The U.S. savings bond, lovingly stuffed into Christmas and birthday cards for generations of grandkids, is going digital-only.
As of Jan. 1, banks will no longer be able to order the formal-looking instruments that introduced millions of American youth to the value of thrift. In their stead, paperless bonds will be sold exclusively through the Internet as part of a plan to save the government $120 million in printing, mailing and administrative expenses over the next five years.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia behind it, and that’s a good thing,” said Joyce Harris, spokeswoman for the Department of the Treasury, which has offered the low-interest-bearing bonds since 1935. “But we have to move the program into the 21st century.”
Harris cited two factors in the paper bonds’ demise. First, the Treasury Department, like all federal agencies, is under intense pressure to cut costs. But Harris also noted that annual sales have slipped precipitously for the Series EE (currently paying 0.6 percent interest) and Series I (which merely matches the rate of inflation) bonds.
Americans invested $1.47 billion in savings bonds in fiscal 2011, down from $6.6 billion in 2001. That 78 percent drop was under way even before the government cut the maximum annual purchase to $5,000, from $30,000 four years ago.
Despite the bonds’ Depression-era roots, older Americans aren’t the only ones growing wistful for them. The 30 or 40 that Justin Plokhooy received as gifts while growing up conveyed the message great-grandparents had intended: Plan ahead, save for the future.
When he cashed them in, they covered all of his college textbooks.
Plokhooy even started giving savings bonds to his nephews on their birthdays and at Christmas, and his sister reciprocated with bonds for his children. But he won’t be opening any digital accounts, at least until the nephews are old enough to appreciate them without having something tangible to hold in their hands.
“Having them go away in paper form is a disappointment,” said Plokhooy, 31, of San Antonio. “…I always thought there was something really cool about them.”
Paper versions of the Series I bonds will still be available, at least in 2012, for people who wish to receive them as part of their federal income-tax refunds.
Lake Jackson-based Texas Gulf Bank, where the impending change has been publicized in lobby displays and on the bank’s website, experienced a last-minute rush for the paper bonds, said vice president for operations Jo McWhorter. It was particularly acute in the six branches in Brazoria County, which have heavier in-person traffic.
“We’ve had a lot of people running in to order them in December because they’re scared it won’t be easy anymore,” she said.
McWhorter said Texas Gulf this year has ordered more than 300 savings bonds, mostly for grandparents trying to instill good habits in the younger generation.
Keep the lights on
It’s a lesson that’s been reinforced since the Great Depression in varying denominations embossed with the images of exemplary Americans from Ben Franklin to Helen Keller to Martin Luther King Jr.
The government has sold some 6.8 billion savings bonds since President Franklin Roosevelt started the program to raise money for a cash-strapped government while providing a safe, secure investment for citizens.
During World War II, the bonds were heavily promoted as a patriotic way to pitch in for the effort.
They still help keep the lights on. Harris said money invested in savings bonds makes up about 1 percent of the nation’s $14 trillion debt.