SEVEN TAX-EFFICIENT FINANCIAL SERVICES IN THE POST OFFICE
Priya Kapoor, ET Bureau
When was the last time you visited a post office branch? It's been over a decade that the e-mail replaced the written word, so there's no need to buy stamps, envelopes or inland letters. Besides, thousands of private couriers have mushroomed in the past 15-20 years, giving stiff competition to speed post & parcel. But you should because the bouquet of services offered by India Post has some very interesting and cost-effective products. ET Wealth looks at the financial services that can be availed of at a post office branch and how these compare with similar products from other organisations.
The interest your balance earns in a regular savings account with a bank is taxable. But if you open a savings account in a post office, the interest is tax-free. If you maintain an average balance of Rs 50,000 in your bank account, you would earn roughly Rs 2,000 as interest income in a year. In the highest tax bracket, the taxman will shave off 30% (or Rs 600) from this income, leaving you with only Rs 1,400. However, if it is a postal savings bank account, the interest earned is tax-free. There is, of course, a ceiling of Rs 3,500 per account on this exemption in a year. In case of joint accounts, the ceiling is higher at Rs 7,000 a year. But this is a reasonable limit because very few people would keep more than Rs 1 lakh in their savings account.
There are other benefits of opening a postal savings account. You don't have to lock up Rs 5,000-10,000 in maintaining an average quarterly balance. The post office does not mind if you have emptied out your account as long as you leave Rs 500 as balance. This low-ticket convenience works in case of recurring deposits as well. If you open a recurring deposit with a bank, the minimum monthly deposit is Rs 500. In the post office, the monthly contribution can be as low as Rs 10, making it an ideal option to start your child on the savings habit. The 7.5% interest is compounded quarterly and compares well with what banks offer. The only hitch is that the post office deposit is for a minimum of five years. However, you can withdraw 50% of the balance after one year.
Even so, the very mention of the post office conjures images of a stodgy organisation with long queues and obdurate babus filling up pass books manually. That's true to a certain extent, but things are fast changing. India Post is working on a core banking solutions project that will offer state-of-the-art facilities to customers, including ATMs, Net banking, debit cards and e-payment services. AS Prasad, deputy director-general (financial services), told ET Wealth that by the end of the year, account holders will be able to access their accounts at any ATM across the country ( India Post's AS Prasad on how it to transform into a dominant financial services player ).
Life insurance is the lynchpin of a financial plan. The post office offers life insurance, but it is open only to employees of the Central and state governments, public sector undertakings and semi-government organisations. In October 2010, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority allowed the post office to sell insurance policies of private companies. It was a tremendous opportunity for both the insurance industry as well as India Post. The industry suddenly had access to India's largest distribution network of 1.55 lakh offices while India Post could stand to earn good commission from selling insurance policies. However, the proposal has not taken off because the India Post does not want to push policies of other companies and instead wants to focus on its own Postal Life Insurance. The Rural Postal Life Insurance can be bought by any citizen of India provided he is residing in a rural area, which is any location outside the limits of a municipality. India Post has sold 1 crore RPLI policies since they were launched in 1995. But almost 40% of these are micro insurance policies where the life cover is less than Rs 25,000. That's just enough to take care of a middle-class urban family for about a month.
The India Post is also a distributor of the New Pension Scheme. You can open an NPS account at designated post office branches. In fact, with very few agents interested in selling the low-cost scheme because of the niggardly commission it offers, the post office has become the biggest seller of the NPS. It has opened almost 20,000 voluntary accounts till now, which is almost a third of the total voluntary Tier I NPS. The scheme is available at nearly 800 post office branches across the country. Incidentally, the India Post has stopped selling mutual funds after the entry load was removed in August 2009. Says Prasad: "If Sebi brings the upfront selling commission of 2.25% back, we would sign a memorandum of understanding to sell mutual funds again."
Want to invest in gold? The yellow metal is set to soar higher as uncertainty returns to the capital markets and inflation goes through the roof. You can buy 24-carat gold coins at the post office. The coins are available in three sizes: 500 mg, 1.5 g and 8 g. Don't worry about the purity issues. These coins have been imported from Switzerland and have the backing of the World Gold Council. There is no price advantage if you buy from the post office or from a bank or jeweller.
At the post office, you can transfer money in the most cost-effective manner. It is an agent for a range of money transfer services, including wire transfers and international money orders. It issues travellers' cheques and offers 22 foreign currencies to those travelling abroad. It also offers prepaid forex cards in seven currencies, demand drafts in 11 currencies and wire transfer in 13 currencies. What's more, you can apply for your passport through the post office.
Secretary General NFPE