Money Market Mutual Funds: A Better Savings Account

By Andrew Beattie AAA

If you don't have a large amount of cash - let's say $1,000 or more - moldering away in a savings account, then this article may not interest you. If you do have a large amount of cash saved up, then you may be wondering whether a savings account is the best place to keep it. Sure, it's liquid, but the interest rates are only slightly better than those offered by your sock drawer and may be only slightly better than the inflation rate. One alternative is a money market mutual fund.

SEE: Do Money Market Funds Pay?

Security
The main reason people use banks to hold their money isn't because of the lucrative returns from interest rates - it is because the bricks, sensors and a tempered steel safe convey a sense of security that a sock drawer can't match. On top of the physical security of a bank, there is the protection of the U.S. government. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation guarantees that the bank will not lose your money. The limit for this coverage applies for up to $250,000 per account, but will go down to $100,000 per depositor as of 2014.

SEE: Are Your Bank Deposits Insured?

On the other hand, money market mutual funds are safe in a different way. There is no backing from the federal government, but the SEC carefully hems in money market funds. They generally only invest in financially reliable securities and all the investments must have an average maturity of less than 120 days. This results in a lot of government issues (municipal, state, federal) - which are the safest debt instruments - that have a lower yield than the average market, but a better rate than your savings account.

Fees
For savings accounts, the two biggest fees are associated with a minimum balance requirement and transaction fees. Depending on the bank and the exact savings account, these fees vary, but they are usually not a problem for those with a large amount of money in a savings account.

For money market funds, there are several fees that investors should be aware of when contemplating an investment in this type of asset. The biggest is the expense ratio, which is a percentage fee charged on the fund for management expenses. For money market funds, these fees are typically very low, usually below 0.5%. Also, there may be balance requirements or transaction fees so make sure to carefully look over the fees associated with an investment with any fund you consider.

SEE: Stop Paying High Mutual Fund Fees

Returns
A savings account might give you anywhere from 0.1 to 1.7%. Money market funds have a range of 1 to 3%. This doesn't mean that you will always get 3% returns, but it does mean your chances of getting up to 3% returns are higher than with a savings account.

As with bonds, the performance of money market funds is closely tied to the interest rates set by the Fed. When rates in the market are at very low levels, as they were from 2002 to 2004 and 2007 to 2009, these types of funds tend to generate returns on the lower end of the range and not much more than a savings account. So make sure to be aware of the current interest rate environment and how it compares to your savings account rate before you move your money to a money market fund.

Accessibility
Money market funds are comparable to savings accounts as far as liquidity goes. There are usually free check-writing, automated electronic exchange services and telephone exchange and redemption. If you are sure that the money will be sitting idle for more than three months, Treasury bills or CDs are a guaranteed option, but they come with penalties and fees for early redemption. Both the money market account and a savings account are for people who need access to the money.

SEE: Understanding Financial Liquidity

Taxes
There is a range of funds to help you relieve the different types of tax burdens. If you find yourself in a high state tax bracket but a low federal tax bracket, you can invest in a U.S. Treasury money market fund, like the Vanguard Money Market Reserves U.S. Treasury Portfolio.

There are also funds that are federal and state tax-free like the Fidelity MA Muni Money Market Fund. The tax exemptions are based on what securities the fund invests in and whether they are local or federal debt issues. When we say tax-free in this case, we are referring to the dividends - there is no tax deduction for the money you put into the funds. With some research, you should be able to find a fund that will meet your tax needs.

Selecting a Fund
The various types of funds all invest in the same basket of securities within their section (municipal, Treasury, etc.), so the returns of a particular fund might vary a tenth of a percent from the others in its section. A fund with low operating costs, therefore, will generally produce better yields. Annual operating expenses of 0.5% or less should be your measuring stick when sifting through the funds. If a fund company is successful, the larger amounts of capital it controls will translate into lower operating expenses for investors. Keep in mind that although these investments are considered low risk, in their attempt to outperform, some have reached for higher-yielding instruments that are outside the norm, including collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) backed by subprime mortgages.

The Bottom Line
Changing from a savings account to a money market account is more of a psychological leap than it is a change in actual mechanics. With a money market fund, you can still write checks and transfer money into your checking account when you need it, but it is no longer a savings account - it is an investment (albeit a short-term one).

The returns are better, the security is comparable, and taxes and access are easily handled. Despite this, people believe that a savings account is somehow more solid. If you can get around that type of thinking, you will find that a money market account will help you to see some returns from the money you are keeping as an emergency fund or just waiting to invest.

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