I write about ROTH IRAs quite a bit, but someone recently asked me to explain ROTH IRAs so here we go:
A ROTH IRA is best defined by how it’s different from a regular (Traditional) IRA. Here are the differences:
- You cannot deduct contributions to a ROTH IRA, so whatever money you invest into a Roth—you’re going to pay income tax on the year you invest it.
- If you satisfy the requirements, your ROTH distributions are tax-free.
- You can still make contributions to a Roth IRA even after you reach age 70 and ½.
- You can leave your money in your Roth IRA as long as you live. (This is important for people who want to leave behind money for their heirs. It also means you don’t have any required minimum distributions (RMDs) like you have with Traditional IRAs. )
- You must designate the IRA as a Roth when you set it up (the default IRA setting is for a Traditional IRA.)
So why am I so gung ho about Roth IRAs? I like things that are tax free. The distributions are tax-free, the earnings are tax-free, and if you die, they go to your heirs tax-free. That’s a lot of tax-free going on there.
Here’s another thing I really like about the Roth IRA—not only are the distributions tax-free, but the distributions don’t count towards your Adjusted Gross Income. I realize I’m going into Tax Geek Speak here, but hear me out, because this is important.
Let’s say you’ve got a kid in college. You haven’t saved enough money for tuition and you need $10,000 for the tuition payment. Now you can take that money out of your Traditional IRA and not pay a penalty (because you won’t pay the penalty for early withdrawals when you use it for tuition), but you’ll still have to pay the regular income tax on it. So if you’re in the 25% tax bracket, you’ll pay an additional $2500 in taxes to take that $10,000 out of your Traditional IRA.
Now, if you need the whole $10,000 then you’ll need to actually take $13,333 out and withhold $3,333 in order to have the $10,000 and still pay your taxes on it. Plus, the IRA money that you take out goes on your tax return as income. So if you’re applying for financial aid, your aid will be reduced because you’re showing $13,333 more in income than if you didn’t take any money out of your IRA. (And you could use the financial aid—you couldn’t afford the tuition, right?)
Now, if you had a Roth IRA, you’d take out that $10,000 tax-free. The $10,000 wouldn’t have an impact on your tax return and therefore, wouldn’t have the same negative impact on your FAFSA application. See why I like the Roth IRA?
Here’s another example of where it’s useful. Let’s say you’re retired and receiving Social Security income. If your money is all in a traditional IRA or pension, your extra income can make your social security taxable—up to 85% of your Social Security income can be taxed. But if you take money out of your Roth IRA, that will have no effect on whether your Social Security gets taxed or not. The more you have in your Roth IRA, the more opportunity you’ve got to maneuver.
If you’re looking for a place to put some retirement money, my first choice is a Roth IRA. Start saving today, you’ll be glad you did.
For more information about Roth IRAs, here’s a link to the IRS website: http://www.irs.gov/Retirement-Plans/Traditional-and-Roth-IRAs
Perhaps you’ve heard about how great a ROTH IRA is: You put your money in an account and it grows tax free and when you take the money out at retirement time you get it all tax free. Awesome, right? Zero percent is a good tax rate. But if you’re in a high income bracket (see the chart below), you’re not eligible to contribute to a ROTH. But there may be a way around that for you. It’s called a ROTH IRA conversion. Here’s how it works:
Even though your income may prevent you from making a ROTH IRA contribution, there is no income limit for a Traditional IRA contribution. This is important—there is no income limit to making a Traditional IRA contribution. There are income limits as to whether it is deductible or not—but no limits as to your ability to make an IRA contribution.
For example: let’s say you earn $200,000 a year and you have a 401(k) plan at work. You can’t make a ROTH IRA contribution and you can’t have a deductible Traditional IRA contribution either. What you can do is make “non-deductible” contribution to a traditional IRA.
A non-deductible contribution to an IRA pretty much does the same thing as a ROTH—it grows tax free and at retirement it you can take it out tax free. The problem with the non-deductible IRA is that when you take it out, you take it out proportionately with your taxable IRA money.
For example: let’s say you have $20,000 on non-deductible IRA invested and another $80,000 in a traditional IRA that you rolled over from your 401(k) account for a total of $100,000 in IRA funds. You want to take the $20,000 of non-taxable money out. You can’t do it. If you take $20,000 out, the IRS is going to tax $16,000 of it because the non-taxable money comes out proportionately to the taxable money.
(Geek time: 20K + 80K = 100K
20K divided by 100K = .2 or 20 percent
$20,000 times 20% = $4,000 that is tax free
$20,000 – $4,000 = $16,000 taxable IRA)
So this is where the ROTH IRA conversion comes in. If you don’t have any money in a traditional IRA yet, then you can take that non-deductible IRA and convert it to a ROTH IRA with no tax consequences. There are currently no income limitations on doing a ROTH IRA conversion.
If you convert your money into a ROTH IRA, then when you want to take that money out—you’re taking it out of the ROTH. There is no equation determining how much is taxable or non-taxable—it’s all in the ROTH and it’s all non-taxable.
Now if you’ve already got money in a Traditional IRA, this strategy might not work for you because you’d be taxed on those funds during the conversion. If the total amount is fairly low, you might want to consider rolling it all over and taking the tax bite. You’d want to discuss that with your financial advisor and tax person before attempting that.
But if you don’t have any Traditional IRA funds, the non-deductible Traditional IRA contribution and ROTH IRA conversion might be a good strategy for setting aside some tax free retirement income for you.
Incomes where the ROTH IRA is completely phased out (2013):
Married filing jointly: $188,000
Single or head of household: $127,000
Married filing separately: $ 10,000
“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”
You probably have come across time value of money in one your finance classes or at least have a basic understanding of the idea. Time value of money, as defined by Investopedia.com, is “the idea that money available at the present time is worth more than the same amount in the future due to its potential earning capacity.” Basically, money is worth more now than it is later. This idea would not exist however, if there was no concept of “interest”.
There are two types of interest – simple and compound. Simple interest is interest paid on a beginning principal balance only. If you are receiving monies, the interest earned in a given period is not added back to the principal and then applied the interest rate again and appears perfectly linear on a graph. Compound interest is interest paid on a beginning balance and any interest that has accumulated in given a period of time. On a graph compound interest appears with a geometric (or exponential) growth pattern.
The present value of a future sum is the core formula for the time value of money. All time value of money equations are based off this formula so it is extremely important to review. It is expressed as such:
PV = FV / (1 + i)^n
PV = Present Value
FV = Future Value
i = interest rate
n = number of periods
The future value of a present sum is expressed as FV = PV * (1 + i) ^n. We won’t discuss perpetuities or annuities in this post nor will we execute any actual calculations with the TMV formulas.
So how can we use this time value of money concept for tax optimization and more importantly, individual wealth?
Retirement Planning: We have all seen the example where Johnny starts an IRA at age 35 while Susie starts one at 21 and the amazing difference of the account values when they both reach age 59 and a half. This is because Susie’s IRA endured 14 more years of compounding. The choice between a roth and a traditional IRA has important tax implications and time value of money has some influence in the decision. With a Roth IRA for example, the taxpayer can receive tax free distributions of earnings at age 59 and a half while with a traditional IRA, the taxpayer receives an above the line deduction on IRA contributions – given that AGI thresholds are not crossed – and is taxed on the distributions. If your income is expected to increase as you get older and your marginal tax rate is also expected to increase, then a Roth IRA makes more sense – naturally. Do the immediate tax savings of traditional IRA contributions outweigh Roth IRA tax free distributions?
Tax Planning: Accelerate deductions, postponing income recognition. This concept goes hand in hand with the time value of money concept – money today is worth more than money tomorrow. By accelerating deductions you essentially reduce your taxable income and end up with a bigger refund or smaller balance due. Some examples include prepaying your home mortgage interest in a given year, making an alimony payment in December as opposed to January, and writing off an asset using section 179 expensing or bonus depreciation as opposed to depreciating it over several years. The amount of tax savings probably doesn’t have enough compounding power for individuals to make a huge substantial presence but for well established businesses it most definitely does. Examples of postponing income are increasing your retirement plan contributions to a 401(k) plan, legally deferring compensation, and delaying the collection of any debts you are owed.
Investment Planning: Younger people can be more aggressive because they have more time to make up for their losses. A younger person’s portfolio can afford more risky securities such as stocks. As one gets older, the switch to dividend producing stocks and bonds usually happens because the “interest rate” is more stable.
With time value of money, the uncertainty of the interest variable is the most difficult to tame. Those who can predict its patterns the best, tend to make the most money.
I usually tell people that they should be putting money into their IRAs or 401(k)s to save for retirement. And while for many people I still think that’s a good idea, after this past tax season, I’m having second thoughts. Here’s why:
If you are not retired you should not be receiving income from your IRA or 401(k).
Now I understand life happens and sometimes people need to tap into those funds. But if you need to tap into your retirement funds for something other than retirement, then it means that you don’t have enough funds in your regular savings.
Here’s what happens—people tap into their 401(k) when they wind up in financial trouble. It doesn’t really matter how they got there, maybe its medical bills, maybe it was a tornado. The point is they needed money and the retirement fund was all that was available.
They get hit with taxes on the money they withdraw and they also get dinged with a penalty for early withdrawal of the funds. So they wind up being double taxed when they’re already in financial dire straits. Often, the withdrawal bumps them into an even higher tax bracket, making the hit even worse. If they would have had that money is a savings account that they could access—then there would have been no tax implications for getting at that money.
Okay I can hear you now, “Look, Sherlock, I already tapped out my savings account before I went to the IRA. I’m not stupid, I was desperate.” And yes, I do hear you. Where I’m coming from is that as a country, we all don’t put enough money into savings. We all, as a nation, are better at putting money into our IRAs and 401(k)s. We get tax incentives to do it. Sometimes our employers sign us up without our even realizing it. And it makes the IRS happy because they wind up getting more money out of us by giving us a tax break.
What’s that? Yes, the IRS makes more money off of us by giving us a tax break on our 401(k)s because we break into them so often. The sales pitch is put money into your 401(k) and you don’t pay tax on that money. Then, when you take it out, you’re supposed to be in a lower tax bracket so you “win”. The reality that I’m seeing these days is—people are putting their money into their 401(k)s while in the 25% tax bracket and taking it out while still in the 25% tax bracket and paying an additional 10% penalty on the money. The only winner I see here is the IRS!
So what’s the solution? Put money into a savings account. A real savings account—not a “this money is for our Disney vacation account“ — I mean this money is for “Dorothy and Toto blew away with the house and Auntie Em is in the hospital” account.
Savings accounts aren’t sexy. You don’t get any tax incentives to have one. Heck, you don’t even get a toaster anymore! (I still use a frying pan that my mom got for opening a bank account back in the late 40’s or early 50’s. It’s a great frying pan.)
But if it makes you feel better, think of your savings account as your way of cheating the IRS out of a little unearned bonus money. That might be all the incentive you need.
The Retirement Saver’s Credit sounds like an old person kind of tax credit, but, for the most part, it’s really more of a young person’s credit and it gets totally ignored. The coolest part about the Saver’s Credit is that it’s a credit, not a deduction. That means that it’s a dollar for dollar reduction of your tax liability. A $100 tax credit would reduce your taxes by $100. A $100 tax deduction would reduce your taxes by $10 to $35 depending on your tax bracket. See the difference? Tax credits are better than deductions. The Saver’s Credit is for people with lower incomes so we’re looking at 10 to 15% tax brackets.
The Saver’s Credit can be worth up to $1,000 ($2,000 if you’re married filing jointly), so it’s pretty valuable. Basically, it’s like the government is giving you money for saving for retirement – how cool is that?
- You have to be 18 or over
- You can’t be a full time student
- You can’t be claimed as a dependent by someone else
So what are the income limitations?
- Single, married filing separately, or qualifying widower – $28, 250
- Head of Household – $42,375
- Married filing jointly – $56,500
So what do I have to invest in to get this tax credit? That’s the easy part, you can invest in any of the following:
- A traditional or Roth IRA
- Most any employer sponsored retirement plan
The one thing that doesn’t qualify is rollover contributions. Also, if you’ve taken money out of a retirement plan, it could reduce your ability to qualify for the credit.
So if I put $1,000 into an IRA the government is going to give me a $1,000 tax credit? No. I said it’s easy, but it’s not that easy. It works on a sliding scale: the lower your income, the larger the percentage you get, somewhere between 10% and 50% of your contribution. The form you need is form 8880. Here’s a link: http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f8880.pdf
Let’s say you’re single, you made $18,000, and you put $2,000 into a Roth IRA. You’d qualify for a $400 tax credit. You can figure that out by looking at the chart and you’ll see you qualify for a 20% tax credit.
The coolest thing about the Retirement Saver’s Credit is that you can play with it. Let’s go back to the example above – you’re single and made $18,000. You have until April 15th to put money into an IRA, so you don’t have to have this all done before tax time. At $18,000 income, you qualify for a 20% tax credit, but at $16,999 you qualify for a 50% tax credit. So if you put $1,001 into a traditional IRA (instead of the $2,000 you were going to put into the ROTH), it will lower your overall income, making your “adjusted gross income” or AGI, $16,999. Now, instead of getting a $400 tax credit on $2000, you get a $500 tax credit on $1,001 – and you still have another $999 left over to save or spend.
So you might be thinking, “Cool, I’ll just put it all into an IRA!” And you can, but you reach a point where the credit doesn’t do you any more good. The Retirement Saver’s Credit is what’s called a “non-refundable” credit. That means that once you zero out your tax liability, you don’t get anything more.
Let’s go back to our example: you’re single, you make $18,000. This time you put the whole $2,000 into a traditional IRA. Now your AGI is $16,000, that means your taxable income is $6,500 and your tax liability is now $658. So you complete form 8880 and you see that you qualify for a 50% credit which is $1,000 but since your tax liability is only $658—that’s all the credit you get.
Now if you have $2,000 to put into savings, I am 100% behind you saving the full $2,000. But, you may be better off putting some of that money into a regular savings account instead. It’s something to play with. Never sneeze at a 50% return on your investment. Let’s be real, that’s what this is. Even the 10% and 20% return is a good deal. But once you’ve maxed out that return, then you need to look at what other options you’ve got. That’s why I like IRAs. You can figure out your tax return first before make the investment. The absolute best part – you can make the investment with your income tax refund! You can actually do your tax return, plan out your IRAs, and not fund them until after you’ve gotten your refund.
Not everyone will qualify for the Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions, but if your income is anywhere close, you’ll definitely want to at least look into it.
Updated June 1, 2013
Okay first and foremost, you’re not a dummy! But I wanted to make a simple post with simple explanations about IRAs. This isn’t the be all end all of IRA stuff. But hopefully it will give you a little clue about them.