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Where the Wealthiest Millennials Stash Their Money

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

There’s been much talk about millennials being fearful of the stock market. They did, after all, live through the financial crisis, and many are shouldering record levels of student loan debt, while grappling with rising fixed costs.

The truth is that historically, young people have always shied away from investing. A whopping 89% of 25- to 35 year-old heads of household surveyed by the Federal Reserve in 2016 said their families were not invested in stocks. That’s only two percentage points higher than the average response since the Fed began the survey in 1989.

MagnifyMoney analyzed data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted by the the Federal Reserve, to determine exactly how older millennials — those aged 25 to 35 — are allocating their assets.

In 2016, wealthy millennial households, on average, owned assets totaling more than $1.5 million. That is nearly nine times the assets of the average family in the same age group — $176,400. Included were financial assets (cash, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, checking and savings deposits), as well as nonfinancial ones (real estate, businesses and cars).

While the wealth of each group was spread across just about every type of asset, the biggest difference was in the proportions for each category.

To add an extra layer of insight, we compared the savings habits of the average millennial household to millennial households in the top 25% of net worth. We also took a look at how the average young adult manages his or her assets to see how they differ in their approach.

Millennials and the stock market

Despite significant differences in income, we found that both sets of older millennial households today (average earners and the top 25% of earners) are investing roughly the same share of their financial assets in the market – about 60%.

Among the top 25% of millennial households, those with brokerage accounts hold more than 37% of their liquid assets, or about $224,000, in stocks and bonds and an additional 26%, or $154,000, in retirement accounts. Meanwhile, just over 14% of their assets are in liquid savings or checking accounts.

By comparison, the average millennial household with a brokerage account invests a little over $10,000 in stocks and bonds, or 22% of their total assets, and they reserve about 21% of their assets in checking or savings accounts.

Millennial households invest most heavily in their retirement accounts, accounting for around 38% of their financial assets, although they have only saved $18,800 on average.

Wealthy millennials carry much less of their wealth in checking and savings, compared with their peers. Although wealthier families carry eight times more in savings and checking than the average family — $84,000 vs. $10,300 — that’s just roughly 14% of their total assets in cash, while for the ordinary young family that figure is around 20%

The Fed data show that those on the top of the earnings pyramid are able to save far more for the future, even though they’re at a relatively early stage of their careers.

Across the board, older millennial families hold the greatest share of their financial assets in their retirement accounts. Although that share of retirement savings is smaller for wealthier millennial families (26% of their financial assets, versus 38% for the average older millennial family), they have saved far more.

When looking at the median amount of retirement savings versus the average, a more disturbing picture emerges, showing just how little the average older millennial family is saving for eventual retirement.

The median amount of money in higher earners’ retirement account is $90,000 (median being the middle point of a number set, with half the available figures above it and half below). But the median amount is $0 for the typical millennial family, meaning that at least half of millennial-run households don’t have any retirement savings at all.

Millennials and their nonfinancial assets

Most of millennial households’ wealth comes from physical assets, such as houses, cars and businesses.

While nearly 60% of young families don’t own houses today, the lowest homeownership rate since 1989, homes make up the largest share of the family’s nonfinancial assets, Fed data show.

For the average-earning older millennial family, housing represents more than two-thirds of the value of its nonfinancial assets — 66.4%. On average, this group’s homes are valued at $84,000.

The homes of rich millennial households are worth 4.6 times more, averaging $470,000 — though they represents a lower share of total nonfinancial assets — 50%.

Cars are the second-largest hard asset for the average young family to own, accounting for about 14% of nonfinancial assets.

While rich millennials drive fancier cars than their peers — prices are 2.4 times that of average millennials’ cars — their $42,000 car accounts for just 4.5% of their nonfinancial asset. In contrast, they stash as much as 31% of their asset in businesses, 20 percentage points higher than the ordinary millennial.

It’s worth noting that young adults in general are not into businesses. A scant 6.3% of young families have businesses, the lowest percentage since 1989, according to the Fed data. (Among those that do have them, the businesses represent just over 11% of their total nonfinancial assets.)

The student debt gap

Possibly the starkest example of how wealthy older millennials and their ordinary peers manage their finances can be seen in the realm of student loan debt.

A significant chunk of the average worker’s household debt comes in the form of student loans, making up close to 20% of total debt and averaging $16,000. In contrast, the wealthiest cohort carries about $2,000 less in student loan debt, on average, and this constitutes just about 4.6% of total debt.

With less student debt to worry about, it’s no surprise wealthier millennial families carry a larger share of mortgage debt. About 76% of their debt comes from their primary home, to the tune of $233,500, on average. This is 4.5 times the housing debt of a typical young homeowner.

In some cases, the top wealthy have another 11% or so of their total debt committed to a second house, something not many of their less-wealthy peers would have to worry about — affording even a first home is more of a struggle.

When is the right time to start investing?

For many millennials the answer isn’t whether or not it’s wise to save for retirement or invest for wealth but when to start. Generally, paying off high interest debts and building up a sufficient emergency fund should come first. Once those boxes are ticked, how much young workers invest depends on their tolerance for risk and their future financial goals.

“It’s never too much as long as you’ve got money for the emergency fund, and as long as they are funding their other goals not through debt,” says Krista Cavalieri, owner and senior advisor at Evolve Capital in Columbus, Ohio.

The biggest mistake that Cavalieri has seen among her young clients is that very few have been able to establish an emergency fund that will cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.

Kelly Metzler, senior financial advisor at the New York-based Altfest Personal Wealth Management, said older millennials may not be able to save outside of retirement accounts yet, which can be a concern if they want to buy a house or have other large purchases or unexpected expenses ahead.

Cavalieri said that’s because young adults’ money is stretched thin by the varies needs in their lives and the lifestyle they keep.

“Their hands are kind of tied at where they are right now,” she said. “Everyone could clearly save more, but millennials are dealing with large amounts of debt. A lot of them are also dealing with the fact that the lack of financial education put that in that personal debt situation.”

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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Investing, Life Events, Retirement, Strategies to Save

Think Twice Before You Max Out Your 401(k)

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Financial planners can’t emphasize the importance of saving for retirement enough: The earlier you start saving and the more you contribute, the better. But should you max out your retirement account? And if so, how do you do it? 

Unfortunately, there’s no solution suitable for all; every individual has a different financial situation.  

But let’s start with the basics: The maximum amount of money you can contribute to your 401(k), the retirement plan offered by your company, is currently $18,000 a year if you are under age 50, and $24,000 if you are 50 or older. If you were starting from scratch, you would have to tuck away $1,500 a month to max it out by year’s end.  

This is a big chunk of money. And although there are multiple benefits to saving for retirement, you may want to think twice before hitting that maximum.  

Remember, this is money that, once contributed, can’t be withdrawn until age 59.5 without incurring penalties (with some exceptions).  

What’s more, putting away a significant portion of their savings to max out their retirement fund doesn’t make much sense for some workers.  

If you are fresh out of college and your first job pays $50,000 annually, you’d need to save 36 percent of your paychecks to max out your 401(k) for the year.   

“Everyone needs to save for retirement, and the more dollars you could put in, the earlier, the better, but you also need to live your life,” says Eric Dostal, a certified financial planner with Sontag Advisory, which is based in New York. “To the extent that you are not able to do the things that you want to accomplish now, having a really really robust 401(k) balance will be great in your 60s, but that would cost now.”  

A few things to consider BEFORE you max out your 401(k)

  1. Do you have an emergency fund for rainy-day cash? If not, divert any extra funds to establish a fund that will cover at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses.  
  2. Do you have high-interest debt, such as credit card debt? High-interest debts, like credit cards, might actually cost you more in the long run than any potential gains you might earn by investing that money in the market.  Still, if you can get a company match, you should try to contribute enough to capture the full match. It never makes sense to leave money on the table.  
  3. Do you have other near-term goals? Are you planning to buy a house or have a child anytime soon? Do you want to travel around the world? Do you plan to pursue an advanced degree? If so, come up with a savings strategy that makes room for your nonretirement goals as well. That way you can save money for those big-ticket expenses and will be less likely to turn to credit cards or other borrowing methods. 

Maximize your 401(k) contributions

If your emergency fund is flush, your bills are paid and you’re saving for big expenses, you are definitely ready to beef up your retirement contributions.   

First, you’ll want to figure out how much to save.   

At the very least, as we said above, you should contribute enough to qualify for any employer match available to you. This is money your employer promises to contribute toward your retirement fund. There are several different ways a company decides how much to contribute to your 401(k), but the takeaway is the same no matter what — if you miss out on the match, you are leaving free money on the proverbial table. 

If you are comfortable enough to start saving more, here is a good rule of thumb: Save 10 percent of each paycheck for retirement, though you don’t have to get up to 10 percent all at once.  

For instance, try adding 1 percent more to your retirement fund every six months. Some retirement plans even offer automatic step-up contributions, where your contributions are automatically increased by 1 or 2 percent each year. 

Larry Heller, a New York-based certified financial planner and president of Heller Wealth Management, suggests that you increase your contribution amount for the next three pay periods and repeat again until you hit your maximum.  

“You will be surprised that many people can adjust with a little extra taken out of their paycheck,” Heller said.   

Once you’re in the groove of saving for retirement, consider using unexpected windfalls to boost your savings. If you get an annual bonus, for example, you can beef up your 401(k) contribution sum if you haven’t yet met your contribution limit.  

A word of caution: If you’re nearing the maximum contribution for the year, rein in your savings. You can be penalized by the IRS for overcontributing. 

If your goal is to save $18,000 for 2017, check how much you’ve contributed for the year to date and then calculate a percentage of your salary and bonus contributions that will get you there through the year’s remaining pay periods.  

Shen Lu
Shen Lu |

Shen Lu is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Shen at shenlu@magnifymoney.com

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Investing, Personal Loans

Earnest: Personal & Student Loans for Responsible Individuals with Limited Credit History

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Earnest - Personal & Student Loans for Responsible Individuals with Limited Credit History

Updated August 21, 2017

Earnest is anything but a traditional lender for unsecured personal loans and student loans. They offer merit-based loans instead of credit-based loans, which is good news for anyone just starting to establish credit. Their goal is to lend to borrowers who show signs of being financially responsible. Earnest is working to redefine credit-worthiness by taking into account much more than just your score.

They have a thorough application process, but it’s for good reason – they consider different variables and data points (such as employment history, education, and overall financial situation) that traditional lenders don’t.

Earnest*, unlike traditional lenders, says their underwriting team looks to the future to predict what your finances will look like, based upon the previously mentioned variables. They don’t place as much emphasis on your past, which is why a minimal credit history is okay.

Additionally, as their underwriting process is so thorough, Earnest doesn’t take on as much risk as traditional lenders do. With their focus on the financial responsibility level of the borrower, they have less defaults and fraud, which allows them to offer some of the lowest APRs on unsecured personal loans.

Personal Loan (Scroll Down for Student Loan Refinance)

Earnest offers up to $50,000 for as long as three years, and their APR starts at a fixed-rate of 5.25% and goes up to 14.24%. They claim that’s lower than any other lender of their type out there, and if you receive a better quote elsewhere; they encourage you to contact them.

Typical loan structure

How does this look on paper? If you needed to borrow $20,000, your estimated monthly payment would be $599-$638 on a three- year loan, $873-$911 on a two- year loan, and $1,705-$1,744 on a one-year loan. According to their website, the best available APR is on a one-year loan.

Not available everywhere

Earnest is available in the following 36 states (they are increasing the number of states regularly, and we keep this updated): Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Washington D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Get on LinkedIn

Earnest no longer requires that you have a LinkedIn profile. However, if you do have a LinkedIn profile, the application process becomes a lot faster. When you fill out the application, your education and employment history will automatically be filled in from your LinkedIn profile.

What Earnest Looks for in a Borrower

Earnest AppEarnest wants to lend to those who know how to manage and control their finances. They want borrowers to know the importance of saving, living below their means, using credit wisely, making timely payments, and avoiding fees.

They look at salary, savings, debt to income ratio, and cash flow. They want borrowers with low credit utilization – not those maxing out their credit cards and experiencing difficulty in paying.

Borrowers must be over 18 years old and have a solid education background. Ideally, they attended college or graduate school, have a degree, and have a history of consistent employment, or at least a job offer that gives them the opportunity to grow.

Overall, Earnest wants to make sure borrowers are taking their future as seriously as they are. After all, they’re investing in it! The team at Earnest knows that money often holds people back when it comes to being able to achieve their dreams and goals, and they’re all about helping borrowers get there.

For that reason, Earnest seeks to learn more about those that apply for loans with them. They review every line of your application, and they want to develop a lifelong relationship with their borrowers. They genuinely want to help and see their borrowers succeed.

The Fine Print – Are There Any Fees?

Earnest actually doesn’t charge any fees. There are no late fees, no origination fees, and no hidden fees.

There’s also no penalty for prepaying loans with Earnest – they encourage borrowers to prepay to reduce the amount of interest they’ll pay over the life of the loan.

Earnest states that one of its values is transparency (and of course, here at MagnifyMoney, that’s one of ours as well!), and they are willing to work with borrowers who are struggling to make payments.

Hala Baig, a member of Earnest’s Client Happiness team, says, “We would work with the client to make accommodations that are appropriate to help them through their situation.”

She also notes that if borrowers are late on payments, they do report the status of loans on a monthly basis.

What You Can Do With the Money

The $30,000 loan limit is enough to pay off debt such as an undergraduate student loan, medical debt, or consumer debt, relocate for a job, improve your home or rental property, help you fund a down payment, or further invest in your education.

Earnest’s APR is much, much better than you’ll receive on many credit cards, and it could be a viable way to decrease the burden of debt you’re currently experiencing.

The Personal Loan Application Process

Earnest does a hard inquiry upon completion of the application. They’re very open about this on their website, stating that hard inquiries remain on credit reports for two years, and may slightly lower your credit score for a short period of time.

Compared to Upstart, their application process is more involved, but that’s to the benefit of the borrower. They aim to underwrite files and make a decision within 7 business days – it’s not instantaneous.

However, once you accept a loan from Earnest and input your bank information, they’ll transfer the money the next day via ACH, so the money will be in your account within 3 days.

Student Loan Refinance

When refinancing with Earnest, you can refinance both private and federal student loans.

The minimum amount to refinance is $5,000 – there’s no specific cap on the maximum you can refinance.

We encourage you to shop around. Earnest is one of the best options, but there are others. You can see the best options to refinance your student loans here.

Earnest offers loans up to 20 years. Unlike other lenders,Earnest allows borrowers to create their own term based on the minimum monthly payment you’re comfortable making. Yes, you can actually choose your monthly payment, which means the loan can be customized to your needs. Loan terms start at 5 months, and you can change that term later if needed.

You can also switch between variable and fixed rates freely – there’s no charge. (Note that variable rates are not offered in IL, MI, MN, OR, and TN. Earnest isn’t in all 50 states yet, either.)

Earnest Fixed APRs range from 3.35% to 6.39%, and variable APRs range from 2.57% to 6.19% (this is with a .25% autopay discount).

If you refinance $25,000 on a 10 year term with an APR of 5.75%, your monthly payment will be $274.42.

The Pros and Cons of Earnest’s Student Loan Refinance Program

Similar to SoFi, Earnest offers unemployment protection should you lose your job. That means you can defer payments for three months at a time, up to a total of twelve months over the life of your loan. Interest still accrues, though.

The flexibility offered from being able to switch between fixed and variable rates is a great benefit to have should you experience a change in your financial situation.

As you can see from above, variable rates are much lower than fixed rates. Of course, the only problem is those rates change over time, and they can grow to become unmanageable if you take a while to pay off your loan.

Having the option to switch makes your student loan payments easier to manage. If you can afford to pay off your loans quickly, you’ll benefit from the low variable rate. If you have to take it slow and need stability because you lost a source of income, you can switch to a fixed rate. Note that switching can only take place once every 6 months.

Earnest also lets borrowers skip one payment every 12 months (after making on-time payments for 6 months). Just note this does raise your monthly payment to adjust for the skipped payment.

Beyond that,Earnest encourages borrowers to contact a representative if they’re experiencing financial hardship.Earnest is committed to working with borrowers to make their loans as manageable as possible, even if that means temporary forbearance or restructuring the loan.

Lastly, if you need to lower your monthly payment, you can apply to refinance again. This entails Earnest taking another look at your terms and seeing if it can give you a better quote.

Who Qualifies to Refinance Student Loans With Earnest?

Earnest doesn’t have a laundry list of eligibility requirements. Simply put, it’s looking to lend to financially responsible people that have a reasonable ability to pay their loans back.

Earnest describes its ideal candidate as someone who:

  • Is employed, or at least has a job offer
  • Is at least 18 years old
  • Has a positive bank balance consistently
  • Has enough in savings to cover a month or more of regular expenses
  • Lives in AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, GA, HI, IL, IN, KS, MA, MD, MI, MN, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OR, PA, TN, TX, UT, VA, WA, Washington D.C., and WI
  • Has a history of making timely payments on loans
  • Has an income that can support their debt and routine living expenses
  • Has graduated from a Title IV accredited school

If you think you need a little help to qualify, Earnest does accept co-signers – you just have to contact a representative via email first.

Application Process and Documents Needed to Refinance

Earnest has a straightforward application process. You can start by receiving the rates you’re eligible for in just 2 minutes. This won’t affect your credit, either. However, this initial soft pull is used to estimate your rates – if you choose to move forward with the terms offered to you, you’ll be subject to a hard credit inquiry, and your rates may change.

Filling out the entire application takes about 15 minutes. You’ll be asked to provide personal information, education history, employment history, and financial history. Earnest takes all of this into account when making the decision to lend to you.

The Fine Print for Student Loan Refinance

There aren’t any hidden fees – no origination, prepayment, or hidden fees exist. Earnest makes it clear its profits come from interest.

There are also no late fees, but if you get behind in payments, the status of your loan will be reported to the credit bureaus.

Who Benefits the Most from Earnest

Those in their 20s and 30s who have a good grip on their finances and are just getting started with their careers will make great borrowers. If you’re dedicated to experiencing financial success once you earn enough money to actually achieve it, you should look into a loan with Earnest.

If you have a history of late payments, being disorganized with your money, or letting things slip through the cracks, then you’re going to have a more difficult time getting a loan.

Amazing credit score not required

You don’t necessarily need to have the most amazing credit score, but your track record with money thus far will speak volumes about how you’re going to handle the money loaned from Earnest. That’s what they will be the most concerned about.

What makes you looks responsible?

Baig gives a better picture, stating, “We are focused on offering better loan alternatives to financially responsible people. We believe the vast majority of people are financially responsible and that reviewing applications based strictly on credit history never shows the full picture. One example would be saving money in a 401k or IRA. That would not appear on your credit history, but is a great signal to us that someone is financially responsible.”

Conclusion

Overall, it’s very clear that Earnest wants to help their borrowers as much as possible. Throughout their website, they take time to explain everything involved with the loan process. Their priority is educating their borrowers.

While Earnest does have a nice starting APR at 3.20%, remember to take advantage of the other lenders out there and shop around. You are never obligated to take a loan once you receive a quote, and it’s important to do your due diligence and make sure you’re getting the best rates out there. If you do find better rates, be sure to notify Earnest. Otherwise, compare rates with as many lenders as possible.

Shopping around within the span of 45 days isn’t going to make a huge dent in your credit; the bureaus understand you’re doing what you need to do to secure the best loan possible. Just make sure you’re not applying to different lenders once a month, and your credit will be okay.

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Erin Millard
Erin Millard |

Erin Millard is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Erin at erinm@magnifymoney.com

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Investing, Life Events, Mortgage

How to Buy a House With a Friend — The Right Way

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

It’s completely possible for you to purchase a house or other property with someone who isn’t your spouse, like a friend or family member.

“It’s a beautiful occasion, but it’s also a complex business transaction,” says Senior Managing Partner of New York City-based Law Firm of Kishner & Miller, Bryan Kishner. “There are tremendous positives to the overall thing, but people need to be careful with the unforeseen items, and a lot of people say they didn’t think about that.”

For friends who are unable to afford a home in their area on a single income, or cohabiting couples, buying a home together can help both parties boost their net worth or simply achieve a goal of becoming a homeowner.

That being said, purchasing a home with a friend can be more complicated than buying a house with your spouse. The key to a successful co-homeownership arrangement is to set yourselves up for success from the get-go.

Choose the Right Joint Homeownership Structure

When you buy a home, you’ll get a title, which proves the property is yours. The paper the title is printed on is called a deed, and it explains how you, the co-owners, have agreed to share the title. The way the title is structured becomes important when you need to figure out what happens when a co-owner needs to part with the property.

These are the two most common ways to approach joint homeownership:

1. Tenants in Common

A tenants in common, or tenancy in common, is the most common structure people use when they purchase a property for personal use. This outlines who owns what percentage of the property and allows each owner to control what happens if they pass away. For example, a co-owner can pass their share onto any beneficiaries in a will, and that will be honored.

The TIC allows co-owners to own unequal shares of the property, which can come in handy if one owner will occupy a significant majority or minority of the shared home. For example, if two friends decide to buy a multifamily home, but one friend pays more because one friend’s space has much more square footage than the other friend’s space, they can split their shares of the home accordingly.

Kishner says to make sure you “reference and evidence your intent to use the tenants in common structure on the deed,” as it’s the primary evidence of your ownership — meaning you would write who owns what percentage of the property on the deed and note the parties chose a TIC structure.

The Pros of a TIC structure

Ownership can be unevenly split

You can own as much or as little as you want of the property as long as the combined ownership adds up to 100%. So, if you’re putting up 60% of the down payment, you can work it out with the other co-owner(s) to own 60% of the property on the title.

You don’t have to live there

You can own part of the property without living there. This is relevant for someone who simply wants to be a partial owner, but doesn’t want to live at the property.

You get to decide what happens to your share after you pass away

The TIC allows you the flexibility to decide what happens to your interest in the property in the event you pass away. You can decide if it will go to the other co-owners or to an heir. Regardless, the decision is yours.

The Cons of a TIC structure

Co-owners can sell their interest without telling you

Co-owners in a TIC can sell their interest in the property at any time, without the permission of others in the agreement. However, if they are also on the mortgage loan, they are still on the hook to make payments, says Rafael Reyes, a loan officer based in New York City.

2. Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship

This arrangement is different from a tenants in common arrangement in that in the case of one co-owner’s death, the deceased party’s shares will be automatically absorbed by the living co-owners. For this reason, this type of structure is more common among family members or cohabiting partners looking to purchase property together.

If, for example, you are purchasing with a family member and would like them to automatically absorb your portion in case you pass away unexpectedly, this is the option you’d go with. Even if the deceased has it written in their will to pass their interest to a beneficiary, that likely won’t be honored.

A joint tenants agreement requires these four essential components:

  1. Co-owners must all acquire the property at the same time.
  2. Co-owners must all have the same title on assets.
  3. Each co-owner must own equal interests in the property. So if you buy with one friend, you’ll own 50%, but if you buy with two friends, you’d own one-third of the property. This may be an important consideration if co-owners will occupy different amounts of space in the property.
  4. Co-owners must each have the same right to possess the entirety of the assets.

The Pros of a joint tenants agreement

Everyone owns an equal share in the property

There’s not arguing over shares if you go with a joint tenants arrangement, since it requires all co-owners to have an equal interest. So each co-owner has the same right to use, take loans out against, or sell the property.

No decisions to make if someone dies

There’s nothing for co-owners or family members to fight over after you pass away. Your ownership shares are automatically inherited by the other co-owners when you pass away, regardless of what might be written in a will.

The Cons of a joint tenants agreement

Equal ownership

Equal ownership can be a con as much as it’s a pro. If you’re going to occupy more than 50% of the space, or put up more of the mortgage or down payment, you may want to own more than your equal share of the property. If that will bother you, a TIC agreement is best.

How to Create a Co-ownership Agreement

Before you even start the mortgage lending process, it’s recommended to work out an agreement on how you’ll split equity in the home, who will be responsible for maintenance costs, and what will happen in the event of major life events such as death, marriage, or having children.

“You are more or less going into business together” when you purchase a home with a friend or relative, says Kishner. And like any smart business owner, you’ll want to protect yourself in case things go south down the road.

A real estate attorney can help you set up an official co-ownership agreement.

Kishner recommends each person in the agreement get their own attorney, who can represent each party’s personal concerns and interests during negotiation. Rates vary by location, but he estimates a good real estate lawyer would charge around $1,000.

Ideally, Kishner says, this agreement is created and signed before closing the mortgage loan. That way, if simply going through all of the what-ifs scares someone off, they have the opportunity to pull out.

3 Questions Every Co-ownership Agreement Should Answer

The co-ownership agreement you draft and sign will need to address many issues. Here are three common scenarios the experts offered us:

1. What happens if someone wants out?

Your agreement should outline an exit plan in case one or more of you want out of the property. This could be because of a number of reasons but is the area where things can get extremely complicated. For example, what if one of the co-owners wants to be bought out by the other co-owners?

Let’s say you’ve got three people on a mortgage and on the title to a property. If the other two can come up with the money for the equity, you’ve solved that problem.

But if someone wants to sell their interest in the property, for example, Reyes says they can’t just take the cash and walk away, since they’ll still have some financial obligation to the home if they are on the mortgage. So you’d need to also refinance the mortgage to get them off of it, and that could affect the other co-owner’s financial picture. The only way to relieve someone of their financial obligation to the mortgage is to refinance with the lender. That’s because if they leave and decide to stop making mortgage payments, that will affect your credit score.

Be prepared. When you refinance, the remaining co-owners will need to qualify again for the mortgage. If you decided to add a co-owner because you couldn’t originally qualify for the property based on your income, you might not qualify to own after a refinance.

If you can’t refinance, you all may decide to arrange for the departing member to rent out their living space in the household … then you’d need to deal with the issues surrounding finding a roommate or having a tenant. However you all want to go about handling this kind of situation should already be outlined in the co-ownership agreement, so you’ll have one less thing to argue over in a split.

2. What happens if a co-owner loses their job?

You want to be prepared to fulfill your financial obligations if someone loses their income. That’s why it’s recommended to create a shared emergency fund, which you can draw from in the case that one of the owners runs into financial issues (or, of course, to handle any maintenance needs). You can establish the contributions and rules surrounding a shared emergency fund in your co-ownership agreement.

Reyes advises putting away about six months’ worth of the property expenses into a shared savings account.

“That six-month reserve, at least, is important because ultimately, God forbid, if there is some kind of financial turbulence like job loss, they can cover the mortgage or they could sell the home within six months in this market,” said Reyes.

3. How will you pay bills and taxes?

The co-ownership agreement also needs to address how you all will split up housing costs. Kauffman says you should set up a joint account and agree on what each party should contribute to the fund each pay period.

You should consider the repairs, maintenance, and upkeep on the house, as well as things that could increase over time such as property tax and homeowner’s insurance, too, Kauffman adds. In the event those costs exceed what you’ve set aside to pay for them in escrow accounts, the co-ownership agreement needs to outline how the extra bill will be paid.

Applying for a Mortgage as a Joint Homeowner

If you want to purchase a home with a friend or relative, you’ll first have to decide whether or not both of your names will be on the mortgage.

A lender will consider both of your credit scores during the underwriting process, which means a person with a lower credit score could drag down your collective credit score, leading to higher mortgage rates.

Kauffman strongly advises reaching out to figure out your financing before applying for a loan with friends.

“Each of them might understand what they can afford on their own, but they may not be aware of how their purchasing power changes,” Kauffman says. You may find you qualify for more or less house than you thought you could afford.

He adds there are some serious things to consider when you decide to enter into an investment with other people that you’re not necessarily tied to. Carefully consider your personal relationships with the people you’re going into homeownership with.

“You’ve got to really consider who you’re getting into it with and really consider all of these things that are bound to happen when you have [multiple] lives,” says Kauffman.

It can also be potentially awkward when friends or colleagues realize they must reveal aspects of their finances that they might prefer to keep private, such as their credit score, credit history, and total income.

“Oftentimes people learn a lot about their [co-owner] through a credit report, and it becomes embarrassing and uncomfortable sometimes,” says Rick Herrick, a loan officer at Bedford, N.H.-based Loan Originator.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k).

You know that it’s a retirement account and that it’s offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you know that your employer may offer some type of matching contribution.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits.

That’s what this guide is going to show you. We’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 Types of 401(k) Contributions You Need to Understand

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do will be more important than maximizing your contributions.

Because while most investment advice focuses on how to build the perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose. Especially when you’re just starting out, the simple act of saving more money is far and away the most effective way to accelerate your path toward financial independence.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible, adding more money to your 401(k) and getting you that much closer to retirement.

1. Employee Contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over and are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds.

Employee contributions are the contributions that you personally make to your 401(k). They’re typically set up as a percentage of your salary and are deducted directly from your paycheck.

For example, let’s say that you are paid $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), then $150 will be taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k).

There are two different types of employee contributions you can make to your 401(k), each with a different set of tax benefits:

  1. Traditional contributions – Traditional contributions are tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, grow tax-free while inside the 401(k), and are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement. This is just like a traditional IRA. All 401(k)s allow you to make traditional contributions, and in most cases your contributions will default to traditional unless you choose otherwise.
  2. Roth contributions – Roth contributions are NOT tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the 401(k) and the money is tax-free when you withdraw it in retirement. This is just like a Roth IRA. Not all 401(k)s allow you to make Roth contributions.

For more on whether you should make traditional or Roth contributions, you can refer to the following guide that’s specific to IRAs but largely applies to 401(k)s as well: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much money you can personally contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2017, employee contributions are capped at $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

2. Employer Matching Contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer Non-Matching Contributions

Non-matching 401(k) contributions are contributions your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter what. Or they might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, they can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or they could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth After-Tax Contributions

This last type of 401(k) contribution is rare. Many 401(k) plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized.

The big catch is again that most 401(k) plans don’t allow these contributions. You can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description to see if it does.

And even if they are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more, and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

Here’s how they work:

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

A quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  • You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  • Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  • When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. But the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.

But they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  1. You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions IN ADDITION to the $18,000 annual limit on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $54,000 annual limit that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k)..
  2. These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA, when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to Maximize Your 401(k) Employer Match

With an understanding of the types of 401(k) contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. And the very first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return.

You won’t find that kind of deal almost anywhere else.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding how your employer match works and how to take full advantage of it.

How a 401(k) Employer Match Works

While every 401(k) matching program is different, and you’ll learn how to find the details of your program below, a fairly typical employer match looks like this:

  • Your employer matches 100% of your contribution up to 3% of your salary.
  • Your employer also matches 50% of your contribution above 3% of your salary, up to 5% of your salary.
  • Your employer does not match contributions above 5% of your salary.

To see how this works with real numbers, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution every time you receive a paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down like this:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.

That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate, and high return.

How to Find Your 401(k) Employer Matching Program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your 401(k) employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percent of salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above that would be 5%, but the actual amount varies from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your 401(k) employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard.

There are two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match – This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12%, or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage – Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above, and this has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute in order to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid When Maximizing Your 401(k) Employer Match

Your 401(k) employer match is almost always a good deal, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Clock time deadline

Employer contributions to your 401(k) plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your 401(k) employer contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years it will be 40%, and so on until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of that money after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your 401(k) employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-Loading Contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your 401(k) employer match.

The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000.

In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

In order to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your 401(k) contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to Contribute More Than Is Needed for Your Employer Match

Maxing out your 401(k) employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2017 is $18,000 ($24,000 if you’re 50+), he or she would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set his or her 401(k) contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer:

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

Let’s dive in.

What Other Retirement Accounts Are Available to You?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have.

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $5,500 per year ($6,500 if you’re 50+), and just like with the 401(k) there are two different types:

  1. Traditional IRA – You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account, and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA – You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

You can read more about making the decision between using a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA here: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some 401(k)s force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

The only catch is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute to an IRA or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, an IRA may not be an option for you.

Health Savings Account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year, and as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,300 for individual coverage and $2,600 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible though, you can contribute up to $3,400 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $6,750 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a Backdoor Roth IRA.

The Backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $5,500 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward the money will grow completely tax-free.

There are some potential pitfalls, and you can review all the details here. But if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions, this is a good option to have in your back pocket.

Taxable Investment Account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to Decide Between Additional 401(K) Contributions and Other Retirement Accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional 401(k) contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility – If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs – Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options – You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience – All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a Backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The Bottom Line: Maximize Your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your 401(k)’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The Roth IRA versus traditional IRA debate has raged on for years.

What many retirement savers may not know is that most of the debate about whether it’s better to contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is flawed.

You’ve probably heard that young investors are better off contributing to a Roth IRA because they’ll likely be in a higher tax bracket when they’re older. You’ve probably also heard that if you’re in the same tax bracket now and in retirement, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA will produce the same result.

These arguments are part of the conventional wisdom upon which many people make their decisions, and yet each misses some important nuance and, in some cases, is downright incorrect.

The Biggest Difference Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

There are several differences between traditional and Roth IRAs, and we’ll get into many of them below.

The key difference is in the tax breaks they offer.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are not taxed up front. They are tax-deductible, meaning they decrease your taxable income for the year in which you make the contribution. The money grows tax-free inside the account. However, your withdrawals in retirement are treated as taxable income.

Contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed up front at your current income tax rate. The money grows tax-free while inside the account. And when you make withdrawals in retirement, those withdrawals are not taxed.

Whether it’s better to get the tax break when you make the contribution or when you withdraw it in retirement is the centerpiece of the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate, and it’s also where a lot of people use some faulty logic.

We’ll debunk the conventional wisdom in just a bit, but first we need to take a very quick detour to understand a couple of key tax concepts.

The Important Difference Between Marginal and Effective Tax Rates

Don’t worry. We’re not going too far into the tax weeds here. But there’s a key point that’s important to understand if you’re going to make a true comparison between traditional and Roth IRAs, and that’s the difference between your marginal tax rate and your effective tax rate.

When people talk about tax rates, they’re typically referring to your marginal tax rate. This is the tax rate you pay on your last dollar of income, and it’s the same as your current tax bracket. For example, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you have a 15% marginal tax rate, and you’ll owe 15 cents in taxes on the next dollar you earn.

Your effective tax rate, however, divides your total tax bill by your total income to calculate your average tax rate across every dollar you earned.

And these tax rates are different because of our progressive federal income tax, which taxes different dollars at different rates. For example, someone in the 15% tax bracket actually pays 0% on some of their income, 10% on some of their income, and 15% on the rest of their income. Which means that their total tax bill is actually less than 15% of their total income.

For a simple example, a 32-year-old couple making $65,000 per year with one child will likely fall in the 15% tax bracket. That’s their marginal tax rate.

But after factoring in our progressive tax code and various tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, they will only actually pay a total of $4,114 in taxes, making their effective tax rate just 6.33% (calculated using TurboTax’s TaxCaster).

As you can see, the couple’s effective tax rate is much lower than their marginal tax rate. And that’s almost always the case, no matter what your situation.

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

Why the Conventional Traditional vs. Roth IRA Wisdom Is Wrong

Most of the discussion around traditional and Roth IRAs focuses on your marginal tax rate. The logic says that if your marginal tax rate is higher now than it will be in retirement, the traditional IRA is the way to go. If it will be higher in retirement, the Roth IRA is the way to go. If your marginal tax rate will be the same in retirement as it is now, you’ll get the same result whether you contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

By this conventional wisdom, the Roth IRA typically comes out ahead for younger investors who plan on increasing their income over time and therefore moving into a higher tax bracket or at least staying in the same tax bracket.

But that conventional wisdom is flawed.

When you’re torn between contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA, it’s almost always better to compare your marginal tax rate today to your effective rate in retirement, for two reasons:

  1. Your traditional IRA contributions will likely provide a tax break at or near your marginal tax rate. This is because federal tax brackets typically span tens of thousands of dollars, while your IRA contributions max out at $5,500 for an individual or $11,000 for a couple. So it’s unlikely that your traditional IRA contribution will move you into a lower tax bracket, and even if it does, it will likely be only a small part of your contribution.
  2. Your traditional IRA withdrawals, on the other hand, are very likely to span multiple tax brackets given that you will likely be withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Given that reality, your effective tax rate is a more accurate representation of the tax cost of those withdrawals in retirement.

And when you look at it this way, comparing your marginal tax rate today to your effective tax rate in the future, the traditional IRA starts to look a lot more attractive.

Let’s run the numbers with a case study.

A Case Study: Should Mark and Jane Contribute to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

Mark and Jane are 32, married, and have a 2-year-old child. They currently make $65,000 per year combined, putting them squarely in the 15% tax bracket.

They’re ready to save for retirement, and they’re trying to decide between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. They’ve figured out that they can afford to make either of the following annual contributions:

  • $11,000 to a traditional IRA, which is the annual maximum.
  • $9,350 to a Roth IRA, which is that same $11,000 contribution after the 15% tax cost is taken out. (Since Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, factoring taxes into the contribution is the right way to properly compare equivalent after-tax contributions to each account.)

So the big question is this: Which account, the traditional IRA or Roth IRA, will give them more income in retirement?

Using conventional wisdom, they would probably contribute to the Roth IRA. After all, they’re young and in a relatively low tax bracket.

But Mark and Jane are curious people, so they decided to run the numbers themselves. Here are the assumptions they made in order to do that:

  • They will continue working until age 67 (full Social Security retirement age).
  • They will continue making $65,000 per year, adjusted for inflation.
  • They will receive $26,964 per year in Social Security income starting at age 67 (estimated here).
  • They will receive an inflation-adjusted investment return of 5% per year (7% return minus 2% inflation).
  • At retirement, they will withdraw 4% of their final IRA balance per year to supplement their Social Security income (based on the 4% safe withdrawal rate).
  • They will file taxes jointly every year, both now and in retirement.

You can see all the details laid out in a spreadsheet here, but here’s the bottom line:

  • The Roth IRA will provide Mark and Jane with $35,469 in annual tax-free income on top of their Social Security income.
  • The traditional IRA will provide $37,544 in annual after-tax income on top of their Social Security income. That’s after paying $4,184 in taxes on their $41,728 withdrawal, calculating using TurboTax’s TaxCaster.

In other words, the traditional IRA will provide an extra $2,075 in annual income for Mark and Jane in retirement.

That’s a nice vacation, a whole bunch of date nights, gifts for the grandkids, or simply extra money that might be needed to cover necessary expenses.

It’s worth noting that using the assumptions above, Mark and Jane are in the 15% tax bracket both now and in retirement. According to the conventional wisdom, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA should provide the same result.

But they don’t, and the reason has everything to do with the difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

Right now, their contributions to the traditional IRA get them a 15% tax break, meaning they can contribute 15% more to a traditional IRA than they can to a Roth IRA without affecting their budget in any way.

But in retirement, the effective tax rate on their traditional IRA withdrawals is only 10%. Due again to a combination of our progressive tax code and tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, some of it isn’t taxed, some of it is taxed at 10%, and only a portion of it is taxed at 15%.

That 5% difference between now and later is why they end up with more money from a traditional IRA than a Roth IRA.

And it’s that same unconventional wisdom that can give you more retirement income as well if you plan smartly.

5 Good Reasons to Use a Roth IRA

The main takeaway from everything above is that the conventional traditional versus Roth IRA wisdom is wrong. Comparing marginal tax rates typically underestimates the value of a traditional IRA.

Of course, the Roth IRA is still a great account, and there are plenty of situations in which it makes sense to use it. I have a Roth IRA myself, and I’m very happy with it.

So here are five good reasons to use a Roth IRA.

1. You Might Contribute More to a Roth IRA

Our case study above assumes that you would make equivalent after-tax contributions to each account. That is, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you would contribute 15% less to a Roth IRA than to a traditional IRA because of the tax cost.

That’s technically the right way to make the comparison, but it’s not the way most people think.

There’s a good chance that you have a certain amount of money you want to contribute and that you would make that same contribution to either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Maybe you want to max out your contribution and the only question is which account to use.

If that’s the case, a Roth IRA will come out ahead every time simply because that money will never be taxed again.

2. Backdoor Roth IRA

If you make too much to either contribute to a Roth IRA or deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, you still might be eligible to do what’s called a backdoor Roth IRA.

If so, it’s a great way to give yourself some extra tax-free income in retirement, and you can only do it with a Roth IRA.

3. You Might Have Other Income

Social Security income was already factored into the example above. But any additional income, such as pension income, would increase the cost of those traditional IRA withdrawals in retirement by increasing both the marginal and effective tax rate.

Depending on your other income sources, the tax-free nature of a Roth IRA may be helpful.

4. Tax Diversification

You can make the most reasonable assumptions in the world, but the reality is that there’s no way to know what your situation will look like 30-plus years down the road.

We encourage people to diversify their investments because it reduces the risk that any one bad company could bring down your entire portfolio. Similarly, diversifying your retirement accounts can reduce the risk that a change in circumstances would result in you drastically overpaying in taxes.

Having some money in a Roth IRA and some money in a traditional IRA or 401(k) could give you room to adapt to changing tax circumstances in retirement by giving you some taxable money and some tax-free money.

5. Financial Flexibility

Roth IRAs are extremely flexible accounts that can be used for a variety of financial goals throughout your lifetime.

One reason for this is that your contributions are available at any time and for any reason, without tax or penalty. Ideally you would be able to keep the money in your account to grow for retirement, but it could be used to buy a house, start a business, or simply in case of emergency.

Roth IRAs also have some special characteristics that can make them effective college savings accounts, and as of now Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions in retirement, though that could certainly change.

All in all, Roth IRAs are more flexible than traditional IRAs in terms of using the money for nonretirement purposes.

3 Good Reasons to Use a Traditional IRA

People love the Roth IRA because it gives you tax-free money in retirement, but, as we saw in the case study above, that doesn’t always result in more retirement income. Even factoring in taxes, and even in situations where you might not expect it, the traditional IRA often comes out ahead.

And the truth is that there are even MORE tax advantages to the traditional IRA than what we discussed earlier. Here are three of the biggest.

1. You Can Convert to a Roth IRA at Any Time

One of the downsides of contributing to a Roth IRA is that you lock in the tax cost at the point of contribution. There’s no getting that money back.

On the other hand, contributing to a traditional IRA gives you the tax break now while also preserving your ability to convert some or all of that money to a Roth IRA at your convenience, giving you more control over when and how you take the tax hit.

For example, let’s say that you contribute to a traditional IRA this year, and then a few years down the line either you or your spouse decides to stay home with the kids, or start a business, or change careers. Any of those decisions could lead to a significant reduction in income, which might be a perfect opportunity to convert some or all of your traditional IRA money to a Roth IRA.

The amount you convert will count as taxable income, but because you’re temporarily in a lower tax bracket you’ll receive a smaller tax bill.

You can get pretty fancy with this if you want. Brandon from the Mad Fientist, has explained how to build a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder to fund early retirement. Financial planner Michael Kitces has demonstrated how to use partial conversions and recharacterizations to optimize your tax cost.

Of course, there are downsides to this strategy as well. Primarily there’s the fact that taxes are complicated, and you could unknowingly cost yourself a lot of money if you’re not careful. And unlike direct contributions to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before you’re able to withdraw the money you’ve converted without penalty. It’s typically best to speak to a tax professional or financial planner before converting to a Roth IRA.

But the overall point is that contributing to a traditional IRA now gives you greater ability to control your tax spending both now and in the future. You may be able to save yourself a lot of money by converting to a Roth IRA sometime in the future rather than contributing to it directly today.

2. You Could Avoid or Reduce State Income Tax

Traditional IRA contributions are deductible for state income tax purposes as well as federal income tax purposes. That wasn’t factored into the case study above, but there are situations in which this can significantly increase the benefit of a traditional IRA.

First, if you live in a state with a progressive income tax code, you may get a boost from the difference in marginal and effective tax rates just like with federal income taxes. While your contributions today may be deductible at the margin, your future withdrawals may at least partially be taxed at lower rates.

Second, it’s possible that you could eventually move to a state with either lower state income tax rates or no income tax at all. If so, you could save money on the difference between your current and future tax rates, and possibly avoid state income taxes altogether. Of course, if you move to a state with higher income taxes, you may end up losing money on the difference.

3. It Helps You Gain Eligibility for Tax Breaks

Contributing to a traditional IRA lowers what’s called your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is why you end up paying less income tax.

But there are a number of other tax breaks that rely on your AGI to determine eligibility, and by contributing to a traditional IRA you lower your AGI you make it more likely to qualify for those tax breaks.

Here’s a sample of common tax breaks that rely on AGI:

  • Saver’s credit – Provides a tax credit for people who make contributions to a qualified retirement plan and make under a certain level of AGI. For 2017, the maximum credit is $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples.
  • Child and dependent care credit – Provides a credit of up to $2,100 for expenses related to the care of children and other dependents, though the amount decreases as your AGI increases. Parents with young children in child care are the most common recipients of this credit.
  • Medical expense deduction – Medical expenses that exceed 10% of your AGI are deductible. The lower your AGI, the more likely you are to qualify for this deduction.
  • 0% dividend and capital gains tax rate – If you’re in the 15% income tax bracket or below, any dividends and long-term capital gains you earn during the year are not taxed. Lowering your AGI could move you into this lower tax bracket.

Making a Smarter Decision

There’s a lot more to the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. And the truth is that the more you dive in, the more you realize just how powerful the traditional IRA is.

That’s not to say that you should never use a Roth IRA. It’s a fantastic account, and it certainly has its place. It’s just that the tax breaks a traditional IRA offers are often understated.

It’s also important to recognize that every situation is different and that it’s impossible to know ahead of time which account will come out ahead. There are too many variables and too many unknowns to say for sure.

But with the information above, you should be able to make a smarter choice that makes it a little bit easier to reach retirement sooner and with more money.

Matt Becker
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Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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3 Strategies to Teach Your Child to Invest

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3 Strategies to Teach Your Child to Invest

Chicago, Ill.-based actor Mike Wollner says at ages 7 and 10 his daughters are already learning how to invest.

Three years ago, Wollner opened custodial brokerage accounts for the girls through Monetta Mutual Funds, which has a Young Investor Fund specifically for young people to invest for the future. Through the fund, parents can open custodial brokerage accounts or 529 college savings accounts on behalf of their children, as well as get access to financial education and a tuition rewards program.

Wollner decided to open the accounts once his daughters began to nab acting gigs and earn an income. They’re already beginning to understand what it means to own a part of the world’s largest companies. “They will ask me to drive past Wendy’s to go to McDonald’s and say, ‘well, we own part of McDonald’s,’” he says.

Wollner hopes his daughters will have saved enough for college by the time they graduate high school. His 10-year-old’s account balance already hovers around $13,000, while his 7-year-old has a little less than $10,000 saved for college in her account.

screen shot 1
The contents of the package a child receives in the mail when an adult opens a Monetta Mutual Young Investor Fund custodial account on their behalf.

The Value of Starting Young

The Monetta Fund is only one example of a way to invest on a child’s behalf. The downside to using an actively managed investment account like the one Monetta offers is that it comes with higher fees — the fund’s expense ratio of 1.18% in 2016 is higher than the 0.10% – 0.70% fees typically charged by state-administered 529 college savings plans.

In addition to 529 plans, parents can open Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, or other custodial brokerage or IRA accounts through most financial institutions like Fidelity, Vanguard, or TD Ameritrade.

A college fund serves as a great way to teach kids a little about the time-value of money, but they’ll need to know more than that to manage their finances as well as adults.

“There’s no guarantee that they are going to be financially successful because anything can happen in life, but you’ll be better off with those skills and have a better chance of being successful with those skills than without them,” says Frank Park, founder of Future Investor Clubs of America. The organization operates a financial education program for kids and teens as young as 8 years old about financial management and investing.

He says FICA begins teaching financial concepts at an early age with hopes that the kids who start out with good money management habits now will continue to build on them as they age.

“If they fail to get that type of training now, it may be years into their late 20s, 30s, or 40s before they start. By then it could be too late. It could take 20 years to undo the mistakes they’ve made,” says Park.

3 Ways to Teach Young Kids About Money

Use real-world experiences

Wollner has each daughter cash and physically count out each check they receive from acting gigs.

“They just see a big stack of green bills, but that to a child is cool. It’s like what they see in a suitcase in the movies,” says Wollner.

He then uses the opportunity to teach how taxes work as he has his daughters set aside part of the stack of cash to pay taxes, union fees, and their agent.

“They start to see their big old pile of money diminish and get smaller and smaller,” says Wollner, who says the practice teaches his daughters “everything you make isn’t all yours, and I truly believe that that’s a lesson not many in our society learn.”

Kids don’t need to earn their own money to start learning. Simply getting a child involved with the household’s budgeting process or taking the opportunity to teach how to save with deals when shopping helps teach foundational money management skills.

Park urges parents to also share financial failures and struggles in addition to successes.

“They need to prepare their kids for the ups and downs of financial life so that they don’t panic if they lose their job, have an accident, or [their] identity [is] stolen,” says Park.

Gamify investing

Gamified learning through apps or online games can be a fun way to spark or keep younger kids’ interest in a “boring” topic like investing.

There are a number of free resources for games online like those offered through Monetta, Education.com, or the federal government that aim to teach kids about different financial concepts.
Wollner says his youngest daughter benefited from playing a coin game online. He says the 7-year-old is ahead of her peers in fractions and learning about the monetary values of dollars and coins.

“This is how the kids learn. It’s the fun of doing it. They don’t think of it as learning about money, they think of it as a game,” says Bob Monetta, founder of Monetta Mutual Fund. The games Monetta has developed on its website are often used in classrooms.

When kids get a little older and can understand more complicated financial concepts, they can try out a virtual stock market game available for free online such as the SIFMA Foundation’s stock market game, the Knowledge@Wharton High School’s annual investment competition, or MarketWatch’s stock market game.

“The prospect of winning is what makes them leave the classroom still talking about their portfolios and their games,” says Melanie Mortimer, president of the SIFMA Foundation.

Anyone can play the simulation games, including full classrooms of students.

Aaron Greberman teaches personal finance and International Baccalaureate-level business management at Bodine High School for International Affairs in Philadelphia Penn. He says he uses Knowledge@Wharton High School’s annual investment competition in addition to online games like VISA’s websites, financialsoccer.com, and practicalmoneyskills.com, to help teach his high school students financial concepts.

Adults should play the games with children so that they can help when they struggle with a concept or have questions. Adults might even learn something about money in the process. Consider also leveraging mobile apps like Savings Spree and Unleash the Loot to gamify financial learning on the go.

Reinforce with clubs or programs

For more formal reinforcement, try signing kids up for a club or other financial education program targeting kids and teens.

FICA, the Future Investors Clubs of America, provides educational materials and other support to a network of clubs, chapters, and centers sponsored by schools, parents, and other groups across the nation.

When looking at financial education programs, it’s important to recognize all programs are not equal, says FICA founder, Frank Park.

“Generally speaking, you’re going to go with the company that has a good reputation of providing these services, especially if your kid is considering going into business in the future,” says Park.

The National Financial Educators Council says a financial literacy youth program should cover the key lessons on budgeting, credit and debt, savings, financial psychology, skill development, income, risk management, investing, and long-term planning.

Mortimer suggests parents also try getting involved at the child’s school by offering to start or sponsor an after-school investing club. She says many after-school youth financial education or investing organizations nationwide use SIFMA’s stock market simulation to place virtual trades and compete against other teams.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Should My Spouse and I Have the Same Investments?

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Should My Spouse and I Have the Same Investments?

One of the golden rules of investing is not to have all of your eggs in one basket. This is pretty easy to do when you’re planning by yourself. It can get complicated when you are married. Should you both have the same investments or is it better to do something different?

Unlike combining checking accounts or getting a joint credit card, combining your investment goals and objectives with your spouse is a bit more complex. Legally, it is not possible to combine retirement accounts like a 401(k) or IRA. However, it is possible to align your retirement saving strategy. Typically these are the biggest investment accounts, and how you choose your investments will determine your level of financial freedom during retirement. Before you sit down with your spouse (possibly with help from a professional financial adviser) to determine how you can both approach your savings in order to maximize your joint benefit, it’s important to consider these things first.

Before you align your investments, start by aligning your investment goals

Before deciding on what investments you may need, you and your spouse should figure out your investment goals. If you’re around the same age, do you both plan on retiring at the same time? If there is a significant gap in age, there is a chance that one of you could be working much longer than the other, and your investments should reflect that.

A common example could be shown with target-date funds (TDFs). Currently, TDFs are offered by 70% of 401(k) plans, and they give investors the ability to invest according to the year they plan on retiring. Someone planning to retire in 2040 would choose the 2040 target-date fund. If you and your spouse are the same age, it would be OK to invest in the same TDF. But if one of you is choosing to retire in 2040 and the other in 2030, it may be in your best interest to choose funds that correspond to your individual goals instead.

Even if you don’t choose TDFs, your investment choices should be based primarily on your tolerance for risk and the amount of time you estimate working before you retire (also known as time horizon). If you and your spouse have different risk levels, then you should definitely have different investments.

If the younger spouse earns significantly less income, this presents a special challenge best left to a financial planner. A discrepancy in income would directly affect the amount you’re able to save and how it is allocated. In some cases you may have to adjust your allocation to compensate. Again, because there are several individual factors which could affect your investment decisions in this specific situation, you will want the guidance of a financial planner.

Understand diversification and asset allocation

The concepts of diversification and asset allocation are the cornerstones of sound investing. By diversifying your assets, you are spreading out your risk over several different types of assets, rather than simply owning one or two. This is why mutual funds have become extremely popular. Because mutual funds consist of a broad range of investments across the stock and bond market, they provide instant diversification. But it may not be necessary or helpful for you and your spouse to own different mutual funds in hopes of diversifying yourselves even more.

Sometimes it is best to keep things simple. You and your spouse could own the same investments but in different proportions.

For example, the two of you may decide to own Mutual Fund A, which is made up of stocks, and Mutual Fund B, which is made up of bonds. Because you’re older and more conservative, you may choose to invest in a portfolio that is split down the middle: 50% in Mutual Fund A and 50% in Mutual Fund B. Your spouse, especially if they are much younger, may choose a more risky asset mix, investing in a mix of 75% Fund A and 25% Fund B. Both of you would still own the same investments but own different amounts due to your preference for risk.

Additionally, if you invest consistently in funds from the same investment firm, such as Franklin Templeton Investments, MFS, or American Funds, you could qualify for discounts after investing a certain amount called breakpoints. Most companies will charge you a percentage to invest in the fund. For example, if you invest $10,000 consistently every year, you could be charged 2.25% or $225. When you hit a breakpoint, however, the fee goes down. After 10 years, you’ve invested $100,000 and anything you put in after this point will be 1.75%. Instead of paying $225 on every $10,000 you invest each year, you would now pay $175 until you hit the next breakpoint. Every company has their own breakpoint levels and fees they charge, which can vary wildly depending on the type of fund and philosophy of the company.

Most experts agree that it is better to choose a few mutual funds with one fund manager and take advantage of the breakpoints rather than choose one fund from several different managers. Using more than one manager can also make it more difficult to track your investment performance.

The Bottom Line

If you and your spouse are the same age and plan to retire around the same time, you should be OK holding the same investments, assuming they are solid investment choices. But if your age difference is more than three years, this should be reflected in your separate portfolios.

Kevin Matthews II
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Kevin Matthews II is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kevin here

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Am I On Track For Retirement?

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Am I On Track For Retirement?

Inquiring about your path to retirement is one of the most important financial questions out there. Every year thousands of Americans are polled, and the overwhelming majority are worried about being on track for retirement or running out of money in retirement. According to Prudential’s 2016 Retirement Preparedness Survey, for 59% of current retirees, “not running out of money” in retirement is on the top of their priority list. Among those who are still approaching retirement, about one in four Americans are worried about not having enough money, with millennials leading the pack at at 29%.

There also seems to be a huge disconnect between our fears around money and the confidence in our ability to remedy those issues. Seventy-one percent of people consider themselves capable of making wise financial decisions, but only 2 in 5 don’t know what their money is invested in. Couple that with the fact that 25% of Americans have less than $1,000 in retirement savings, it is clear to see that we’re overconfident and underprepared.

While there isn’t a wealth of information as to why we’re so confident with our money, a part of the problem is not knowing where to start, not feeling like there is enough money to invest for retirement and paying down debt.

Some estimates say you’ll need as much as $2.5 million to retire comfortably, while the average 401(k) account balance is just $96,000, according to Vanguard. The truth is there is no one-size-fits-all figure. The number you need to retire comfortably depends heavily on when you plan to retire, your cost of living, your health, and how long you live in retirement. Additionally, those living in rural areas usually don’t need as much as those in metro area.

Here are a few ways to figure out how much you need and to check if you’re on track.

1. Do the math

Retirement planning calculators can get pretty complex, but to simply find out if what you have saved already is on par for what you will need in the future, there are some very easy calculations that you can use. One popular way to see if you’re on track is by using retirement benchmarks.

Using the chart below from JPMorgan is pretty straight forward. If you’re 35 years old with a household income of $75,000, you should have a total of $120,000 invested today. These charts, however, aren’t perfect because the underlying assumptions can vary wildly.

screen shot 1.2

This chart from Charles Farrell, author of Your Money Ratios, suggests at 35-year-old making $75,000 per year should have $67,500 saved. This is $52,500 less than the JPMorgan chart shown earlier. This is because different models use different assumptions about how much your investments may grow, how much you continue to save, and at what age you plan to retire.

screen shot 2

The JPMorgan chart assumes you will only save 5% per year versus 12% in Farrell’s model. Also when comparing both charts JPMorgan would have you on pace for saving just 8.4 times your salary versus 12 times your salary; a difference of $270,000. No benchmark is perfect. These estimates are meant to provide a quick assessment to let you know if you’re on the right track in terms of how much you have invested. They do not suggest which investments you should be holding.

2. Use a retirement calculator

In addition to doing the math yourself, there are some free tools to check your progress to retirement. Fidelity has a calculator that works very similar to the Charles Farrell mode, which gives you a factor that you need to have saved. Using the same example of a 35-year-old making $75,000, Fidelity’s calculator suggests having 2 times their salary, or about $150,000.

Get your retirement savings factor

It is worth noting that Fidelity’s assumptions of how they reached this figure were not on the site, but by age 65 they suggest having a factor of 12 times your salary saved.

The Vanguard Retirement Nest Egg Calculator takes a different approach. Instead of taking your age and spitting out the amount you should have saved, this calculator asks you your current savings and investment allocation and gives you a prediction of whether your money will last or not. This is done by using what is called a Monte Carlo simulation. Vanguard tests the factors 5,000 times by changing different variable such as investment performance and cost of living.

Keeping all factors the same, someone who has saved $900,000 (which is 12 times their annual income of $75,000) would have a 50% chance that their money would not run out in 30 years.

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Again, it is always important to consider the assumptions. In this calculator Vanguard is assuming you’re investing 20% of your money in stocks, 50% in bonds, and 30% in cash (indicated in the pie chart). This highlights the importance of asset allocation and its effect on your investment success. When we change the allocation, the success rate changes as well.

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In this example, by reducing the cash from 30% to 10% the chances of success increased to 68%. Vanguard also assumes you’re withdrawing 5% of the portfolio per year, meaning that from the $900,000 you saved, you should be spending $45,000 of it each year.

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If you were to increase or decrease this number, the chances of your money surviving would change as well.

By changing the withdrawal rate by just 1% to $36,000 per year, the probability shoots up to 92%. Most experts agree that a 4%-5% withdrawal rate is standard; what you decide to withdraw depends on what amount of money you think you can live off of at that point in time.

Finally, SmartAsset’s retirement calculator takes somewhat of a combined approach from the previous two we covered. Their calculator runs a Monte Carlo simulation like Vanguard and also takes into account what you’re currently making and when you want to retire, like Fidelity and JPMorgan. What makes SmartAsset’s calculator stand out, however, is that it takes into account your current location, monthly savings, and marital status. If you are falling short of your goal, the calculator tells you how much you need to save to catch up.

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retirement savings ove time graph

 

Meet with a financial planner

Finally, you can seek professional advice. Financial planners will take your investments, savings rate, and several other factors and show you if you’re on track. Additionally, a financial planner may also suggest better investments to get you closer to your goals.

Many banks and brokerage firms will run a comprehensive financial plan with no cost if you’re a customer. Independent financial planners may charge from $1,000 to $2,500 for a plan. Many people believe independent financial planners go more into depth with their analysis versus those who work in a bank. But it really comes down to a matter of preference, how well the person listens to you, and if they have your best interest as their top priority.

Kevin Matthews II
Kevin Matthews II |

Kevin Matthews II is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kevin here

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The Basics of a Backdoor Roth IRA

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The Basics of a Backdoor Roth IRA

One of the nice things about making more money is that you have the opportunity to save more money.

But one of the downsides of making more money is that you eventually run into some restrictions on where you can save it.

Specifically, the IRS limits the amount you can contribute to a Roth IRA and the amount you can deduct for contributions to a Traditional IRA based on your income. Once your income reaches a certain point, those accounts are limited in their use.

However, there’s a loophole that can allow you to keep contributing to a Roth IRA no matter how much money you make.

It’s called the backdoor Roth IRA. Here’s how it works.

The Basics of a Backdoor Roth IRA

For 2017, Roth IRA contributions are not allowed once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $196,000 for married couples, or $133,000 for single filers (source). And if you’re participating in an employer retirement plan like a 401(k), you would also be prohibited from deducting Traditional IRA contributions at that income level.

But there are two additional provisions that, when used together, can allow you to work around these limits:

  1. You’re allowed to make nondeductible contributions to an IRA no matter how much money you make.
  2. You’re allowed to convert money from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA no matter how much money you make.

So let’s say that between you and your spouse, you make more than the $196,000 limit for contributing to a Roth IRA. And let’s say that you also participate in a 401(k), meaning you can’t deduct Traditional IRA contributions.

Here are the workaround steps you could take to get money into a Roth IRA:

  1. Open a new Traditional IRA.
  2. Contribute to your new Traditional IRA. You won’t get a tax deduction for the contribution, but as you’ll soon see, that won’t matter.
  3. Wait until you receive your first statement from your new Traditional IRA, which should be in about one month. There is some disagreement around how long you should wait, but one month seems to be a fairly safe bet.
  4. Convert the money in your new Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Whichever company you have your IRA with can help you do this (it’s pretty straightforward).
  5. As part of the conversion you will be taxed on any growth that’s happened since contributing to the Traditional IRA, but since it’s only been a month or so, that should be minimal. You won’t be taxed on the amount you contributed, since that was already after-tax money.

And that’s how a backdoor Roth IRA works. And now that your money is inside a Roth IRA, you’ll eventually be able to withdraw it tax-free.

Of Course, There’s Always a Catch…

If you don’t have any existing Traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs, or SIMPLE IRAs, then it really is that simple. But if you do, there’s a big caveat you need to be aware of.

When you convert from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, the IRS considers all of your IRAs to be part of one big pot, and it considers the money you convert to come proportionally from each part of that pot.

Here’s an example to show you what that means:

  • James has $20,000 in a Traditional IRA. All contributions to that IRA were deductible, so this money has never been taxed.
  • This year James makes too much to deduct contributions to a Traditional IRA, but he likes the idea of a backdoor Roth IRA. So he opens a new Traditional IRA, completely separate from his old one, and makes a $5,000 nondeductible contribution.
  • He converts the $5,000 in that new, nondeductible Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
  • From the perspective of the IRS, that $5,000 conversion was actually made from a single $25,000 IRA, even though James has two separate accounts.
  • Since 80% of James’ combined IRA money has never been taxed, 80% of his Roth IRA conversion will be taxed.
  • This means that $4,000 of James’ conversion will be taxed. Assuming James is in the 28% tax bracket, he will owe $1,120 on the conversion. And it may be more when you include state income taxes.

In other words, having an existing Traditional IRA that you’ve made deductible contributions to throws a big wrench in your plans to do the backdoor Roth IRA by subjecting a potentially significant portion of your conversion to taxes.

The Way Around the Catch

All hope is not lost. There’s a way to do the backdoor Roth IRA tax-free even if you have money in an existing Traditional IRA, SEP IRA, or SIMPLE IRA.

All you have to do is roll all of that existing IRA money into a 401(k) or other employer retirement plan BEFORE executing the backdoor Roth IRA. Then, when you convert your nondeductible contributions to a Roth IRA, there won’t be any other IRA money to look at and you’ll avoid the big tax hit.

Now, this may or may not be possible depending on your situation. First, you have to currently be participating in an employer retirement plan. And second, your plan has to accept rollovers from all of your existing IRAs, which they may or may not do. You can ask your employer for specific details.

It may also not be desirable for other reasons. Many 401(k)s are littered with high fees, and one of the advantages of having your money in an IRA is that you have much more control over both your investment options and how much you pay.

But if it’s allowed and if your 401(k) has reasonable investment options at a reasonable price, it can be a worthwhile move that frees you up to do the backdoor Roth IRA.

Tread Carefully

The backdoor Roth IRA is a legitimate tactic that’s used by a lot of people every single year.

But there are a number of moving parts and a number of potential hang-ups, so it makes sense to tread carefully and potentially even seek out the help of a professional before making any final moves. A financial planner could help you decide whether it’s the right move, and an accountant could help you navigate the tax issues.

Still, when it’s done right, a backdoor Roth IRA gives you access to a significant amount of tax-free money you wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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