Q&A: Retirement saving after layoff

Dear Liz: My husband and I are both in our early 50s and have been contributing the full amount to each of our 401(k) plans, plus the catch-up amounts since we turned 50. I was laid off in February 2020 and had only contributed $3,000. I had assumed I’d get a new job quickly, but as of now, I still have not. Fortunately, my husband still has a good job and has been able to make his full contribution plus the catch-up. Is there any way we can increase my contribution to retirement savings at this point? Can I fund an IRA if I already contributed to a 401(k)? We don’t want to lose any more ground.

Answer: The fact that you were both contributing the maximum amount — $26,000 each, or $52,000 total — is impressive. That, plus the fact that you’re still able to contribute given your unemployment, indicates your household income could affect your ability to deduct your IRA contributions.

You can still make the contributions, however. Anyone with earned income can contribute as much as $6,000 to an IRA (or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older) even if they’re covered by a workplace plan such as a 401(k). There used to be an age limit for IRA contributions, but that’s been eliminated. You have to earn at least as much as you contribute in the form of wages, salary or self-employment income. If you only earned $4,000 in 2020, for example, that’s the maximum you could contribute to an IRA.

Unemployment insurance doesn’t count as compensation, so you can’t use that — or interest, dividends, pension payments and other such nonwage income — to determine your contributions.

If you were covered by a workplace plan at any point in 2020, the ability to deduct your contribution phases out for modified adjusted gross incomes between $104,000 and $124,000 for married couples filing jointly for 2020. (The phaseout range rises to $105,000 to $125,000 for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money instead into a Roth IRA if possible. You don’t get an upfront tax deduction, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA starts to phase out with a modified gross income of $196,000 in 2020 (and $198,000 in 2021).

If your income is too high and you don’t already have a large IRA, you could use the “back door Roth” maneuver by contributing to a regular IRA and then converting it to a Roth, since there are no income limits on conversions. (You have to pay taxes on any pretax money that’s converted this way, which is why this might not be an ideal approach for those with big IRAs.)

You also can open up a taxable brokerage account and invest an unlimited amount of money. Again, there’s no upfront deduction, but investments held for at least a year can qualify for favorable capital gains tax rates.

Investing in accounts with different tax treatments is a good idea in general, since it can help you better control your tax bill in retirement.

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Comments

  1. Can’t this unemployed woman contribute the full amount to a spousal IRA, since her husband is still working? Why would she be limited to the amount she earned–has the law governing IRA contributions changed?

    • Liz Weston says

      She was covered last year. If she doesn’t get a job this year, a spousal IRA is an option. There are still income limits, but they’re somewhat higher.

  2. Hi Liz,
    I took a retirement package with a compensation of $80K calculated based on my years of service in 2020. Only $10K was paid in 2020 and the $70 to be pay out this year. I get my pension payment now which is not considered as earned income this year. Is the $70K to be received consider an earned income? I now need that as an earned income to contribute to by ROTH IRA. Can I also convert some to Traditional IRA if it is an earned income?

    • Liz Weston says

      Depends on how the payments were characterized. It would be best to check with a tax pro. You can’t convert to a traditional IRA but you may be able to roll it over. Again, depends on how the money is characterized.