Ten Tools To Help You Get the Most Out of Your Savings

Below is my list of financial software tools that I find to be the most useful in helping grow and manage your savings. I've focused on tools for those in their twenties or thirties but these tools could benefit any age group.

Following up on my previous article on ten things recent college grads need to know about savings, this article is designed to help those starting out to optimize the funds that they have (while the article is focused on those in their twenties, everyone could benefit from the majority of these tools). The 21st century has brought with it the advent of user-friendly financial software that is sophisticated enough to be useful yet not overly complicated. The number of companies in this arena increases daily and there are surely more services available than the ones that I’ve listed below. That being said, those that I have chosen are some of the most affordable (ideally free) and efficient programs I've found.

  1. Mint.com: Perhaps the most well-known of the bunch and the first that I encountered, Mint is a fantastic tool for those looking to streamline their budgets. Mint allows you to link all your bank accounts, credit cards, loans, investments and more, so that you can easily keep track of your income and spending. Each expenditure is categorized so you can observe any trends.,The site also allows you to enter your budget for each category, so you get accurate picture of your spending habits. Mint will even analyze your accounts and find ways for you to save money, including alerting you when you have a payment due or have incurred a bank fee. For young savers fresh out of college, Mint is a tool that emphasizes accountability and fiscal responsibility.
  2. Ready for Zero: With Geezeo no longer taking on new customers and Wesabe down for the count, RFZ does exactly what its name implies – helps you pay down your debt. The software gives you informative infographics on all your outstanding debt that allows you to visualize progress. It also provides payment reminders as well as general suggestions on the best way to pay off  debt. If you’re willing to pay a little extra ($75 per year) for a Plus account, you’ll get automatic paycheck alignment, credit score improvement planning, and a lot of other goodies.
  3. Planwithvoyant: How can you prepare for an uncertain future? Voyant Inc. has you covered with software designed to help you forecast the impact of uncertain events. It’s a pretty user friendly interface even for those without finance backgrounds, and Planwithvoyant makes it easy for you to set up a financial plan.  The goal here is always to get the highest expected return with the lowest amount of variability and risk;to that end, Voyant lets you test a variety of different scenarios’ effects on your financial condition, such aspregnancy, retirement, etc. They’ll also give you suggestions on how to mitigate some of that risk through different investment strategies. Voyant also has a listing of financial advisors whom you can ask for advice and a (what type of forum?) forum to boot, making it a good jumping off point for young investors who don’t want to deal with more sophisticated investment technology.
  4. LearnVest: This may be a female-focused financial advisory site, but don’t let that fool you, it has value for both genders. LV is a little pricey, but you do get some bang for your buck. In addition to a real-life financial advisor you communicate with vie email and phone, they give you nifty infographics and cool diagrams so you can see where your money is  and where it’s going. LV also emphasizes   financial education, offering a wealth of articles on the subject andvirtual bootcamps for those who are into that kind of thing.
  5. Shoeboxed: So you’ve got that nice company card to expense all your work and travel expenses and rack up points. The only thing is, even in the digital age, keeping track of all those receipts can be a serious pain in the neck. That’s where Shoeboxed comes in: quite simply they take all your receipts and keep track of them for you in one place. Neat huh? There is a free version and multiple free trials, but for a little more money you can save yourself a lot of hassle. However, if you’re absolutely insistent on doing a lot of the tedious work yourself in which case it will always be free.
  6. Portfolio Monkey: This is not the sexiest program, but it is incredibly effective as an investment evaluator. Using historical data, Portfolio Monkey will analyze your current portfolio allocation and make suggestions. Specifically, it’ll offer different stocks that have a low correlation with your current portfolio (diversification lowers your risk) and high expected returns. The app then lets you run various simulations based on different hypothetical investing scenarios and allows you to compare your portfolios to others. While this site may require a little more sophistication than others, it is certainly a valuable, free tool to have in your arsenal.
  7. Buxfer: Don’t worry, just because you’re out of college doesn’t mean you still can’t have roommates. Unless you’re making buku bucks or live where housing is cheap, chances are you have a roommate or two (yes, besides your cat).  Yeah yeah it lets you do all that budgeting and financial planning stuff, but Buxfer is also great for sharing expenses. Whether you’re trying to figure out rent and utilities with your roommates, collect on IOUs, or hinting to your significant other it’s time he/she paid for dinner, this app is an easy way to reduce tension in your life.
  8. Pocketsmith: Yes, another app to help you keep track of bills! The good thing about Pocketsmith, in addition to its smooth interface, is its long term planning options. It can be easy to fall into the trap of living month to month, with all these new expenses coming in that you didn’t have before. Pocketsmith helps keep you on track with your monthly and annual spending compared to your actual income, allowing you to start building a savings that lasts more than two months. For those that like to have concrete goals or those that have trouble holding themselves accountable, this is the platform for you. The calendar-based viewing allows you to see with a quick glance how you’re doing from week to week.
  9. FINRA: Wait a minute….that’s not software, that’s just the government!? Actually FINRA isn’t the government, it’s a private corporation that is regulated by the SEC, but still they’ve got some nice free tools. Between their Broker Check and Risk/Scam Meter you can save yourself a lot of grief and avoid financial predators. For those of you who aren’t interested in combatting fraud and doing background checks on your potential financial advisors, these tools are not for you. Bernie Madoff eat your heart out!
  10. Credit Karma: Finally, acredit score that’s actually free! Hopefully none of you got caught up in FreeCreditScore.com, because Credit Karma will give you that score for virtually free (you do have to give up the last four digits of your social; they’re not mind readers). They give you a report grade based on a variety of factors, compare you to other similar users (in terms of age, state, etc.), and suggest ways to improve your score and lower your overall debt. There is a slight conflict of interest in that different credit card companies can advertise on the app, but it’s fairly obvious and, because it’s free, you know they had to pay the bills somehow.

Use this list as a nice jumping off point for your path to a higher level of financial responsibility. I’m sure many of you have different programs that you use already that aren’t listed, so feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. Happy saving!


Citibank Offers A 15 Year Fixed-to-Floating Rate Structured Note With a Yield Up to 10%

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Citibank is syndicating an interesting Structured Note which is very similar to the one issued by JP Morgan last month, but is callable, has a 10% coupon and has no S&P contingency.

I have written previous articles on this website about Structured Notes (an introduction to these notes is here).  While Structured Notes involve real risks, I have suggested that those trying to put money away safely with a long horizon can pick up yield by placing some small part of their assets in these Notes.

In this recent article, I discussed a JP Morgan Chase issue that was tied to the spread between the 30 year Constant Maturity Swap (CMS) and the 2 year CMS.   The instrument, which is now fully syndicated, pays the 30 year rate minus the 2 year rate times 4 to a maximum of 9% annually, provided the S&P stays above certain benchmarked levels.

This new Citibank offering is similar, except it is tied to the 5 year CMS instead of the 2 year.   The Note, which is callable, pays 10% in the first year and then in years 2 through 15 pays four times the 30 year CMS rate minus the 5 year CMS rate to a maximum of 10%.   Determination of applicable rates is based on a measurement date 2 business days before the quarterly pay date, and the Note pays nothing if the 5 year CMS rate is greater than the 30 year CMS rate on that measurement date.

I was somewhat enthusiastic about the JP Morgan Structured Note and actually took a small position in it.   The Citibank Note will be more interesting to some as it has certain advantages over the JP Morgan issue.  In particular, I discussed the large risk associated with the payment condition set in the JP Morgan Note that the S&P index not fall by more than 25%.  The Citibank Note does not have this S&P contingency; it is entirely based on the CMS spread.   It also pays 10% in the first year and can pay up to 10% in subsequent years.  Earning 10% on your money is obviously more attractive than 9%.

I personally am not sanguine and would not recommend buying these Citi Notes for three reasons.  First, unlike the JP Morgan Notes, this Note is callable after the first year.  On an illiquid 15 year note, a call feature creates tremendous disparity between the buyer and the seller/issuer.   The seller, Citibank here, has the option to call it quits at any given quarter if the spread is not moving in their favor.  Second, I am more concerned especially when I look out over a 15 year horizon at the spread between 30 year and 5 year interest rates (as reflected in CMS), than I am about the spread between 30 year and 2 year rates.  (I will however admit that charting the rate for the last 15 years shows that the risk has not been dramatically greater.)  Third, Citibank is less credit worthy than JP Morgan, and would be more vulnerable in the event of another banking crisis in the next 15 years.

Rate Comparison

While I wouldn’t recommend this instrument, those interested in this note can find it listed under CUSIP 1730T0A82 and ISIN US1730T0A821.


How Much Cash Should Retirees Hold?

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There is a lot of information available on how much of a retirees portfolio should include of stocks and bonds but when it comes to cash, the information is almost non-existent (for the purpose of this article, I am defining cash as money held in a bank or credit union and covered by FDIC or NCUA insurance). Interested, I went in search of answers and found some good advice that can guide any retiree when thinking about the cash component of their saving and investing plan.

Several months ago I wrote an article providing some guidelines on how much of a person's assets should be in cash. After writing the article, I began to ponder the question in even greater detail, especially as it relates to retirees. 

There is a lot of information available on how much of a retiree's portfolio should be comprised of stocks and bonds, but when it comes to cash, the information is almost non-existent (for the purpose of this article, I am defining cash as money held in a bank or credit union and covered by FDIC or NCUA insurance). Interested in learning more, I found some good advice that can guide any retiree when thinking about the cash component of their saving and investing plan.

I first spoke with Phil Demuth, a frequently consulted investment advisor to high net worth individuals. He is a contributor to Forbes and is the founder of Conservative Wealth Management LLC. In Phil's opinion, cash has two functions:

One, it allows holders peace of mind and the ability to sleep soundly. This is especially true in difficult economic times (think back to 2008). Two, cash provides individuals with flexibility so that they do not need to sell volatile assets when prices drop and they can maintain liquidity in a bear market. Cash also allows individuals to take advantage of buying opportunities when the market is down. Individuals with lots of cash do not need to panic in hard times. 

The downside of cash is the opportunity cost. Money invested in an FDIC insured account paying 1% APY is losing ground when the stock market goes up 10% or more in a year. Several other investment advisors I spoke with didn't like the idea of including cash in a retirement portfolio. David Houle, CFA from Seasons Investments stated that: 

 "In my opinion there's very little reason to hold cash in a retirement portfolio, especially given the low yields to be had on cash holdings. What's implied by the term "portfolio" is that it's the pool of savings that have been set aside to be invested for capital gain and income. That money, in general, should remain fully invested in assets that are going to generate a return. There are periods of time where one might want to hold cash temporarily for tactical reasons, but this is different than carving out a permanent allocation dedicated to cash."

 Ilene Davis, a Certified Financial Planner echoed David's comments, saying:

 First, to clarify, what some people consider their "retirement portfolio" are the qualified plans they have. A true retirement portfolio should include anything that is likely to be liquidated to provide funds through the retirement years.

Therefore, instead of focusing on a percentage that should be in cash, I would recommend that the focus be on how many months of expenses, plus emergency fund, should be in cash.

Brian Frederick, a CFP from Stillwater Financial Partners told me that:

The cash portion of a portfolio depends on someone’s age and what their work status is. For people in retirement, I typically like to see one to two years of living expenses held in cash or CD’s as it will provide a risk free source of money if they need to tap into it unexpectedly. For people still working, I encourage them to have 3-6 months of cash set aside for emergencies. Ideally, this would be in a separate bank account but I’ve also had clients do it inside of a Roth IRA if that’s their only money.

He continued to say:

Interest rates fell off a cliff around Thanksgiving 2008. As a result, cash should be viewed more as a safety net than an income producing asset class. The other side of the coin is that it is dangerous to reach for yield by using bonds – bond prices go down when interest rates go up. Most bond funds this year have lost money as a result of interest rates going up in May & June.

So does cash belong in your portfolio or is it just a part of your emergency fund? Unfortunately, there is no one formula to determine how much of an individual's net worth should be held in cash. It depends on how you think about investing and also your own emotional thresholds and risk tolerance.

Almost all of the experts agreed that at a minimum, those in retirement should have at least 3-6 months of living expenses in cash, while many think that 1-3 years is more appropriate.

Lower Risk Tolerance

Beyond this emergency fund, if you believe, as the famous investors Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffet do that cash is king, then you should set some aside to buy low, when everyone else is heading for the exits. This is exactly what Warren Buffet did in 2008, getting bargain prices on Goldman Sachs and other distressed companies and assets. Cash should also be part of your portfolio if you lose sleep every time the market dips. Peace of mind is itself a valuable asset. The percent of your portfolio you hold in cash will depend on the net worth of your assets, your income needs, and a variety of other factors. Mr. Demuth did caution that investing in bonds is not a substitute for cash. While some short duration, high quality bonds may approach cash in their risk profile, bonds can lose value and some can even default.

Higher Risk Tolerance

If you believe that markets will not crash during your retirement, market volatility does not bother you, you have enough wealth to weather a potential loss in assets, or you want to get the highest yield on your assets, then you should limit your cash to an emergency fund to cover living expenses for a certain period of time.

A qualified investment advisor will be able to listen to your need and design a suitable portfolio.

For the cash that you do hold, make sure you are maximizing its return by getting the best possible rate. BestCashCow's rate tables provide the most competitive rates on savings, CDs, and other FDIC insured or NCUA insured bank and credit union accounts.

You can also use our Savings Booster Calculator to see how much extra income you can earn by switching to a high yield FDIC account.


Bank Saver Update - Impact of Shutdown on Deposit Rates

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Short term CD and online savings accounts continue to fall while longer-term CD rates continue their climb, even in the face of the budget standoff and threat of default. The rise in longer-term rates is good news and shows that bankers expect rates to continue to rise and consumers are demanding more yield to lock their money up for an extended period of time.

From one month ago, 12 month average CD rates decreased by two basis point from 0.351 to 0.349% APY. After increasing before the budget battle, average 3 year CD rates dropped from 0.715 to .714% APY. Five year average CDs continued their march upward, moving from 1.073% to 1.079% APY, up from their low of 1.049% APY in June. The biggest loser over the past month have been online savings account average rates, which fell from 0.681% to 0.664% APY. Online savings accounts have been the bright spot of the last couple of years, retaining relatively high rates even while CD rates crashed. Short term savings vehicles like online savings accounts and one year CDs continue to fall, showing that in the short-term, banks believe rates will stay low.

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The chart below shows the trend in average rates since October 2012.

Top Rate Recap

During this period, top savings and CD rates stayed pretty much status quo.

  • Online Savings: GE Capital Bank retains the top spot at 0.90% APY.
  • 1 Year CD: Nationwide Bank holds the top spot at 1.06% APY with a $100,000 minimum balance. GE Capital Bank is right below it with a 1.05% APY rate and a smaller $500 minimum balance.
  • 3 Year CD: Pentagon Federal Credit Union has taken the top spot with a 1.51% APY CD. Last month, the best rate was 1.50% APY from Salem Five Direct.
  • 5 Year CD: iGoBanking.com continues to offer a 2.05% APY CD.
  • Rewards Checking: Hope Credit Union and Money One Federal Credit Union both have the top rewards checking rate of 3.01% APY for balances up to $10,000. Both credit unions are open to members from across the country.

It's possible to find even better rates at local banks and credit unions (especially for CDs). You can search for better local rates here.

Online Saving and CD Spread

The difference between average 1 year CD rates and average online savings rates continued to decline from the high it achieved in May 2013. On average, online savings account rates pay 0.315 percentage points more than 1 year CDs, up from 0.23 percentage points more at the beginning of last year but down from the spread's high of 0.344 percentage points in May. In addition to paying more than 1 year CDs, online savings rates pay almost the same as 3 year CDs. Despite the fact that online savings rates have lost some ground to 1 year and 3 year CDs, in a rising rate environment, it makes more sense to stay liquid with an online savings account than to lock money into a low rate CD. If the spread declines dramatically then this may be worth revisiting.

General rate environment

As I wrote on the eve of the government shutdown:

"The shutdown provides another tailwind to an economic recover, slowing the economy, and depressing both deposit and borrowing rates. The longer the shutdown, the stronger this tailwind."

Consumer confidence took a significant hit from the government's, with the guage taking its most significant downturn since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Standard and Poor estimated that the shutdown cost the United States $23 billion. The combination of the drop in consumer confidence and the hit to the economy have slowed growth. All of this serves to prolong the Fed's bond buying and the low interest rate environment we are currently in.

In the past, I've identified 4 factors that will impact the timing and scope of interest rate increases:

  • Government & Taxes
  • Europe's economic future
  • Technology
  • General economic baselines (this encompasses consumer confidence)

Any of these can contribute or subtract from growth. Right now, government policies and employment are acting as a drag on the economy.

Still, despite this bump in the road, all signs point to the economy gaining momentum through the end of this year and into next year. I do believe that this economic upturn is real and that rates will continue to slowly rise from this point (even though the Federal government is doing its best to botch the recovery).

So if we look at the scorecard:

  • Taxes & Government: Increasing - drag on growth. Negative
  • U.S. economic growth: Slow to moderate. A protracted fight on the debt ceiling has hit growth and lowered rates. While this was improving last month this month we'll call it: Neutral.
  • Europe and the world: Europe leaving recession; Japan strong growth; developed world slowing but still growing. Overall, world picture is improving. Positive
  • Technology: Gas prices at the pump coming down and plentry of natural gas for the cold winter months due to fracking and other extraction innovations. Slightly Positive.

My outlook: The government shutdown and default embroglio have taken some wind out of the economies sales. Still, as long as the politicos are not back at it in 3 months the damange should be relatively short. Short term rates will continue to fall for a bit longer even as longer term rates continue to rise. The Fed will increase the Federal Funds rate within the next 14 months. Savings rates will hover in the 2-3% range by the end of next year.

Savings Accounts or CDs?

The data continues to show that opening a savings account is a better bet than a 1-3 year term CD and I expect this to hold through 2013. Online savings accounts have held the line over the past year and even though CD rates have stabilized and ticked up, the premium is still not enough to jusity locking the money away. While the premium for opening a 5 year CD over a 1 year CD has increased over the past six weeks, it is still only at 0.722 versus over 1 percentage point in October 2011. In a rising rate environment, it does not make sense to tie up money for 5 years with only a 30 basis premium.

Is it worth it to go long and open a 5 year? I don't think so any more. I think the 5 year CD rates are just too low and that you'd be better off putting your "safe" money into an online savings account and waiting for rates to rise. I spoke to one banker several weeks ago who said that "no one was investing in long-term CDs." Keep your powder dry.

For money you want to keep liquid, go with online savings accounts. They offer better rates than 1-3 year CDs and athough several banks have dropped rates in the past month, they have still offered decent rate stability over the past year and a half.

Make the best of a tough savings situation in 2013

Yields may be low in 2013 but a savvy saver can boost the return with no increase in rate by rate shopping. By shopping around, a saver can earn an extra half to full percentage point. On $100,000, that's $1,000 in extra cash per year. Remember, even in today's environment, there is competition for your cash.

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JP Morgan Chase Instrument Offers 9% Interest for 15 Years If The Stock Market Does Not Fall and The Yield Curve Keeps Its Slope

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JP Morgan Chase is currently syndicating what may be its most interesting Structured Note offering in years.

I have written about Structured Notes extensively on BestCashCow.com (most recently here; an introduction to and overview of Structured Notes is provided here).  These Notes are effectively bonds issued by the largest US banks (JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citibank), and are not FDIC insured.  They can offer investors a yield well above and beyond rates that might otherwise be accessible.   But, in return for the high yields, investors have to accept kill provisions that could result in interest not being paid for long periods (even the life of the bond).   Investors obviously are also taking on significant risks associated with the credit of the issuer, prepayment or call risk, and the risk of investing in an instrument that has no secondary market (no liquidity).

Risks associated with Structured Notes ordinarily outweigh the upside that the issuing bank is offering; it is rare to find notes that are very compelling.  I have found that most notes tied to equities or baskets of equities offer hedge fund-like risk without commensurate return.  I also caution investors to avoid any structured notes tied to exchange rate risk (I personally invested a small amount of money in a Morgan Stanley issued structured note tied to the Brazilian Real a couple of years ago, only to have exchange rates move in a manner that has left my money tied up and earning 1.00% until the note becomes due in 2016).

For this reason, it is particularly rare that I find a Structured Note that interests me, and that happened with a recent JP Morgan offering.  The offering is a 15- year instrument which is not callable by the bank.  It pays 9% in year one and then in years 2 through 15, pays the spread between the 30 year and 2 year Constant Maturity Swap (CMS) times a factor 4, but no more than 9% annualized.  The Note also has a kill provision stating that it will not pay interest for any day in the previous quarterly period during which the S&P 500 traded below 25% of the S&P level on the day of pricing (e.g., were the S&P 500 at 1700 on the pricing date, that level would be set at 1225).

The Constant Maturity Swap (CMS), quoted on Reuters or Bloomberg, is essentially the rate at which banks trade with one another and matches the US Treasury rate very closely.  A 2 year CMS is currently at 0.48% and a 30 year CMS at 3.50%.  Provided that the spread continues to remain above 2.25% on each quarterly measurement date, the Note will continue to yield 9% annually (provided, of course, that the S&P kill provision is not met).  It the spread is some number below 2.25%, the Note will pay an amount four times that spread.  If the spread goes to 0 or if the 2 year CMS rises above the 30 year CMS (i.e., the yield becomes inverted), the Notes will pay nothing for that quarter.

A chart of the 2 and 30 year CMS spread for the last fifteen years indicates that there have been long periods when the spread has been less than 2.25%, during the 2000-2001 recession, between 2005 and 2008, and again in 2011 and 2012.  In fact, the spread narrowed to 0 and was briefly inverted in 2000 and again in 2006.  Nevertheless, as one looks out over the next 15 years,  it would not be unreasonable to believe that while there may be quarterly interest payments over the life of the Note that are lower than 9% or even missed as a result of a narrow spread, the yield curve ordinarily has and holds a slope. 

It, therefore, strikes me that the greater risk associated with these Notes is that the S&P will fall by more than 25% at some period shortly after the Notes are issued and remain there for many years.  Unlike a dividend paying stock which still pays a dividend after a large fall, this instrument basically becomes dead money after a market fall until either the market recovers or maturity is reached.  Since maturity is 15 years away and since the Notes are illiquid, investors could be sitting on this asset waiting for their money for a long period of time.

 Investors need to decide for themselves whether a Structured Note like this one is appropriate for their portfolio.  The Note described above is accessible at CUSIP No. 48126D7K9.  As with any Structured Note, you should carefully read the prospectus and fully assess the associated risks for yourself.  


Janet Yellen Nomination to Keep Low Rate Policy in Place

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Janet Yellen's nomination to be the Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve means the Fed's low rate policy will remain in place into the future.

The news of the government shutdown and the approaching fiscal cliff have grabbed the headlines from an even more important event this week for savers and borrowers – the nomination of Janet Yellen as the next Chairperson of the Federal Reserve. While current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s specialty revolved around the Great Depression and how to avoid economic calamities, Ms. Yellen’s specialty and research has revolved around the impact of monetary policy on labor markets. A review of her policy speeches shows that she is willing to allow inflation to run up a bit in order to ease unemployment, and thus tends to support a looser monetary policy than some other economists and members of the Federal Reserve. She is quoted as saying: “To me, a wise and humane policy is occasionally to let inflation rise even when inflation is running above target.”

The NY Times has reported that Ms. Yellen helped organize the recent decision to continue the current level of quantitative easing and to include in the Fed’s December announcement that it would tolerate projected inflation at 2.5% in order to reduce the unemployment rate.

In general, Ms. Yellen has voted with Chairman Bernanke most of the time on issues revolving around quantitative easing and she broadly agrees with him on monetary policy. She has also been one of the chief proponents and architects of the Fed’s asset purchases.

Critics say that she is too easy on money and that her views promote asset bubbles, like the Internet, housing, and now potentially foreign markets.  

The bottom line is that savers and borrowers shouldn’t expect to see any major changes in policy when she joins the Fed. She is expected to work to continue to make the Fed more consistent and continue to refine the Fed policymaking process, but her views dovetail closely with Bernanke’s.  If there is to be any change, it might be that she lets quantitative easing run a bit longer than Chairman Bernanke, leading to lower rates for a longer period of time.

The NY Times had a good article summarizing her background and views called Yellen’s Path From Liberal Theorist to Fed Voice for Jobs.