Q&A: Here’s a strategy to save for retirement in a rush

Dear Liz: I’m hoping to retire in three years so I’m saving as much as possible. I’m maxing out my contributions to a 403(b) retirement plan, a 457(b) deferred compensation plan and a Roth IRA. I also contribute $1,000 each month from my paycheck to an after-tax defined contribution plan offered by my employer. A representative from the plan provider told me I should move the after-tax money into a Roth IRA via monthly rollovers as that will be “more tax efficient.” It means a monthly call, which I am happy to do if that is to my advantage. The rep explained it as “a backdoor Roth loophole” that allows one to contribute to a Roth IRA above and beyond the $7,000 limit. Is this advisable?

Answer: If your goal is to stuff more money into a Roth, then this could be a good way to do it.

Roths offer the option of tax-free money in retirement without minimum distribution requirements. That means you can leave the money alone to continue to grow tax free or use it to better manage your tax bill in retirement.

The ability to contribute directly to a Roth phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes of $140,000 for singles and $208,000 for married people filing jointly. People above those income limits can do a “backdoor Roth” by contributing to a traditional IRA and then converting the money to a Roth, since there’s no income limit on conversions. Taxes are owed on the portion of the conversion that represents pre-tax contributions and earnings, so this is usually a technique best used by people who don’t have big pre-tax IRAs.

The “mega backdoor Roth” puts this strategy on steroids. Instead of being held to the usual $6,000 annual IRA contribution limit (or $7,000 for people 50 and older), people make after-tax contributions of up to $58,000 a year to a workplace plan and then convert that money to a Roth IRA. The only tax owed would be on any gains the after-tax money earned between the time you contributed it and the time you converted it. You can have a big pre-tax IRA and still use this technique without that IRA triggering a lot of taxes.

While some plans require you to have left your job before you can make these rollovers, others — like yours — offer “in service” conversions that allow you to convert as you go, which can help minimize your tax bill. People who have to wait until they leave their job to convert will have to pay taxes on any gains the after-tax money has earned. Converting as you go minimizes the taxable gains and instead gets the money into the Roth so it can start growing tax free for you sooner. A monthly call seems like a small price to pay for this benefit, although sometimes the process can be automated. You might ask your employer if they could make that option available.

The $58,000, by the way, is the limit for all contributions to qualified plans. The money you contribute to your 403(b) and 457(a) is deducted from that limit, as are any matches your employer gives you. It’s typically a good idea to max out those pre-tax options, the way you’re doing, before you make any after-tax contributions.

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.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to put 2020 financial survivor’s guilt to good use. Also in the news: The best tips for retirement savings at any age, how COVID-19 is accelerating no-exam life insurance, and is the new Visa Bitcoin rewards card worth it?

How to Put 2020 Financial Survivor’s Guilt to Good Use
Donating time or money can help people who have had economic setbacks in the pandemic — and also those who haven’t.

Best Tips for Saving for Retirement — at Any Age
It’s never too late — or too early — to make sound financial decisions and get yourself set up for retirement.

COVID-19 accelerates no-exam trend in life insurance
Social distancing mandates have hindered the medical exams that are often required for life insurance applications

Is the New Visa Bitcoin Rewards Card Worth It?
Visa dives into cryptocurrency.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Best tips for saving for retirement at any age. Also in the news: Rewards are now standard on starter cards, how to outsmart porch pirates, and watching out for fake COVID-19 testing sites.

Best Tips for Saving for Retirement — at Any Age
It’s never too late — or too early — to make sound financial decisions and get yourself set up for retirement. Here we cover the best moves to make in your 20s and 30s, your 40s and 50s, and your 60s and 70s.

On Starter Cards, Rewards Are Now Standard. Here’s Why
There’s no need to wait until you qualify for a traditional card to earn rewards. You can do it while building credit.

8 ways to outsmart package-thieving porch pirates over the holidays
Take these steps to keep your packages safe

Watch Out for Fake COVID-19 Testing Sites
Scammers are after both your money and your identity.

Q&A: Managing retirement savings

Dear Liz: I’m considering converting an old 401(k) to a Roth IRA. Will the gains from the 401(k) account be treated as capital gains? And can you only convert 401(k) plans you no longer participate in, or can you convert both current and former 401(k) plans?

Answer: You’ll pay income taxes on the conversion. Retirement plans, including 401(k)s and IRAs, don’t qualify for capital gains tax rates. You may be able to convert your current 401(k) as well. Ask your plan administrator if “in plan Roth conversions” are allowed.

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.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The 2 costs that can make or break your nest egg. Also in the news: Buying stocks in a year of uncertainty, getting paid for family caregiving, and how people spent their stimulus checks.

The 2 Costs That Can Make or Break Your Nest Egg
Spending less on housing and transportation could help you save more for retirement.

In a Year of Uncertainty, Should You Still Buy Stocks?
Wading into the market.

Yes, It’s Possible to Get Paid for Family Caregiving
But there’s a lot to consider.

How People Spent Their Stimulus Checks – and What You Can Learn From Them
Use your stimulus check, or any extra money, to improve your financial situation during these uncertain times.

The 2 costs that can make or break your nest egg

If you earn a decent income but have trouble saving, the culprits could be the roof over your head and the car in your driveway.

Retirement savers who contribute more to their 401(k)s often spend less on housing and transportation than their peers, according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute and J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

Better savers also spend less on food and drink, but housing and transportation are bigger expenses that tend to be less flexible. Once you commit to a place to live and a car payment, you’re typically stuck with those expenses for a while.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how your house and your car could be affecting your retirement savings.

Q&A: Here’s why two 401(k) accounts aren’t better than one

Dear Liz: I changed jobs more than three years ago and did not roll over my 401(k) when I started a 401(k) account with my new employer. I’m perfectly happy having separate accounts. However, I’ve read some IRS rules that I cannot understand about being penalized for not contributing to a 401(k) for five years. So my question: After turning 59½, will I face any sort of penalty or loss when I begin withdrawing funds from a 401(k) account that has been sitting idle?

Answer: There’s no penalty for not contributing to an old 401(k). In fact, you cannot contribute to an old 401(k). Once you leave the employer that sponsored the plan, you generally can’t put any more money into it.

What you may have stumbled upon are IRS rules that apply to employers who sponsor 401(k) plans that have a profit-sharing component.

Employers aren’t required to make contributions to these plans every year — there may be years when there’s no profit to share — but their contributions have to be “recurring and substantial.” If the employer hasn’t made contributions in three of the past five consecutive years, the plan could be terminated, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

That obviously doesn’t apply to your situation, and if you want to continue managing two 401(k) accounts, you’re welcome to do so. But consider rolling the money into your new employer’s plan, if it’s a good one and accepts such transfers. That would mean one fewer account you need to track and also could give you access to more money if you wanted to take out a loan.

Q&A: Retirement accounts and taxes

Dear Liz: I am 41 and have had a traditional IRA for about two decades. I funded it for the first 10 years, taking a tax deduction for the contributions. Since I’ve had a 401(k) with my employer for the past several years, I obviously cannot take a deduction for the IRA amount, but I could still put money in. My 401(k) is fully funded, as is my husband’s. Does it make sense to also fund our IRAs with post-tax, nondeductible amounts? I realize any gains we make will be taxed at withdrawal, but I also know that as long as the money stays in the IRA, it can grow tax deferred.

Answer: First, congratulations on taking full advantage of your workplace retirement plans and still being able to contribute more.

You potentially can deduct contributions to IRAs when you have a 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan, but your income must be below certain limits. You can take a full deduction if your modified adjusted gross income is $104,000 or less as a married couple filing jointly. After that, the ability to deduct the contribution starts to phase out and is eliminated entirely if your modified adjusted gross income is $124,000 or more. (If you don’t have a workplace retirement plan but your spouse does, the income limits are higher. The deduction starts to phase out at $196,000 and ends at $206,000.)

If you can’t deduct contributions, you can look into contributing to a Roth IRA — but that too has income limits. For a married couple filing jointly, the ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out at modified adjusted gross income of $196,000 and ends at $206,000. If you can contribute, it’s a good deal. Roth IRAs don’t offer an upfront tax break but withdrawals in retirement can be tax free. You also can leave the money alone for as long as you want — there are no required minimum withdrawals starting at age 72, as there typically are for other retirement accounts.

If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth, you could still contribute to your IRA or to any “after tax” options in your 401(k). But you might want to consider simply investing through a regular taxable brokerage account. You don’t get an upfront tax deduction but you could still benefit from favorable capital gains tax rates if you hold investments for a year or more. Furthermore, you aren’t required to take withdrawals. That flexibility can help you better manage your tax bill in retirement.