Q&A: Max contributions to 401(k)s

Dear Liz: I understand that anybody with a 401(k) can contribute up to $18,000. Does the amount you can contribute depend on your salary? Say you make $45,000. Therefore I would assume you could put in the full $18,000, or 40% of your salary. Am I wrong?

Answer: The maximum the IRS allows someone under 50 to contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is $18,000 in 2015. The additional “catch up” contribution limit for people 50 and older is $6,000.

The plans themselves, though, may impose lower limits. Even if the plan doesn’t cap contributions, your contributions may be limited if you’re considered a “highly compensated employee.” Last year, highly compensated employees were those who earned more than $115,000 or owned more than 5% of the business. If lower-earning employees don’t contribute enough to the plan, higher earners may not be able to put in as much as they’d like.

Q&A: IRA interest rate terms

Dear Liz: I went to renew my IRA certificate of deposit and the bank officer suggested that I renew at the greater rate being offered for a five-year term (about 1.5% APR) rather than the lower rate for a one-year term (about 1% APR). She explained that since I am over 59 1/2, I can close the account at any time and roll it over to a new IRA should rates rise (for example to 1.75% in 15 months) with no penalty whatsoever. Is this true?

Answer: You don’t have to close and reopen IRAs when a CD matures or you want to change investments. The IRA is the bucket that holds your investment, not the investment itself. You also should be skeptical about claims that you would pay no penalty for early withdrawal. Not only are such penalties the norm, but a Bankrate survey found 9 out of 10 banks won’t just require you to forfeit the interest but will dip into your principal to pay the fees if necessary. The bank may offer a one-time opportunity to lock in a higher rate; if that’s the case, you should get the details in writing as well as the penalties if you have to withdraw the money prematurely.

In fact, any time someone pitches you an investment for your retirement funds, you should ask a lot of questions and get every detail and promise in writing. If the pitch is coming from someone who will profit from your investment — which is often the case — you should consider running it past a neutral third party such as a fee-only planner.

By the way, the Federal Reserve has signaled that it’s considering raising interest rates this year. That’s no guarantee that it will, but locking up your money now is a gamble.

Q&A: IRA’s and 401(k)’s

Dear Liz: You answered a reader who asked whether to contribute to her IRA, her Roth IRA or her regular or Roth 401(k) account. I thought that if you have access to a 401(k) at work, you couldn’t make a contribution to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Answer: That’s a common misconception. You can contribute to an IRA even if you have a workplace plan. What you may not be able to do is deduct the contribution. The tax deduction depends on your modified adjusted gross income and phases out in 2015 between $61,000 and $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

You also may be able contribute to a Roth IRA if you have a workplace plan. Contributions to a Roth are never deductible, but your ability to contribute phases out between $116,000 to $131,000 for singles and $183,000 to $193,000 for married couples filing jointly.

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.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

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Q&A: Taking a mortgage for the tax deduction

Dear Liz: My wife and I are both 66 and in good health. Currently we have about $1.2 million in IRAs. We’re receiving about $80,000 a year from a pension and $110,000 in salary. We have been aggressive about reducing any lingering debt. So we think we are in good shape for me to retire within the next year or so. If we decide to stay in our home rather than move, we will need to make some significant repairs and improvements. We were thinking of taking out a $200,000 mortgage to pay off our last remaining debt ($50,000 on a home equity line of credit) and fund the renovations. This would give us a better tax deduction and not incur the high taxes we would pay by making an IRA withdrawal. Our grown children have expressed no interest in the home after we die, so it probably would be put up for sale at that time. Does this seem like a reasonable approach if we choose to go that route? Anything we haven’t considered?

Answer: Considering the tax implications of financial moves is smart, but you shouldn’t make decisions solely on that basis. You especially shouldn’t take on mortgage debt just for the tax deduction. The tax benefit is limited to your bracket, so for every dollar in mortgage interest you pay you would get at best a federal tax benefit worth 39.6 cents. State income tax deductions might boost that amount, but you’d still be paying out more than you get back in tax benefits. You also would be locking yourself into debt payments at a time in life when most people prefer the flexibility of being debt-free.

If you’re comfortable having a mortgage in retirement, though, you might want to consider a reverse mortgage. Although once considered expensive loans of last resort for people who were running out of money in retirement, changes in the federal reverse mortgage program caused financial planners to reassess the no-payment loans as a potential wealth management tool. The idea is that homeowners could tap the reverse mortgage for funds, especially in bad markets, instead of depleting their retirement accounts.
Reverse mortgages are complex, though. The upfront and ongoing costs can be significant. Because you don’t make payments on the money you borrow, your debt grows over time and reduces the amount your heirs might get once the home is sold. You’d be smart to find a savvy, fee-only financial advisor to assess your situation and walk you through your options.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

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How to Reduce Your 2014 Tax Bill By Over $1,000
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Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

santa-3-resized-600Today’s top story: How your procrastination is costing you money. Also in the news: Holiday shipping mistakes to avoid, which report you need to read before buying a house, and the digital piggy bank that could finally convince you to start saving.

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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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This Is the Most Depressing Number in Personal Finance
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Translate This! How To Decode The Secret Language Of Finance
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IRA and 401(k) Changes Coming in 2015
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9 Money Moves to Make Before the End of the Year
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When Refinancing Your Student Loans Can Backfire
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