When it comes to socking away savings, most people think of their bank accounts, their 401(k)s or their stocks. Or maybe what they’ve stuffed in a shoebox or under the mattress.
The federal government is hoping more consumers will instead think about T-bills, T-notes and U.S. savings bonds. Last month, the U.S. Treasury announced its new “Ready.Save.Grow.” campaign to get people focused on setting aside savings — online.
Coming out of the recession, “We want to get the word out at a time when people are really focused on savings and making sure they have enough money to last into retirement. These are low-cost, low-risk investments that could benefit you,” said Joyce Harris, spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C.
There’s a new Web face — http:///www.treasurydirect.gov/readysavegrow  — and a host of new partners, including the AARP and the Consumer Federation of America. It’s all about reminding consumers that the U.S. Treasury offers six savings tools, from Series EE and I savings bonds to Treasury bills, notes and bonds.
Harris said recent research showed that many Americans didn’t know about the Treasury’s website and the ability to buy savings bonds and other Treasury products directly via their computer.
The Ready.Save.Grow. campaign is also an effort to ensure that the decision to eliminate paper savings bonds doesn’t cause a dramatic drop-off of buyers.
As of Jan. 1 this year, Americans can purchase U.S. savings bonds only in digital form. That caused a ruckus among many people who had purchased paper savings bonds for decades at their local banks to give as gifts to children and grandchildren.
Marc Prosser, who runs the LearnBonds.com website, launched an online petition in December to try to get Congress to bring back the paper. His goal is 100,000 signatures, which will be sent to President Barack Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Commissioner of Public Debt Van Zeck.
By the end of March, his site, http:///www.bringbackpapersavingsbonds.com , collected more than 2,200 signatures.
The petition, which calls the switch to paperless bonds a “mistake (that) can be reversed,” contends that buying bonds electronically has made it more difficult for those without Internet access or who are uncomfortable giving out financial information online.
To purchase a savings bond today, both the buyer and the recipient must set up an online TreasuryDirect account. When giving one as a gift, the buyer can print out a gift certificate customized for birthdays, a new baby, anniversaries, etc.
Currently, there are about 691 million U.S. savings bonds, worth about $180 billion, in the public’s hands, according to the Treasury.
Like Harris, Prosser said savings bonds can be an effective savings tool for everyday Americans. “If you’ve got between $50,000 to $100,000 a year and are looking for something safe and secure, they’re a good thing,” he said. “They’re a great savings tool if you’re a middle-class family trying to put money away for your kids’ education.”
But buying them paperless? “Giving a kid an email (that says you’ve purchased a savings bond) diminishes its value as a learning tool,” Prosser said. By contrast, “Handing (someone) a heavy-stock paper bond with an official seal makes an impression. It’s mysterious and unique and a starting point for a discussion about finances.”
He believes the real test will be this coming December, when the U.S. Treasury will be able to compare digital-vs.-paper purchase rates on savings bonds.
At the end of 2011, about 87 percent of savings bonds were purchased in paper format.
There is still one route to buying a paper savings bond: your tax refund. Under an IRS program launched in 2010, taxpayers can purchase up to $5,000 in Series I savings bonds, using part or all of their tax refund. The paper bonds can be issued in $50 to $1,000 denominations. For instance, a grandparent getting a $2,500 tax refund could designate the IRS to apply it to five $500 bonds for grandchildren.
The Treasury, which says it will save $120 million in the first five years on printing, mailing and storage costs, is emphasizing the 24/7 convenience of buying savings bonds electronically.
But for many of those signing the online petition, buying and holding paper savings bonds — first printed in 1935 — is partly about nostalgia.
“I’ve been buying savings bonds for my grandchildren for years. (It’s) too complicated now. Please bring back paper bonds,” wrote Marilyn Stevens of Fords, N.J.
Even Harris, a longtime U.S. Treasury employee, admits that she thought about “running to my local bank and getting a few myself” before the ban on paper savings bonds went into effect. “My parents used savings bonds they (gave) me as a child to pay for my college education. So paper bonds hold a special place in my heart.”
She’s hoping the new Ready.Save.Grow. campaign will help people navigate the transition from paper to digital savings bonds.
“We’d love it if a new generation of Americans would look at (savings bonds) as an investment option. They’re a low-cost, low-risk investment.”
TREASURYDIRECT AT A GLANCE:
The U.S. Treasury offers six savings options, each carrying different interest rates and varying maturity dates, from a few days to 30 years. Consumers can purchase directly online or by setting up direct deposit through an employer. Here’s the list:
—T-Bills: Short-term maturities, ranging from several days to 52 weeks. Sold at a discount of face value. Minimum purchase: $100
—T-Notes: Pay interest every six months, with varying maturities of 2, 3, 5, 7 and 10 years. Minimum purchase: $100
—T-Bonds: Pay interest every six months and mature in 30 years. Minimum purchase: $100
—TIPS: Officially known as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, they pay interest every six months and mature in 5, 10 or 30 years. Minimum purchase: $100
—Series EE Savings Bonds: Earn fixed-rate interest for up to 30 years. Minimum purchase: $25
—Series I Savings Bonds: Earn combined fixed/variable inflation-adjusted rate. Minimum purchase: $25
Source: MCT Information Services