Just when you thought the era of new online banks splashing into the market was over, TIAA-CREF is on the hunt for customers’ deposits. TIAA-CREF Trust Company, FSB was established in 1998, and the bank just began offering deposit accounts in the last month. The products, under the name TIAA Direct, are intended to compete with the best online savings accounts and checking accounts, and as of now, the interest rates are attractive.
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I have some of my retirement funds invested with TIAA-CREF’s mutual fund division, and after a frustrating effort with the company to fund my SEP IRA several years ago, I decided to leave the company in favor of Vanguard for my investments.
I initially chose to invest with TIAA-CREF due to their low minimum investment amount and their association, at least in my mind, with the education industry and non-profit organizations. Several companies within the TIAA-CREF family are non-profit organizations, but the government revoked its 501(c)(3) status in 1998. As a result, the company does not enjoy the same tax benefits as other non-profit organizations.
My experience with the investment arm of TIAA-CREF and the lack of a need to open yet another savings account may prevent me from opening a new account with TIAA Direct. Customers who are looking for the best interest rates would do well to investigate the bank further, though. When a new account arrives on the scene, it will attempt to attract new depositors, and that often includes offering a great interest rate for savings accounts.
I’ve found that for the most part over the last decade, banks who offer overly attractive terms and initiate a significant marketing endeavor after their arrival soon lower interest rates. Once the company has received its target amount of deposits, there is less motivation to attract new customers. Some banks have even closed their doors to new customers once their target was reached.
The following details are as of March 20, 2012, and are subject to change at any time.
TIAA Direct is attracting new customers to its basic High Yield Savings account with a 1.25% APY, one of the best interest rates currently available in the United States. This rate is about twice as much as the interest offered by some of TIAA Direct’s most relevant competitors.
There is a $25 minimum initial deposit and there are no fees. The savings account and the companion Money Market account are limited to six non-ATM transactions each month, as mandated by banking regulations. The Money Market account offers the same interest rate and minimum deposit as the High Yield Savings account but also offers check-writing privileges. Both accounts include an ATM card.
The bank is also offering an interest checking account with interest rates ranging from 0.05% to 0.15% APY. Customers will receive free checks, a debit card, and the ability to deposit checks using an iPhone application. Again, there is a initial deposit requirement of at least $25.
Once these accounts are open and funded with at least $25, there is no ongoing minimum balance requirement.
If you’re willing to lock up your savings for a period of time, TIAA Direct is also offering certificates of deposit with maturities of six months, one year, and two years. The interest rates for these accounts are lower than the High Yield Savings account and the Money Market account. You’re better off keeping your money in a savings account earning more interest and keeping your savings liquid until the CD rates exceed the rates earned in the savings account.
There are some finer points to consider; if you expect the savings account interest rate to dip below the best CD interest rate within the next two years, and you expect the CD rate to dip as well, you might be better off locking in the two-year CD rate today. It’s impossible to predict the future though, and you can make these decisions based only on what you know. There’s a good chance that the high interest rate on the savings and money market accounts won’t last, as has been the case for banks looking to make some noise and attract depositors right away.
There’s an indication of a lack of transparency, a troubling sign. There is a fee to withdraw funds from your CD before it reaches maturity, but you can only discover the details of this fee in the disclosure document customers receive only after funding the CD. You have to lock up your money before you’re told how much it’ll cost you to withdraw your cash in an emergency. Other banks typical penalize customers for withdrawing money from a CD by charging a fee based on the interest accrued in the account.
The real tests of a savings account, particularly in an environment where interest rates are low, are whether your money will be accessible when you need it and how well you’re able to work with customer service. TIAA Direct is new on the block, but if it inherits its customer service from its parent company, based on the feedback from hundreds of customers visiting Consumerism Commentary, potential customers may want to steer clear of this bank’s new deposit products.
Note: Richard Barrington from Money-Rates.com has asked for an interview with a spokesperson for TIAA Direct, but the company is saying they are not yet ready to launch these new products. You can, however, open a new account using the TIAA Direct website, and it is open to the public.