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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Why a High Income Can Make It Harder to Save for Retirement

May 28, 2015

Q: My employer's 401(k) plan considers me a "highly compensated" employee and caps my contribution at a measly 5%. I know I am not saving enough for retirement. What are the best options to maximize my retirement savings? I earn $135,000 a year and my wife makes $53,000. – E.O., Long Island, NY

A: It’s great to have a six-figure income. But, ironically, under IRS rules, being a highly compensated worker can make it harder to save in your 401(k).

First, some background on what it means to be highly compensated. The general rule is that workers can put away $18,000 a year in pre-tax income in a 401(k) plan. But if you earn more than $120,000 a year, or own more than a 5% stake in your employer's company, or are in the top 20% of earners at your firm, you are considered a “highly compensated employee” (HCE) by the IRS.

As an HCE, you're in a different category. Uncle Sam doesn’t want the tax breaks offered by 401(k)s only to be enjoyed by top executives. So your contributions can be limited if not enough lower-paid workers contribute to the plan. The IRS conducts annual “non-discrimination” tests to make sure high earners aren’t contributing disproportionately more. In your case, it means you can put away only about $6,000 into your plan.

Granted, $120,000, or $135,00, is far from a CEO-level salary these days. And if you live in a high-cost area like New York City, your income is probably stretched. Being limited by your 401(k) only makes it more difficult to build financial security.

There are ways around your company’s plan limits, though neither is easy or, frankly, realistic, says Craig Eissler, a certified financial planner with Halbert Hargrove in Houston. Your company could set up what it known as a safe harbor plan, which would allow them to sidestep the IRS rules, but that would mean getting your employer to kick in more money for contributions. Or you could lobby your lower-paid co-workers to contribute more to the plan, which would allow higher-paid employees to save more too. Not too likely.

Better to focus on other options for pumping up your retirement savings, says Eissler. For starters, the highly compensated limits don’t apply to catch-up contributions, so if you are over 50, you can put another $6,000 a year in your 401(k). Also, if your wife is eligible for a 401(k) or other retirement savings plan through her employer, she should max it out. If she doesn’t have a 401(k), she can contribute to a deductible IRA and get a tax break—for 2015, she can contribute as much as $5,500, or $6,500 if she is over 50.

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You can also contribute to an IRA, though you don't qualify for a full tax deduction. That's because you have a 401(k) and a combined income of $188,000. Couples who have more than $118,000 a year in modified adjusted gross income and at least one spouse with an employer retirement plan aren't eligible for the tax break.

Instead, consider opting for a Roth IRA, says Eissler. In a Roth, you contribute after-tax dollars, but your money will grow tax-free; withdrawals will also be tax-free if the money is kept invested for five years (withdrawals of contributions are always tax-free). Unfortunately, you bump up against the income limits for contributing to a Roth. If you earn more than $183,000 as a married couple, you can't contribute the entire $5,500. Your eligibility for how much you can contribute phases out up to $193,000, so you can make a partial contribution. The IRS has guidelines on how to calculate the reduced amount.

You can also make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA, put it in cash, and then convert it to a Roth—a strategy commonly referred to as a "backdoor Roth." This move would cost you little or nothing in taxes, if you have no other IRAs. But if you do, better think twice, since those assets would be counted as part of your tax bill. (For more details see here and here.) There are pros and cons to the conversion decision, and so it may be worthwhile to consult an accountant or adviser before making this move.

Another strategy for boosting savings is to put money into a Health Savings Account, if your company offers one. Tied to high-deductible health insurance plans, HSAs let you stash away money tax free—you can contribute up to $3,350 if you have individual health coverage or up to $6,650 if you're on a family plan. The money grows tax-free, and the funds can be withdrawn tax-free for medical expenses. Just as with a 401(k), if you leave your company, you can take the money with you. “So many people are worried about paying for health care costs when they retire,” says Ross Langley, a certified public accountant at Halbert Hargrove. "This is a smart move."

Once you exhaust your tax-friendly retirement options, you can save in a taxable brokerage account, says Langley. Focus on tax-efficient investments such as buy-and-hold stock funds or index funds—you'll probably be taxed at a 15% capital gains rate, which will be lower than your income tax rate. Fixed-income investments, such as bonds, which throw off interest income, should stay in your 401(k) or IRA.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com.

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