Get a second opinion before buying annuity

Dear Liz: Our advisor recommended that we convert our rollover IRA to an annuity. We are having difficulty researching this. Any suggestions?

Answer: Unless your advisor is a complete numskull, he probably didn’t mean you should cash out your IRA to invest in an annuity. That would incur a big, unnecessary tax bill.

The idea he’s trying to promote is to sell the investments within your IRA, which wouldn’t trigger taxes, and invest the proceeds in an annuity.

The devil is in the details — specifically, what type of annuity he’s suggesting. If he wants you to buy a variable deferred annuity, you should probably find another advisor or at least get a second opinion. The primary benefit of a variable annuity is tax deferral, which you’ve already got with your IRA. The insurance companies that provide variable annuities, which are basically mutual fund-type investments inside an insurance wrapper, tout other benefits, including locking in a certain payout. Those benefits come at the cost of higher expenses, which is why you want a neutral party — someone who doesn’t earn a commission on the sale — to review it.

If he’s suggesting you buy a fixed annuity, which typically provides you a payout for life, you still should get that second opinion. A fixed annuity creates a kind of pension for you, with checks that last as long as you do. There are downsides to consider, though. Typically, once you invest the money, you can’t get it back. Also, today’s low interest rates mean you’re not going to get as much money in those monthly checks as you would if rates were higher. Some financial planners suggest their clients put off investing in fixed annuities until that happens, or at least spread out their purchases over time in hopes of locking in more favorable rates.

You can hire a fee-only financial planner who works by the hour to review your options. You can get referrals to such planners from Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Young and broke? Open a Roth

You young’uns, listen up. Roth IRAs are the best thing since sliced bread. And the best time to contribute is when you’re young and broke, since you won’t always be that way.

Here’s the deal: contributions to a Roth don’t give you a tax break up front. But when you aren’t making much money, you aren’t paying much in taxes, so that’s an easy sacrifice to make.

The beauty of the Roth is when you take the money out. You can always withdraw your contributions without paying income taxes or penalty on the cash. But I recommend you don’t, because if you leave your Roth alone, those contributions—and all the lovely gains they’ll earn over the years—can be withdrawn entirely tax free.

Chances are, your tax rate will be higher in the future than it is now. The future you will be blessing the current you for tucking aside all that tax-free wealth. Every $1,000 you contribute in your 20s could grow to $20,000 or more by the time you’re ready to retire. If you’re so rich by then that you don’t need the money, you can pass the account on to your kids, and THEY can pull out money tax free.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore your workplace retirement plan—your 401(k) or 403(b)—especially if it has a match. But if you can possibly tuck some money away in a Roth, you probably should.

Starting one is easy—just about any bank, brokerage firm or mutual fund company under the sun will be happy to take your money. I like Vanguard’s target date retirement funds, since they do all the asset allocation and rebalancing for you, their expenses are dead cheap and you only have to have a $1,000 minimum investment to start a Roth there. (Don’t have $1,000 yet? Start a Roth at a credit union, save up and then transfer the account to Vanguard.)

Even if you aren’t so young anymore, the tax benefits of a Roth make sense if you’re likely to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

The ability to contribute to a Roth starts to phase out once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $110,000 if you’re single and $173,000 if you’re married filing jointly.

Making money is a good thing. But I’ll admit to some sadness when hubby and I stopped being able to contribute to our Roths. These accounts really are a great deal.