5 hacks to boost your retirement savings

seniorslaptopMany people have trouble saving anything for retirement. But I hear from a fair number of people who are looking beyond 401(k)s and IRAs for more tax-advantaged ways to save.

Many have maxed out their 401(k)s at work, or had their contributions limited because they’re considered “highly compensated employees.” Some don’t have a workplace plan at all, while others want to save more than IRAs allow. Even catch-up provisions–which allow people 50 and over to contribute an extra $5,500 to 401(k)s and an extra $1,000 to IRAs–aren’t enough for some of these super savers.

So here are options for those who have maxed out and caught up:

Opt for an HSA. Health savings accounts, which are coupled with high-deductible health insurance plans, offer a rare triple tax advantage: contributions are tax deductible, gains grow tax-deferred (and can be rolled over from year to year), and withdrawals are tax free if used for medical expenses. Withdrawals are also tax free in retirement, which makes HSAs a potentially better vehicle for saving than the much-loved Roth IRA. (Some say yes, others no.) Speaking of which:

Consider a back-door Roth contribution. If you make too much money, you can’t contribute directly to a Roth. There is a workaround, according to IRA guru Ed Slott, that takes advantage of the fact that anyone regardless of income can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth. You can read more about the strategy here and the potential drawbacks here.

Start a side business. Small business owners are spoiled for choice when it comes to tax advantaged plans. The options range from SEP IRAs to solo 401(k)s to full-on traditional pensions (and baby, you can save a ton of money in those—as in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually). Talk to a CPA about which plan makes the most sense for you.

Use a 457 plan. These deferred compensation plans are often available to state and local public employees as well as people who work for some nonprofits. Like a 401(k), you’re allowed to contribute pre-tax money. Unlike a 401(k), you don’t get slapped with early withdrawal penalties if you take the money out before age 59 (although you will owe income taxes).

Contribute to a regular brokerage account. There’s no upfront deduction, but investments held at least a year can qualify you for favorable capital gains tax rates. This, by the way, is typically a much better option than variable annuities, which tend to have high costs and limited tax advantages for most people.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

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Q&A: Capital gains and mutual funds

Dear Liz: Your tax expert’s answer to a person who wanted to roll over a $30,000 capital gain on a mutual fund missed an important point. Since the couple were solidly in the 15% tax bracket with a taxable income under $72,000, they should qualify for the 0% federal capital gain tax rate. (They may, of course, owe state taxes.)

Answer: They may not have had a capital gain at all, as other tax pros have pointed out. When people own mutual funds, the earnings are often reinvested each year. If the couple paid taxes on those earnings, their basis in the mutual fund would increase each year. To know if the couple had any capital gain, we’d need to know that adjusted tax basis. In any case, the original answer — that you can’t roll over the gain on a mutual fund into another investment to avoid capital gains taxes — still stands.

Q&A: How to fund a Roth IRA

Dear Liz: I have quite a bit invested in stocks in a regular brokerage account. I’ve held them for many years, and to sell them would mean huge capital gains taxes. I’d like to move some of these into a Roth IRA, so that I can avoid paying taxes on their appreciation and dividends, since I plan to hold these for quite some time. Is it possible to move these stocks into a Roth IRA without selling and repurchasing?

Answer: Nope. Uncle Sam typically gets his due, with one major exception.

Roths have to be funded with cash, and direct contributions are limited to $5,500 per person per year, plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those 50 and over. Your contributions would be further limited once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $181,000 for married couples and $114,000 for singles, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Tax & Accounting North America. A big-enough capital gain, on top of your regular income, could push you over those limits.

If you want to avoid paying capital gains, just hold the investments until your death. Your heirs will get the investments at their market value and can sell them immediately without owing any capital gains. There may be other taxes involved, however. If your estate is worth more than $5 million, it may owe estate taxes, and a few states levy inheritance taxes on heirs.

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5 LAST-MINUTE MONEY MOVES BEFORE 2014

Tax return checkOkay, you’re on overload with all the last-minute shopping, cooking, preparing for guests and/or traveling. But try to squeeze in a few money tasks before year-end. Including:

Contribute to an IRA. You can put money into an IRA even if you have a retirement plan through work, but you may not be able to deduct the contribution if your income is over certain limits. If, on the other hand, your income is low, you could score a valuable tax credit for your retirement contributions. The problem of course is that it can be tough to come up with the maximum contribution of $5,500 ($6,500 for those 50 and over) at year end. Luckily, you have until tax day, April 15, 2014, to make your contribution for 2013. And consider setting up regular contributions to your IRA so you don’t have to scramble for the cash next year.

Make a (back door) Roth contribution. If you can’t deduct an IRA contribution, a better option is to contribute to a Roth IRA. Roth contributions aren’t deductible but withdrawals from the accounts are tax-free in retirement (unlike regular IRA withdrawals, which incur income taxes). If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth directly, you can contribute to a regular IRA and then convert it to a Roth. This works best if you don’t already have a fat IRA account, since your tax bill for the conversion will be based on the total you have saved in regular IRAs.

Use it or lose (most) of it. If you have money set aside in a flexible spending account at work for medical or child care expenses, you typically need to use it up by year end. There are some exceptions: the Treasury Department recently said plan participants can roll up to $500 of unused funds into the next year’s plans, and some employers extend the deadline from Dec. 31 to mid-March.

Accelerate and delay. If you don’t expect a big change in your tax circumstances, it can make sense to delay income into 2014 (by asking your boss to pay a bonus next year instead of this, for example) and to accelerate deductions by paying mortgage, property tax or medical bills for January in December.

Get generous. If you itemize your deductions, you can get a tax break for your charitable contributions. Again, rushing to get those in at the last minute isn’t ideal, so consider setting up regular contributions such as paycheck deductions or monthly payments to your favorite nonprofits. No extra cash? “Noncash” donations—such as clothes or household items—can earn you a deduction as well. They just have to be in good condition and given to a recognized charity.

 

How to start Roth IRAs for your kids

Dear Liz: I would like to start a Roth account for each of my kids. (They’re in their 30s.) Is it better to start an account in my name with them as beneficiaries or to start the accounts in their names?

Answer: Roth IRAs can be a wonderful way to save, but they’re not custodial accounts. You won’t be able to control the accounts or prevent your adult children from spending any money you deposit.

If you still want to help, though, let your kids know you’ll contribute to any Roths they set up. They can open a Roth if they have earned income at least equal to the annual contribution and their incomes are below the Roth limits. The ability to contribute to a Roth phases out between $178,000 to $188,000 for married couples in 2013 and from $112,000 to $127,000 for singles.

Ideally, you’ll contribute to your own Roth first. The limit on contributions is $5,500 this year.

Beware the hidden risks of self-directed IRAs

Dear Liz: My 401(k) plan has grown exceptionally well this year. I think we all know that it can’t last. I just recently heard about self-directed IRAs. I was intrigued at the possibility of opening one by rolling over a portion of my 401(k) money directly. The problem is, my company’s 401(k) provider will not allow the direct rollover of funds. Is there an alternative means of withdrawing 401(k) funds without penalty and still get them into a self-directed IRA?

Answer: You can quit your job. Otherwise, withdrawals while you’re still employed with your company will trigger taxes and probably penalties.

Your premise for wanting to open a self-directed IRA is a bit misguided, in any case. Your 401(k) balance may occasionally drop because of fluctuations in your stock and bond markets, but over the long term you should see growth.

You may have been sold on the idea that self-directed IRAs would somehow be less risky. Some companies promote self-directed IRAs as a way to invest in real estate, precious metals or other investments not commonly available in 401(k) plans. The fees these companies charge as custodians for such accounts are usually much higher than what they could charge as traditional IRA custodians, so they have a pretty powerful incentive for talking you into transferring your money to them.

The problem is that you could wind up less diversified, and therefore in a riskier position, if you dump a lot of your retirement money into any alternative investment. It’s one thing for a wealthy investor to have a self-directed IRA that invests in mortgages or gold, assuming that he or she has plenty of money in more traditional investments. It’s quite another if all you have is your 401(k) and you’re putting much more than 10% into a single investment.

Also, there’s a lot less regulation and scrutiny with self-directed IRAs than with 401(k)s, which increases the possibility of fraud. (Southern California investors may remember First Pension Corp. of Irvine, a self-directed IRA administrator that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.) So you’d need to pick your custodian, and your investments, carefully. You also would need to understand the IRS rules for such accounts, because certain investments — such as buying real estate or other property for your own use — aren’t allowed.

If you’re determined to diversify your investments in ways your current 401(k) doesn’t allow, you can open a regular IRA at any brokerage and select from a wider variety of investment options. Or you can look for a self-directed IRA option with low minimum investment requirements to start.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

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