Friday, October 13, 2017

Which Type of IRA Should I Choose?

While many people have a work-based retirement plan of one sort or another, that plan may not be all you need to prepare for retirement.  Today we are going to take a look at Individual Retirement Accounts--accounts that you fund but which the government helps you with by deferring or foregoing taxes.

Rollover IRAs:

When you leave an employer that has a 401(k) or similar plan, you are offered the opportunity to roll the money from the employer plan into an IRA.  The transfer has to take place between the custodians (companies holding the money) but a rollover puts you in charge of the investments and often allows less expensive options that what the employer may offer.  

Money is a rollover IRA remains there until withdrawn.  If you withdraw it before age 59.5, you have to pay penalties as well as taxes. 

Individual Retirement Account

IRAs are accounts individuals open with banks or brokerage houses and to which pre-tax dollars are contributed.  When you do your taxes, the amount you contribute to your IRA is deducted from the amount of money on which you owe taxes.  As of 2017, individuals under 50 are allowed to contribute $5,500 to an IRA yearly; those over 50 are allowed to contribute $6,500 annually.  

In order to contribute to an IRA, you must have at least as much earned (as opposed to investment) income as you contribute, or be the spouse of an earner.  

IRAs may be invested in mutual funds, stock, bonds, or just about any other type of investment except individually-owned real estate.  You get to decide where to open the account and in what to invest.  You may choose to have one IRA or multiple ones (but the contribution limit is per person, not per account).  

Once money is put in an IRA, withdrawing it before age 59.5 means penalties on top of the taxes owed.  There are a few exceptions, such as the purchase of a home, payments of medical expenses and payments for college, but in general you should consider money in your IRA to be for retirement, not for the new car or other pre-retirement expenses.

Like the 401(k), earnings within the IRA accrue tax-deferred.  If money is withdrawn after age 59.5, that money will be taxed at your then current tax rate.  Also like the 401(k), you are required to take a minimum distribution each year after you are 70.5.  

If there is still money in your IRA when you die, it is distributed to the named beneficiaries (not through your will), and as is true with distributions from a 401(k) they will owe taxes on the money unless steps are taken to defer them. 

Roth IRA

The Roth IRA is a relatively new type of account. 

In order to contribute to a Roth IRA, single people must have a modified adjusted gross income below $133,000, but contributions are reduced starting at $118,000. If you are married, your MAGI must be less than $196,000, with reductions beginning at $186,000.   You must also have earned income (as opposed to investment income) of at least the amount of your contribution.   

While regular IRAs allow you to defer the taxes you pay on both the money you place in the account and the money earned via the account, contributions to the Roth IRA are taxed before they are deposited.  However, the money earned on the account is NEVER subject to income tax.  

Another advantage of the Roth IRA is that you can withdraw your contributions penalty-free at any time, and since you have already paid taxes on them, they will not add to your income that year.  This makes the Roth IRA a good place for young people who aren't sure what the future will bring to save money.  While you don't want to have to take money out of your Roth IRA, the money is accessible if you are laid off, or even if you need a new car.

While regular IRAs require that those 70.5 and older take minimum required distributions, Roth IRAs do not.  If you do not need the money that is in your Roth IRA, you can leave it there to continue to grow.  When you die, any money left in a Roth IRA passes to the beneficiary(ies), and those beneficiaries do not have to pay taxes on that money.  

"Back-Door" or "Conversion" Roth IRAs

As noted above, the main advantages of the Roth IRA are that you never pay taxes on earnings and you are able to leave the account to beneficiaries without subjecting them to income taxes on the money.  However, as also noted above, if you make too much money you cannot contribute directly to a Roth IRA.  But, there is a "back door".  The law allows owners of regular IRAs to convert those IRAs to Roth IRAs.  If you choose to do so, taxes become due that year on the converted portion.  So, if you convert a $10,000 IRA to a Roth IRA,  your taxable income that year increases by $10,000, giving you an additional tax bill of $2,100 if you are in the 21% tax bracket. 

There are quite a few calculators online that will tell you whether it is likely to be advantageous to you to convert your current regular IRA to a Roth IRA (and it can be done a little at a time, you don't have to move the whole account in one year).  Basically you have to consider how long you have until you are likely to need the money, what  your tax bracket is now, and what it will likely be in the future and whether you have cash available with which to pay the taxes. 

Those who do not qualify to put money into a Roth IRA directly are allowed to convert a regular IRA into a Roth IRA.

Which IRA Is Best for Me?

The advantage of a regular IRA is immediate tax relief.  Tax brackets this year for those with taxable income over $91,000 range from 28% to 39.6%.  In those cases, a regular IRA allows you to invest 1/3 more money than a Roth IRA does.  If you are in peak earning years and expect your tax bracket to decrease significantly after retirement, the regular IRA may be your best bet, particularly if you plan to withdraw (and spend) the money.

While the Roth IRA does not give you immediate tax relief, you never owe taxes on the money from the account and you never have to take money out of it.  If you expect your tax bracket later in life to be similar to or higher than your current bracket, the Roth becomes more attractive.  

The main thing to remember about either IRA is that it doesn't make money unless you put money in it, there won't be any money to take out.  
Disease Called Debt

Friday, October 6, 2017

How to Get the Most From Your Work-Based Retirement Program


Work-based Defined Benefit Program:

Unless you work for the governement or a non-profit, you are unlikely to have this available to you.  These are traditional pensions where employers contribute on behalf of employees and guarantee to pay a specific benefit for the life of the employee, based on a number of factors, including the number of years employed, the average salary and the final salary.  

The main advantage of these pensions is that the employer takes the risk.  Contributions from employees may be required, and if so, the amount is not optional.  However, at the end of the day, you will know what you will receive and some of these pensions, particularly for school teachers or military personnel, can be very generous compared to the size of the paycheck.

The main disadvantage of these pensions is that they are not portable.  If you swich employers, voluntarily or not,  you may lose benefits.  They may give you some money upon leaving a job, but it it is probably not worth as much as the pension would be.  For example, I taught in Louisiana public schools for two years, and money for teacher's retirement was deducted from my check.  When I left, they refunded my contributions, but not those of the school system, and I received no interest.  

If you participate in such a plan, you need to know  the vesting schedule.  At what point will you be eligible for payments, and how much will you get?  The last thing you want to do is to leave a job a year or two before you would become eligible for a pension.  

Most pensions have some provision for continuing benefits to a spouse after your death in return for smaller payments during your life.  However, once you (and your spouse if that option is chosen) die, the pension is no longer an asset and cannot be left to your heirs.

Some pensions will allow a lump-sum distribution when you retire, which give you the ability to leave left-over money to heirs, but it comes at the cost of a guaranteed check for the rest of your life.

Generally speaking pension income is taxable income in the year it is received.

Some places that offer defined benefit plans also offer defined contribution plans which are a boon to those who do not plan long-term employment with that employer.

To get the most from a defined contribution plan, consider the vesting schedule carefully in making decisions about continued employment, so that you do not leave right before additonal benefits would be due to you.  In picking  your pension payout, consider other assets available and the age of your spouse to pick the type of payout that will likely be worth the most in your situation.

Work-based Defined Contribution Program

These are the 401(k), 403(b) and similar accounts.  Instead of guaranteeing how much money you will receive when you retire, employers who use these plans define how much they will contribute on your behalf (and sometimes that contributioin is $0).  Employers often "encourage" employees to contribute by making employer contributions "matches" rather than outright grants.  

Employee contributions to these plans are made on a tax-deferred basis, which means you pay income taxes on the money when you take it out of the account, rather than when you put it in.  If you are in the 15% tax bracket that means that $100 contributed to the plan reduces your paycheck by $85.  As long as money stays inside the plan, no taxes are assessed on earnings.  

Employers usually contract with an investment company to run the plan.  Usually employees are offered a variety of investment choices--usually mutual funds or similar--and the employee has to decide how to invest his or her account.

If an employer offers to match employee contributions, employees should do their best to contribute enough to get the maximum match--after all a guaranteed doubling of your money the first year is impossible to find in any other investment.  

As far as how much an employee should contribute to an employer plan once a maximum match has been achieved, that depends on the quality of the offered choices and the expenses related to the plan.  My husband's plan has only high-expense funds with mediocre returns.  We get his match and don't add more to that account.  My office plan is pretty good so we make substantial contributions.

Some companies allow you to borrow from your 401(k), others (like mine) do not.  The only way we could access the considerable money in that account (I've been there over twenty years) is for me to quit.  If I quit and wanted to spend that money before I was 59.5 years old, not only would I have to pay taxes on that money at my then-current rate, I would have to pay a penalty.

When employees leave a job with a defined contribution plan, they can always take their contributions with them.  Federal law requires that employees who have been at a job at least three years be allowed to take some of the employer contributions with them (partial vesting) and that those who have been there at least five years be allowed to take all of the employer contributions with them (full vesting).  Often employees who leave are offered to option of maintaining their accounts in the employer program or of moving them to an IRA.  While employer programs are a little more protected from creditors than IRAs, IRAs give you a wider range of investment options, and often lower fees. Having all  your accounts in one place can also simplifiy monitoring and bookkeeping.

Employees who leave a company are also offered the opportunity to "cash out" their retirement accounts.  For employees who are under 59.5, this means paying a penalty on top of taxes, and if your distribution is substantial, it could push you into a higher tax bracket, thereby costing you even more in taxes.  Unless there is an urgent need for the money, this option is not recommended for anyone.   

When you retire and withdraw money from your plan, it is taxed as ordinary income, since no taxes were paid when the money went in.  It makes no difference whether the money you withdraw was money you contributed, money your employer contributed or money that has been earned inside the account.  Generally speaking, once you reach 70.5 you are required to take a minimum required distribution from your 401k, and that amount is based on what actuarial tables say is necessary to deplete the account by the time of your expected death.

If you die with money in a 401(k), it is distributed to the beneficiary (ies) you named, and is generally taxable at that time unless steps are taken to defer the taxes.  The steps aren't difficult, and hopefully the custodian will inform you about them, but they would require another whole blog post, so maybe next week.

To get the most out of your 401(k), contribute enough to get the maximum match.  Pay attention to vesting schedules so you do not leave shortly before you would be entitled to more money.  Keep an eye on the investment options and fees to determine whether the plan is a good place for discretionary contributions.

Work-based programs form the backbone of most people's retirement.  Know how to get the most from yours. 
*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich.*

Friday, September 29, 2017

An Open Letter to My New Adult Child



My Darling Daughter:

I am so proud of you!  I know at times college and the years before were a struggle, but  you've made it!  You have your degree and now you are ready to make your way as a adult in this world--as soon as you find fulltime employment at a wage that will allow you to move out.  Until then you may live here in return for a token rent check and any chores I need done.  I love you and I want to see you succeed in this world and so I have the following advice for you:

Get a Job

I know you want a career, an exciting job in a field that is interesting to you, and I hope you find it--but until that happens, get a job, any job--a job that requires you to show up on time every day and that expects you to be self-directed and to stay until quitting time.  One that pays decently would be nice too--but honestly, right now, get a job.  The longer  you don't have anything the more you look like a slacker to a potential good employer.  

Open a Roth IRA

There is an old adage--pay yourself first.  I know that retirement seems like a lifetime away and that you see so many expenses coming your way before that time, but believe me, you can never start saving for retirement too early.  Compounding is magical.

You don't have to put a lot away,but earmark a few dollars every paycheck for a Roth IRA. You can open one at the bank or if you have $1,000, most mutual fund companies would be glad to have you as a customer.

Why a Roth IRA?  There are three main types of tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts.  I talk about the 401k below and if you can't swing both your 401k and a Roth IRA, I'll give you a pass on the Roth. .  While contributions to a regular IRA are made post tax and the account grows tax deferred, the problem with both the regular IRA and the 401k is that you cannot withdraw the money without paying taxes and penalties until you are retirement age (and at that point  you will still have to pay the taxes).  While Roth IRA contributions are post-tax, you'll never pay taxes on the earnings--which if you leave the account alone until you retire will be far more than the contributions.  However, if you need money one day for a wedding, a car, a down payment on a house, or to stay home with my beautiful grandchild, you can withdraw your contributions with no penalty. 

For a young adult like you, the Roth IRA offers both the most long-term tax savings and the most flexibility to use your money for non-retirement needs. 

Take Full Advantage of Company Benefits

You'd be surprised how many employees leave money on the table.  If your employer offers a 401k or other tax-advantaged retirement plan, the first thing you need to know is how to obtain the maximum amount of employer money in your account.  Some employers match your contributions; others make straight up contributions.  Almost all have a limit on how much they will contribute and your goal should be to obtain the most possible.  

Look at your company health insurance plan(s).  Many companies offer a choice.  Generally speaking, the lower the premium, the more you will pay out of pocket.  Run the numbers; do the math.  How often were you at the doctor's last year? How much did it cost?  What is the difference in cost between the high priced plan and the low priced plan?  Cheaper isn't always better,but you don't want to pay more than you need to.

Does your company offer a flexible spending account?  Find out the rules vis-a-vis what you can spend it on, and "use it or lose it".  At least put enough in there for expected checkups not covered by insurance and for your regular medication.  This is money you do not pay taxes on and it is money that in some offices you can spend in January and then spend the rest of the year paying off.  

Learn About Investing

No one cares more about your money than you do.  You are an intelligent woman.  You can learn about basic investment--the advantages and disadvantages of various categories, by reading my blog or any good basic investing book.  You don't have to turn investing into a second job or even a hobby but you should have a good basic idea of what words like "stock" "bond" and "mutual fund" mean and how you can make and lose money.  

Get a Credit Card

Another old saying is that it is easy to borrow money when you don't need it.  Keep an eye on all those credit card applications you get in the mail and apply for one or two that don't charge a  yearly fee.  Keep them in your wallet for emergencies or use then as a convenient means of payment.  DO NOT make minimum payments--unless it is an emergency (like a doctor's visit, not like a hot date for which you NEEDED a new outfit) if you can't afford to pay the bill at the end of the month, you can't afford to buy it.  

Remember that Things Will Have to Be Replaced

The main thing I'm thinking of is your car.  We've been blessed financially and chose to bless  you with your first set of wheels.  Hopefully it will last you at least three more years.  However, it isn't a new car and old cars need to be fixed and eventually replaced.  Put some money aside every month for these expenses so you don't end up with a car payment.  

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old

Remember that Girl Scout song?  It works in life too.  I know you are feeling kind of "tribeless" and it is hard to get used to a world where not everyone is your age and at your stage in life.  Keep your eyes open and a smile on your face and let your beautiful personality shine through.  You'll eventually find a whole new tribe.

Don't Forget We Love You and Know You Will Succeed.

Love, 
Mom


*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich.*