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Treasury Bills

When you’re looking for a safe way to invest your money, things don’t typically get any more solid than government-backed securities. The U.S. Department of Treasury offers several different low-risk options, including notes, bonds and bills. Treasury bills, or T-bills, can be appealing because you’re not required to tie up your money for a long period of time. However, they’re not necessarily right for every kind of investor. You may want to consult with a financial advisor, who can advise you about T-bills, stocks or any other type of investment.

How Treasury Bills Work

Treasury bills are short-term securities, which means they come with shorter maturity dates than bonds and notes. Certain types of T-bills have a maturity period of just a few days, but they’re typically issued in terms of 4, 13, 26 or 52 weeks.

T-bills are assigned a specific face value, such as $1,000, $5,000 or $10,000, but you can usually purchase them for less than that. The amount you pay is called the discount rate. Once the securities mature, the government hands over the full amount of the bill.

Here’s an example of how the process works. Let’s say you purchase a $10,000 T-bill with a discount rate of 3% that matures after 52 weeks. That means you pay $9,700 for the T-bill upfront. Once the year is up, you get back your initial investment plus another $300.

If you’re interested in investing in T-bills, make sure you aren’t looking at treasury bonds or treasury notes. While T-bills mature at 4, 8, 13, 26 or 52 weeks, t-bonds and t-notes have longer maturity times. Notes mature between two and 10 years while bonds mature at 30 years.

T-Bill Tax Considerations

The interest income that you may receive from investing in a treasury bill is exempt from any state or local income taxes, regardless of the state where you file. However, you will need to report interest income from these investments on your federal tax return. This makes treasury bills partially but not fully tax-exempt.

Every year the investor will receive a Form 1099-INT from the Department of Treasury, detailing how much interest was earned from all government securities that you’ve invested in throughout the year.  You will be taxed at your own marginal rate on your tax return.

Treasury Bonds vs. Treasury Notes vs. Treasury Bills

Treasury bills are not the same thing as treasury bonds or treasury notes, even though they are all government-issued securities. Both of those investments have longer maturity rates while T-bills mature in less than a year. Other than maturity dates, let’s take a closer look at what each type of treasury investment looks like.

  • Treasury Bonds: T-bonds are often referred to as long bonds due to their maturity date of 20-30 years. It is the longest maturity date of any government-issued security and because of that it typically carries the highest interest that you can earn. If you purchase a T-bond, you’ll receive a fixed interest payment every six months.
  • Treasury Notes: T-notes are similar to T-bonds but have a maturity of 2 – 10 years. This security generally comes with a bi-annual interest payment but offers lower yields than a T-bond. The 10-year T-note is a really sought-after investment because it is often used as a safe haven to reduce risk in an investment portfolio. Because of its popularity, that same note is looked at as a benchmark to help set mortgage rates.
  • Treasury Bills: T-bills are issued with maturity dates of 4, 8, 13, 26, or 52 weeks. Unlike the other two investments, T-bills do not pay interest payments to the investor since the maturity dates are so short. Also unlike the other two facilities that are auctioned off at $100 increments, treasury bills are auctioned off at a discount to their face value.

All three treasury investments have zero default risk because they’re backed by the federal government.

Benefits of Investing in Treasury Bills

Treasury Bills

The number-one advantage that T-bills offer relative to other investments is the fact that there’s virtually zero risk that you’ll lose your initial investment. The government backs these securities so there’s no need to worry that you could lose money in the deal.

Another benefit is that T-bills can be purchased in smaller amounts than many other investments. This means they’re more accessible to someone who doesn’t have a lot of cash to invest. If you only have $1,000 to invest, you can use it to purchase a T-bill and earn a better return on your money than you would if you put it in a regular savings account.

The fact that you can pick a short maturity term is another plus if you prefer to have some flexibility with your investments.  A longer maturity term could yield a bigger return, but you can still earn some interest if you opt for a shorter term and you can get your money back to reinvest fairly quickly.

Drawbacks of Investing in Treasury Bills

The biggest downside of investing in T-bills is that you’re going to get a lower rate of return compared to other investments, such as certificates of deposit, money market mutual funds, corporate bonds, or stocks. If you’re looking to make some serious gains in your portfolio, T-bills aren’t going to cut it.

Another potential issue for investors has to do with how T-bills are purchased. You have to bid on them through an auction process. Bidding can be competitive or non-competitive. With the former, you have to choose your discount rate and you might not be able to purchase the bills you want.

The Bottom Line

Treasury Bills

Treasury bills won’t necessarily make you rich. However, they can be a good way to add some conservative investments to your portfolio to counteract other riskier ones. The time period you’re looking to invest into a government-backed investment for that security could be the deciding factor in investing in T-bills over T-bonds or T-notes. The decision to invest should be determined by the investment strategy of your entire portfolio.

Tips for Investing Your Money

  • Investing in government-backed securities can be a strong conservative investment for your portfolio, but you may want to speak to a financial advisor to be sure which one is right for you. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • T-bills probably shouldn’t be the only thing you invest in. You should diversify your portfolio with things like stocks, bonds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). To get a sense of how your investments should be divided up, use SmartAsset’s asset allocation calculator.

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Rebecca Lake, CEPF® Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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