Strategies to help you manage your cash

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Bucket your cash by needs such as everyday, big-ticket and emergency
How to determine the amount of cash you may need to help meet current and future needs, plus ideas about where to save and invest that cash.

Key points

  • There are three main reasons we accumulate cash: for everyday expenses, emergencies, and large, predictable expenses
  • Consider keeping a different cash "bucket" for each of these three needs
  • The money in your buckets can then be invested differently based on how and when you expect to use the cash
  • Track your expenses and income each month with the Merrill Edge Cash Flow Calculator
When planning for far-off goals, like retirement, we typically turn to investments such as mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), stocks and bonds. But what about when we're planning for immediate and shorter-term goals? How do we calculate how much cash we'll need and determine where to place that money until it's needed? How can you help your money work hard for you?
Your finances are likely one of your top priorities
Now may be a good time to consider these questions and implement a strategic approach to managing your cash. Even though you may want to place much of that money in a checking or savings account so that it's immediately available when you need it, such accounts typically pay little interest. So putting your cash there could mean forfeiting the chance to earn potentially higher returns.
Anil Suri, managing director and head of Portfolio Analytics, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, suggests you start by thinking through the three main ways cash is used. Then you can look at how much you need for each purpose and finally address where to keep cash for each need.

Managing your cash in "buckets"

Here are the three cash "buckets" Suri suggests you consider maintaining, and which savings or investment vehicles may be appropriate for each.
1. Cash for living expenses
This is the money you use for daily purchases and monthly bills. You can easily determine your regular fixed expenses and an amount you'll allow yourself for discretionary and daily spending. That will help you decide how much to keep in this bucket. You generally want this cash to be easily accessible — probably in a checking account for everyday expenses, and perhaps in a savings or money market account for less immediate spending.
It's usually advisable that such accounts be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), to protect you from the remote possibility of bank failure. (FDIC coverage normally has a limit of $250,000 per account title at each bank where you have accounts.) Suri notes that savings accounts usually pay higher interest than checking and money market accounts. Differences between the rates offered by different kinds of accounts may vary, so you'll likely want to keep an eye on those rates to make sure your money is working as hard as possible for you.
The usual advice is to keep enough cash in an emergency account to cover at least six months of living expenses. But sometimes people set aside even more, depending on how risk-averse they are.
— Anil Suri,
managing director and head of Portfolio Analytics,
Bank of America Merrill Lynch
2. Cash for emergencies
This bucket can help with unexpected expenses or events, such as a sudden medical issue, a major home repair or a job loss, that could otherwise upend your carefully laid plans. "The usual advice is to keep enough cash in an emergency account to cover at least six months of living expenses. But sometimes people set aside even more, depending on how risk-averse they are," Suri says.
Because emergency cash isn't something you should expect to tap often — in fact, it's something you hope never to tap — you can place it in less-liquid cash investments, such as certificates of deposit (CDs), which generally offer a slightly higher yield than checking, savings or money market accounts. CDs come with specified terms, such as six months, one year or longer. Usually, the longer a CD's maturity, the greater potential yield you can expect. One strategy to maximize yield is to "ladder" several CDs of different maturities (see box, below).
Bear in mind, though, that if you withdraw your money early from a CD, you'll probably have to pay a penalty equal to several months of interest. As with cash for your living expenses, you may generally want to choose CDs that are FDIC insured.

A ladder of investments

Purchasing an assortment of investment vehicles Footnote 1 that mature at different times is called "laddering." Both CDs and bonds are examples of investments that can be laddered because they're available with different maturities.
With a bond ladder, for instance, you might purchase a selection of bonds that mature in 6 months, 1 year, 18 months and 2 years — giving you four "rungs" on your ladder. As each of these bonds mature, you replace them with new two-year bonds, creating a new rung. So in this example you'd have bonds maturing every six months. This allows you to capture the greater potential yield of a long-term bond or CD or a future increase in yields while giving you the ability to liquidate an asset that has recently matured in case of emergency.
3. Cash for big-ticket items
You may want to have cash on hand when it comes time to pay for large, anticipated expenses such as a new car, a wedding or a special family vacation. Since you know ahead of time approximately how much you're planning to spend on these items, it's relatively easy to calculate how much to keep in this bucket.
If the date for the purchase is five or fewer years away, you might want to shield your money from financial market turbulence, perhaps choosing FDIC-insured accounts such as CDs, Suri says, just as for an emergency fund. If your time horizon stretches out to more than five years, you may have the leeway to consider a higher-yielding investment, such as a bond ladder. Other opportunities to invest cash you may not need for five or more years include high-quality fixed-income securities, such as intermediate-term Treasury notes (typically thought of as those that mature in 3 to 10 years) or the highest-grade corporate bonds, but not stocks. "Equities don't get any less risky the longer you hold them," Suri says.
It's so important each year for you to take a good hard look at your goals and make sure you have a solid cash strategy in place to accomplish each one.
— Anil Suri,
managing director and head of Portfolio Analytics,
Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Not enough cash to go around?

What if you don't have enough cash to fund all three buckets? Which ones do you focus on? The answer will depend on your stage of life and your major income concerns.
"A 30-year-old couple with student loans will likely be more concerned with funding their basic living expenses and emergency savings than devoting surplus cash to saving for a big-ticket item," Suri says. "But investors who are a little older may have more in their emergency and big-ticket item accounts. The keys to keeping each bucket filled to the brim are setting realistic goals and resolving to preserve funds for their intended purposes," he adds. A disciplined monthly, automated funding plan (PDF) Footnote 2 can also help. And if you receive a tax refund or a bonus from your job, you could use part of it to help supplement these savings.

If you have surplus cash

If you assess your cash needs carefully and find that you have more than your buckets require, consider shifting that spare cash to other needs. You might evaluate your progress toward your retirement goals with the Merrill Edge Retirement Evaluator. Perhaps contribute to a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA, or ramp up contributions to your 401(k). Remember, however, keeping excess funds in cash in a low-interest-rate environment means you could be giving up the potential for growth of your assets to help you reach your long-term goals.
Whatever your situation, assessing your cash needs now could help make for a great start to a better financial year. "That's why it's so important each year for you to take a good hard look at your goals," Suri says, "and make sure you have a solid cash strategy in place to accomplish each one."
Next steps

Footnote 1 Asset allocation and diversification do not ensure a profit or protect against loss in declining markets.

Footnote 2 A program of regular investment cannot assure a profit or protect against a loss in declining markets. A continuous or periodic investment plan involves investment in shares over time regardless of fluctuating price levels. You should consider your financial ability to continue purchasing shares during periods of low price levels.

Neither Merrill Lynch nor any of its affiliates or financial advisors provide legal, tax or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.

MLPF&S is a registered broker-dealer and member SIPC. Merrill Lynch Life Agency Inc. is a licensed insurance agency. Both are wholly owned subsidiaries of Bank of America Corporation ("BofA Corp.")

Banking products are provided by Bank of America, N.A. and affiliated banks, Members FDIC and wholly owned subsidiaries of BofA Corp.

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