Q&A: Which to tap first: IRA or Social Security?

Dear Liz: I retired in 2015 but have not started Social Security. My wife and I are living on a pension and savings. I read an article saying that taking early IRA withdrawals and holding off on Social Security can help minimize the so-called tax torpedo, which is a sharp rise and fall in marginal tax rates due to the way Social Security benefits are taxed.

I made a spreadsheet to compare the cumulative income we could expect by starting IRA withdrawals now and delaying Social Security until age 70, versus starting Social Security now and delaying the IRA withdrawals. The spreadsheets indicate that by taking early IRA distributions and delaying Social Security, we would get a significant increase in total cumulative income as the years go by.

We feel we need a professional to verify our results and perhaps advise us as to which might be our best route, as well as getting an assessment of our income tax implications for the next five years or so. My wife thinks we should ask a Certified Public Accountant and is concerned about the price of a fee-only advisor.

Answer: Your findings are similar to what researchers reported in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning. The tax torpedo increases marginal tax rates for many middle-income households. One solution is to delay Social Security until age 70 and tap IRAs instead. That maximizes the Social Security benefit while reducing future required minimum distributions.

It’s always a good idea to get an objective second opinion on retirement distributions, however. Mistakes can be costly and irreversible. A fee-only certified financial planner should have access to powerful software that can model various scenarios to help confirm your results and guide your next steps.

Q&A: Worried about stocks? Why you shouldn’t try to time the market

Dear Liz: I’m a federal employee with a Thrift Savings Plan account. I’m 35 and have put about $125,000 into my TSP. However, I never changed it from the low-risk G fund so it’s not gaining as much interest as it should. Should I wait for the market to tank before moving it around or is it OK to move it now due to my age and amount of time I have before retirement? I’m worried I’ll move it and I’ll lose the value in a downturn, so maybe I should wait for a downturn to act.

Answer: You sent this question a few weeks ago, before the recent correction. Did you use the downturn as an excuse to hop into the market? Or did you stay on the sidelines, worried it might drop further?

Many people in your situation get cold feet. You’re better off in the long run just diving in and not trying to time the market.

Waiting for a downturn sounds good in theory, but in reality there’s no sure way to call the bottom of any stock market decline. And when the stock market recovers, it tends to do so in a hurry. If you delay too long, you risk missing much of the upside.

It won’t feel good if the market plunges a day, a week or a year after you invest your money, but remember that you’re investing for the long term. The day-to-day or even year-to-year gyrations of the stock market don’t matter. What matters is the trend over the next 30 years — and long term, stocks outperform every other asset class.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: When the market drops, play the long game with retirement savings. Also in the news: Is booking a last-minute spring break flight with miles a good idea, a credit union’s new card goes all-in with 3X points, and how to get a credit card when you’re already in debt.

When the Market Drops, Play the Long Game With Retirement Savings
Don’t panic.

Ask a Points Nerd: Should I Book Last-Minute Spring Break Flights With Miles?
The Points Nerd weighs in.

Credit Union’s New Card Goes All-In With 3X Points
A Florida credit union is about to get popular.

How to Get a Credit Card When You’re Already in Debt
When you need a little wiggle room.

Q&A: Here’s what early retirees need to know about Roth IRA and 401(k) taxes and penalties

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to a Roth 401(k) and a Roth IRA for several years. I plan to retire early. Am I able to withdraw any of my Roth contributions without penalty before I reach age 60?

Answer: Your contributions to a Roth IRA can always be withdrawn tax free, at any time and at any age, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Once you’ve withdrawn an amount equal to your contributions, though, the rest of your money — your earnings — may be subject to taxes and penalties. To avoid those, you generally must be at least 59½ and the account must be at least five years old.

The rules are somewhat different for Roth 401(k)s. Early withdrawals from these accounts are considered a mix of contributions and earnings, so any distributions before age 59½ typically incur taxes and penalties. Even after 59½, the withdrawals could be taxed and penalized if you haven’t been contributing to the account for at least five years.

Roth 401(k)s are also subject to rules that require minimum distributions to start at age 72. Many people who retire with Roth 401(k)s roll the money into Roth IRAs to avoid these restrictions.

Q&A: New rules for required distributions

Dear Liz: I cannot find when the SECURE Act takes effect. My wife, who turns 69 this summer, has a traditional Roth IRA worth about $150,000, all in a single large-company growth mutual fund. Obviously we don’t want to see it depreciate during a certain-to-come down market and then have to begin withdrawals before the market recovers. Would it be wise to move from the mutual fund into certificates of deposit or bonds, within the same IRA?

Answer: There’s really no such thing as a “traditional Roth IRA.” Since you’re asking about the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act, which pushed back the age at which required minimum distributions have to begin from 70½ to 72, we’ll assume she has a traditional IRA subject to those RMD rules. (Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions.)

According to the IRS, people who reached 70½ in 2019 are subject to the prior rule and must take their first RMD by April 1 of this year. Those who reach 70½ this year or later must take their first RMD by April 1 of the year they turn 72.

That means your wife has some time to find an asset allocation that protects her somewhat from market drops while still allowing some growth. A fee-only financial planner could help her customize a portfolio, or she could consider a target date retirement fund (with a target date of 2015 or 2020, to benefit from a more conservative asset allocation). Moving everything to CDs or bonds would be trying to time the market, which rarely works, but having at least a portion of her money in safer investments could be smart.

Q&A: Retirement plans by the numbers

Dear Liz: At the moment I contribute to a 403(b) retirement plan at work. I have another 403(b) with a former employer, but haven’t contributed to it since I changed jobs several years ago. Should I contribute to both rather than just one? Also, my current employer offers a deferred compensation plan, but they don’t offer a match. Should I contribute to that or stick to the 403(b)s?

Answer: Once you leave a job, you can’t contribute to its workplace retirement plan. You could leave the money where it is, or perhaps transfer it to your current employer’s plan. Rolling it over to an IRA, though, could give you access to a wider variety of investments at a lower cost. Fees for 403(b) plans tend to be higher than for their workplace cousins, 401(k)s, and the investment options are typically more limited as well.

You also may want to contribute to the deferred compensation plan. These plans allow you to make deductible contributions that can grow tax-deferred, much like a 403(b), 401(k) or other retirement plan. But unlike other retirement plans, there’s typically not a 10% federal penalty for early withdrawals (although the money will still be taxed as income). Having some money in a deferred compensation plan could give you additional flexibility in the future.

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Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How much you need to save every month to earn $60,000 a year in interest alone for retirement. Also in the news: 9 credit cards that provide travel insurance, how to turn your home into a moneymaker, and the easiest way to shop at warehouse clubs without a membership.

How much you need to save every month to earn $60,000 a year in interest alone for retirement
Nerdwallet crunches the numbers.

9 Credit Cards That Provide Travel Insurance
Accidents can happen, even on vacation.

Turn your home into a moneymaker.
Add some diversification to your portfolio.

The Easiest Way to Shop at Warehouse Clubs Without a Membership
Get into Costco without sneaking in the back entrance.

Retirees’ top money regrets

In a previous column, I detailed retirees’ biggest lifestyle regrets, such as not traveling more before their health gave out and not communicating clearly with a partner about what they hoped retirement would be like.

Now we’ll cover the money moves retirees wish they hadn’t made. The big ones, of course, are starting to save too late and not saving enough, but there are other common regrets, according to certified financial planners from the Financial Planning Association and the Alliance of Comprehensive Planners. In my latest for the Associated Press, learning from the money regrets of other retirees.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why credit cards are targeting ‘convenience’ spending. Also in the news: When you tax refund can hurt more than it can help, how to master the awkward financial talk, and why $3 million is the new $1 million when it comes to retirement.

Why Credit Card Rewards Are Targeting ‘Convenience’ Spending
Convenience comes at a cost.

Here’s When Your Tax Refund Can Hurt More Than Help
How to take control.

Mastering the Awkward Financial Talk
Few conversations spark as much anxiety as those about money.

Retirement dreams: $3 million is the new $1 million — here’s how to get there
You need to start early.

Q&A:Don’t make this mistake with your retirement savings

Dear Liz: My wife and I are in our mid-40s and planning to buy what likely will be the last house we’ll purchase. I’ve decided to withdraw around $15,000 from my IRA to buy down the rate, which will guarantee returns in the form of interest savings, even if those will be less than the returns I would earn if I left the money in the account. My real question is about our current house. We owe around $77,000 on a house that could likely fetch in the low $200,000 range. I’ve looked at it up, down and sideways. Would it make more sense to rent, sell, or rent then sell after a couple of years to avoid the capital gains tax?

Answer: Sometimes it can make sense to buy down a mortgage interest rate by paying more upfront if you plan to stay in the home for many years. The deals vary by lender, but you might pay 1% of the loan amount (one point) to get a rate that’s 0.25% lower, or 2% (two points) to get the rate reduced by 0.5%. For example, paying two points on a $200,000 mortgage, or $4,000, could lower the rate from 4.5% to 4%. You would drop the monthly payment about $59, and it would take you nearly six years for the slightly lower monthly payments to offset what you paid upfront.

You complicate the math, though, when the money used to buy down the rate comes out of a retirement account. That money is taxed as income and would likely be penalized as well because you aren’t yet 59½. (There’s an exception to the penalty for first-time home buyers who withdraw up to $10,000, but they’ll still owe income tax on the withdrawal.) The tax bill varies according to your tax bracket and your state, but you can expect it to equal roughly one-quarter to one-half of the amount withdrawn.

In addition to the tax bill, you’ve also given up future tax-deferred returns on the money. And because most people’s incomes drop in retirement, you’re probably paying a higher tax rate than you would if you withdrew the money later.

A good rule of thumb is to consult a tax pro before you take any money out of a retirement account. The rules can be complex and it’s easy to make an expensive mistake. A tax pro also could advise you about the tax implications of renting vs. selling, although you might also want to talk to anyone you know who’s a landlord about what’s involved with renting out a property.

The simplest solution may be to sell your current home and use the equity to reduce the size of the loan you’ll need on the next residence, rather than raiding a retirement fund to get a slightly lower rate.