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.

Q&A: When waiting to take Social Security doesn’t make sense

Dear Liz: I receive $2,400 per month in Social Security. My wife, who turned 66 in early April, was told by the Social Security Administration that her retirement benefit will be about $800. Can I get spousal benefits for her of $1,200, less what her Social Security amount will be? My problem is that she wants to wait to get her maximum amount of Social Security. Could she start spousal benefits now or does she have to wait until age 70?

Answer: Waiting would be pointless. Even though she would boost her retirement benefit by 8% each year, or a total of 32% by age 70, she still would receive less than if she just signed up for spousal benefits now.

Because she has reached her full retirement age of 66, her spousal benefit would equal 50% of what you’re receiving. (Technically, she will receive her own benefit plus an additional amount that brings her up to 50% of your benefit.)

Delayed retirement credits, which increase retirement benefits between full retirement age and age 70, don’t compound but increase benefits by two-thirds of 1% each month. There are no delayed retirement credits for spousal benefits, but spousal benefits are reduced when people start them before their own full retirement age.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The myRA program is dead. But there is an alternative. Also in the news: Borrowing money from friends and family when you’re in a jam, and four financial milestones to reach before you retire.

Obama-Era Retirement Plan Is Dead. Here’s an Alternative
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Ask Brianna: Should I Borrow Money From Family and Friends?
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4 financial milestones to reach before you retire
Giving yourself a better shot at a good retirement.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Learning how to ditch debt. Also in the news: How to prepare for the change from corporate career to entrepreneur, how to teach your kids to be better with money than you are, and why Millennials are paying attention to their 401(k)s.

How I Ditched Debt: Making Sense of Cents
Every penny counts.

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Making a big change.

How to teach your kids to be better with money than you are
Learning from your mistakes.

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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How teachers can ace retirement without Social Security. Also in the news: Why credit cards are serving big restaurant rewards, making sure your spending personality matches your credit cards, and the one mistake that can cost millennials millions.

Teachers: Here’s How to Ace Retirement Without Social Security
It varies from state to state.

Why Credit Cards Are Serving Big Restaurant Rewards
Everyone has to eat.

Does your spending personality match your credit cards?
Make sure you’re earning rewards you’ll actually use.

This one mistake can cost millennials millions
Stop avoiding the stock market.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How financing a vacation with a credit card could ruin your fun. Also in the news: How immigrants can plan a comfortable retirement, how one immigrant started her financial journey in the U.S., and what to do if your defined benefit pension plan is frozen.

How Financing a Vacation with Credit Cards Could Ruin Your Fun
When the bill comes due.

How Immigrants Can Plan a Comfortable Retirement
Discovering which benefits you’re entitled to.

How One Immigrant Started Her Financial Journey in the U.S.
Studying personal finance is key.

Retirement: What to do if your defined benefit pension plan is frozen
Time for a back-up plan.

Q&A: Start saving early for retirement in case that last day of work sneaks up on you

Dear Liz: What advice would you give to a Silicon Valley professional who hasn’t done a good job planning for retirement? I’m 53 and maxing out my 401(k), saving $24,000 a year with my employer matching my contributions dollar for dollar up to 6% of salary. In addition, I’m saving $50,000 to $60,000 of my $240,000 annual salary. I’m debt free.

I wish I had started saving like this early in my career. Looks like I’ll probably have to work until I’m at least 65 or 70. Any advice on retirement planning would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Your current savings rate is impressive, but you probably should plan to work at least until your full retirement age for Social Security, which is age 67.

Retiring earlier would require you to cut back even more on your spending or increase the odds your funds won’t last you through a long retirement.

Early retirement may be involuntary, of course.

Many people retire sooner than they expect thanks to a layoff, a health crisis or the need to take care of a family member. That is yet another reason why people should get started saving for retirement as early as possible — they may not have as many years to save as they think, and making up for lost time gets increasingly difficult the longer they wait.

Most people aren’t in the fortunate position to be able to save 30% or more of their incomes in their 50s, which means catching up is close to impossible.

You may still have options if your career and your savings sprint are cut short.

If you own a home, you can tap the equity either by downsizing (selling and moving to a smaller place) or using a reverse mortgage. You can reduce your expenses, possibly by moving to an area with a lower cost of living. You can supplement your retirement income by working part-time.

You also should consider maximizing your Social Security check by delaying benefits until age 70, even if you wind up retiring earlier. Social Security benefits grow by 8% a year between full retirement age and age 70, which is a guaranteed rate of return you can’t find anywhere else.

Delaying Social Security is a way to insure against longevity — if you live longer than you think and run out of other money, that larger check can help protect you from poverty at the end of your life.