choice.
Of course, picking individual stocks isn’t easy (use some of the trading tools at Scottrade or E*TRADE to help you target dividend stocks) and comes with risk that the company may falter and take your investment down with it. A safer bet would be to invest money into a dividend stock mutual fund. With this type of mutual fund, the fund company targets stocks that pay nice dividends and does all of the work for you. You also get diversification so that one or two stocks can’t tank your entire investment.
11. Preferred Stock
Adding on to the dividend stock theme is preferred stock. Preferred stock is a type of stock that companies issue that has both an equity (stock) portion and a debt portion (bond). In the hierarchy of payouts to forms of investments, preferred stock sits between bond payments (which come first) and common stock dividends (which come last).
Preferred stock are not traded nearly as heavily as common stock, but do have less risk than the common stock. It is just another way to own shares in a company while getting dividend payments.
Best No Risk Investments to Consider
Now that we’ve talked about some low risk and middle-of-the-road investments to consider, let’s look at a few investments that come with absolutely no risk at all. While you may not earn a ton of interest with any of these options, you won’t have to worry about losing a cent of your initial investment. And if you’re nearing retirement or already there, that extra peace of mind might be worth it.
No Risk Investment #1: High Yield Savings Account
If you’re looking for a risk-free way to earn some interest on your money, a high yield savings account might be your answer. With these accounts, you’ll earn a nominal amount of interest just for keeping your money on deposit. Other than opening your account and depositing your money, this strategy requires almost no effort on your part, either.
The best high yield savings accounts offer competitive interest rates without charging any fees. When choosing an account, you’ll also want to look for a bank with a good reputation for providing quality customer service, easy access and online account management, and easy deposits. If you’re interested in my thoughts on which bank to go with, check out this post:
No Risk Investment #2: Online Checking Account
Just like high yield savings accounts, online checking accounts let you earn small amounts of interest on the money you deposit. If you’re going to park your money in the bank anyway, you could surely appreciate earning some interest along the way. Best of all, many online checking accounts charge zero or minimal fees to get started.
When looking for an online checking account that actually lets you earn interest, look for a bank with excellent customer service, a user-friendly online interface, and competitive interest rates. If you want utmost flexibility, it’s also important to seek out an account that doesn’t impose account minimums or deposit requirements. And if you want to withdraw money frequently, you’ll want to make sure you have access to local, no-fee ATMs as well.
If you want to learn more about our suggestions for the top online checking accounts, check out this post:
No Risk Investment #3: Bank Bonuses
If you have some extra money you won’t need for a while, you can occasionally earn some free cash with a bank bonus. Most banks will offer a bonus as an incentive for you to sign up, and these bonuses can be worth several hundred dollars on their own.
Bank bonuses are sometimes regional, however, and can depend on the local banks in your area and the products they offer. I have seen Capital One offer bonuses worth $50 or more, and Chase Bank is almost always offering a $150 or $250 bonus for individuals who open a new checking or savings account.
In exchange for your bank bonus, you’ll be asked to keep your money on deposit for anywhere from 6 to 18 months. In addition, you may have to set up direct deposit to your new account, or use a bank-issued debit card for a certain number of transactions within the first few months. Just remember to read through all the fine print to learn about any fees that might be levied and how you can avoid them.
By jumping through these hoops, you can usually earn a few hundred dollars for your efforts. Best of all, you won’t have to worry about losing a single cent of your deposit. And if you decide not to keep the account for the long haul, you can always close it once you earn the bonus and meet all of the bank’s requirements.
The Bottom Line
As you get closer to retirement, it’s important to reduce your risk as much as possible. You don’t want to start losing capital this late in the game; since you have many years of retirement ahead of you, you want to preserve your cash.
The best low risk investments can help you do just that. By letting you earn nominal amounts of interest on your money with little risk, you can help your nest egg keep up with inflation without losing your shirt. Just remember to read the fine print and educate yourself along the way. And if you’re ever in doubt over an investment product or service, speak with a qualified financial advisor and ask as many questions as you can.
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