Q&A: Restrictions on Roth IRAs

Dear Liz: I read your useful summary of the advantages of Roth IRAs. I recently retired and decided to open a Roth (I know, pretty late) alongside my traditional IRA. I have an investment manager who will hopefully create some gains in that account. One thing that I learned is that I must wait five years before I can begin withdrawing earnings from the Roth tax-free. For this reason, it might be helpful to encourage readers to open a Roth IRA early, with at least a small contribution, to get the clock ticking toward that five-year deadline.

Answer: The five-year rule applies, as you mentioned, only to earnings, since contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn at any time. Once you’re at least age 59½, earnings can be withdrawn without penalty provided the Roth IRA has been open for at least five tax years.

Hopefully you were also informed about the “earned income” rule, which requires you to have earnings — such as wages, salary or self-employment income — in order to contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA. Contributing more than you’re allowed to an IRA or Roth IRA can incur a 6% excise tax per year for each year the excess contributions remain in the account.

If you do have earned income — say you’re working part time in retirement — you can’t contribute more than you earn. If you earn just $5,000 in a year, for example, you can’t contribute the full $7,000 that’s otherwise allowed to people 50 and older. (The contribution limit is $6,000 for younger people.)

If you’ve contributed in error, contact a tax advisor about next steps.

Q&A: Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: I am a retired public employee and receive most of my compensation in monthly payments, for which I get a 1099R form at tax time. The rest of my compensation also comes in monthly installments and I receive an annual W-2 for that. My question is: Can I deposit my W-2 amount in a Roth IRA?

Answer: You must have earned income to contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA — which you apparently have, since you’re getting a W-2 form from an employer. Your ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out with adjusted gross income of $125,000 if you’re single or $198,000 if you’re married filing jointly.

Assuming you’re 50 or older, you can contribute a maximum of $7,000 or 100% of what you earn, whichever is less.

Here’s why emergency savings funds never go out of style

Dear Liz: I was a fortunate individual and able to save enough money to cover my expenses for at least six months in case I became unemployed. Now I am retired with a fair amount of guaranteed monthly income through my Social Security and pension benefits. Any suggestion on what to do with that savings account now that it has served its purpose?

Answer:
Emergency funds aren’t just for job loss. They’re also meant to cushion you against unexpected expenses. If you own a home, a car or a body, you’re likely to experience those in retirement, since all three tend to need repairs as they age.

If you’re new to Medicare or relatively healthy, you may not know that Medicare doesn’t cover all the medical expenses you’re likely to face. Medicare also doesn’t cover long-term care, which can be quite expensive if you eventually need help with daily living activities such as eating, bathing, dressing, getting around and using the bathroom. A study by Vanguard Research and Mercer Health and Benefits found that half of people over 65 will incur long-term care costs, and 15% will incur more than $250,000 in costs.

Q&A: Emergency fund: How big?

Dear Liz: You recently advised a teacher who was inquiring about paying down student debt. You suggested among other things to “have a substantial emergency fund before you make extra payments on education debt (or a mortgage, for that matter). ‘Substantial’ means having three to six months’ worth of expenses saved. If your job is anything less than rock solid, you may want to set aside even more.” Granted, this is in the context of the student debt question, but is that emergency fund advice still valid in light of studies showing the liquidity needs of lower-income households to be much lower?

Answer: The usual advice about emergency funds is often unrealistic and sometimes absurd for most low- or even moderate-income households.

The advice is usually given by financial planners who typically work with higher-income clients. The higher your income, the more likely it is that you have the free cash flow to quickly build a large emergency fund.

An analysis in the New York Times found that a household with income over $200,000 would need about two months to save one month’s worth of expenses. A household with income of $70,000 to $99,999 would need seven to eight months to save one month’s worth. A typical household with two or more people and income of $50,000 to $69,999 would need more than two years to save a single month’s worth of expenses.

As you’ve noted, though, various studies have found that much smaller emergency funds can help households avoid catastrophe.

A 2015 study by Pew Charitable Trusts found the most expensive financial shock suffered by the typical household amounted to $2,000. But as little as $250 can reduce the odds that a low-income household will suffer serious financial setbacks such as eviction, according to a 2016 Urban Institute study.

A three-month emergency fund could be a long-term goal, but it’s not something that should be prioritized over more important tasks such as saving for retirement or paying off high-rate debt.

Such a fund should be a priority, however, over paying off lower-rate, potentially tax-deductible debt. That’s especially true when you’d be making extra payments on student loans. Paying down credit cards can free up additional credit to be used in an emergency, but payments sent to student loan lenders are gone for good.

Q&A: Backdoor Roth IRA contributions

Dear Liz: You mentioned in a previous column that a backdoor Roth contribution could be expensive if you have a large pretax IRA. I was in that situation, and opted to first roll my IRA into my employer’s 401(k). I then made a nondeductible contribution to a new IRA and shortly afterward converted it to a Roth. This allowed me to get money into a Roth without a big tax bill.

Answer: That’s a great solution for those who have access to 401(k) plans that accept such transfers, and many do.

For those who don’t know, backdoor Roths are a two-step process for people whose incomes are too high to contribute directly to a Roth. Instead, they contribute to a regular IRA and then convert that money to a Roth because there’s no income limit on conversions.

Taxes are usually owed on Roth conversions, based on how much pretax money you have in IRAs. But the conversion can be tax free if the contribution was nondeductible, you convert shortly after the contribution and you don’t already have a pre-tax money IRA.

Some questioned the legality of this particular loophole, but Congress blessed it in 2017 as part of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.

Q&A: Here’s why taking money from retirement accounts to pay bills is dumb

Dear Liz: I do not qualify for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, but I have debt on several credit cards with interest rates above 23%. In 2019, I paid nearly $2,500 in interest charges. I would like to remove $10,000 from my IRA and use it to pay off the debt. I would then put the money that would normally go toward the credit card debt ($500 a month) to pay back the IRA. Would this repayment mitigate some of my tax charges from the withdrawal, and how long do I have to replace the funds, if any?

Answer: Coronavirus hardship withdrawals are available to a large group of people, including those who have lost their jobs or suffered other financial setbacks because of the pandemic, as well as people actually diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Coronavirus hardship withdrawals allow people to take out up to $100,000 from individual retirement accounts or 401(k)s without paying early withdrawal penalties or facing mandatory withholding. Income taxes must be paid on the withdrawal, but that bill can be spread over three years.

People who take such withdrawals would have the option of putting the money back within three years. If they can repay the money, they could amend their previous tax returns to get a refund of the taxes they paid on them.

If you don’t qualify for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, then the rules on taking money from your IRA haven’t changed. You cannot take a loan from an IRA, and any money you withdrew would have to be returned to a qualifying retirement account within 60 days or it’s considered a withdrawal.

You would have to pay income taxes on the withdrawal, plus the 10% federal penalty if you’re under 59½. Most states also tax and penalize such withdrawals.

Even if you could qualify for a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, though, it would be a bad idea to raid your retirement account to pay credit card bills.

Not only is the tax cost high, but you’re also losing the future tax-deferred returns that money could have earned. A $10,000 withdrawal now could mean $100,000 less in retirement funds 30 years from now.

Also, you shouldn’t use an asset that would be protected from creditors to pay debts that could otherwise be erased in case you have to file for bankruptcy.

Too many people drain their 401(k)s and IRAs trying to pay their bills, only to find out too late that their retirement accounts are protected in bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the bills — including credit card balances, medical bills and most other unsecured debts — could have been wiped out.

If you can make your credit card payments but want to reduce your interest costs, you could consider a personal loan to consolidate your debt if your credit is good. If your credit is not good or you are struggling financially, you could contact a credit counselor about a debt management plan that would allow you to pay off your cards over time at lower rates.

You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Another option for people struggling to pay off their credit card debt is to ask the issuers about hardship programs. Many are willing to offer forbearance, which allows cardholders to skip payments, or to temporarily reduce required payments.

If you’re struggling, though, you also should make an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney about your options. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Q&A: Required distributions and charity

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you mentioned that after age 70½, one can donate up to $100,000 to a charity directly from an IRA. Can one still take that as a charitable donation on income tax forms? If I have a required minimum distribution of $10,000, but make a $10,000 donation to a charity, does that take care of the required minimum distribution for that year?

Answer: The $10,000 charitable contribution would count as your required minimum distribution for the year and the money would not be included in your income, but you can’t also deduct the contribution. That would be double dipping.

As a refresher: Money doesn’t get to stay in retirement accounts forever. At some point, withdrawals must begin and those withdrawals are typically taxed as income. Congress recently changed the rules so that required minimum distributions now start at age 72 (they used to start at age 70½). But so-called qualified charitable distributions — donations made directly from a retirement account to charity — can still begin at 70½.

Before you make a qualified charitable distribution or any other withdrawal from a retirement account, consult with a tax pro to make sure you understand the rules that apply to your situation. Penalties for mistakes can be high, so it pays to get expert help.

Q&A: Avoid this big mistake when paying off debt

Dear Liz: I am 49, single, with no kids. Until about three years ago, I wasn’t even sure how much credit card debt I had. I had less than $200 in savings and I was just plugging along making minimum payments. It turns out I had over $14,000 in credit card debt and $12,000 in student loan debt. The credit card debt was accumulated not from extravagant purchases but rather from living in an expensive city and trying to pursue a dream career. (I worked only three days a week in my “day job” for about 12 years.)

My living expenses have always been modest, but I made a budget, lived even more frugally, and made large monthly payments. In the process I also cashed out my small 401(k), as I have done a couple of times previously. Fast-forward to now — my credit card debt is paid off, my student loan is paid off, I have about five months of living expenses in savings and a reasonable annual income of $60,000. I have no retirement savings, though. What is my next best step to get money accumulating for my old age?

Answer: You’re to be congratulated for taking charge of your financial life, but it’s unfortunate you sacrificed your 401(k) to do so. It rarely makes sense to cash out retirement funds to pay debt. The interest you saved is typically far outweighed by the taxes, penalties and lost future tax-deferred returns you incurred by tapping your 401(k) prematurely.

Fortunately, the budgeting skills you learned will come in handy now that you’re focused on saving for retirement. Continue to make large monthly payments, but direct the money into your 401(k) if you still have one or an IRA if you don’t. If you max out your tax-deductible options, you can continue to put money into a taxable brokerage account.

You should plan to continue working as long as possible and to delay starting Social Security, preferably until your benefit maxes out at age 70. Social Security is likely to be your largest source of income, so the bigger your check, the more comfortable your ultimate retirement will be.

Also, take steps to protect and enhance your biggest current asset — your ability to earn money. Many people are derailed financially in their 50s by unexpected layoffs and health problems. You can improve your chances of being able to earn well into your 60s by taking good care of yourself, investing in new skills and trying to be a top performer at work.

Q&A: Keeping pace with retirement saving

Dear Liz: My wife is distressed by your recent column about how many multiples of salary are needed to retire. She interpreted the column as saying you must have the sum total of those numbers. So if you need one times your salary saved at 30, three times by 40, six times at 50 and eight times at 60, she thinks you would need 18 times your salary in total by age 60, or $1.8 million if you earn $100,000. I interpreted it to mean that your target would be $800,000 at age 60. Am I wrong?

Answer: You are interpreting the guidelines correctly: You would need eight times your salary at 60, not 18 times. The numbers, by the way, come from Fidelity Investments and are meant as general guidelines for people hoping to retire at 67 (at which point, Fidelity says they should have 10 times their salaries saved). Your needs may vary; some people will need less, some will need more. People who have large traditional defined benefit pensions, for example, may not need to save as much, while those who want to retire early or indulge in expensive hobbies, such as traveling or supporting adult children, may need to save more.

Guidelines tend to be the most helpful when you’re many years away from retirement and only guessing about how much money you’ll need. Once you’re five to 10 years from your desired retirement age, you should have a better handle on your likely expenses and sources of income. Well before you actually retire, though, you should consider consulting with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner for a second opinion on your retirement plans. (“Fee only” means the advisor is compensated only by fees paid by clients, rather than through commissions or other arrangements. “Fiduciary” means the advisor is required to put your interests first.)

The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network and the Garrett Planning Network all represent fee-only planners and can offer referrals.

Q&A: Ask yourself these questions before using savings to pay off student debt

Dear Liz: I’m wondering whether I should use part of my emergency fund to pay off student loans. I currently have $15,000 in an emergency fund to cover three to six months of my living expenses and owe $18,000 in federal student loans. I’ve been feeling the itch to pay off a chunk of my student loans to reduce the years (and interest) I have to keep paying. I’d like to use $5,000 to $6,000 of my emergency fund to put toward the loan. For context, I’m already contributing 15% to my 401(k) and have no other debt.

Answer: First of all, well done. The fact that you have any emergency fund puts you ahead of the game, plus it’s great that you’re also saving for your retirement and avoiding credit card debt.

There are a few things to consider before using savings to pay down your loan. “Prepaying” a student loan is different from paying down credit cards. Reducing credit card debt typically frees up additional credit that you could use in an emergency. Paying down credit card debt also can help your credit scores by reducing your “credit utilization,” or the amount of your available revolving credit that you’re using. Extra money sent to a student loan lender, by contrast, can’t be clawed back if you should need it and doesn’t help your scores as much.

Federal student loan debt has other advantages. Interest rates tend to be low, and up to $2,500 of interest can be subtracted from your income even if you don’t itemize. That is a valuable “above the line” adjustment that can help you qualify for other tax breaks.

You shouldn’t hang on to debt just because of the tax savings, of course, since the value of the tax break usually is much less than the interest you pay. But most people have better things to do with their money than pay down low-rate, tax-deductible debt, especially if they have other types of debt, haven’t maxed out their retirement savings and don’t have an adequate emergency fund.

Which brings us back to your situation. You’ve checked all those other boxes. If your job situation is reasonably stable, then using a chunk of your savings to pay down debt can make sense — particularly if you have access to credit or other funds, such as help from friends or family, as a backup while you rebuild those savings.