MONEY year-end moves

3 Smart Year-End Moves for Retirement Savers of All Ages

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To give your long-term financial security a boost, take one of these steps before December 31.

It’s year-end, and retirement savers of all ages need to check their to-do lists. Here are some suggestions for current retirees, near-retirees, and younger savers just getting started.

Already Retired: Take Your Distribution

Unfortunately, the “deferred” part of tax-deferred retirement accounts doesn’t last forever. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) must be taken from individual retirement accounts (IRAs) starting in the year you turn 70 1/2 and from 401(k)s at the same age, unless you’re still working for the employer that sponsors the plan.

Fidelity Investments reports that nearly 68% of the company’s IRA account holders who needed to take RMDs for tax year 2014 hadn’t done it as of late October.

It’s important to get this right: Failure to take the correct distribution results in an onerous 50% tax—plus interest—on any required withdrawals you fail to take.

RMDs must be calculated for each account you own by dividing the prior Dec. 31 balance with a life expectancy factor (found in IRS Publication 590). Your account provider may calculate RMDs for you, but the final responsibility is yours. FINRA, the financial services self-regulatory agency, offers a calculator, and the IRS has worksheets to help calculate RMDs.

Take care of RMDs ahead of the year-end rush, advises Joshua Kadish, partner in planning firm RPG Life Transition Specialists in Riverwoods, Ill. “We try to do it by Dec. 1 for all of our clients—if you push it beyond that, the financial institutions are all overwhelmed with year-end paperwork and they’re getting backed up.”

Near-Retired: Consider a Roth

Vanguard reports that 20% of its investors who take an RMD reinvest the funds in a taxable account—in other words, they didn’t need the money. If you fall into this category, consider converting some of your tax-deferred assets to a Roth IRA. No RMDs are required on Roth accounts, which can be beneficial in managing your tax liability in retirement.

You’ll owe income tax on converted funds in the year of conversion. That runs against conventional planning wisdom, which calls for deferring taxes as long as possible. But it’s a strategy that can make sense in certain situations, says Maria Bruno, senior investment analyst in Vanguard’s Investment Counseling & Research group.

“Many retirees find that their income may be lower in the early years of retirement—either because they haven’t filed yet for Social Security, or perhaps one spouse has retired and the other is still working. Doing a conversion that goes to the top of your current tax bracket is something worth considering.”

Bruno suggests a series of partial conversions over time that don’t bump you into a higher marginal bracket. Also, if you’re not retired, check to see if your workplace 401(k) plan offers a Roth option, and consider moving part of your annual contribution there.

Young Savers: Start Early, Bump It Up Annually

“Time is on my side,” sang the Rolling Stones, and it’s true for young savers. Getting an early start is the single best thing you can do for yourself, even if you can’t contribute much right now.

Let the magic of compound returns help you over the years. A study done by Vanguard a couple years ago found that an investor who starts at age 25 with a moderate investment allocation and contributes 6% of salary will finish with 34% more in her account than the same investor who starts at 35—and 64% more than an investor who starts at 45.

Try to increase the amount every year. A recent Charles Schwab survey found that 43% of plan participants haven’t increased their 401(k) contributions in the past two years. Kadish suggests a year-end tally of what you spent during the year and how much you saved. “It’s not what people like to do—but you have a full year under your belt, so it’s a good opportunity to look at where your money went. Could you get more efficient in some area, and save more?”

If you’re a mega-saver already, note that the limit on employee contributions for 401(k) accounts rises to $18,000 next year from $17,500; the catch-up contribution for people age 50 and over rises to $6,000 from $5,500. The IRA limit is unchanged at $5,500, and catch-up contributions stay at $1,000.

MONEY Investing

The Easy Fix for an Incredibly Common and Costly Retirement Mistake

New proof that just showing up is half the investing game.

Writing about retirement inevitably turns you into the bearer of bad news. But last week brought a positive development: The downward trend in the percentage of workers participating in an employment-based retirement plan reversed course in 2013. The number of workers participating is now at the highest level since 2007, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (ERBI).

Which means, unfortunately, that from a wealth-building perspective, the timing of the nation’s workforce is actually pretty terrible.

The ERBI has only been tracking participation rates since 1987, a relatively short window, but still a bad pattern has clearly emerged: Workers are less likely to participate after the stock market drops, so they lose out when the market recovers.

The participation of wage and salary workers peaked in 2000 at 51.6%, right before a 3-year bear market that saw the compound annual growth rate (the CAGR, which includes dividends) of the S & P 500 declining 9.11% in 2000, 11.98% in 2001, and 22.27% in 2002. In 2003 however, the S & P rebounded up 28.72%, but retirement plan participation rates continued to decline, hitting a low of 45.5% in 2006 before finally beginning to rise.

Then the same thing happened again after the financial crisis. Participation rates had peaked at 47.7% in 2007, before declining in 2008 when the S & P 500 dropped a whopping 37.22%. Even though the market began to bounce back immediately in 2009, participation rates continued to decline down to 44.2% until that trend finally reversed in 2013 according to the EBRI data released last week. With each stock market shock, the participation rate fell but never fully reached its previous high, so that the 2013 rate of 45.8% is still lower than the 46.1% participation rate seen in 1987.

This bears repeating: The participation rate in an employment-based retirement plan in 2013 was lower than it was in 1987. I don’t think I need to tell you what has happened to the S&P 500 from 1987 to 2013.

Now of course one could argue that it’s harder to save for retirement if your salary has been frozen, or your bonus was cut, or especially if you were forced to take a lower-paying job, as many who were able to stay employed throughout the recession experienced. Employers have also been scaling back or eliminating entirely company matches, which further disincentives workers from participating. But waiting until you start making more money to save for retirement is a losing game, especially if you subscribe to the new theory put forth by Thomas Piketty in his much-discussed but I suspect less-widely read book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Piketty’s thesis is that the return on capital in the twenty-first century will be significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy and more specifically the growth of wages (4% to 5% for return, barely 1.5% for wage growth.) Furthermore, the return on capital has always been greater than economic (and wage) growth, except for an anomalous period during the second half of the twentieth century when there was an exceptionally high rate of growth worldwide. It is the inequality of capital ownership that drives wealth inequality, a phenomenon that cannot be reversed as long as the rate of return continues to exceed the rate of growth, or as Piketty helpfully provides, R>G. (Full disclosure: I only read the introduction and then used the index to find sections that most interested me.)

If you apply R>G to retirement planning, it follows that it’s more important to be in the market than to wait for a raise or to reach the next step on the career ladder to start participating in a plan. The usual caveats apply: First you must get rid of any high-interest debt and create a three-month cushion for emergencies. But once you’re in a plan, if the economy—and your income along with it—hits some major bumps, it’s even more important to continue to contribute lest you miss out on the upside. Just remember: R>G.

Konigsberg is the author of The Truth About Grief, a contributor to the anthology Money Changes Everything, and a director at Arden Asset Management. The views expressed are solely her own.

More on retirement investing:

Should I invest in bonds or bond mutual funds?

What is the right mix of stocks and bonds for me?

How often should I check my retirement investments?

Read next: Why Americans Can’t Answer the Most Basic Retirement Question

MONEY Retirement

The Surprising Reason Employers Want You to Save for Retirement

man fails to make a putt
PM Images—Getty Images

Companies have stepped up their game with better options and features. Still, savings lag.

Employers have come a long way in terms of helping workers save for retirement. They have beefed up financial education efforts, embraced automatic savings features, and moved toward relatively safe one-decision investment options like target-date mutual funds. Yet our retirement savings crisis persists and may be taking a toll on the economy.

Three in four large or mid-sized employers with a 401(k) plan say that insufficient personal savings is a top concern for their workforce, according to a report from Towers Watson. Four in five say poor savings will become an even bigger issue for their employees in the next three years, the report concludes.

Personal money problems are a big and growing distraction at the office. The Society for Human Resources Management found that 83% of HR professionals report that workers’ money issues are having a negative impact on productivity, showing up in absenteeism rates, stress, and diminished ability to focus.

This fallout is one reason more employers are stepping up their game and making it easier to save smart. Today, 25% of 401(k) plans have an automatic enrollment feature, up from 17% five years ago, Fidelity found. And about a third of annual employee contribution hikes come from auto increase. Meanwhile, Fidelity clients with all their savings in a target-date mutual fund have soared to 35% of plan participants from just 3% a decade ago.

Yet companies know they must do more. Only 12% in the Towers report said their employees know how much they need for a secure retirement; only 20% said employees are comfortable making investment decisions. In addition, 53% of employers are concerned that older workers will have to delay retirement. That presents its own set of workplace challenges as employers are left with fewer slots to reward and retain their best younger workers.

Further innovation in investment options may help. The big missing piece today is a plan choice that converts into simple and cost-efficient guaranteed lifetime income. For a lot of reasons, annuities and other potential solutions have been slow to catch on inside of defined-contribution plans. But the push is on.

Another approach may be educational efforts that reach employees where they want to be found. The vast majority of employers continue to lean on traditional and passive methods of education, including sending out confusing account statements and newsletters, holding boring group meetings, and hosting webcasts. Less than 10% of employers incorporate mobile technology or have tried games designed to motivate employees to save.

These approaches have proved especially useful among young workers, who as a group have begun to save far earlier than previous generations. Still, some important lessons are not getting through. About half of all employers offer tax-free growth through a Roth savings option in their plan, yet only 11% of workers take advantage of the feature, Towers found. This is where better financial education could help.

 

 

MONEY retirement planning

Why Detroit’s Pension Deal Is a Warning to Retirement Savers

The Renaissance Center city skyline and the Detroit River viewed from Milliken State Park, Detroit, Michigan.
In Detroit retirees face steep pension cuts, which raises big questions about the financial security of workers elsewhere. Ian Dagnall—Alamy

The Motor City is counting on the market to keep its pension promises—a lot like under-saved 401(k) plan participants.

Guaranteed lifetime income has become the obsession of retirees, policymakers and the financial industry. Yet as the public pension debacle in bankrupt Detroit shows, we may never find a solution that completely eliminates the risk of your money running out.

The judge in Detroit’s closely watched proceedings said the recent deal the city cut with its retirees bordered on “miraculous,” as reported in The New York Times. That may be. But the deal still left the city’s 32,000 current and future retirees with diminished benefits and no certainty that they won’t be asked to give up more down the road. Their fate is largely in the hands of the markets—as is the case for millions of workers saving in 401(k) plans, and even many of those still covered by a private pension.

The problem is that there is only so much money we are willing to throw at the retirement savings crisis, an issue that has been exacerbated by an economy that until recently was growing far below potential. Every leg of the retirement stool is underfunded, including private pensions, though they are in the best shape. Many public pensions are in deep trouble. Social Security is on course for a funding shortfall. Personal savings are abysmal.

When government revenue or corporate profits or personal income are too low to allow for setting aside enough money for the future, we can only hope that the markets bail us out. In Detroit’s case, pension managers are counting on average annual returns of 6.75% for the next 10 years. That might happen, and it’s a lower expected rate of return than many public pensions are counting on. But given that stocks have already had a nice run, and that the bond portion of any portfolio will almost certainly come up far short of that mark, it’s probably an optimistic target. That means the city will likely have to raise taxes or cut pension benefits at some later date.

Private pensions face similar math, which is why many companies have frozen their plans or dropped them. Still, those that remain are generally on more solid footing. Profits have been strong and regulators hold companies to a higher funding standard. But by some estimates such stalwarts as IBM, Caterpillar and Dow Chemical will need to pay extra attention to their pension funding in coming years. The equation became more difficult recently, now that the Society of Actuaries has updated its mortality tables, which added a couple years to the life expectancy of both men and women at age 65.

Individuals in self-directed savings plans, such as 401(k)s, face their own funding problems. Workers may not have done the retirement income math but, like many pension managers, they haven’t been putting away the money they’ll need, while hoping for strong market returns to make it all work out. If they stay invested, and stocks keep chugging higher, they may be fine. Otherwise they will have to save more going forward or plan on spending less later—the do-it-yourself equivalent of raising taxes or having their benefits cut.

The good news for individuals is that you can act now on your own—you don’t have to stand by while a committee of actuaries and accountants blows smoke around the issue and kicks the problem further down the road. Steps you can take immediately include saving at least 10% of everything you make. Aim for 15% if your kids are gone and the mortgage is paid. Make sure you get the full company match in your 401(k) and automatically escalate contributions each year.

Young workers, especially, need to act now. Those just starting out are far less likely to have a private pension and more likely to suffer from future Social Security cuts. Many seem to have got the message. Millennials expect employment income and personal savings to account for 58% of their retirement income, Bank of America Merrill Lynch found. That compares to just 35% for boomers.

But even with greater savings, guaranteed lifetime income can remain elusive. As life expectancies have stretched, and interest rates have remained low for nearly a generation, fixed-income annuities have become relatively expensive. Even the so-called safe withdrawal rate of 4% per year now strikes some experts as too high for peace of mind. The push is on to make 401(k) savings more easily convertible into lifetime income. That would help because the big insurers that stand behind the promise of lifetime income are a lot more reliable than a city like Detroit.

Read Next: Retirees Risk Blowing IRA Deadline and Paying Huge Penalties

MONEY fix my mix

Get Free Help with Your Investing Challenges

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B.A.E. Inc.—Alamy

MONEY is looking for people who are willing to share the details of their portfolio in exchange for a free workup with a financial planner.

Has the volatile market caused you to flee stocks for the security of cash and bonds?

Are you close to 100% in stocks but thinking now it might be time to dial back?

Would you like to rework your investments to generate more income from dividends and bonds?

If so, we’d like to help.

For an upcoming issue, MONEY is looking for people who’d be willing to share their portfolio and financial situation in the magazine, in exchange for having a top-shelf financial planner examine their investments from top to bottom and come up with a full and personalized financial plan.

You must be comfortable sharing details of your personal and financial life (including your real names) and being photographed for the story.

If interested, please fill out the form below. Please tell us a little about your investment challenges, and also include a few details about your family’s finances, including income, approximate savings, and debts. All of this information will be kept confidential until we talk and you agree to appear in the story.

Everybody has an investment challenge, so let’s hear yours!

MONEY Ask the Expert

Here’s a Smart Way To Boost Your Tax-Free Retirement Savings

140605_AskExpert_illo
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am maxing out my 401(k). I understand there’s a new way to make after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA. How does that work?

A: You can thank the IRS for what is essentially a huge tax break for higher-income retirement savers, especially folks like yourself who are already maxing out contributions to tax-sheltered retirement plans.

A recent ruling by the IRS allows eligible workers to easily move after-tax contributions from their 401(k) or 403(b) plan to Roth IRAs when they exit their company plan. “With this new ruling, retirement savers are getting a huge increase in their ability contribute to a Roth IRA,” says Brian Holmes, president and CEO of investment advisory firm Signature Estate and Investment Advisors.

The Roth is a valuable income stream in retirement because contributions are after-tax, which means you don’t owe Uncle Sam anything on the money you withdraw. Unlike traditional IRAs which require you to start withdrawing money once you turn 70 ½, Roths have no mandatory distribution requirements, so your investments can continue to grow tax-free. And if you need to take a chunk out for a sudden big expense, such as medical bills, the withdrawal won’t bump you up into a higher tax bracket.

For high-income earners, the IRS ruling is especially good news. Singles with an adjusted gross income of $129,000 or more can’t directly contribute to a Roth IRA; for married couples, the income cap is $191,000. If you are are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, you can’t contribute more than $5,500 this year or next ($6,500 for people over 50). The IRS does allow people to convert traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs but you must pay income tax on your gains.

Now, with this new IRS ruling, you can put a lot more into a Roth by diverting your 401(k) assets into one. The annual limit on pre-tax contributions to 401(k) plans is $17,500 and $23,000 for people over 50; those limits rise to $18,000 and $24,000 next year. Including your pre-tax and post-tax contributions, as well as pre-tax employer matches, the total amount a worker can save in 401(k) and 403(b) plans is $52,000 and $57,500 for those 50 and older. (That amount will rise to $53,000 and $59,000 respectively in 2015.) When you leave your employer, you can separate the after-tax money and send it directly to a Roth, which can boost your tax-free savings by tens of thousands of dollars.

To take advantage of the new rule, your employer plan must allow after-tax contributions to your 401(k). About 53% of 401(k) plans allow both pre-tax and after- tax contributions, according to Rick Meigs, president of the 401(k) Help Center. You must also first max out your pre-tax contributions. The transfer to a Roth must be done at the same time you roll your existing 401(k)’s pre-tax savings into a traditional IRA.

The ability to put away more in a Roth is also good for people who want to leave money to heirs. Inherited Roth IRAs are free of tax, and because they don’t have taxable minimum required distributions, they can give your heirs decades of tax-free growth. “It’s absolutely the best asset to die with if you want to leave money behind,” says Holmes.

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

Read next: 4 Disastrous Retirement Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

MONEY financial advisers

What Is a Fiduciary, and Why Should You Care?

Your investments are at stake, explains Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown (a.k.a. The Reformed Broker).

MONEY Taxes

IRS Bumps Up Retirement Fund Contribution Limits

You can now save more in your tax-deferred retirement accounts.

Good news: The IRS has bumped up retirement account contribution limits for 2015 to reflect cost-of-living increases. So if you’ve been wanting to sock away more in your tax-advantaged accounts, next year is your opportunity.

Today’s announcement raises the annual contribution limit for 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans, and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan by $500 to $18,000. The catch-up contribution limit for employees over age 50 also increased from $5,500 to $6,000.

IRA contribution limits and IRA catch-up contributions, however, will remain the same, at $5,500 and $1,000, respectively, meaning older workers can still set aside $6,500 a year in these accounts.

This follows Wednesday’s announcement that retirees will see a 1.7% cost-of-living bump in their Social Security benefits next year.

Contribution limits are reviewed and adjusted annually to reflect inflation and cost-of-living increases. Last year, 401(k) and IRA limits remained unchanged from 2013 levels because the Consumer Price Index had not risen enough to warrant an increase.

For more details about the changes and more information about the new gross adjusted income limits for certain tax deductions, see the table below or the IRS website.

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Read more from the Ultimate Retirement Guide:

 

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Can I Save More?

Financial planning experts share easy ways to trick yourself into setting more money aside for your future.

MONEY mortgages

The Surprising Threat to Your Financial Security in Retirement

House made out of dollar bills with ominous shadow
iStock

More Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement, according to a new Harvard study.

America’s population is going to experience a dramatic shift during the next 15 years. More than 130 million Americans will be aged 50 or over, and the entire baby boomer generation will be in retirement age — making 20% of the country’s population older than 65. If recent trends continue, there will be a larger number of retirees renting and paying mortgages than ever before.

A recent study published by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies describes how this could lead an unprecedented number of America’s aging population to face a lower quality of life or even financial hardship. However, the same study also points out that there is time for many of those who could be affected to do something about it.

Housing debt and rent costs pose a big threat

According to the data Harvard researchers put together, homeowners tend to be in a much better financial position than renters. The majority of homeowners over 50 have retirement savings with a median value of $93,000, plus $10,000 in savings. More than three-quarters of renters, on the other hand, have no retirement and only $1,000 in savings on average.

While renters — who don’t have the benefit of home equity wealth — face the biggest challenges, a growing percentage of those 50 and older are carrying mortgage debt. Income levels tend to peak for most in their late 40s before declining in the 50s, and then comes retirement. The result? Housing costs consume a growing percentage of income as those over 50 get older and enter retirement.

How bad is it? Check out this table from the Harvard study:

Source: "Housing America's Older Adults," Harvard University.
Source: “Housing America’s Older Adults,” Harvard University.

More than 40% of those over 65 with a mortgage or rent payment are considered moderately or severely burdened, meaning that at least 30% of their income goes toward housing costs. The percentage drops below 15% when they own their home. If you pay rent or carry a mortgage into retirement, there’s a big chance it will take up a significant amount of your income. In 1992, it was estimated that just more than 60% of those between 50 and 64 had a mortgage, but by 2010, the number had jumped past 70%.

Even more concerning? The rate of those over 65 still paying a mortgage has almost doubled since 1992 to nearly 40%.

The impact of housing costs on retirees

The impact is felt most by those with the lowest incomes, and there is a clear relationship between high housing costs and hardship. Those who are 65 and older and are both in the lowest income quartile and moderately or severely burdened by housing costs spend up to 30% less on food than people in the same income bracket who do not have a housing-cost burden. Those who face a housing-cost burden also spend markedly less on healthcare, including preventative care.

In many cases, these burdens can become too much to bear, often leading retirees to live with a family member — if the option is available. While this is more common in some cultures, this isn’t an appealing option to most Americans, who generally view retirement as an opportunity to be independent. More than 70% of respondents in a recent AARP survey said they want to remain in their current residence as long as they can. Unfortunately, those who carry mortgage debt into retirement are more likely to have financial difficulties and limited choices, and they’re also more likely to have less money in retirement savings.

What to do?

Considering the data and the trends the Harvard study uncovered, more and more Americans could face a housing-related financial hardship in retirement. If you want to avoid that predicament, there are things you can do at any age.

  • Refinance or no? Refinancing typically only makes sense if it will reduce the total amount you pay for your home. Saving $200 per month doesn’t do you any good if you end up paying $3,000 more over the term of the loan. However, if a lower interest rate means you’ll spend less money than you do on your current loan, refinance.
  • Reverse mortgages. If you’re in retirement and have equity in your home, a reverse mortgage might make sense. There are a few different types based on whether you need financial support via monthly income, cash to pay for repairs or taxes on your home, or other needs. However, understand how a reverse mortgage works and what you are giving up before you choose this route. There are housing counseling agencies that can help you figure out the best options for your situation, and for some reverse mortgage programs you are required to meet with a counselor first. Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s website for more information.

All that said, avoiding financial hardship in retirement takes more than managing your mortgage. A big hedge is entering retirement with as much wealth as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Max out your employee match. If your employer offers a match to retirement account contributions, make sure you’re getting all of it. Even if you’re only a few years from retiring, this is free money; don’t leave it on the table. Furthermore, your 401(k) contributions reduce your taxable income, meaning it will actually hit your paycheck by a smaller amount than your contribution.
  • Catching up. The IRS allows those over age 50 to contribute an extra $1,000 per year to personal IRAs, putting their total contribution limit at $6,500. And contributions to traditional IRAs can reduce your taxable income, just like 401(k) contributions. There are some limitations, so check with your tax pro to see how it affects your situation. Also, while contributions to a Roth IRA aren’t tax-deductible, distributions in retirement are tax-free.
  • Financial assistance and property tax breaks. Whether you’re a homeowner or a renter, there are assistance programs that can help bridge the housing-cost gap. Both state and federal government programs exist, but nobody is going to knock on your door and tell you about them. A good place to start is to contact your local housing authority. The available assistance can also include property tax credits, exemptions, and deferrals. Check with your local tax commissioner to find out what is available in your area.

Stop putting it off

If you’re already in this situation, or know someone who is, then you know the emotional and financial strain it causes. If you’re afraid you might be on the path to be in those straits, then it’s up to you to take steps to change course.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a few months from 65 or a few months into your first job: Doing nothing gets you nowhere and wastes invaluable time that you can’t get back.

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