How to spot a great 401(k)

Any 401(k) can help you save for retirement. A great 401(k) allows you to save a whole lot more.

The difference between a mediocre plan and a great one could translate into tens of thousands of dollars in future retirement money. Plus, a 401(k)’s quality can show how serious a company is about attracting and retaining good workers.

That’s not to say you should leave or turn down a job if it doesn’t offer a great 401(k). But knowing how to spot a best-in-class retirement plan can help you evaluate job offers, negotiate a raise to compensate for what you’re missing and perhaps encourage your employer to make its plan better. In my latest for the Associated Press, learn three features of great 401(k)s.

 

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 ways to fight inflation and win the long game. Also in the news: Why you shouldn’t bank on your business to fund your retirement, how to save on school supplies by tapping your community, and how to tell if a credit card annual fee is worth it.

3 Ways to Fight Inflation and Win the Long Game
Three areas where smart strategies become even smarter when prices are rising.

Don’t Bank on Your Business to Fund Your Retirement
A business failure, health issues or shifting market conditions can leave you unable to fully retire.

How to Save on School Supplies by Tapping Your Community
It’s that time again: back to school, back to spending so much money on supplies.

How to Tell If a Credit Card Annual Fee Will Pay for Itself
Annual credit card fees can be worth the cost, depending on your situation.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: After a fall, crypto winter sets in. Also in the news: A new episode of the Smart Money podcast for kids on where money comes from, can job-hopping help retirement savings, and these states are having a tax-free back to school shopping weekend.

After a Fall, Crypto Winter Sets In
Cryptocurrencies hit a rough patch in 2022, with prices falling and some companies facing serious financial issues.

Smart Money Podcast for Kids: Where Does Money Come From?
This week’s episode we take on money questions from two kids, Ellington and Langston, who want to know where money comes from, where it goes after you spend it and how to decide how much you need to save.

Can Job-Hopping Help Retirement Savings?
Changing jobs often has its pros and cons, but understanding how it hurts or helps your retirement savings can help you make more informed decisions

These States Are Having a Tax-Free Back-to-School Shopping Weekend This Month
You may be able to purchase some of your supplies without involving Uncle Sam.

Q&A: Consider taxes before retirement

Dear Liz: I began converting two 401(k)s from previous employers to Roth IRAs. To lessen the huge tax hit, I decided to do the conversions over the course of seven years. Even with that, the tax hit is higher than I realized and too painful. Now that partial conversions have begun annually, am I required to complete the total conversion to 100%? Or can I stop midway and leave the remainder in the original accounts? Also, is there an age limit before which Roth conversions must be completed?

Answer: You don’t have to continue making conversions. (Before 2018, you could have even reversed conversions you already made, but that’s no longer possible.) There’s also no age limit for conversions, but the older you get, the less likely conversions are to make financial sense.

Conversions are a good bet if you expect to be in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement. If you’re young and in a low tax bracket now, you can reasonably expect that to be the case.

As you approach retirement, though, the opposite may be true. Many people find their tax bracket drops once they retire. Why pay a big tax bill now if you can access the money at a lower tax rate later?

Then again, if you’re a good saver, you may discover you’ve accumulated so much that your tax bill will soar once you’re required to start taking minimum distributions at age 72. If that’s the case, then converting some of your retirement money might save you on taxes overall.

But you’ll want to discuss this with a tax pro or financial planner who can model how the conversions are likely to affect your overall finances, including any Medicare premiums, since those can increase with income.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to avoid bad money advice. Also in the news: A new episode of the Smart Money podcast on being creative with money, how to pay for summer fun, and 25% of Americans are delaying retirement due to inflation.

How to Avoid Bad Money Advice
We are surrounded by bad money advice, and it literally pays to be able to separate the useful from the ridiculous.

Smart Money Podcast: Get Creative About Money With Paco de Leon
This week’s episode is dedicated to a chat with Paco de Leon, author and creative.

How to Pay for Summer Fun: Financing Boats, RVs and More
Before deciding to finance a summer toy, consider your budget, what financing options make the most sense and any related costs.

25% of Americans are delaying retirement due to inflation, survey finds
Americans’ finances are being squeezed as inflation pushes up prices on things such as rent, groceries and gasoline.

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: It appears required minimum distributions will force me to take an additional $3,500 per month from my retirement funds starting in four years at age 72. This added taxable draw will greatly impact my income tax liabilities as I’m now fully retired. Are there any strategies at this time to reduce the hit? As my current income tax rate is 12% federal and 9% state, perhaps I should convert some of these funds to Roth IRAs?

Answer: Partial Roth conversions when your tax bracket is low can be an excellent way to reduce future mandatory withdrawals and save on taxes in the long run.

Let’s say you’re married filing jointly and have $60,000 in taxable income. The 12% federal tax bracket ends at $83,550, so you could convert more than $23,000 of your retirement funds without increasing your marginal federal tax rate. Conversions can affect other aspects of your taxes and finances, so consult a tax pro before proceeding.

Another way to potentially lower your tax bill may be to temporarily suspend your Social Security payments and take more from your retirement funds. Because of the peculiar way that Social Security is taxed, people often face a sharp rise and then fall in marginal tax rates when they have other income, something known as the “tax torpedo.” A tax pro should be able to determine if delaying or suspending Social Security payments could help you reduce the effects.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to get travel insurance without paying for it out of pocket. Also in the news: Hotels tap into hot amenity amid surging gas prices, what rising prices could mean for your retirement, and why you should know which financial phase you’re in.

You Can Get Travel Insurance Without Paying for It Out-Of-Pocket
Holding certain travel cards can be a great way to easily acquire travel insurance. Just understand what’s covered.

Hotels Tap Into Hot Amenity Amid Surging Gas Prices

What Rising Prices Could Mean for Your Retirement Plans
Inflation means your retirement savings won’t go as far. Here’s how to pivot.

You Should Know Which ‘Financial Phase’ You’re In
Over your lifetime, you’ll earn, save, and spend in alignment with your values and goals.

Q&A: How to minimize taxes after you retire

Roth conversionsDear Liz: In preparing my 2021 tax returns, I was dismayed to find out that my first required minimum distributions from my retirement account have pushed me into the highest tax bracket ever in my life and caused 85% of my modest Social Security benefit to become taxable. Since I retired five years ago at full retirement age, I never had to pay taxes on my Social Security as it was the majority of my income. In my remaining years, I wonder if there is anything I can do to avoid paying about $8,000 to $9,000 a year in income taxes!? Even a partial conversion from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA would surely increase my Medicare Part B premium, another financial problem. I am not rich, just average middle class, and my financial goals are to carefully plan my necessary expenses so that I will not run out of funds. I do not need to leave an inheritance to my two adult children.

Answer: You’re probably correct that Roth conversions aren’t the answer now, although they may have been helpful earlier. You also may have been able to reduce the overall taxes you pay by waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security and taking distributions from your 401(k) instead.

You can discuss your situation with a tax pro to see if there are any other opportunities for reducing your taxes. Mostly, though, your situation is a good illustration of why it’s so important to get professional financial planning and tax advice well before you retire. Even if you think you’re well informed, you’re inexperienced — you’ve never retired before, whereas experienced financial planners and tax pros have guided many people through this phase of their lives.

Some of the decisions you make around retirement are irreversible and can have a profound effect on how much money you can spend. Ideally, you’d meet with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner five to 10 years in advance of your retirement date and have several check-ins to make sure your financial plan is sound before you give notice.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 tasks for new retirees that will pay off later. Also in the news: Credit card interest vs. buy now, pay later, forget the fed, pay off your credit card debt, and cities where it’s cheaper to buy than rent.

3 Tasks for New Retirees That Will Pay Off Later
Taking care of one more to-do list early on can set you up for a better retirement.

Credit Card Interest vs. Buy Now, Pay Later: Which Is Better for My Budget?
Key differences, like how rates are calculated and how much debt you can take on, are crucial to consider when weighing each financing option.

Forget the Fed, Pay Off Your Credit Card Debt
Credit card debt is always expensive, no matter what interest rate changes the Federal Reserve makes.

It’s Cheaper to Buy a House Than Rent in These Cities
Purchase prices and rents are skyrocketing, but there are areas where homeownership isn’t entirely out of reach.

3 tasks for new retirees that will pay off later

After a working lifetime of alarm clocks and meetings, you might be looking forward to a lot more unstructured time once you retire. But taking care of one more to-do list early on can set you up for a better retirement.

The following assumes you’ve already done some basic financial planning. Ideally, before you retire, you’ll create a budget, decide when to claim Social Security, settle on a sustainable withdrawal rate from your retirement funds and figure out how you’ll cover health care expenses. If any of those topics are still a mystery, consider talking to a fee-only financial advisor. If money’s tight, you may qualify for free or low cost consultations through the Foundation for Financial Planning, National Association of Personal Financial Advisors or the Association for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, among other organizations.

Even longtime do-it-yourselfers should consider getting expert retirement planning advice, says Catherine Azeles, a certified financial planner and investment consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Although your days may be simpler without workplace demands, your finances often become more complex.

In my latest for the Associated Press, learn 3 tasks for new retirees that will pay off later.