Q&A: Maxing out retirement savings

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in our late 40s. We’re in a good financial position and trying to max out our retirement savings. We have small traditional IRAs and are now above the income limit to deduct contributions to it. We have Roth IRAs that we converted from traditional IRAs several years ago (our income is borderline for being able to contribute directly to a Roth). We also recently got a Health Savings Account that we are maxing out and saving for retirement. But the bulk of our retirement savings is in our 401(k)s, which we max out every year. I hear I should have a mix of pre-tax and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Can I wait until the first year we retire and roll some of my 401(k) into a traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth, at presumably a lower tax rate due to lower income? Or would it be better to contribute now to a Roth 401(k) at work instead of a regular 401(k), even knowing that our tax rate will probably be lower in retirement?

Answer: You already have a mix of pre- and after-tax sources of income in retirement. Withdrawals from your Roth IRAs will be tax free in retirement, as will your HSA withdrawals if they’re used for medical expenses.

Roth conversions and contributions to Roth 401(k)s make the most sense when you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, rather than a lower one. Otherwise, you’re giving up a tax break now (your deductible contributions) for what’s likely to be a lesser tax benefit later. Conversions at retirement are particularly tricky, since you may not have decades of tax-free compounding ahead of you to make up for the fact that you accelerated the tax bill.

Talk to a tax pro, but it’s likely that maxing out your regular 401(k)s is the best move.

Q&A: Unsolicited financial advice

Dear Liz: Your answer to the financially savvy brother whose advice is lost on his sisters was a bit harsh and shortsighted, so my guess is that you may not know anyone who has siblings who will continue for the next few decades to need help. It is hard to deny a sibling help while enjoying the benefits of prudent saving. It is harder to watch a sibling suffer, even if they should have avoided it. Seems to me completely different from giving advice about child rearing, which I might add is sometimes simply a statement of the obvious and one that should not even have to be mentioned, like don’t let your kids scream in public. This young man is almost certainly going to live with either guilt over not supporting his sisters when the mother dies or the frustration of having to give up hard-earned funds to avoid the guilt. You should have said he needs to write them a letter citing the guidance given and making it clear not to come to him when they get in trouble.

Answer: Thank you for providing a perfect example of why people find unsolicited advice so annoying.

The brother asked what he could say to his sisters to make them more financially responsible and to his mother to make her realize she should stop supporting them. The answer, of course, is nothing. There are no words that can make other people change unless they want to change. Since his family has made clear they’re not interested in his advice, continuing to offer it would be pointless.

The brother didn’t express concern that he would wind up supporting either his mother or his sisters. Even if he has such concerns, writing such a letter would be churlish, at best. If he’s asked for help, he can make his position known then.

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8 Personal Finance Questions Most of Us Flunk
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10 Steps to an Upgraded Financial Life
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Monday’s need-to-know money news

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The Money Moves to Stop Procrastinating and Take Care of Now
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Q&A: Giving financial advice to family

Dear Liz: I am 30 and have two sisters, ages 31 and 27. My wife and I both have good jobs that allow us to live comfortably and save for retirement. My sisters, on the other hand, have severe money problems. My older sister works a low-paying retail job. She is unable to save and is currently at risk of having her wages and tax refunds garnished because of unpaid student loans. My mom provides her with support when she asks for it. The other sister still lives at home. While she makes decent money by working two jobs, she spends all of her money on “wants,” and my mom pays all of her living expenses. The only bill my younger sister pays is her car payment. She also currently has close to $100,000 in student loans that she just had to start paying on.

I have tried to provide both my sisters with budgeting advice, and I have recommended books that I have used as the blueprint for our budget. Neither of them takes the advice. I have talked to my mom about both sisters’ situations. While my mom agrees that both are in bad shape, she is unwilling to show either of them the tough love that they need to improve their situations. Do you have any advice on recommendations that I could make to help any of them out?

Answer: The best advice is to stop offering advice.

Your mom and sisters have made it quite clear they’re not interested in what you have to say. Continuing to offer your opinions on their situations would be tiresome and pointless.
Yes, it’s hard to watch people struggle when you think you know what could help them. But keep in mind that: a) you might be wrong about what they need right now, and b) nobody asked you, anyway.

If you’re passionate about teaching people to manage their finances, you might look into becoming a certified financial planner or other planning professional. The CFP Board of Standards has information at http://www.cfp.net. If people are paying you for your advice, they’re somewhat more likely to listen to it.

Otherwise, you’ll have a captive audience for your financial teaching if you and your wife should have children. And as a parent, you’ll get to experience firsthand how it feels to be the target of unsolicited advice.

Q&A: Financial aid and divorce

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I are about to start the financial aid process for our eldest child, who goes to college in the fall. My ex happens to have a higher income than me, and has asked me if I’d be willing to have different aid scenarios calculated based on our different incomes and assets. From all the research I’ve done, though, it seems she is the one who needs to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, since she’s the custodial parent. It’s not possible to choose who the custodial parent is for the purposes of financial aid, right?

Answer: It may be possible, but you have to make the choice well before you file the FAFSA form.

For federal financial aid purposes, the custodial parent whose information is used to calculate financial need is the parent with whom the child lived the most during the 12 months before the FAFSA is filed. With joint custody, the custodial parent is typically the one who provided the most cash support.

Some divorced parents opt to revise their children’s living arrangements so that the lower earner becomes the custodial parent. That may require a trip to court to revise a custody agreement. Also, the financial situation of any stepparents would have to be part of the equation, since the income and assets of the custodial parent’s spouse (the stepparent) are factored into the federal formula.

Q&A: Brokerage follow-up

Dear Liz: You recently explained the insurance limits for brokerage accounts covered by the Securities Investor Protection Corp. I recently retired from the brokerage industry and wanted to add that many firms have additional insurance coverage beyond the SIPC limits.

Answer: Good point. Brokerages often purchase additional coverage from private insurers on top of what’s provided by the SIPC. To find out how much coverage may be available, ask your brokerage or conduct a search with the brokerage name and “how are my accounts protected” as a search phrase.