Zero coupon bonds are bonds that do not pay interest during the life of the bonds. Instead, investors buy zero coupon bonds at a deep discount from their face value, which is the amount the investor will receive when the bond "matures" or comes due.
The maturity dates on zero coupon bonds are usually long-term—many don’t mature for ten, fifteen, or more years. These long-term maturity dates allow an investor to plan for a long-range goal, such as paying for a child’s college education. With the deep discount, an investor can put up a small amount of money that can grow over many years.
Investors can purchase different kinds of zero coupon bonds in the secondary markets that have been issued from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Treasury, corporations, and state and local government entities.
Because zero coupon bonds pay no interest until maturity, their prices fluctuate more than other types of bonds in the secondary market. In addition, although no payments are made on zero coupon bonds until they mature, investors may still have to pay federal, state, and local income tax on the imputed or "phantom" interest that accrues each year. Some investors avoid paying tax on the imputed interest by buying municipal zero coupon bonds (if they live in the state where the bond was issued) or purchasing the few corporate zero coupon bonds that have tax-exempt status.