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?

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.

Q&A: Don’t run out of money in retirement: Here’s how much to use per year, and why

Dear Liz: I am confused about “safe withdrawal rates” from retirement accounts. I’ve read that withdrawing 4% of savings each year is the gold standard that financial planners utilize to ensure that life savings are preserved in retirement.

However, if the Standard & Poor’s 500 index returns on average 8% a year, and if the life savings are locked down in a mutual fund that is indexed to the S&P 500, then shouldn’t the annual withdrawal amount, to preserve those savings, be 8%? Limiting my withdrawals to 4% means my retirement would be pushed several years down the road. Can you clarify?

Answer: It’s good you asked this question before you retired, rather than afterward when it might have been too late.

You’re right that on average, the S&P 500 has returned at least 8% annualized returns in every rolling 30-year period since 1926. (“Rolling” means each 30-year period starting in 1926, then 1927, then 1928, and so on.)

But the market doesn’t return 8% each and every year. Some years are up a lot more. And some are down — way down. In 2008, for example, the S&P 500 lost about 37% of its value in a single year.

Such big downturns are especially risky for retirees, because retirees are drawing money from a shrinking pool of assets. The money they withdraw doesn’t have the chance to benefit from the inevitable rebound when stock prices recover. Bad markets, particularly at the beginning of someone’s retirement, can dramatically increase the odds of running out of money.

Inflation also can vary, as can returns on cash and bonds. All these factors play a role in how long a pot of money can be expected to last. The “4% rule” resulted from research by financial planner William Bengen, who in the 1990s examined historical returns from 1926 to 1976. Bengen found there was no period when an initial 4% withdrawal, adjusted each year afterward for inflation, would have exhausted a diversified investment portfolio of stocks and bonds in less than 33 years.

Some subsequent research has suggested a 3% initial withdrawal rate might be better, especially for early retirees or those with more conservative, bond-heavy portfolios.

Free online calculators can give you some idea of whether you’re on track to retire. A good one to check out is T. Rowe Price’s retirement income calculator. But you’d be smart to run your findings past a fee-only financial planner as well. The decisions you make in the years around retirement are often irreversible, and what you don’t know can hurt you.