Are they worth it?
Line up everyone with £1,000 worth of Premium Bonds in order of their year's winnings, and the person halfway along would have won… not a penny! In fact, you'd need to walk past almost two-thirds of the line until you hit the first £25 winner.
Premium Bonds are the UK's biggest savings product, with around 22 million people saving more than £86 BILLION in them. Yet with a low Premium Bonds rate – and the fact savings interest is now tax-free for most – have they lost their lustre? MoneySavingExpert.com's Martin Lewis uses exclusive statistical analysis to tackle the big question – are Premium Bonds worth it?
Premium Bond rate cut cancelled
On 18 February 2020, National Savings & Investments (NS&I) announced the Premium Bond prize rate was to be cut from 1.4% to 1.3% from May. On 17 April 2020, it cancelled those plans, citing the need to support savers during the coronavirus pandemic. The rate will stay at 1.4% until further notice. For more, read our NS&I reverses rate cut MSE News story.
14 Premium Bond need-to-knows, including...
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What are Premium Bonds?
NS&I Premium Bonds are a savings account you can put money into (and take out when you want), where the interest paid is decided by a monthly prize draw. You buy £1 bonds and each has an equal chance of winning, so the more you buy, the more your chances improve.
- Minimum purchase amount: £25 for one-off purchases and monthly standing orders.
- Maximum amount you can hold: £50,000.
- Age limit: Over 16 to buy them; under that age they may be held in the name of under-16s by parents or guardians. Anyone can now buy Premium Bonds for under-16s, then nominate the child's parent or guardian to hold them.
NS&I sexes up the draw by personifying its IT equipment; it calls it Ernie (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment). In reality it's a simple, audited, random number generator.
The distribution of prizes changes each month. Below is a table of the typical current distribution:
£1 million 2 1 in 43,215,118,377 £100,000 6 1 in 10,803,846,126 £50,000 12 1 in 4,321,543,586 £25,000 25 1 in 1,920,686,776 £10,000 61 1 in 815,386,008 £5,000 121 1 in 380,752,939 £1,000 2,017 1 in 38,516,454 £500 6,051 1 in 10,419,642 £100 27,661 1 in 2,403,797 £50 27,661 1 in 1,358,614 £25 3,464,177 1 in 24,500 £0 86,427,399,147 Virtual certainty
No. This is an urban myth. Every bond has an equal chance of winning, no matter where or when it was bought. My suspicion of why people think this is because it used to be possible just to buy a £1 bond; now the minimum is £25 (and until Feb 2019 was £100). So people who have bought more recently tend to have more bonds which means they will tend to win more often.
In general, you need to hold the bonds for a full month before they're eligible to win. So, buy bonds any time in January and they'll be in the draw from March. So, if you're moving money over from other savings, it's best to do it in the last week of the month, as that way you minimise the time the money's not earning interest and also not in a draw for Premium Bonds.
The exception to this is if you reinvest your prizes – these bonds will be in the draw from the month after you win. So, let's say you won £25 in January and had reinvesting set up – the new £25 worth of bonds would be in February's draw.
They continue to be eligible until you cash them in, which can be at any time, though it can take up to eight working days to get your cash.
The interest is tax-free – that used to be a big boon, but isn't anymore
Premium Bond prizes (the interest) are paid tax-free. However for most people that's no longer a bonus.
In April 2016 the personal savings allowance (PSA) launched. It means all savings interest is automatically paid tax-free and you'll only need to pay tax on it if you're a basic 20% rate taxpayer earning more than £1,000 interest a year, a higher 40% rate taxpayer earning more than £500 interest a year, or a top 45% rate taxpayer.
In practice this means more than 95% of people no longer pay any tax on their savings interest – and for those people Premium Bonds therefore no longer have a tax advantage.
For those who will pay tax, there is a decent advantage of Premium Bonds as prizes do not count towards the PSA, so it's almost an extra allowance in its own right (assuming you win something, of course).
The prize rate is 1.4%, but with average luck you won't even earn that
The nearest thing Premium Bonds have to an interest rate is their annual prize rate, which is currently 1.4%. The interest rate describes the "average" payout, but it is just a vague watermark.
It describes the 'mean' average, indicating that for every £100 paid in to bonds, on average £1.40 a year is paid out – yet in practice this is impossible, as the smallest prize is £25. In fact the Premium Bond Probability Calculator shows if 20 people each had £100 invested, for one to win £25-plus, the remaining 19 would have to win nothing.
A far better indication of what someone with typical luck would win is the 'the person halfway along' measure. Those who can dredge up their school maths will remember this is called the median.
Why the Premium Bond prize rate isn't what you'll win
To show you why using the 'mean' average isn't a good description of what most people will win, let me use an extreme example…
Imagine I sold a million people a £1 lottery ticket, and then paid just one winner a million pounds.
I could argue, mathematically, that the average (mean) payout was £1, so on average everyone got their money back. This, of course, is bonkers.
Almost everyone wins nothing – which is the median average – as if you lined them all up and asked, the midway person would've won nowt.
So to really see average luck you need to focus on this 'median' average returns figure. And for the rest of this guide whenever I refer to average luck, that's what I mean..
With Premium Bonds, for every person who wins £1 million a lot of people have to win nothing. So the median average will always be lower than the mean average.
£100 Nothing 19 in 20 people win nowt £1,000 Nothing 3 in 5 people win nowt £15,500 £200 1 in 1,982 win nowt £31,000 £400 1 in 3,929,363 win nowt
Yet as you can see the more bonds you have, the more likely you are, with average luck, to win closer to the prize rate – though most people will always win less than it.
Unless you're a stats nerd, avoid this answer, it's going to get tricky.
Doing this table was actually incredibly hard. Even the Premium Bond Probability Calculator doesn't automatically show exact median winnings. So to be accurate I had to pick amounts where I had a high degree of confidence in the right answer. Hence picking £15,500 and £31,000, rather than more rounded amounts.
In general, the more you have, the closer to the prize fund your median return is. But exactly at what amount the median hits is lumpy because it jumps at £25 a time, so vagaries of the statistics mean it doesn't rise in a purely linear way. (If you don't get this, use the calculator for different amounts and see where the 50% mark is likely to be.)
As NS&I is Government-owned, savings there are as safe as it gets, but these days almost all UK savings are protected anyway
With Premium Bonds there is no risk to your capital – so the money you put in is totally safe – it is only the 'interest' that is a gamble. And as Premium Bonds are operated by NS&I which, rather than being a bank, is backed by the Treasury, this capital is as safe as it gets.
This safety used to be a big boon because you didn't get the same protection with other savings. However, under the savings safety rules all UK-regulated savings accounts are now protected up to £85,000 per person, per institution by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme – and the maximum you can put in Premium Bonds is £50,000.
Technically yes as there is one difference. As NS&I is owned by the Government it simply won't go bust. Well, unless the Government itself goes bust that is, in which case we will have bigger problems.
Other savings institutions may go bust, and if this happened, if no rescue measures succeeded, in that extreme event you'd have to claim back your capital and interest from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS).
The FSCS scheme aims to usually pay out on savings within seven days. So, yes, arguably there are tiny benefits on safety from NS&I as it should never go bust, therefore there could never be a situation where you have to wait to get your money as there could be for a few days with other savings – though, ironically, you can wait up to eight days to get your cash out of Premium Bonds.
Use the unique Premium Bonds Calculator to work out what you're likely to win and whether you're likely to beat savings
On the surface, Premium Bonds don't look complex. NS&I happily lists the chance of one bond winning a prize in a month (1 in 24,500) on its website.
Yet to accurately calculate the odds of winning certain prize levels, you need to use something called "multinomial probability". After all, to work out the chance of someone winning £200 a year, they could win 2 x £100, 8 x £25, 4 x £50, or a host of other variants. This multitude of probabilities means accurate calculation is hellish.
Back in 2012 I set myself a challenge to do it. I failed. I got one of my team with a top maths degree to try. He failed. We contacted a London School of Economics professor of financial mathematics – she knew how to work it out, but she needed a specialist to do it for her.
Eventually we tracked down a post-doctoral cosmology statistician (someone who calculates star movements) who had the requisite probability skills, and he wrote us an algorithm to build the Premium Bonds Calculator.
This allows you to plug in how many bonds you have, and it will predict your likely winnings and compare them with savings. It proves that at every value someone with typical luck will earn less than the quoted prize rate.
The odds in the calculator are based on the prize distribution for the most recent draw; it does change slightly each month. So even with all the great maths, even this should only be seen as a very good estimate.
If you won't earn over the personal savings allowance and have average luck, Premium Bonds are unlikely to beat top savings, unless you've a large amount to save in them
The personal savings allowance means that basic-rate taxpayers can earn £1,000 of interest a year tax-free (£500 for higher-rate taxpayers, nothing for additional-rate taxpayers).
So that makes the Premium Bond rate very easy to compare with other savings (rates correct at February 2020). Let's start by simply using the prize fund rate of 1.4%.
- Premium Bond rate: 1.4%
- Top easy-access normal savings: 1.2%
- Top easy-access cash ISA: 1.25%
- Top two-year fixed savings: 1.65%
- Top two-year fixed cash ISA: 1.48%
The Premium Bond rate is lower than the top easy-access rate, so your question should be: "Should I move cash to Premium Bonds or top savings?"
Let's stick with the prize rate for now (even though in practical terms it is almost impossible to win some of these amounts) and see how it compares in real terms with the best on the market.
Premium Bonds (1) £14 £70 £280 Top savings £12 £60 £240 Top easy-access ISA £12.50 £62.50 £250 Two-year fixed savings £16.50 £82.50 £330 Two-year fixed ISA £14.80 £74 £296 (1) Someone with average luck is actually likely to win less than this, and the prize distribution means you can't actually win these amounts. Rates correct at April 2020.
As you can see, Premium Bonds can still be beaten even by the current low savings rates, and that's when I exaggerate what they're likely to pay by utilising the prize rate. As I explained earlier, if you have average luck you won't win as much as the 1.4% prize rate, so let's compare the predicted returns using the Premium Bond Probability Calculator.
AMOUNT OF B INTEREST EARNED IN A TOP SAVINGS ACCOUNT Over one year £100 £1.20 5% £1,000 £12 39% £5,000 £60 45% £30,000 £360 55% £50,000 £600 63% (1) Top savings account paying 1.2% interest, it assumes the interest covered by your personal savings allowance up to your limit, and that it is withdrawn, not compounded, as this is how most people use Premium Bonds. Rates correct at April 2020.
When we compare Premium Bonds against simple top standard savings, you're actually more likely to win with savings for lower amounts. Yet for higher amounts in Premium Bonds, you're actually more likely to win close to the prize rate, and therefore Premium Bonds do look a little better – though you'll need to have average luck to beat savings.
The summary is that Premium Bonds can beat normal easy-access savings, but you'll need to have a high amount saved in them, and to have at least average luck. For most, savings are actually still likely to win.
If you will earn interest over the personal savings allowance that you pay tax on, and have average luck, Premium Bonds become a far better bet
As we worked out above, Premium Bonds come into their own for those with larger amounts of savings in them. This is especially true if you're a higher-rate or top-rate taxpayer and pay tax on your savings interest (which assumes you've used up your personal savings allowance). If that's the case, a basic-rate taxpayer only gets 80% of their interest, a higher-rate taxpayer 60% and a top-rate taxpayer 55%.
Yet money made from Premium Bonds, like cash ISAs, is always tax-free and does not count towards the personal savings allowance, so it's almost like an extra allowance.
Let's start by simply using the Premium Bond prize fund rate of 1.4% – even though, as explained already, most people won't win that much.
Premium Bonds (1) 1.4% 1.4% 1.4% 1.4% Top savings 1.2% 0.96% 0.72% 0.66% Top easy-access ISA 1.25% 1.25% 1.25% 1.25% Two-year fixed savings
0.9% Two-year fixed ISA 1.48% 1.48% 1.48% 1.48% (1) Someone with average luck is actually likely to win less than this. Rates correct at April 2020.
Now let's take the analysis up a step, and look at how likely you are to beat top savings with Premium Bonds.
BASIC RATE HIGHER RATE £100 95% chance £0.96 5% £0.72 5% £1,000 61% chance £9.60 39% £7.20 39% £5,000 9% chance £48 71% £36 71% £30,000 1 in 2,407,698 £288 82% £216 96% £50,000 1 in 43,251,734,611 £480 87% £360 99% (1) Top savings account paying 1.2% interest, it assumes the interest isn't covered by your personal savings allowance, and that it is withdrawn, not compounded, as this is how most people use Premium Bonds. Rates correct at April 2020.
So overall, the higher tax band you're in, and the more money you are saving in Premium Bonds, the better a bet they look for you.
Of course you may have better than average luck, but don't bank too hard on winning the jackpot...
All my comparisons with savings products above are based on somebody who has average luck and indeed that is the sensible way to assess this. However it is impossible to ignore the fact that some will have better than average luck, and indeed that does need to be factored in to your decision.
Certainly if there is only a marginal difference in the amount you are likely to earn from savings compared with Premium Bonds, then you can factor in "the chance of winning large" as an additional fringe benefit of Premium Bonds, and it wouldn't be too bad to let that sway your decision marginally.
Equally you may decide that you like a punt, and even if the odds are great, then putting a non-substantial portion of your savings into Premium Bonds isn't too bad an idea. But I would always use the Premium Bonds Calculator first to see what your real chances are.
And you do even have a chance of winning £1 million; then again you could also toss a coin and see it land on its edge.
Your chance of winning the jackpot per ticket on the National Lottery is one in 45 million in a week, far outstripping the one in more than 43 BILLION chance of becoming a millionaire through one single Premium Bond in a month. Of course though, the more bonds you have, the more chance you have of winning.
Plus, bonds are entered into the draw every month, rather than as a one off. Here are your odds of winning the jackpot over a year.
£100 1 in 35,973,177 £1,000 1 in 3,596,632 £5,000 1 in 718,011 £10,000 1 in 358,535 £30,000 1 in 118,769 £50,000 1 in 70,748
The most powerful psychological sell of Premium Bonds is that interest is called winning
This lottery-effect hooks you into the unlikely dream of bagging a million-pound prize.
I often hear excited comments such as: "My friend wins £25 every few months!" Yet someone with £10,000 worth of bonds should win £100+ a year – that's £25 every few months. The same money in the top easy-access savings would "win" £120 a year, guaranteed.
Normally in finance there's a risk premium: you should expect higher returns when there's a higher risk. For some perverse reason, with Premium Bonds, people tend to be happy to earn less when there's a risk.
Even if we go with that, don't just rely on your memory of what you won. The win effect means people remember the good months. Take a look and calculate what you're actually winning to see how it'd compare with top savings – and how good your luck has been.
Premium Bonds are unlikely to beat inflation at the current rate
If you save money anywhere and it doesn't grow as quickly as prices are rising, then in real terms your savings are actually shrinking not growing. Inflation is the measure of prices rising, so if your savings pay more than inflation then they're growing, if not they're shrinking.
Sadly many savings accounts don't beat inflation, and this is also true of Premium Bonds at the moment.
Over one year £100 £1.70 5% £1,000 £17 39% £5,000 £85 12% £30,000 £510 2% £50,000 £850 2%
Most can opt to resave your winnings, so the gain compounds (hopefully)
When you win with Premium Bonds, rather than taking the cash, you can simply arrange for the money to be reinvested (unless you already hold the maximum £50,000). In other words, your winnings will buy more bonds that increases your holding, and therefore increases your chances of winning.
If you are going to put money in Premium Bonds and you don't need the cash, then this is a sensible move, as it is effectively like compound interest in a normal savings account. The hope is you get growth on the growth.
There is more than £65 million in unclaimed Premium Bonds prizes, it only takes a few minutes to check if you're owed…
You can check if any are yours via the NS&I website – there's no time-limit to claims, so you can go back as far as you like.
You'll need your Premium Bond holder's number – just enter this on the website above. You can choose to check the latest draw, the last six months, or any unclaimed prizes.
For full information and other ways to claim if you don't know all your Premium Bond details, see our Unclaimed Premium Bond prizes news story.
Premium Bonds can't be passed on if you die, but what they're worth will be
Premium Bonds can't be passed on. If a Premium Bond holder dies, the bonds only remain eligible to win for 12 months. So the only way to pass them on is to cash them in and then that forms part of the deceased's estate. The executor will need to cash the bonds in to be able to distribute them to the beneficiaries.
However if prizes were won before the 12-month limit, they can still be claimed with no time-limit.
Premium Bonds aren't inheritance tax free, so if the capital tied up in them forms part of the estate and is passed on, they may be taxed (see our inheritance tax guide for when you might need to pay). Plus, with NS&I, you may need to get probate on the estate, if the bond holding is over £5,000, even if it's not needed to release the rest of the estate's assets held with other organisations. For more, see NS&I's guide.
A final thought: are Premium Bonds worth it?
Look at Premium Bonds with a clinical financial eye and they're only a good bet as a serious place to put savings if you're lucky, you have a lot to save in them, or you pay tax on savings interest (we assume here you've already used your cash ISA allocation to save on tax).
Many rates have dropped on the top cash ISAs and normal easy-access savings, so while they guarantee returns, they're not guaranteed to beat the returns you'd get from Premium Bonds. However, if you're looking to store money for the longer term – as many people do with Premium Bonds – then it's likely you'll win with one-year or two-year fixes, currently paying around 1.6%.
Our analysis comparing Premium Bonds with savings above assumes you have average luck, so there'll still be many who don't have this and won't match even with the "average luck" analysis I've used in this guide.
Premium Bonds are all about your mentality. They do protect your cash, so even if the returns don't look a good bet, it's fine to put a non-significant portion of your money in them, provided you're aware it's more for fun than returns. Before deciding, use the calculator to look at the real odds. If you're willing to take the gamble after that, then it's fine.
Many people often think: "I'm likely to get about 1.4% and there's a small chance of winning a million". But the main point is that this isn't correct. You're actually likely to get quite a lot less than 1.4%, and there's a negligible chance of winning a million. If you know and you're OK with this, then investing in Premium Bonds isn't a bad plan.
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