Q&A: How to make retirement saving a priority

Dear Liz: One thing I like about saving for retirement with an IRA is that I can wait until April 15 of the following year and then just contribute a lump sum for whatever I can afford to put in that year. Is there anything similar with 401(k)? Or do I have to have the contributions come out piecemeal with payroll deductions? I keep revising the percentages, but then there is a lag time between when I revise and when that money is taken out. It is a hassle. It would be much easier to just make a lump sum contribution at the end of the year to my 401(k).

Answer: Many people have unpredictable incomes and variable expenses that make planning tough. If you have a steady paycheck, though, you’d be smart to pay yourself first by making your retirement contributions a priority.

It’s generally smart to contribute at least enough to get the full company match, even if that means cutting back elsewhere. Matches are free money that you shouldn’t pass up. If you can contribute more, even better. For many people, retirement plan contributions are one of the few available ways they can still reduce their taxable income.

If you discover after the end of the year that you could have put in more, you can still make a lump sum contribution to an IRA. Since you have a plan at work, your contribution would be fully deductible if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $64,000 for singles or $103,000 for married couples filing jointly. The ability to deduct the contribution phases out so that there’s no deduction once income is above $74,000 for singles and $123,000 for couples.

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