Q&A: Help your son by helping yourself

Dear Liz: I’m a new mom and want to start saving for my son’s college/car/other life expenses while also planning a secure future for him. If I only had, for example, $300 a month to put toward this goal, what would you recommend I spend it on? Life insurance? Savings accounts for him? Savings accounts for my household? A 401(k)? Stashing away money under the mattress? Something else I haven’t thought of yet? I just want to make sure I’m doing the very best for my son and our future.

Answer: Congratulations and welcome to the wonderful adventure that is parenthood.

This adventure won’t be cheap. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of raising a child to age 18 is now $233,610 for a middle-income married couple with two kids. Your mileage will vary, of course, but there’s no denying that your income will have to stretch to cover a lot more now that you’re providing for a child.

Your impulse will be to put your son first. To best care for him, though, your own financial house needs to be in order.

Begin by creating a “starter” emergency fund of $500 or so. Many people live paycheck to paycheck, which means any small expense can send them into a tailspin. Eventually you’ll want a bigger rainy-day fund, but it could take several years to build up the recommended three months’ worth of expenses, and you don’t want to put other crucial goals on hold for that long.

Once your starter fund is in place, you should contribute enough to your 401(k) to at least get the full company match. Matches are free money that you shouldn’t pass up.

You probably need life insurance as well, but don’t get talked into an expensive policy that doesn’t give you enough coverage. Young parents typically need up to 10 times their incomes, and term policies are the most affordable way to get that much coverage.

After life insurance is in place, you can boost both your retirement and emergency savings until those accounts are on track. If you still have money left over to devote to your son’s future, then consider contributing to a 529 college savings account. These accounts allow you to invest money that can be used tax free to pay for qualifying education expenses anywhere in the country (and many colleges abroad, as well).

Keep in mind that post-secondary education really isn’t optional anymore, particularly if you want your kid to remain (or get into) the middle class. Some kind of vocational or college degree is all but essential, and the money spent can have a huge payoff in terms of his future earnings.

Q&A: Saving for retirement can’t wait

Dear Liz: I have a family member who at 57 has no savings, a house whose value is 58% mortgaged and debt from a family member of $180,000.

This person is just starting a new job that will cover expenses with about $1,000 left over each month. The job offers a 401(k) but doesn’t allow contributions until employees have been with the company for eight months.

This person has paid into Social Security so that will be there (hopefully!) at retirement. What would be the best way for this person to start saving toward retirement?

Answer: Your relative shouldn’t wait to be eligible for the 401(k). People 50 and older can contribute up to $6,500 annually to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, which is $1,000 more than the usual limit.

If your relative didn’t have a previous job that offered a workplace plan in 2017, then this year’s contributions to a traditional IRA should be deductible.

Next year, when your relative is eligible for the 401(k), the deductibility of contributions will depend on that person’s income. In 2018, deductibility begins to phase out when modified adjusted gross income reaches $63,000 for singles. If IRA contributions aren’t deductible, after-tax Roth contributions typically are a better deal, but the ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out for singles at $120,000 in 2018.

Encourage your relative to save and to delay starting Social Security for as long as possible. When Social Security makes up the majority of one’s income in retirement — as it will for your relative — it’s important to maximize that check.

It’s not clear why your relative has been saddled with a family member’s debt, but any retirement plan needs to include options for paying off, settling or even erasing (through bankruptcy) such a substantial amount. Your relative should talk to a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney to better understand the options.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 Halloween hazards and how insurance can help. Also in the news: The secret to optimizing credit card rewards, how to make money driving for Amazon Flex, and why Millennials may end up saving more for retirement than their parents’ generation.

5 Halloween Hazards and How Insurance Can Help
Don’t get tricked.

The Secret to Optimizing Credit Card Rewards? Be Disloyal
Loyalty is overrated with credit card rewards.

Make Money Driving for Amazon Flex: What to Expect
Make money driving for Amazon that you can then spend on Amazon.

Millennials May End Up Saving More For Retirement Than Their Parents’ Generation
What has changed.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: College degrees can be a bargain abroad. Also in the news: Open enrollment time, how to finance a car at 0% interest, and 3 ways to protect your retirement savings from a market crash.

College Degrees Can Be a Bargain Abroad
Considering international universities.

Open Enrollment at Work: Get Ready to Get Choosyst
Finding the best plan.

How to Finance a Car at 0% Interest
Getting the best rate.

401(k) uncertainty? 3 ways to protect your retirement savings from a market crash
Protecting your future.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Feds, 11 states crack down on student loan scams. Also in the news: Adding a loan to your shopping cart, 5 top benefits of a Roth IRA, and setting your holiday spending budget in October.

Feds, 11 States Crack Down on Student Loan Scams
Cracking down.

Should You Add a Loan to Your Shopping Cart?
A new option at the register.

5 Top Benefits of a Roth IRA
What you should know.

Get Christmas budget set for holiday spending in October
The holidays will be here before you know it.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why you need a 401(k) in your 20s. Also in the news: How being lazy can help you save money, the new rules of credit card point etiquette, and how to spot financial infidelity.

Yes, You Need a 401(k) in Your 20s — Here’s Why
Paving the long road.

How Being Lazy Can Help You Save Money
Automatic banking can help.

New Rules of Credit Card Points Etiquette
When to use your points.

How to Spot Financial Infidelity
Noticing the signs.

Q&A: Saving for retirement also means planning for the tax hit

Dear Liz: I’m 40. We own our house and have a young daughter. Through my current employer, I’m able to contribute to a regular 401(k) and also a Roth 401(k) retirement account. My company matches 3% if we contribute a total of 6% or more of our salaries. Are there any reasons I should contribute to both my 401(k) and Roth, or should I contribute only to my Roth? My salary and bonus is around $80,000 and I have about $150,000 in my 401(k) and about $30,000 in my Roth. Thanks very much for your time.

Answer: A Roth contribution is essentially a bet that your tax rate in retirement will be the same or higher than it is currently. You’re giving up a tax break now, because Roth contributions aren’t deductible, to get one later, because Roth withdrawals in retirement are tax free.

Most retirees see their tax rates drop in retirement, so they’re better off contributing to a regular 401(k) and getting the tax deduction sooner rather than later. The exceptions tend to be wealthier people and those who are good savers. The latter can find themselves with so much in their retirement accounts that their required minimum distributions — the withdrawals people must take from most retirement accounts after they’re 70½ — push them into higher tax brackets.

That’s why many financial planners suggest their clients put money in different tax “buckets” so they’re better able to control their tax bills in retirement. Those buckets might include regular retirement savings, Roth accounts and perhaps taxable accounts as well. Roths have the added advantage of not having required minimum distributions, so unneeded money can be passed along to your daughter.

Given that you’re slightly behind on retirement savings — Fidelity Investments recommends you have three times your salary saved by age 40 — you might want to put most of your contributions into the regular 401(k) because the tax break will make it easier to save. You can hedge your bets by putting some money into the Roth 401(k), but not the majority of your contributions.

Q&A: Why tapping retirement cash early shouldn’t be done lightly

Dear Liz: I’m reaching out on behalf of my father, who does not know how to write emails. He was wondering if he pulls his money out of his IRA, how much will he get charged? Also, how much would he be able to give to his granddaughters without being charged?

Answer: Withdrawals from IRAs and most other retirement accounts are taxable. The tax bill will depend on his tax bracket and whether his contributions were pre-tax (deductible) or after-tax (non-deductible). If he withdraws money before age 59 1/2, he also may face tax penalties. A premature withdrawal can easily trigger a tax bill of 25% to 50%. Once the money is withdrawn, it also loses all the future tax-deferred returns it could have earned.

If he gives the money to his granddaughters, it’s unlikely he would face an additional tax bill. He would be required to file a gift tax return if the amount exceeded $14,000 per recipient in a year, but he would only have to pay gift taxes if the total amount he gives away in his lifetime over that limit exceeds $5.49 million.

Clearly, taking money out of a retirement account is a big deal and something that shouldn’t be done lightly. At the very least, your dad should consult a tax pro who can estimate the bill he’s likely to face. He’d be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner as well so he understands the potential effect this withdrawal could have on his future standard of living.

Q&A: Avoid running out of money before you run out of breath

Dear Liz: I have two questions regarding the required minimum distributions from retirement accounts at 70½ years old. If I started taking 15% per year at 68, would I still be required to follow the IRS tables and take 27.4% at 70½? Also, can I take the required minimum distributions and roll them into a Roth?

Answer: Please, please, please hire a tax pro before you do anything else. Required minimum distributions can get complicated, and the cost of getting it wrong is huge. If you don’t withdraw enough, you’ll pay a whopping 50% federal penalty on the amount you should have withdrawn but didn’t. If you withdraw too much, you’re paying unnecessary taxes and losing years of future tax-deferred growth.

Which is exactly where you were headed. The IRS table to which you refer does not say you need to withdraw 27.4% of your nest egg at 70½. The 27.4 number is the distribution period. You divide your account balances by that figure to get the amount you’re supposed to withdraw the first year. Think about it: otherwise, your retirement accounts would be emptied within four years.

Even withdrawing 15% a year would exhaust your funds relatively quickly. A sustainable withdrawal rate — one that leaves you a reasonable chance of not running out of money before you run out of breath — is closer to 4%.

There are situations where you might want to start distributions early, even if you don’t need the money. Diligent savers might discover that their distributions would push them into a higher tax bracket if they wait until age 70½ to begin. When that’s the case, it can make sense to withdraw just enough to “fill out” their current tax bracket and pay a lower rate now rather than a higher rate later.

Here’s a simplified illustration. Let’s say a couple in their 60s has a large retirement portfolio and waiting until their 70s to start withdrawals would push them from their current 15% bracket to the 25% bracket. Instead, they might begin taking distributions early. If their current taxable income is around $30,000, for example, they could withdraw as much as $45,900 before being kicked into the 25% bracket, which begins at $75,900 for married couples.

These calculations have lots of moving parts, including different tax rates for taxable investments and for Social Security. That’s another reason to have a tax pro help you run the numbers.

Your pro will tell you that you can’t avoid taxes by rolling required minimum distributions into a Roth. You can contribute new money to a Roth, but only if you have earned income and your modified adjusted gross income is under certain limits. Those limits start to phase out at $118,000 for single filers and $186,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Make your teen a millionaire this summer

Gary Sidder set up Roth IRAs for his sons when they turned 13. Each year, the Littleton, Colorado, certified financial planner and his wife, Francie Steinzeig, a school psychologist, contributed an amount equal to whatever the two boys earned cutting lawns, shoveling snow and doing odd jobs. As the sons’ earnings increased, so did the parental contributions.

“Initially we started with $400, and now we do $5,500 for each,” the annual maximum allowable contribution, says Sidder, whose sons are 32 and 27. “Now that their accounts are worth more than $100,000 and $65,000, respectively, they do see the value of saving and starting early.”

Even if no further contributions are made, both sons could see their accounts top $1 million by retirement age, assuming conservative 7 percent average annual returns.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how setting up your kids with an IRA could pay off big dividends for their future.