Which Bond Strategy Is Right for You?

June 9, 2023
Choosing between a bond ladder, a barbell, and a bullet should depend on your goals and timeframe. Here's how to decide which individual bond investment strategy may best fit your needs.

Investors turn to bonds to accomplish a variety of financial objectives, which usually include generating income and preserving capital. But not all bond strategies are created equal, and some may be more tailored to your goals than others.

"The way you layer together bonds with varying interest rates and maturities should differ depending on your needs," says Kathy Jones, Schwab's chief fixed income strategist. "There's no one-size-fits-all strategy."

Goal: Generate predictable income

Solution: Bond ladder

A bond ladder is a portfolio of individual bonds with staggered maturity dates—say, from one to 10 years. Barring default, if you hold each bond to maturity you'll receive regular interest payments over the life of the bond (typically every six months), plus the repayment of your principal at maturity.

Buying longer-term bonds can mean missing out if interest rates rise, but because bonds in a ladder generally mature every year or two—and you typically reinvest the proceeds to keep the ladder going—you continuously capture prevailing rates.

It's important to consider a bond's credit quality when building your ladder. Lower-rated bonds, like high-yield bonds, have a greater likelihood of default, which could undermine your ability to generate steady income and preserve your investment capital.

"A bond ladder is a good all-weather strategy," says Collin Martin, CFA®, a director and fixed income strategist at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "If rates are rising, you lock in higher yields as bonds mature; if rates are falling, you benefit from the longer-term bonds purchased when rates were higher."

That said, there are two significant drawbacks to building a bond ladder:

  • Startup costs: Schwab recommends holding bonds from at least 10 issuers to achieve adequate diversification. Prices of individual bonds vary, but it's generally recommended that investors have at least $100,000 on hand to create a ladder.
  • Time: Vetting bonds, particularly corporate and municipal issues, can be a significant time commitment—especially when establishing your bond ladder. What's more, ladders require regular research as you seek to replace maturing bonds.

How to build a bond ladder

Purchase bonds of varying lengths that mature at regular intervals—say, every year. As each bond matures, you can keep the ladder going by reinvesting the proceeds in a new bond with the longest maturity in your ladder.

A five-rung bond ladder. Bond A with a 2.5% interest rate, matures in one year; Bond B, 2.75% in two; Bond C, 2.25% in three; Bond D, 3.25% in four; Bond E, 3% in five. When Bond A matures, replace it with Bond F, a 3.5%, 5-year bond.

The examples above are hypothetical and provided for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

  • With Schwab's CD & Treasury Ladder Builder tool (schwab.com/ladder-tool), you can build your own ladder composed of certificates of deposit, Treasury bonds, or both.
  • With Schwab's Wasmer Schroeder™ Strategies, you can get a professionally managed bond ladder of taxable or tax-exempt bonds. Learn more at schwab.com/wasmer-schroeder/bond-ladders.
  • With Schwab's CD & Treasury Ladder Builder tool (schwab.com/ladder-tool), you can build your own ladder composed of certificates of deposit, Treasury bonds, or both.
  • With Schwab's Wasmer Schroeder™ Strategies, you can get a professionally managed bond ladder of taxable or tax-exempt bonds. Learn more at schwab.com/wasmer-schroeder/bond-ladders.

Goal: Capture rising rates

Solution: Barbell

Like a ladder, a barbell strategy involves purchasing bonds with different maturity dates. However, a barbell focuses exclusively on short- and longer-term bonds—and avoids medium-term bonds entirely. While bonds with longer maturities tend to offer higher yields, shortening your bond maturities generally reduces income and interest-rate risk.

"A barbell is more of a tactical strategy for a rising-rate environment," Collin says. That's because short-term bonds (those with less than three years to maturity) frequently free up cash to reinvest as rates continue to rise, while longer-term bonds (those with seven to 10 years to maturity) generally pay higher rates to compensate investors for locking up their principal for longer. 

This strategy may make less sense as the Federal Reserve pulls back on its recent schedule of relatively aggressive rate hikes. "Once interest rates start falling again, investors utilizing a barbell approach may wish to shift more of their maturing principal back toward longer-term bonds, similar to a traditional bond ladder," Collin says.

How to build a barbell

Purchase bonds that mature in the next three months to three years, along with those that mature in the next seven to 10 years. As the short-term bonds mature, you can either reinvest the proceeds in new short-term bonds (if you believe rates will continue to rise) or shift to longer-term bonds (if you believe rates have stabilized or will soon fall).

A bond barbell consisting of short-term bonds, maturing in six months to three years, and long-term bonds, maturing in seven years to 10 years—all with varying interest rates. No bonds mature in four to six years.

The examples above are hypothetical and provided for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

For help assembling a barbell for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

For help assembling a barbell for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

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For help assembling a barbell for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

Goal: Save for a near-term expense

Solution: Bullet

Unlike ladders or barbells, a bullet doesn't rely on multiple maturity dates. In fact, the goal is to purchase multiple bonds that all mature around the same time to generate a large influx of cash.

For example, say you plan to buy a house in five years. Instead of putting the money for your down payment in a savings account—whose interest rate might be relatively high now but isn't fixed—you can generate predictable income from bonds set to mature around the time you'll need the money.

With a relatively shorter timeline, investors may be tempted to take on riskier bonds in the chase for better yields. However, bonds from issuers with strong credit ratings are most appropriate for this goal. "If you're using a bullet strategy as a short-term planning tool, you won't want to run the risk of default," Collin says.

How to build a bullet

Purchase a handful of bonds that mature when you need the money, say in five years. Depending on the interest-rate environment and the amount of cash you have to invest, you may choose to purchase the bonds all at once or at staggered intervals between now and your maturity date.

A bond bullet strategy with five bonds of varying lengths that mature at the same target date: Bond A, 5-year bond at 4.5%; Bond B, 3-year bond at 3.75%; Bonds C and D, 2-year bonds at 3.5% and Bond E, 1-year bond at 3.25%.

The examples above are hypothetical and provided for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

For help assembling a bullet for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

For help assembling a bullet for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

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For help assembling a bullet for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

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For help assembling a bullet for your needs, contact your Schwab financial consultant or call a Schwab fixed income specialist at 877-903-8069.

Mix and match

Choosing individual bonds takes work, but it gives investors the greatest control over their cash flow and exposure to credit risk. Of course, some investors simply don't have the time or interest in managing a portfolio of bonds, in which case a bond fund—which holds dozens or hundreds of bonds with varying maturities, coupon payments, and credit ratings—can be a good alternative.

"Bond funds don't offer as much control over your cash flow or interest-rate exposure, nor is your principal investment guaranteed as it is with individual bonds, assuming you hold such bonds to maturity and barring default," Kathy says. "However, they can be a great fit for investors looking for diversification and regular, albeit sometimes unpredictable, income."

The Schwab Mutual Fund OneSource Select List® can help you screen quality funds that match your risk tolerance and investment time horizon. Learn more at schwab.com/selectlist.

The Schwab Mutual Fund OneSource Select List® can help you screen quality funds that match your risk tolerance and investment time horizon. Learn more at schwab.com/selectlist.

"In some cases, a combination of strategies can offer the best of both worlds," Collin adds. "For example, you might invest in a bond fund for diversification but also create a bullet for a near-term expense." Whichever strategy you choose, working with a bond professional can help you navigate the vast bond market and vet individual issuers.

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Investors should consider carefully information contained in the prospectus or, if available, the summary prospectus, including investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. Please read it carefully before investing.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates. Fixed income investments are subject to various other risks, including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications, and other factors. Lower-rated securities are subject to greater credit risk, default risk, and liquidity risk.

A bond ladder, depending on the types and amount of securities within the ladder, may not ensure adequate diversification of your investment portfolio. This potential lack of diversification may result in heightened volatility of the value of your portfolio. As compared to other fixed income products and strategies, engaging in a bond ladder strategy may potentially result in future reinvestment at lower interest rates and may necessitate higher minimum investments to maintain cost-effectiveness. Evaluate whether a bond ladder and the securities held within it are consistent with your investment objective, risk tolerance, and financial circumstances.

Diversification strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.

Portfolio Management for the Wasmer Schroeder Strategies is provided by Charles Schwab Investment Management, Inc., dba Schwab Asset Management™, a registered investment advisor and an affiliate of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (Schwab). Both Schwab Asset Management and Schwab are separate entities and subsidiaries of The Charles Schwab Corporation. Please refer to the Charles Schwab Investment Management, Inc., Disclosure Brochure for additional information.

Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.

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