Savings rates have been depressed for years and have dropped further in 2016. The top standard easy-access deal paid 1.65% in Jan: it's now 1.27% - and it's a similar tale on other accounts for new & existing customers. The chief reason cited by many is banks simply don't need your cash as they've enough already.

Whatever the cause, we never thought rates would go so low, and as they’ve dived, EVERYONE should check...

The savings fountain - earn max interest

You may have noticed since April, all interest is paid tax-free. Under the personal savings allowance (PSA) basic-rate taxpayers get £1k/yr interest tax-free (higher rate, £500). Go over, and you pay tax on the difference - full info in our PSA guide. This has changed the logic and dulled the shine of tax-free ISAs a tad - getting the top rate is now the key.

Using our savings fountain below, put money in each level, and when full, overflow to the next to max every penny. ALL savings mentioned here have the full UK £75,000 savings safety protection unless stated.

Before you start. Repay costly debts and possibly mortgages. £1,000 on a typical credit card costs £190/yr interest, £1,000 in easy-access savings earns £15/yr - so clear the debt with the savings and you're £175/yr up. Some will think "I need savings in case of emergencies", yet that can be a mistake. See our Should I repay my debt or save? guide for why.

With mortgages, see if your mortgage rate is higher than the potential rate on savings and, if so, consider paying it off instead. See Should I overpay my mortgage or save? for pros & cons and use our Overpayment Calculator to work out the gain.

Level 1: Top tier. Help to Buy ISAs: Up to £3k FREE for first-time buyers. For anyone 16+ who's never owned a home and may want to, these are usually a no-brainer. This is because as well as the interest, you can use it towards a mortgage deposit and 25% is added, up to a max of a free £3k. To get the bonus, the home you buy cannot exceed £250k (£450k in London) - though if you're not planning to buy just yet, you can convert it into a Lifetime ISA next year (the limit's £450k for all). Full FAQs & best buys in Top 3% Help to Buy ISAs.

Level 2: Top for lump sums. Earn 5% now tax-free & easy access via bank accounts. Some offer high in-credit savings rates to entice you - it's the only way to earn decent interest on larger amounts.

- Bigger savers earn 3%: Santander 123* pays 3% AER variable if you've £3,000 to £20,000. It has a £5/mth fee: for most that's easily covered by the up-to-3% cashback if you use it to pay bills, eg, council tax, energy, broadband (pay min £500/mth).

Even without that, and including the fee, it's the top deal if you've £8,600+ saved. Couples can have 3 accounts between them covering £60k (one each & a joint). See my Is Santander 123 worth it? blog. The interest is so good that for higher 40% rate taxpayers, if you max one out you'll be over your PSA limit (so then ISAs below look good).

- Up to 5% for smaller savings: TSB Classic Plus* pays 5% on up to £2,000 and up to £5/mth cashback on contactless card spending; Nationwide FlexDirect* is 5% on a slightly bigger £2,500, but only for a year. Club Lloyds pays 4% on £4,000 to £5,000 (but you need to pay in £1,500/mth). Alternatively check out £150 bank switching bonuses.

- Can anyone get these accounts? You usually need to pass a credit check, meet monthly min pay-ins & set up two direct debits. Full info incl eligibility criteria in Best Bank Accounts.

Level 3: Top for monthly savings. Earn up to 6% with regular savings accounts. These pay high interest but only on small sums, generally for a short time and you often must meet min & max monthly deposits. They're great for, er, saving regularly, but you can also trickle lump sums in.

- The top payers are 'bank-linked':
So you need a specific current account to open them - luckily they tend to be best buys. First Direct gives £100 to switchers and is no.1 for customer service (you need to pay in £1,000/mth or there's a fee) and it has a linked regular saver letting you save up to £300 a month at 6% AER fixed.

Other top payers include M&S Bank and HSBC, which also offer switching bribes, plus most of the 'Level 2' accounts above have linked regular savers paying 4%+.

- Anyone can earn 3.05%:
The top non-linked account is Leeds BS Regular Saver at 3.05% AER variable, if you pay in £50 to £250 every month. Full info in Top Regular Savings Accounts.

Get up to 6% savings interest TAX-FREE
Get up to 6% savings interest TAX-FREE

Level 4: Only for bigger savers. £15,240 cash ISA allowance - 1.7% tax-free. A cash ISA is just a savings account that's always tax-free. You've a £15,240 annual allowance and, crucially, interest from this doesn't count towards the PSA limit - so it's good if you'll earn more.

Full best buys in Top Cash ISAs, briefly...

- Top easy-access ISAs:
If you want to withdraw any time, Coventry BS is 1.3% AER variable for new money only. To transfer in poorly-paying old ISAs, M&S Bank also pays 1.3% AER variable, but the rate is dropping to 1.1% in July, or Virgin Money pays 1.26% AER variable though only allows three withdrawals per year.

- Earn more in fixed ISAs: Here the rate's fixed. You're supposed to lock cash away, but unlike normal savings fixes, they have to allow you early access to your cash, yet can charge you a fee. The Clydesdale Bank 1yr fix is 1.35%, Virgin Money 2yr is 1.4% and Shawbrook Bank 3yr is 1.7%.

PS: If you've kids, don't forget about the £4,080 Junior ISA or Child Trust Fund allowance. Click the links for full help and info.

Level 5: If you can lock cash away. Earn up to 2.45% in fixed-rate savings. These pay more than normal savings, & the rate is certain, but you can't withdraw early. Full help & best buys in Top Fixed-Rate Savings, in brief...

- The top straightforward fixes:
Top 1yr is Charter Savings' 1.79% AER (min £1k), Charter Savings is 1.91% for 2yrs (min £1k) and Union Bank of India UK is 2.15% for 3yrs (min £1,000).

- Earn more (probably) in top sharia banking fix:
Al Rayan Bank pays 1.76% over 18mths and 2.02% over 2yrs. We say 'probably' as Islam bars interest, so it's an 'expected profit rate'. It has always fully paid out, but by definition isn't certain. Not a bad option - anyone can open it.

- Earn more but not UK-protected:
Fidor Bank pays 1.8% for 1yr, 2.2% for 2yrs and 2.45% for 3yrs, but it's German-protected to a similar amount (up to €100,000, about £77,000). So in the unlikely event it went bust, you need to consider that you're reliant on the German govt to bail you out.

Level 6: Top normal savings. Earn up to 1.45% easy access. The most flexible savings, allowing big amounts and withdrawals whenever you need. Rates are variable, so once you get 'em, keep an eye on 'em. Full best buys in Top Savings.

- Top straightforward deal:
Tesco Bank pays 1.27% (min £1) and allows unlimited penalty-free withdrawals a year, or Virgin Money pays 1.26% (min £1), though to get that rate you can only make three withdrawals/yr.

- Earn more but not UK-protected: RCI Bank, at 1.45% easy access with unlimited withdrawals, tops many best-buy tables, but it's French-protected (up to €100,000). So in the unlikely event it went bust, consider that you're reliant on the French govt to bail you out. Not necessarily a problem, but worth knowing.

This article first appeared in the weekly email on 22 June 2016. Its contents were fact-checked and products updated on 28 June 2016.