How to create a retirement paycheck that lasts

Saving and investing for retirement may actually be easier than deciding how to safely spend what you’ve accumulated.

Withdraw too much and you could run out of money. Withdraw too little and you might stint on some retirement pleasures you could actually afford. Taxes and Medicare premiums should be considered, too, since both could be inflated by the wrong withdrawal strategies.

Financial planners use powerful software to model various ways to tap retirement funds so they can recommend the best options for their clients. Recently, some companies introduced similar software that consumers can use to find the most tax-efficient, sustainable strategies.

In my latest for the Associated Press, a look at the pros and cons of these new programs.

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: I agree with this concept of delaying Social Security to lessen overall taxes and have a further suggestion. My spouse and I are gradually converting our traditional IRA account funds to Roth IRAs. The converted funds are immediately taxable but could continue to gain in value and future distributions would not be taxable. Also, Roth accounts don’t have required minimum distributions.

Answer: Conversions make the most sense when you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

That’s not the case for most people because they’re in a lower tax bracket when they stop working. Some older people, however, do face higher tax rates in retirement — typically because they’ve been good savers, and required minimum distributions from their retirement accounts will push their tax rates higher.

When that’s the case, they may be able to take advantage of their current lower tax rate to do a series of Roth conversions.

The math can be tricky, though, so it’s advisable to get help from a tax pro or financial planner. You don’t want to convert too much and push yourself into a higher tax bracket, or trigger higher Medicare premiums.

If your intention is to leave retirement money to your heirs, Roth conversions may also make sense now that Congress has eliminated the stretch IRA.

Stretch IRAs used to allow non-spouse beneficiaries — often children and grandchildren — to take money out of an inherited IRA gradually over their lifetimes. This spread out the tax bill and allowed the funds to continue growing. Now inherited IRAs typically have to be drained within 10 years if the inheritor is not a spouse.

To compensate, some people are converting IRAs to Roths — essentially paying the tax bill now, so their heirs won’t have to do so later. Heirs would still have to withdraw all the money in an inherited Roth IRA within 10 years, but taxes would not be owed.

Q&A: When should retirees stop actively investing?

Dear Liz: I am retired. My income is from a small pension, Social Security and dividends and interest from investments. I’ve made some bad investments, but I’m still earning a satisfactory return. Is there some kind of formula that I can use to determine whether I should sell a stock, take the loss and seek another investment or keep the stock, enjoy the dividend and worry the stock might drop further?

Answer: One approach is to ask yourself if you’d buy the same stock today. If not, then it may be time to sell these shares. Be sure to consult with a tax pro first because you may be able to use losses on one investment to offset taxable gains on another.

You also might ask yourself if it’s time to transition away from active investing and individual stocks. Most people aren’t able to buy the stock of enough companies to be truly diversified. Then there’s the daunting task of staying up to date on the fortunes and prospects of each company and industry. That’s way more work than most people can handle. Even if you’re up for the task now, you might not be in the future.

Also, most people don’t do well with active investing. Trying to figure out when to buy and sell for maximum gain usually results in excess trading costs that lower your returns. It’s also too tempting to hang on to a losing stock rather than admit you made a mistake, or to chase “hot” stocks that have already had their biggest gains.

A better approach would be a portfolio of mutual funds or exchange traded funds that’s regularly rebalanced, either by a financial advisor or a computer algorithm. If you opt for funds that mimic a market benchmark, you’ll be assured of matching the market and getting a better return than most active investors can achieve.

Q&A: IRMAA is not your friend

Dear Liz: My wife and I retired in 2019 and ran into IRMAA — Medicare’s income-related monthly adjustment amount, which increased our monthly premiums. I thought I’d done such a good job budgeting for retirement but missed this. A lot of couples have their best income years at the end of their career and then get blindsided by the cost of Medicare and the adjustment based on their previous income. I will say that the folks at the local Social Security office were very helpful, and they supplied us with forms for an exception based on our new income.

Answer: IRMAA can boost premiums substantially for singles with yearly income above $87,000 and married couples with incomes above $174,000. The increases for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, range from $57.80 to $347 a person per month. The surcharges for Part D, which pays for prescription drugs, start at $12.20 and top out at $76.40 a person per month.

The adjustments are based on your income two years prior (so 2018 income determines 2020 premiums). You can appeal the increase if you’ve experienced a life-changing event. Retirement with a subsequent drop in income can be one such event. So can other work stoppages or reductions, marriage or divorce, the death of a spouse, loss of income-producing property or loss of pension income.

Even without IRMAA, healthcare costs can catch many newly retired people by surprise, especially if they previously had generous employer-subsidized coverage. Medicare doesn’t cover everything; it has deductibles and co-pays in addition to premiums, and excludes most vision, hearing and dental expenses.

How much you pay out of pocket depends on your health, where you live and what supplemental coverage you buy. A study by Vanguard and Mercer Health and Benefits estimated that a typical 65-year-old woman in 2018 could expect to pay $5,200, but her costs could range from $3,000 to $26,200. (The researchers say a 65-year-old man’s costs are typically about 3% lower.)

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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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Recession fears and how to combat them in 2020. Also in the news: What to do if you’ve inherited a Roth IRA, which airline has the most valuable rewards, and get ready to file your 2019 taxes with this checklist.

Recession Fears and How to Combat Them in 2020
Managing an increased cost of living.

Inherited a Roth IRA? Here’s What to Do Now
The Secure Act has changed things.

Ask a Points Nerd: Which Airline Has the Most Valuable Rewards?
Who deserves your loyalty?

Get Ready to File Your 2019 Taxes With This Checklist
Get your financial ducks in a row.

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.

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.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to have a ‘no regrets’ retirement. Also in the news: How to sell your car to family and friends, the debt payoff method that can also help your credit, and your last chance to file an Equifax breach settlement claim.

How to Have a ‘No Regrets’ Retirement
Putting off travel, buying a retirement home too hastily and not discussing expectations are common mistakes.

How to Sell Your Car to Tough Customers: Friends and Family

The Debt Payoff Method That Can Help Your Credit, Too

Today (Wednesday) is Your Last Chance to File an Equifax Breach Settlement Claim
A few more hours to submit your claim.

Who should consider a Roth conversion now?

If you’ve saved a lot for retirement, or your parents have, you could be affected by recent changes in the rules about retirement distributions.

The recently enacted Secure Act eliminated the “stretch IRA,” a strategy used by affluent investors to pass tax-advantaged money to their heirs. The stretch IRA allowed nonspouse beneficiaries — typically children and grandchildren — to take money out of an inherited IRA gradually over their lifetimes. The new law requires most IRAs inherited by people other than spouses to be drained within 10 years, which can lead to much higher tax bills for heirs. (Spouses still have the option of treating an inherited IRA as their own and taking money out over their lifetimes.)

At the same time, the Secure Act delayed when required minimum distributions have to begin for most retirement account owners, increasing the age for mandatory distributions from 70 1/2 to 72. In my latest for the Associated Press, why financial planners say the changes make a Roth conversion attractive for big savers.