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.