Ready to open a TreasuryDirect account? Here are some tips.

I know most of my readers are experienced investors who already have a TreasuryDirect account. If you know a less-experienced investor who could use this information, please pass it along. Thanks …

By David Enna, Tipswatch.com

The news that U.S. Series I Savings Bonds are now paying 3.54%, annualized, for six months is drawing a lot of attention from new investors, people who a few months ago would have laughed off any talk of investing in savings bonds.

This is good. I love when people learn about I Bonds and EE Bonds and appreciate them as valuable and viable investments. Yes, they are “relics” from the past, but that relic status is what makes them so attractive: They have terms that create a flow of interest income much higher than you’d find with any other “modern” safe investment.

But then there is the obvious question: How do you invest in I Bonds? You could ask your broker, but don’t expect any help there. Your broker can’t sell you I Bonds, and can’t make money from advising you to buy them. You can’t buy them on the “open market.” There is only one place to purchase I Bonds, and that is the U.S. government’s site, TreasuryDirect.gov.

What do you need to open an account?

An image from the TreasuryDirect site. Five minutes? Possibly wishful thinking.

TreasuryDirect says you need these these things to open an individual account:

  • A taxpayer identification number … in other words, a Social Security Number.
  • A United States address of record. Do you need to be a U.S. citizen? No. Do you need to be living in the U.S.? No. But you need a U.S. address to register the account.
  • Be at least 18 years old. A child cannot open a TreasuryDirect account. But a parent or other adult guardian can open an account for a child and link it to the adult’s account.
  • A checking or savings account … this can be at a physical or online bank, or at brokerage, such as Fidelity or Vanguard. You will need to know your account and routing numbers.
  • An email address.
  • A web browser that supports 128-bit encryption. TreasuryDirect states that its site is “optimized for Internet Explorer,” which is classic government dumbness. IE has been replaced by Microsoft Edge and today has a market share of less than 1%. TreasuryDirect even provides “helpful” links to Windows XP service packs that have long-ago been discontinued. TreasuryDirect works fine with Firefox and Chrome browsers. I have tested it with Edge and Safari, too, and it seems to work fine.

When you get to the “Account Type” page, choose “Individual.” (You can also open an account in the name of a trust, but I have no idea how that works.)

A married couple must open two separate TreasuryDirect accounts if both spouses wish to purchase I Bonds. Each account is limited to purchasing $10,000 per person per calendar year, so if you want to purchase $20,000 in a year, you need two accounts.

(There are separate purchase caps for I Bonds and EE Bonds, so an individual can buy $10,000 of both, for a total of $20,000. EE Bonds, by the way, are also an excellent 20-year investment in today’s market. I wrote about that in September 2019.)

Once you get to TreasuryDirect’s “Individual Account Application” page, you’ll need to fill in a lot of personal information — see why you need that 128-bit encryption? — including your Social Security number, date of birth, state driver’s license number and expiration date, mailing address, email address, and bank information.

Then, TreasuryDirect will ask you to select a “personalized image and caption.” What’s this about? It is a safeguard against phishing attempts. If a scammer tries to get you to log into your TreasuryDirect account using a false address, you won’t see this image and caption. That’s a signal you are being scammed.

Next, you will choose your password. TreasuryDirect advises, “When selecting your password, avoid numbers, names and dates” that correspond to your personal information. I suggest creating a password that is UNIQUE to TreasuryDirect and not used elsewhere.

You’ll also be asked to answer three security questions, in case you forget your unique password. Favorite author? Favorite movie? And so on.

And that is it, on the last page of the account creation screens, you will be given your new account number (usually something like X-123-456-789). When you go to log later, you will be asked to provide your account number and password. As an additional security measure, you will be emailed a temporary security code to enter before you gain access to your account.

Registering your purchases

How you register a savings bond determines who owns the bond and who can cash it. The registration also determines what happens with the bond if the owner dies.

  • One owner. Only one person is named as owner. Only that person can make transactions. If he or she dies, the bond becomes part of the estate.
  • Owner and beneficiary. Only the owner can make transactions. If he or she dies, the beneficiary becomes the only owner. The beneficiary can’t be an entity. The registration says “PAYABLE ON DEATH,” or “POD.” Example of registration: JOHN DOE POD TO JANE DOE
  • Two owners. For electronic bonds (the only option when buying through TreasuryDirect), the first-named owner is the primary owner; the second is secondary. The registration uses “WITH.” An example of this registration is JOHN DOE SSN 987-65-4321 WITH JANE DOE SSN 123-45-6789. If one owner dies, the other becomes sole owner. If one owner is a person, the other can’t be an entity like a trust.

These ownership rules throw a lot of investors for a loop, because they expect to see “Joint Ownership With Right of Survivorship” as an option. How is “with” ownership different from “joint ownership”? I don’t know, but for a married couple, I’d recommend using this “with” ownership, which should avoid issues after the primary owner’s death.

Using I Bonds for higher education

If you use interest from a Series I bond to pay for higher education, you may not have to pay federal tax on the interest. However:

  • If you want to use the bond for your education, you must be the owner of the bond.
  • If you want to use the bond for your child’s education, then you or your spouse, or both, must own the bond. Your child may be a beneficiary but not a co-owner.
  • Your modified adjusted gross income has to be less than the cut-off amount set by the Internal Revenue Service. This amount typically changes every year. I believe the current caps are $84,950 for single taxpayers and $134,900 for married filing jointly, but a gradual phaseout of the benefit begins at lower income levels. See IRS Publication 970 “Tax Benefits for Education.”

Logging in for the first time

When you first log in, you will enter your account number (it looks something like X-123-456-789) and then you will get a notice that you must go to your connected email account for a one-time security code. Copy and paste that code into the box, submit, and you will come to the password entry page.

This is another security step. You enter your password using a virtual keyboard (it ignores upper and lower case). This security measure will keep keystroke-tracking viruses from learning your password. But you can see why you don’t want a 23-letter-long password. Keep it unique, and reasonable.

Here are the Treasury’s official password rules:

  • Length. Use at least eight characters without spaces.
  • Characters. Use at least one letter, one number, and one special character such as $ or %, but excluding “\”.
  • Content. Avoid numbers, names, or dates that are significant to you. For example, your phone number, first name or date of birth. Try to choose a password based on a memory aid.

On this page, above the keyboard, you will also see the image and caption you selected in the registration pages.

Making your first purchase

After you complete the login process, you will see your account summary page, which should be pretty empty if this is your first purchase. Up in the top row of links, click on “BuyDirect” and you will go to the purchasing menu.

  1. Select Series I
  2. On the next page, your preferred registration should be filled in, such “Person1” or “Spouse1 WITH Spouse 2”
  3. Enter the purchase amount, up to $10,000 per account per calendar year.
  4. Select the source of funds, which should already be filled in once your link to your bank or brokerage is completed.
  5. If you select a single purchase, you can select the date for the purchase to be completed. I recommend setting a date near the end of the month, but on a weekday. For example, for this month, I’d probably select May 27, a Thursday. (An I Bond purchased late in a month earns a full’s month’s interest.)
  6. Submit.

At this point you should see a confirmation of your purchase, but since I’ve already purchased my 2021 allocation, I can’t complete the process to test it.

How do I track/sell my holdings?

TreasuryDirect isn’t really like a brokerage account where you can check the current value of your holdings on a simple “balances” page. When you go to the account summaries page, you will see a value listed, but it is actually the original value of the I Bonds you purchased. If you click on “Savings Bonds” on that list, you go to another page, where you can select “Series I Savings Bonds” and hit submit.

On the next page — titled “Current Holdings > Summary” — you can see a list of your holdings and the “issue date,” “interest rate” and “current value,” which reflects interest paid up to that point. If you click on an individual issue and “select,” you will see at the bottom a link to redeem that savings bond.

When you redeem, you can sell the full amount (including interest accrued), or a partial amount, and you designate the bank account that will receive the funds. TreasuryDirect says you should receive the money in two business days.

(Keep in mind that you must hold an I Bond for 12 months before redeeming, and if you redeem before 5 years you will forfeit the last three months of interest.)

The Treasury also provides a web-based Savings Bond Calculator that it says are for paper bonds only, but in actuality can be used to track and list the electronic version, too. Back in January 2018 I wrote a step-by-step guide to using this calculator. Hint: It’s clunky.

How secure is TreasuryDirect?

This is source of rather heated debates on the Bogleheads forums, because the Treasury makes no “stated” commitment to guarantee your account against hacking or theft. For that reason, some investors will not purchase any holdings in TreasuryDirect. And this debate has been going on for more than a decade.

While the Treasury seems to dodge the “security guarantee” question, I feel strongly that it would take responsibility for any errors/hacking that it caused. But if you fall for a clever phishing attack or have an evil relative, you could face losses. The system does send you email alerts for any account changes, such as in registrations or linked bank accounts, or even if the email address was changed.

The Treasury expects you to monitor your account and provide timely notice of any irregularities. I think the risk is extremely small, and I have not heard of anyone ever losing money through hacking or theft. The complex login system that TreasuryDirect uses, including the two-factor verification and virtual keyboard, add up to strong security.

As an added security feature, TreasuryDirect allows you to place a hold on your account. If you believe someone else has learned your account access information and you want to prevent unauthorized access, you can edit your Account Info in your primary account to place a Customer Hold. This action will prohibit all transactions associated with your primary and linked accounts. After you place your Customer Hold, you will not have access to your account until the hold is removed.

What happens at tax time?

Not much. TreasuryDirect doesn’t have a “user-friendly” attitude when it comes to tax documents. It may (or may not) send you an email reminder to log in and check your current documents. It will not physically mail you anything. When you locate your tax documents, you’ll find the format to be confusing and not-printer friendly.

Of course, with I Bonds, you won’t owe any federal taxes until you redeem a bond, and I Bond interest is exempt from state income taxes. So this isn’t a big deal for an I Bond investor. But if you redeem some bonds, you will have a tax obligation that year and you’ll need to track down the forms.

Conclusion

No one is going to extol TreasuryDirect for being “user friendly,” and some of the complexities arise because of the extra security steps it places in the way of logins. Can you open an account in 5 minutes? I’d bet against that. And there could be some time needed to verify your bank account before you can make a purchase.

If you have more questions, post them below. I might not be able to answer some of the more complex or legal issues, but possibly other readers have some experience in those areas.

* * *

David Enna is a financial journalist, not a financial adviser. He is not selling or profiting from any investment discussed. The investments he discusses can purchased through the Treasury or other providers without fees, commissions or carrying charges. Please do your own research before investing.

About Tipswatch

Author of Tipswatch.com blog, David Enna is a long-time journalist based in Charlotte, N.C. A past winner of two Society of American Business Editors and Writers awards, he has written on real estate and home finance, and was a founding editor of The Charlotte Observer's website.
This entry was posted in Investing in TIPS. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Ready to open a TreasuryDirect account? Here are some tips.

  1. Donald George says:

    A real can of worms. Anyone register a Living Trust revokable? Seem like the registaration name needs to contain something other then xxx family Trust!

  2. ghanwani says:

    I closed my treasury direct account because it was too clumsy and I heard on various forums that customer service can be pretty bad if anything goes wrong or someone needs help with the account after the account holder is incapacitated or dies.

    • Patrick says:

      I have had good luck getting to talk to someone about I-bonds at Treasury Direct. You need to phone and ask for someone who has been working there a long time. I got to talk to a nice really old lady, who knew all the ins and outs.

  3. pankr003 says:

    On the other end of opening an account an account is closing it. The Treasury Direct site has a page on handling savings bonds after somebody dies so buying I or EE bonds seems OK.

    Motivated by a potential need for a Medicaid spenddown for a nursing home spouse I have been trying but not succeeding in opening a brokerage account to transfer some TIPS or 30 year bonds into so I can sell them if needed. My bank and then my insurance company did not want to help here so I am trying a 3rd financial institution. If inflation is coming and TIPS become attractive again this is worth keeping in mind. The Treasury Direct Web site talks about the secondary market but does not say much more. Keeping TIPS until they mature is a good idea unless life circumstances get in the way:) If people already have a brokerage account it seems like they are OK.

    • Patrick says:

      Treasury Direct is a competitor to brokerages, so it will be difficult to get any help from a brokerage. But I imagine if you keep calling brokerages, and say you are willing to pay a fee, some brokerage will help you. You could try phoning Treasury Direct and ask for someone who might be able to help you with this matter.

  4. Darwin says:

    I successfully opened an account for myself using Safari on my Mac, with passwords stored in Keychain access. All good. However, when I went to create a second account for my wife, Keychain became confused and things went downhill from there.

    Also, I’m not entirely sure but it seems there’s a 20 character limit on passwords that TD doesn’t warn you about.

    • Tipswatch says:

      From my experience, you can have a password manager save your account number, but it can’t save the password, since you have to enter it in using the virtual keyboard. I always tell my browser to “not remember” the password each time after I enter it in that keyboard — because even if it could remember it, it wouldn’t matter.

      • Darwin says:

        Whether or not the password can be saved and entered automatically may depend on the browser; Safari on the Mac does supply a password when attempting to log in and it had been remembering and supplying my password OK for a while. It’s also happy to supply the account number, so logging in is – usually – a breeze.

        Where I ran in to trouble on the Mac was with the account number. The Mac doesn’t recognize the Account Number as a “UserID” and only saves one account number for the TD site. After I created a second account, I inadvertently let the Mac update the one password for the site to my wife’s password but that’s invalid for my account number.

        Another little gotcha – and I hate this everywhere I encounter it – is in the security questions. TD lists out about 8 possible ones and you pick 3 but, when doing password recovery it offers you all 8 questions again. Which 3 did I pick?

        This was the ONE time I let the Mac remember my password for me and never wrote it down. I usually also write down question hints but, again, this is the ONE time I didn’t do that. Lesson learned.

        It would be helpful if MacOS stored the last few passwords in Keychain but it doesn’t. That would have gotten me out of the jam immediately.

        As it was, calling in for help got a very fast response and a quick path to reset.

  5. Patrick says:

    The two most annoying aspects of I-bonds are:
    1. the maximum purchase in one year is $10,000 ($5,000 more if you buy them with a tax refund). It used to be $30,000 a year per social security number.
    2. You cannot have a living trust as a beneficiary. A living trust can own the bond, but cannot be a beneficiary. This is particularly annoying for me. I had to convert all my I-bonds in my name to my living trust, a tedious task. All my bank accounts do allow a living trust to be a POD. As you say, I-bonds are something of a relic, which is good and bad, but in this case not so good.

    • Tipswatch says:

      Yes, the purchase limit really is annoying, it should be higher. I hear from now-retired investors all the time who say: “This won’t make a meaningful difference.” And that is true. It takes many years of I Bond purchases — $20,000 a year for couples — to build a sizable asset allocation. And is why many people use tax refunds and trusts to bolster their purchases, since trusts have a separate purchase cap.

      • Patrick says:

        When you say trusts have a separate purchase cap, I assume you mean irrevocable trusts. My revocable living trust uses my social security number (not an EIN or TIN), so I believe I am stuck with the $10,000 annual cap.

        • Tipswatch says:

          I don’t know much about trusts, but if that trust has your same Social Security number, then I’d guess it would fall under your cap, as you note.

  6. Richard Green says:

    Question: when the primary owner of a savings bond dies, can the co-owner change the e-mail address on the account? Opinion: people should be able to open TreasuryDirect accounts with just their Social Security numbers and/or a direct link through their bank accounts.

    • Tipswatch says:

      If you are a co-owner and you can log into the account, you can change the account’s email address. I did this awhile back and it was a simple process. You can find that information on the “Account Info” page.

  7. pankr003 says:

    For the 2018 tax year I made a data entry error the IRS caught. They asked for information so I sent copies of everything I had including 1099INT forms. They replied asking for the 1099INT from Treasury Direct which I had already sent to them. I called Treasury Direct and they told me they only do 1099INTs online so I sent the IRS another 1099INT and asked the IRS to call customer service at Treasury Direct with the hope that would help settle things. The IRS person who did the review it seems could not tell what Treasury Direct calls a 1099INT really is one.

    • Tipswatch says:

      Wow. It is true that the form that TreasuryDirect creates looks very little like the usual 1099INT, but it clearly marked “Form 1099-INT Interest Income” so the IRS should have recognized that. I checked to see if can still access my 2018 tax forms, and I can.
      After 1099INT, the form continues on with “Form 1099-B Proceeds from Broker and Barter Exchange Transactions” and then with “Form 1099-OID Original Issue Discount” for any TIPS interest accruals. You would think that TreasuryDirect communicates this information directly to the IRS.

  8. pb says:

    Form 8888 lets me use my tax refund to get I-bonds, but currently they have to be paper bonds. Is there a way to put those paper bonds into TreasuryDirect? or track them electronically somewhere?

  9. Ladder Up says:

    The only time I have experienced security issues (meaning, being run through the wringer on medallion guarantees) is for my LLCs. For one LLC, it was on adding a second bank account. For the other LLC it was upon adding the first linked bank account. No issues with the irrevocable trust. So, yeah – I have five accounts: husband, me the wife, two LLCs, and one irrevocable (not a living) trust. The trust has its own EIN and linked bank account also under the EIN. As for the individual accounts, never any trouble.

    • Tipswatch says:

      I have found that medallion signature guarantees are hard to get suddenly, even at a bank where I have done business for 30 years. I end up having to go to a credit union where I have a small account, and they will do it quickly. For your main accounts, did you need a medallion guarantee? I don’t think I needed one when I changed linked banks recently.

      • Ladder Up says:

        They are beastly difficult to get. My Bank of America bank stopped doing them. (And, frankly, that is the only reason I had had a linked Merrill Edge account at all with Bank of America). So, I went to BB&T and opened an account there, because they did them. And, now, BB&T has been bought by SunTrust, and is now Truist. So, I have no idea if they still do it.

        I only had to do this for my LLCs and never the main individual accounts. I have in my estate instructions to never close out any linked bank account, and never close my phone number (for two factor authentication) until all the money is depleted!

      • Bill says:

        My wife and I opened out TD accounts in January. Mine went through no problem but my wife’s account was out on hold until she sent them a signature Guarantee form signed by our credit union.

        Made an appointment at the credit union and they signed the form and provided their bank stamp.

        Not convenient but not real inconvenient either. Just weird why mine went through and the wife’s did not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s