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Older Americans Are Getting Crushed by Debt, New MagnifyMoney Analysis Shows

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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More American seniors are shouldering debt as they enter their retirement years, according to a new MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the latest University of Michigan Retirement Research Center Health and Retirement Study release. MagnifyMoney analyzed survey data to see whether debt causes financial frailty during retirement. We also spoke with financial experts who explained how seniors can rescue their retirements.

1 in 3 Americans 50 and older carry non-mortgage debt

The Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center surveys more than 20,000 participants age 50+ who answer questions about well-being. The survey covers financial topics including debt, income, and assets. Since 1990, the center has conducted the survey every other year. They released the 2014 panel of data in November 2016. MagnifyMoney analyzed the most recent release of the data to learn more about financial fitness among older Americans.

In an ideal retirement, retirees would have the financial resources necessary to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working years. Debt acts as an anchor on retiree balance sheets. Since interest rates on debts tend to rise faster than earnings from assets, debt has the power to destroy the balance sheets of seniors living on fixed incomes.

We found that nearly one-third (32%) of all Americans over age 50 carry non-mortgage debt from month to month. On average, those with debt carry $4,786 in credit card debt and $12,490 in total non-mortgage debt.

High-interest consumer debt erodes seniors’ ability to live a quality lifestyle, says John Ross, a Texarkana, Texas-based attorney specializing in elder law.

“From an elder law attorney perspective, we see a direct correlation between debt and institutional care,” Ross says. “Essentially, the more debt load, the less likely the person will have sufficient cash assets to cover medical care that is not provided by Medicare.”

Even worse, debt leads some retirees to skip paying for necessary expenses like quality food and medical care.

“The social aspect of being a responsible bill payer often leads the older debtor to forgo needed expenses to pay debts they cannot afford instead of considering viable options like bankruptcy,” says Devin Carroll, a Texarkana, Texas-based financial adviser specializing in Social Security and retirement.

Some older Americans may even be carrying debt that they don’t have the capacity to pay.

According to our analysis, 40% of all older Americans have credit card debt in excess of $5,000. More than one in five (22%) Americans age 50+ have more than $10,000 in credit card debt. On average, those with more than $10,000 in credit card debt couldn’t pay off their debt even by emptying their checking accounts.

Over a third of American seniors don’t have $1,000 in cash

It’s not just credit card debtors who struggle with financial frailty approaching retirement. Many older Americans have very little spending power. More than one-third (37%) of all Americans over age 50 have a checking account balance less than $1,000.

Low cash reserves don’t just mean limited spending power. They indicate that American seniors don’t have the liquidity to deal with financial hardships as they approach retirement. This is especially concerning because seniors are more likely than average to face high medical expenses. Over one in three (36%) Americans who experienced financial hardship classified it as an unexpected health expense, according to the Federal Reserve Board report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. The median out-of-pocket health-related expense was $1,200.

Debt pushes seniors further from retirement goals

Seniors carrying credit card debt exhibit other signs of financial frailty. For example, seniors without credit card debt have an average net worth of $120,000. Those with credit card debt have a net worth of just $68,000, 43% less than those without credit card debt.

The concern isn’t just small portfolio values. For retirees with debt, credit card interest rates outpace expected performance on investment portfolios. Today the average credit card interest rate is 14%. That means American seniors who carry credit card debt (on average, $4,786) pay an average of $670 per year in interest charges. Meanwhile, the average investment portfolio earns no more than 8% per year. This means that older debtors will earn just $4,508 from their entire portfolio. Credit card interest eats up more than 15% of the nest egg income.

For some older Americans the problem runs even deeper. One in 10 American seniors has a checking account balance with less than $1,000 and carries credit card debt. This precarious position could leave some seniors unable to recover from larger financial setbacks.

Increased debt loads over time

High levels of consumer debt among older Americans are part of a sobering trend. According to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, in 1998, 36.94% of Americans age 56-61 carried debt. The mean value of their debt (in 2012 dollars) was $3,634.

Over time debt loads among pre-retiree age Americans are becoming even more unsustainable. Today 42% of Americans age 50-59 have debt, and their average debt burden is $17,623.

Credit card debt carries the most onerous interest rates, but it’s not the only type of debt people carry into retirement. According to research from the Urban Institute, in 2014, 32.2% of adults aged 68-72 carried debt in addition to a mortgage or a credit card, and 18% of Americans age 73-77 still have an auto loan.

Even student loan debt, a debt typically associated with millennials, is causing angst among seniors. According to the debt styles study from the Urban Institute, as of 2014, 2%-4% of adults aged 58 and older carried student loan debt. It’s a small proportion overall, but the burden is growing over time.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in 2004, 600,000 seniors over age 60 carried student loan debt. Today that number is 2.8 million. Back in 2004 Americans over age 60 had $6 billion in outstanding student loan debts. Today they owe $66.7 billion in student loans, more than 10 times what they owed in 2004. Not all that student debt came from seniors dragging their repayments out for 30-40 years. Almost three in four (73%) older student loan debtors carry some debt that benefits a child or grandchild.

Even co-signing student loans puts a retirement at risk. If the borrower cannot repay the loan on their own, then a retiree is on the hook for repayment. A co-signer’s assets that aren’t protected by federal law can be seized to repay a student loan in default. Because of that, Ross says, “We never advise a person to co-sign on a student loan. Never!”

How older Americans can manage debt

High debt loads and an impending retirement can make a reasonable retirement seem like a fairy tale. However, an effective debt strategy and some extra work make it possible to age on your own terms.

Focus on debt first.

Carroll suggests older workers should prioritize eliminating debt before saving for retirement. “Several studies have shown a direct correlation between debt and risk of institutionalization,” he says. Debt inhibits retirees from remodeling or paying for in-home care that could allow them to age in place.

Downsize your lifestyle

As a first step in eliminating debt, seniors should check all their expenses. Some may consider drastic measures like downsizing their home.

Cut off adult children

Even more important, seniors with debt may need to stop supporting adult children.

According to a 2015 Pew Center Research Poll, 61% of all American parents supported an adult child financially in the last 12 months. Nearly one in four (23%) helped their adult children with a recurring financial need.

Wanting to help children is natural, but it can leave seniors financially frail. It may even leave a parent unable to provide for themselves during retirement.

Work longer

Older workers can also eliminate debt by focusing on the income side of the equation. For many this will mean working a few years longer than average, but the extra work pays off twofold. First, eliminating debt reduces the need for cash during retirement. Second, working longer also allows seniors to delay taking Social Security benefits.

Working until age 67 compared to age 62 makes a meaningful difference in quality of life decades down the road. According to the Social Security Administration, workers who withdraw starting at age 62 received an average of $1,077 per month. Those who waited until age 67 received 27% more, $1,372 per month.

Retirees already receiving Social Security benefits have options, too. Able-bodied retirees can re-enter the workforce. Homeowners can consider renting out a room to a family member to increase income.

Consider every option

If earning more money isn’t realistic, a debt elimination strategy becomes even more important. Ross recommends that retirees should consider every option when facing debt, including bankruptcy. He explains, “A 65-year-old, healthy retiree would be well advised to pay down the high-interest debt now. Alternatively, an 85-year-old retiree facing significant health issues is better off filing bankruptcy or just defaulting on the debt. For the older person, their existing assets are a lifeline, and a good credit score is irrelevant.”

Don’t take on new debt

It’s also important to avoid taking on new debt during retirement. “The only exception,” Ross explains, “[is taking on] debt in the form of home equity for long-term medical care needs, but then only when all other reserves are depleted and the person has explored all forms of government assistance such as Medicaid and veterans benefits.”

Every senior’s financial situation differs, but if you’re facing financial stress before or during retirement, it pays to know your options. Conduct your research and consult with a financial adviser, an elder law attorney, or a credit counselor from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to choose what is right for your situation.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Retirement

I Am a Foreign National — What Should I Do With My 401(k)?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Thanasis Konstantinidis didn’t know what a 401(k) was when he got his first job in the United States almost four years ago. He just thought the term sounded a bit strange.

The 34-year-old software engineer from Greece eventually learned the basics of the classic American retirement investment account. But it didn’t exactly seem like the wisest move. He was granted a temporary work visa for three years. If at the end of three years he wasn’t granted permanent residency in his host country, there was a chance he would have to leave the country all together.

“My future was very uncertain at the time, and I wasn’t sure if I’d stay in the U.S.,” Konstantinidis told MagnifyMoney.

In 2016, there were 27 million foreign-born workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These workers made up nearly 17 percent of the American labor force that year, up from 13.3 percent in 2000.

Many non-native workers in the U.S. are young professionals hired by firms seeking workers with highly valued skills. In 2016, more than 870,000 foreign nationals were granted the most common temporary work visas. The U.S. has also seen a dramatic increase in the number of international students at colleges and universities in the past decade. After graduation, these students are often eligible for visas that allow them to pursue jobs in the U.S.

It is tricky enough for the average millennial to think about the future. The temporary immigration status of foreign nationals and the fact they may travel between countries in the future add additional layers of complication when it comes to retirement planning. How can they make long-term financial plans when they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to continue working in the U.S.?

In this article, we answered typical questions foreign nationals may have about 401(k)s as they pursue careers in the U.S.

Should foreign nationals contribute to a 401(k)?

The answer here may seem intuitive to those who, like Konstantinidis, think they will only stay in the U.S. for a few years. Tying up their funds in a 401(k) in a country they may be leaving soon might seem unwise. And by choosing not to participate in a 401(k) plan, they may have more cash available for their immediate needs.

In truth, there are pros and cons depending on a few factors, so you have to ask yourself a few questions first:

Do you view this 401(k) as part of a long-term investment plan or only as a short-term savings account?

When you are young and start saving early, you have a huge advantage on your side — time.

“Most of those folks who are here on a temporary visa tend to be young,” said Chris Chen, a Waltham, Mass.-based wealth strategist at Insight Financial Strategists. “They happen to be able to take the advantage of the power of compounding. That is truly a gift that you can’t get when you are older.”

It’s also an opportunity to invest in the U.S. market, which is among the strongest economies in the world and has a relatively mature and stable market with lower fund fees than many other countries.

Are you a high earner, which would increase the tax benefit of opening a 401(k)?

Another immediate and major benefit that you would lose is the tax advantage. Especially for those high-income earners, you are saving money by not paying taxes now, and when you withdraw the money at retirement, you will pay fewer taxes because ideally, you will be in a lower income bracket.

Is there an incentive to contribute to your 401(k), like a company match?

If your employer offers a match, you would be walking away from additional income if you fail to contribute. Many U.S. employers offer to match up to a certain percentage of employee 401(k) contributions.

For example, an employer may offer to match up to 3 percent of the employee’s contribution.

Let’s say you make $60,000 a year and contribute 6 percent (or $3,600) into a 401(k) for the year. Your company would match up to three percent (or $1,800) of that contribution. This means you would only contribute $3,600 to your 401(k) but end up with $5,400 thanks to the match.

“They would be leaving money on the table by giving up on the match,” said Chris Chen.

How certain are you about returning to your home country in the near future?

It may not feel like your odds of needing a U.S.-based retirement fund are certain, especially if your circumstances are anything like those of Konstantinidis.

However, Chris Chen argues that an international worker’s future isn’t all that uncertain. In fact, if anything is certain at all, it’s the fact that they will likely retire at some point.

“Whether it is India or China or Europe, when you go back to your country, you are going to have to use the tools available there for retirement,” he said. “And in the meantime, you will still have an extra little [retirement fund] out there in the U.S.”

If you were to leave the U.S., you have several options on managing your U.S.-based savings, some of which will require some administrative hassle. We’ll cover these options later.

Furthermore, your plans may change. You might have planned to stay in the U.S. for just two years, but you may end up staying longer. In that case, it could be wise to start saving for retirement early.

Can your 401(k) help with non-retirement goals?

Hui-chin Chen, a financial planner with Arlington, Va.-based Pavlov Financial Planning, who works with foreign nationals in their 20s to 40s, told MagnifyMoney some have other plans for their 401(k) than just retirement.

Many of her clients stayed in the U.S. for jobs after completing their college or graduate studies here. Although some eventually left the country, they still wanted their children to have the same study abroad experience. So they considered their 401(k) an education fund.

“They think, ‘Okay, I can leave some money in the U.S. I don’t care about taking it with me,” Chen explained. “‘And if I leave the money in the U.S., I might as well get some tax benefits. I can wait until I am older and I can take that money out to pay for their college.’”

Just keep in mind that if you try to tap your 401(k) for funds before you turn 59 1/2, you will likely face early withdrawal penalties and could be hit with income taxes.

The disadvantages of contributing to a 401(k)

While financial planners encourage foreign nationals to invest in their 401(k) in general, they would advise against the idea in some cases.

For those who are certain that they are just staying in the U.S. for a very short time, are in a relatively low tax bracket, and don’t see 401(k) as a long-term savings plan, experts suggest they open a taxable account — like a brokerage or savings account — or send money back home if they have better investment choices over there.

But do take note that you are a considered a U.S. resident from the tax perspective as long as you live in this country. This means if you invest outside the U.S., your income from those investments are still subject to U.S. taxes.

The tax benefits could justify the administrative hassle for those who have worked in the U.S. for a long time and have a big 401(k) balance. That’s because they are able to save a potentially significant sum of money without paying taxes upfront. And when they withdraw those funds later, they will likely be at a lower tax bracket and, hence, enjoy big tax savings.

For international workers whose stay in the U.S. is shorter, however, that tax benefit doesn’t necessarily pack the same punch, especially if their account has a smaller balance.

“It’s OK if [your 401(k) is worth] $200,000. If it’s $18,000, the benefit is offset,” said Andrew Fisher, president of Worldview Wealth Advisors, a financial advisory firm that specializes in working with cross-border individuals with U.S. connections.

How much should I invest and where do I invest?

If you’ve decided to open a 401(k) with a U.S. company, the next challenge is figuring out how much to save and where to save it.

The answer to the first question — how much to save — is simple if your company offers a match.

Sirui Hua, 26, a producer with a New York-based digital media company, told MagnifyMoney that he saves 4 percent of his income in his 401(k). His employer offered to match up to 4 percent of his income and he didn’t want to give that up.

“If I don’t save the money now, I’d have nothing when I go back,” Hua said. “At least I would have a little something one day I go home.”

Hua, originally from China, was recently approved for his work visa by his employer, which allows him to continue working in the U.S. for up to six years. Knowing that he has a full six years of stable work ahead of him, he is planning to increase his 401(k) contribution. He’s still not sure if he’ll use it as a retirement account if he returns home to China, but he would rather take the opportunity while he has it.

At least contribute enough to capture the full match. From there, consider increasing your contribution based on your other financial goals.

Depending on your personal goals and future plans, contribute more if you are able to. Just remember the legal contribution limit for 401(k)s is $19,500 in 2020.

It may also make sense to save cash in a standard savings account so that you can access money in an emergency. Remember, early 401(k) withdrawals come with potential tax penalties.

What do I do with my 401(k) if I leave the country?

This is the question that has deterred many foreign workers from investing in their 401(k) accounts.

There are basically two solutions: You can either leave it in the U.S. or take the money out and deal with the tax and early withdrawal penalties — and the potential hassle of getting a U.S.-based bank to transfer funds to an international account.

Leaving your 401(k) in the U.S.

You can leave your 401(k) with your employer’s plan administrator or you can roll it over into an IRA.

In general, pros recommend that you do not cash out your 401(k) before age 59 1/2 (to avoid penalty) if you don’t have to. Keeping your 401(k) is the easiest solution.

“It’s less likely that [the plan providers] will say, ‘We have to close your account,’” Hui-chin Chen said. ”Because as long as you are still a plan participant, they cannot kick you out unless there is plan provision specifying it.”

That being said, you will want to check in every now and then to be sure your investments are properly allocated based on your needs. Hui-chin Chen notes that companies may offer good low-cost index funds with balanced asset allocations for employees. However, it’s important to be sure your investments are well-balanced and you’re not taking on more risk than is suitable for your age and goals.

You can keep your 401(k) with most plan providers even after you leave the company, she added. However, there are exceptions. Check with your HR department and read the details in your plan documents to find out specific plan rules.

Rolling it over into a traditional IRA

Another option for workers who leave the country is to roll the funds into a traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account) that you can control yourself. Just like a 401(k), you may be able to defer paying taxes on money contributed to an IRA.

A major difference between an IRA and a 401(k) is that you are limited to a total annual contribution of $6,000 ($7,000 for those over age 50) with the IRA. But an IRA may potentially offer a wider variety of investment choices than a typical employer-sponsored 401(k).

The challenge with opening an IRA for foreign nationals is that not many plan providers work with people with foreign mailing addresses because they are seen as a potential risk, experts said. You should check with brokerage firms to see whether they will hold accounts for people with international addresses.

The advantages of keeping your 401(k) in the U.S.

Potential tax benefits

When you withdraw your 401(k) funds from a U.S.-based account, it’s likely that your home country will not treat it as taxable income.

Tax laws in different countries vary. There is a grey area whether other countries respect the tax benefits of the U.S.-based 401(k) or IRA.

Fisher of Worldview Wealth Advisors explains that in his experience, most countries have not expressly accepted or denied the tax-deferred status of funds held in a 401(k) or IRA, but most foreign tax preparers are treating it as such. In other words, you may continue to enjoy a tax-free growth investment vehicle even if you move overseas. But you want to check your country’s tax laws to make sure this is the case.

The magic of compounding

Before you take this road, remember you could face a 10% early withdrawal penalty plus a hefty income tax bill.

If you’re a younger worker, you’re also missing out on potentially decades’ worth of growth that you might enjoy if you leave your funds where they are.

Let’s say you save $18,000 in a 401(k) over your time working in the U.S. It might seem like peanuts to you. But consider this: If you never contribute another penny to the account, you could grow that savings to over $317,000 over the next 40 years (assuming an average annual return of 7.2%).

“It’s no longer peanuts,” said Chris Chen. “When you take [the money] out, think of that $18,000, what are you going to do with it? People often do that without much savings, so they will end up spending it.”

Cashing out your 401(k)

If you don’t want to leave the money in the U.S. to invest for the long run, there are more tax complications and administrative hassle to contend with.

You’re allowed to withdraw the money from your 401(k) when you leave the country, experts say. The amount you withdraw will count as taxable income unless you’re 59 1/2 or older. You’ll also face a 10 percent penalty.

You have to notify your plan provider when you leave that you are no longer a U.S. tax resident. The provider most likely will withhold taxes on the money withdrawn, and you will have to file a U.S. tax return for that income the following year, Hui-chin Chen said.

If you want to save money on taxes, Hui-chin Chen suggests you wait until the year after you leave or even later to take the funds out. When your U.S. income becomes just the amount of money you withdraw from your 401(k), you may be put in a lower tax rate than when you had full employment income in the U.S., Hui-chin Chen said.

But note that you need a bank account to receive the distribution, and not every provider may be willing to mail a check to an overseas address. It is likely that you probably have to keep a checking account open in the U.S., which is also easier said than done — banks don’t like clients with foreign addresses, either, Hui-chin Chen said.

“In the grand scheme of things, [for] most people, if they don’t stay in the U.S. for the long term, taking the money with them is probably not that difficult the year they leave or the year after they leave when they still have some leverage with the bank,” she said.

If you have a sizeable 401(k), taking a small distribution each year to pay zero-to-minimum amount of taxes is doable, experts say. But then you are facing far more complicated ongoing maintenance, which includes filing taxes every year, and keeping a U.S. bank account and address live. You may also be subject to some state taxes depending on your resident country, Fisher said.

Although Konstantinidis didn’t contribute to his previous 401(k) plan, his employer invested 3 percent of his income in a 401(k) for him for free. Konstantinidis, who lived through nearly a decade of financial crisis in Greece, is ultimately skeptical about the stock market.

Now, the self-acclaimed “paranoid” computer scientist is considering contributing 3 percent of his income to the 401(k) with his current employer as he awaits his green card — he is settling down.

“I’ve actually seen my 401(k) go up,” he said. “That’s really impressive. Now I am convinced.”

401(k) Frequently Asked Questions

401(k) is the name of an account U.S. workers can use to save for retirement through their employer. The name 401(k) comes from the section of the U.S. tax code that it was derived from in the 1980s.

The traditional 401(k) allows workers to set aside part of their pre-tax income to save for retirement. It’s up to the individual to decide how much to save. Even if you are not an American citizen, you are eligible to participate in a 401(k) plan, experts say.

There is also a Roth 401(k) option, which is becoming increasingly common. With a Roth 401(k) you would contribute funds and pay taxes on them right away, with the ability to withdraw funds in retirement tax-free.

When an employee signs up for a 401(k) plan, they’re typically given a choice of different investments, such as mutual funds, stocks, or bonds. The benefit of a 401(k) is that you not only avoid paying income taxes on your savings now but you’ll have a source of additional income later when you are ready to retire.

The legal maximum amount you can save in your 401(k) is $19,500 in 2020.

Employers may offer to match employees’ contributions up to a certain percentage.

For example, an employer may offer to match up to 3 percent of the employee’s contribution. Say you make $60,000 a year and contribute six percent (or $3,600) into a 401(k) for the year.Your company would match up to three percent (or $1,800) of that contribution. This means you would only contribute $3,600 to your 401(k) but end up with $5,400 thanks to the match.

Some employers may vest your match immediately. That means as soon as they contribute to your 401(k) the funds belong to you. However, others may have a vesting schedule, which is a set timeline that dictates how long it takes for you to own the money your employer contributes.

Generally speaking, you can start taking money out of your 401(k) account when you reach age 59 1/2. There are ways to tap into your 401(k) sooner, but you’ll face an additional 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and you could owe income taxes on the amount withdrawn.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Retirement

Maximize Your Retirement Savings with IRAs

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Americans don’t like to think about retirement. According to a recent report by the Federal Reserve, 6 in 10 respondents who aren’t retired yet and have a self-directed retirement plan, such as an individual retirement account (IRA) or a 401(k), don’t feel comfortable making investing decisions.

This discomfort with key retirement decisions can be blamed in part on the fact that many Americans don’t have the right savings strategy for retirement. Let’s take a look at some scenarios of hypothetical savers that could provide you with novel IRA saving strategies.

Picking the right IRA for your retirement savings

401(k) accounts provide millions of Americans with a retirement savings account. Still, not everybody has a 401(k) — and even those who do have one should complement it with an individual retirement account (IRA).

Given you have a limited amount of income at your disposal to sock away for retirement, what kind of IRA would work best for you depends on your individual situation. Here’s a few scenarios for different kinds of savers, providing a combination of accounts that play to the strengths of their financial situations.

IRA retirement saving strategy: Entry-level office worker

What you need to do: You may have to endure endless status meetings and office birthday parties for coworkers you barely know, but at least you have a 401(k) with an employer match. You should set your contribution to maximize your employer’s 401(k) match and open a Roth IRA in order to take advantage of your biggest asset: your potential future earnings. Check out our review of the best Roth IRA providers on the market to help you find the right broker for your retirement savings.

Why you need to do it: Employers who match your contributions to your 401(k) are essentially giving you free money. Even if you’re working for a modern day Mr. Scrooge who doesn’t give you a match, a regular 401(k) account still allows you to make contributions directly from your paycheck before any tax is applied, and those contributions will remain safe from the IRS until you begin taking your withdrawals decades later.

As an entry-level office worker, you’re probably not making a lot of money, and that likely puts you in a lower tax bracket. By the time you’re ready to take your withdrawals, you may discover the money you saved by avoiding taxes isn’t worth the bigger bite Uncle Sam takes now that you’re a member of the country club crowd.

To see this in action, take a look at the income tax brackets for tax year 2020. Even if we make a generous assumption regarding your salary as an entry level office worker and say you earn more than $40,125 (but less than $85,525) a year, you still would only be taxed 22% on this income. That means the money you contributed to your 401(k) was sheltered from this 22% tax, and you face tax payments when you withdraw it in retirement, decades later. If you were a retiree taking withdrawals this year and making, for example, more than $163,300 (but less than $207,450) you could be paying up to 32% on money you withdraw from a 401(k).

Contributions to a Roth IRA are not sheltered from taxes, meaning you pay taxes on all your income and then make your Roth contribution, while the interest earned in the Roth is tax-free. Because you’ve already paid income tax on Roth IRA contributions, you aren’t taxed again when you take your withdrawals from the account. Anyone who expects to find themselves in a higher tax bracket when they’re ready to retire should open a Roth IRA now, as you can reap extra tax benefits from your current status as a lowly office drone.

IRA retirement saving strategy: Self-employed freelance worker


What you need to do: Whether you’re making enough money from your Etsy shop to avoid the 9-to-5 office grind or you hop between projects as a freelancer, the freedom of self-employment comes with non-trivial costs. But you don’t have to sacrifice your retirement savings just because you don’t have a 401(k). On the contrary, you need to look into opening a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA and a Roth IRA. We’ve taken a close look at the best IRA providers on the market to help you choose the right provider, so go check out our round-up.

Why you need to do it: A SEP IRA is a retirement account that’s easy to set up and has low, or often zero administrative fees, which are big advantages for the busy freelancer. It also allows you to contribute up to 25% of the gross annual salary you make from the business (which as a self-employed freelancer usually works out to about 20% of your adjusted net income), up to a limit of $57,000 in 2020. That far outstrips the $6,000 contribution limit on traditional and Roth IRAs for those under 50 years of age, making it a powerful saving tool for your retirement.

However there’s no Roth version of a SEP IRA, meaning all of the contributions you make to it will be taxed when you start making your withdrawals — at whatever tax bracket you happen to find yourself in. That’s why you may also want to open a Roth IRA so you have a source of money you can withdraw tax-free.

IRA retirement saving strategy: Bold market expert with money to burn


What you need to do: When it comes to saving for your retirement, we generally advocate for a slow and steady approach. However, if you don’t have confidence in traditional investment assets such as stocks and bonds but are brimming with self-assurance about your ability to judge non-traditional investments such as real estate, you can open a self-directed IRA.

Why you need to do it: Because you’re convinced you need more flexibility in your investments than a gold medal gymnast, you want a tax-advantaged account for your holdings in peacock farms, marshmallow factories, and yacht fleets. In short, you want to make sure you’ve diversified your investments to such a degree that even if the unthinkable happens and the market permanently implodes you’ll have a safe haven of funds.

If you go down this route, pay attention to the additional pitfalls that come with a self-directed IRA, such as the fact that you won’t have a team of financial experts vetting the quality of your investments and that you can inadvertently disqualify your IRA of its tax advantages if you gain a direct financial benefit from one of the IRAs investments (beyond the money it earns for your IRA).

The bottom line on IRAs

None of the three scenarios outlined above will likely fit your unique financial situation to a T, but it should prove a good starting point for you to think about how an IRA can work into your overall retirement savings strategy. Putting away any money at all is better than nothing, but when it comes to the savings that will fund your golden years, “better than nothing” may not be good enough. Make sure you’re doing everything you can to make sure your IRA is A-OK.

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