ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This January marks a turning point for an icon of the U.S. economy: the savings bond. Those paper certificates that the U.S. government sold to citizens as investments will no longer be available at your corner bank. Caitlin Kenney of our Planet Money team has this remembrance.
CAITLIN KENNEY, BYLINE: Savings bonds used to be huge. Here's an ad for them from the 1970s.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
KENNEY: The idea was to get regular people to lend the U.S. government money. You would go to the bank and buy a savings bond for $25 or 50, and after a certain number of years the government would pay you back that money plus interest. A $50 savings bond bought in 1975 was worth well over $250 30 years later. They were very popular.
MCKAYLA BRADEN: We sold billions and billions of dollars of savings bonds over the years.
KENNEY: Mckayla Braden works for the Treasury Department. She says savings bonds got their start back in the 1930s. The government was expanding its size, launching a bunch of new programs like the WPA.
The savings bond was pitched as a safe investment and a way to help your country. And the government got lots of famous people to make the pitch: Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, John Wayne, even Bugs Bunny.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KENNEY: By the '50s and '60s, savings bonds were a regular part of American life. People bought them through the payroll program at work. They bought them when their kids were born to save for college. They bought them to save for a home. But starting about 20 years ago, those ad campaigns stopped working so well.
BRADEN: To be honest with you, it got harder and harder to sell savings bonds the way we used to sell them, because there was a lot of competition for savings instruments.
KENNEY: People thought, why should I invest my money in a savings bond when I can get a better return from a CD or a money market account? Also, it's hard to keep track of those paper certificates. People lost them or forgot about them. Mckayla Braden says there are close to $16 billion worth of savings bonds out there that have matured but not been cashed in.
By the '80s and '90s, people had other ways to save for retirement or college. Now there are lots of options.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
KENNEY: This is a playground in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I talked to a bunch of parents here to see if any of them had savings bonds for their kids. David and Rachel Missoni, here with their 3-year-old son, gave me a typical response.
Does your son have any U.S. savings bonds?
DAVID MISSONI: No.
RACHEL MISSONI: No, the thought honestly never crossed my mind. I think maybe the idea seems a little bit old-fashioned.
KENNEY: It's not just that regular citizens have lost interest in lending money to the U.S. government. It's that the U.S. government doesn't need us to lend it money anymore. It has lots of people to borrow money from. Big banks, investment institutions and foreign governments like China.
Already the marketing department for savings bonds has gone away. And starting January 1st, banks will no longer sell savings bonds. But that doesn't mean they're disappearing entirely. If you really want one, there's still a way you can buy one - online through a Treasury website - although I should stress, if you really want one.
BRADEN: You have to have your own Treasury direct account, and then you can buy gift bonds in Treasury direct. And it's placed in what we call a gift box. All right now...
KENNEY: I'll spare you the details. Even Mckayla Braden from the Treasury Department admits it's a pain in the neck. On the upside, purchasing online means you can't lose your savings bond. And when your bond is ready to be cashed in, the money just automatically shows up in your bank account.
Caitlin Kenney, NPR News, New York.
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