Dear Liz: You recently suggested an insurance salesman be reported to state regulators because he suggested a reader stop funding a 401(k) and instead fund an insurance contract with after-tax dollars. You were way out of line. It’s very likely tax rates will be going up, so it may make sense to trade a tax benefit now for a better one in the future.
Answer: You might have a valid point if the reader were wealthy enough to be funding a life insurance policy or annuity in addition to his 401(k) contributions. Wealthier people are already facing higher tax rates, and they are more likely to be in the same bracket, or perhaps even a higher one, when they retire.
The fact that the insurance salesman suggested the reader redirect his retirement contributions to the insurance contract indicates the reader didn’t have the cash flow to do both. So it’s still quite likely that the reader will drop into a lower tax bracket in retirement, in which case he’s given up a valuable tax break now for a less valuable one in the future.
A red flag should go up anytime an insurance salesperson recommends you stop funding a tax-deductible retirement plan or that you tap home equity to buy whatever he or she is selling. That indicates the product was designed for someone wealthier than you. At the very least, you should run the purchase past a fee-only financial planner — someone who doesn’t earn commissions on product sales — to make sure you’re getting the whole story.
Dear Liz: I started a new job, but unfortunately it does not offer a 401(k). I have an IRA but don’t contribute to it. What is the best way to contribute so I can discipline myself in saving for retirement? I am 47.
Answer: The best way to save for retirement is to leave the issue of discipline out of it. If you have to discipline yourself to make the right choice every paycheck, you’ll wind up spending the money rather than saving it.
Instead, put your savings on automatic. You can contribute $5,500 year to your IRA. Divide $5,500 by the number of paychecks you get in a year and set up an automatic transfer of that amount. If you’re paid every other week, for example, you would divide $5,500 by 26 paychecks to get $211.54, which is the amount you should have transferred into your IRA every two weeks.
If you can save more, then open a regular brokerage account and set up automatic transfers into that. You won’t get a tax break for your contributions, but if you hold your investments for at least one year you’ll qualify for long-term capital gains rates that are lower than regular income tax rates.
Once you’ve set up these transfers you need to keep your hands off the money. Don’t treat your retirement funds as emergency cash or tap into them for any other reason. You’re getting a late start and you’ll need every dollar you can save if you want a comfortable retirement.
Dear Liz: Recently, someone from an insurance company proposed that I stop investing through my 401(k) at work and instead invest in his insurance company contract with after-tax dollars. He claims the funds would be guaranteed so that I would never lose principal, although there would be a cap on how much I could make in any given year. His claim is that it is better to forgo the tax deduction I would get from my 401(k) contributions so that I can take the money out of this contract tax-free in 20 or 30 years. I think I am too old for this program (I am 61 now) but I thought it might be appropriate for my daughter when she enters the workforce in a few years.
Answer: You may have been pitched an equity-indexed annuity. These are extremely complex investments that should not be purchased from someone who misrepresents how they work and who encourages you to forgo better methods of saving for retirement.
Withdrawals from annuities are not tax-free. You would not have to pay income tax on the portion of the withdrawal that represents your initial contributions, but any gain would be taxable at regular income tax rates.
Furthermore, most people fall into a lower tax bracket in retirement. That makes the tax break offered by 401(k) contributions especially valuable, because you’re getting the deduction when your tax rate is higher and paying the tax when your rate is lower.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which regulates securities firms, has warned that most investors consider equity-indexed annuities and other annuity products “only after they make the maximum contribution to their 401(k) and other before-tax retirement plans.”
Even then, you probably have better ways to save. Contributions to a Roth IRA would not be tax-deductible, but withdrawals in retirement would be tax-free. If you’re able to save still more, you could contribute to a regular, taxable brokerage account and hold your investments at least one year to qualify for long-term capital gains rates, which are lower than regular income tax rates.
The other possibility is that the insurance salesman was pitching a life insurance policy that would allow you to take out a tax-free loan. Although life insurance is sometimes pitched as a retirement savings vehicle, it’s an expensive way to go. In general, you should buy life insurance only if you need life insurance. To help ensure a policy is suitable for your situation, you should take it to a fee-only financial planner—one who does not make commissions from selling investments–for review.
In any case, you don’t want to do business with someone suggests you stop funding your workplace retirement plan, and you certainly don’t want to refer him to family members. What you should do instead is pick up the phone and report him to your state insurance department.
Dear Liz: I have a first mortgage with a current balance of $32,000 at 5.625% interest. This will be paid off in about 24 months, based on regular payments plus $200 a month extra I am paying on principal. I have a home equity line of credit with a balance of $200,000 at 3% interest on which I am paying interest only ($490) monthly with an occasional principal payment when I can afford it. Between the two mortgages I am making payments of about $1,950 per month.
I am about to retire and want to reduce my payments to a more manageable amount. I do not intend to move in the near future. Income is $145,000 annually now but will be reduced to about $76,000 annually upon retirement. Should I just hold on, pay off the first mortgage and then begin making interest plus principal payments on the credit line? Or should I refinance both mortgages now into a 30-year fixed mortgage?
Answer: Ideally, you would retire your mortgage debt before you retire from your job. That’s not possible in your case, so you should focus on making sure this debt doesn’t wreck your retirement.
A spike in interest rates could play havoc with your budget. Mortgage interest rates have been extremely low for some time, but that won’t continue indefinitely. Inflation may pick up as the economy improves, which means that 3% variable rate on your home equity line of credit could march considerably higher.
Consider locking in today’s low mortgage rates with a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. You could get an even lower rate on a 15-year mortgage, but the payment would be significantly higher — about $1,600 a month on a $232,000 mortgage, compared with about $1,000 a month for the 30-year loan. You may prefer the flexibility of the 30-year loan, which would still allow you to make extra principal payments to pay off the loan faster without locking you into a higher monthly payment.
Dear Liz: I’m in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.
I have $250,000 saved for retirement. When I’m 58 1/2 years old, I would like to pull that money out and pay some or all of these debts. Or use home equity. I’ve recently been downsized in employment, but I am looking to increase my income so I can help with their debt. Advice?
Answer: If your goal is to impoverish yourself so your kids will have to take care of you in your old age, by all means proceed with your plan. Otherwise, you need to rethink this.
You’ve been laid off in the middle of what should be your peak earning years. Older workers often have a tougher time than younger ones finding replacement jobs, even in a better economy than this one. You may not be able to replace your former income, which means you may not be able to add much to the amount you’ve already saved. You should be conserving your resources, including your home equity, and not squandering it repaying debts that aren’t yours.
And “squandering” is the right word. You may be able to avoid paying federal and state tax penalties on withdrawals under certain conditions; distributions made after age 59 1/2 avoid the penalties, as do those made if you’re “separated from service” if the job termination occurred in or after the year you turn 55. But you’ll still owe income taxes on the withdrawal, and those can be considerable.
Your children are the ones who will benefit from their educations. Those educations should allow them to earn incomes to repay these loans. The amount of debt they’ve accrued might be excessive — you didn’t specify how many kids, or whether this debt is being incurred pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Ultimately, though, they will be in a better position to pay the debt than you are.
If you promised them help you can’t deliver, sit down with them now to break the bad news and strategize on how they can finish their educations without incurring substantially more debt.
Your story also should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone counting on an inheritance to pay future bills. Until the money is in your bank account, it’s not yours and shouldn’t be part of your financial planning.
Dear Liz: I’m about to marry an active-duty military man. We’re in the process of marrying our finances, and I have several questions.
First, what is a good emergency fund for us? We run our household on his salary because I’m recently unemployed. I’ve always had a six-month emergency fund for myself, but because he’ll theoretically always be employed, should we have less savings in emergency funds and more in retirement and investments?
Second, along with my unemployment, I’m bringing about $15,000 in savings and $9,000 in student loan debt (at 4.5%). He has about $5,000 in savings and no debt at all. Neither of us has a retirement account or any other investments. I’m leaning toward paying off my debt so that we start on even ground, but I have a feeling that you’re going to tell me not to do that. What should I be considering at this time?
Answer: The military offers good benefits and generous pensions to people who make the armed services their career. But the pension probably won’t cover all your expenses in retirement. (Remember, if he retires after 20 years of service, he’ll get only 50% of his base pay.) Besides, there’s really no such thing as “guaranteed” employment, even in the armed services, so it’s smart to have a Plan B.
Your husband-to-be should be taking advantage of the federal Thrift Savings Plan, which works like a 401(k) for civilians, although there’s no employer match for service members. He can contribute up to $17,000 a year ($17,500 in 2013), his contributions are excluded from his taxable income, and the money grows tax-deferred until it’s withdrawn in retirement, at which point it’s taxed as regular income.
The Thrift Savings Plan also has a Roth option. Withdrawals from a Roth in retirement are tax-free, although contributions usually are included in taxable income. The exception: If your fiance is deployed, most or all of his income would be tax-free, so he would be able to make contributions to the Roth with tax-exempt income, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA. That’s a pretty great deal: no tax on the contributions going in, and no tax on the withdrawals coming out.
If your man isn’t deployed, he still might want to divide his contributions between the regular and Roth plans so that he would have different savings “buckets” to tap in retirement and thus more control over his tax bill.
He probably wouldn’t get a full military pension if he leaves or is forced out of the military before he has served 20 years. But he would be able to take his Thrift Savings Plan balance with him.
When you return to work, you also should start contributing to a retirement fund. If you don’t have access to a 401(k) or 403(b), you might contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA.
Although you would be smart to pay off any high-rate debt, such as credit card balances, you need not be in a rush to pay off low-rate, tax-deductible debt such as student loans, especially if the rate you’re paying is fixed. Instead, focus on building up that emergency fund. The exact amount you need is more art than science, but a six-month fund would be prudent.
Dear Liz: I will be 61 in December. I have $15,000 in credit card debt at 9.9% and $41,000 in a certificate of deposit earning 3% per year. I have $590,000 in my 401(k) account. I want to pay off the credit card balance to redirect my income to paying off my $26,000 mortgage by the end of 2013. Which near-term option for paying off the credit card is better: close the CD and buy a new, lower-paying CD with the balance after paying the card off, or take a 401(k) distribution, leaving the $41,000 emergency fund untouched?
Answer: Since you’re older than 591/2, you would not have to pay penalties on any withdrawal from your 401(k). But a withdrawal would still be a bad idea for a number of reasons.
The most obvious is that you would have to pay taxes on any amount you take out. Typically 20% is withheld from any distribution, but your bill could well be higher depending on your federal and state tax brackets. In the 25% federal and 8% state brackets, you’d owe $3,750 in federal and $1,200 in state taxes on a $15,000 withdrawal. So even without penalties, you’d lose one-third of a withdrawal to taxes.
The money you take out also wouldn’t be able to earn any future tax-deferred returns for you. At 60, you have a life expectancy of a couple more decades. The money you plan to withdraw potentially could grow to more than $70,000, assuming 8% average annual returns, if you leave it alone.
So using 401(k) money to pay debt is almost as dumb for you as it would be for a younger person who would pay penalties and incur an even bigger potential loss of future tax-deferred money.
Use the CD money instead, and change your spending habits so you don’t incur any future credit card debt.