MONEY year-end moves

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

golden eggs of ascending size
Getty Images

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 Ask the Expert

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

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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 retirement planning

3 Ways to Feather Your (Empty) Nest

Birds in nest throwing money in the air
Sebastien Thibault

Just because the kids are gone doesn't mean it's time to splurge. Here are some ways to treat yourself well without compromising your comfort in retirement.

The phrase “empty nest” may sound sad and lonely. But—shh!—don’t let the kids know that when they clear out, Mom and Dad have fun. Often too much fun. A study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that empty-nesters spend 51% more than they did when their children were home. “We have clients who go out to lunch and dinner every day,” notes Cincinnati financial planner John Evans.

Certainly after surviving Little League, teenage attitude, and the colossal cost of college, you ­deserve to splurge. But you also don’t want to compromise your finances as you begin the final sprint to retirement. Here are three ways to keep feathering your nest while still enjoying your freedom.

First, Keep Your Spending in Check

  • Rerun your numbers. While you can likely afford to let loose a bit, make sure your retirement plan is in order before you go wild. “You should save a bare minimum of 10% a year, really more like 15%—and if you’re behind you may need to save 20% to 30%,” says Boca Raton, Fla., financial planner Mari Adam. Use T. Rowe Price’s retirement income calculator to see what you need to put away to get your desired income.
  • Make a payoff plan. Erasing your debts before retirement will require sacrifice now—but will take pressure off your nest egg and allow you to have more fun later. Figure out how to do it with the debt calculator at CreditKarma.com.
  • Plug the kid leak. One in four affluent parents ages 50 to 70 surveyed recently by Ameriprise said that supporting adult children has put them off track for retirement. Lesson: Get your priorities (retirement and debt elimination) straight first, and build gifts into your annual budget proactively vs. giving willy-nilly.

Second, Free Up Even More Cash to Stash

  • Downsize. Convert Junior’s room into a better tomorrow: Moving from a $250,000 house to a $150,000 one could boost your investment income by $3,000 a year while reducing maintenance and taxes by $3,250, the Center for Retirement Research found.
  • Cut your coverage. If your kids are working, you may not need life insurance to protect them. You may be able to take them off health and auto policies too.
  • Moonlight. Besides increasing your income and helping you establish a second act, “self-employment makes a huge difference in what you can do on your taxes,” says Tony Novak, a Philadelphia-area CPA. That’s especially valuable in these peak earning years when you’ve lost the kid write-offs.

Finally, Supercharge Tax-Efficient Savings

  • Catch up on your 401(k) and IRA. Once you hit 50, you can sock away $5,500 more in your 401(k) this year, for a total of $23,000, and an extra $1,000 in your IRA, for a total of $6,500. In 2015, you’ll be able to put an extra $6,000 in your 401(k), for a total of $24,000; IRA caps remain unchanged. If you start moonlighting, as suggested above, you can shelter more money in a SEP-IRA—the lesser of 25% of earnings or $52,000.
  • Shovel cash into that HSA. Got a high-deductible health plan? Families can contribute $6,550 ($7,550 if you’re 55-plus) to a health savings account. Contributions are pretax, money grows tax-free, and you don’t pay taxes on withdrawals for medical expenses. If you can pay your deductible from other savings, let your HSA grow for retirement, Novak says.

Sources: Employee Benefit Research Institute, PulteGroup, MONEY calculations­

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Help Your Kid Get Started Investing

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I want to invest $5,000 for my 35-year-old daughter, as I want to get her on the path to financial security. Should the money be placed into a guaranteed interest rate annuity? Or should the money go into a Roth IRA?

A: To make the most of this financial gift, don’t just focus on the best place to invest that $5,000. Rather, look at how this money can help your daughter develop saving and investing habits above and beyond your contribution.

Your first step should be to have a conversation with your daughter to express your intent and determine where this money will have the biggest impact. Planning for retirement should be a top priority. “But you don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” says Scott Whytock, a certified financial planner with August Wealth Management in Portland, Maine.

Before you jump ahead to thinking about long-term savings vehicles for your daughter, first make sure she has her bases covered right now. Does she have an emergency fund, for example? Ideally, she should have up to six months of typical monthly expenses set aside. Without one, says Whytock, she may be forced to pull money out of retirement — a costly choice on many counts — or accrue high-interest debt.

Assuming she has an adequate rainy day fund, the next place to look is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). If the plan offers matching benefits, make sure your daughter is taking full advantage of that free money. If her income and expenses are such that she isn’t able to do so, your gift may give her the wiggle room she needs to bump up her contributions.

Does she have student loans or a car loan? “Maybe paying off that car loan would free up some money each month that could be redirected to her retirement contributions through work,” Whytock adds. “She would remove potentially high interest debt, increase her contributions to her 401(k), and lower her tax base all at the same time.”

If your daughter doesn’t have a plan through work or is already taking full advantage of it, then a Roth IRA makes sense. Unlike with traditional IRAs, contributions to a Roth are made after taxes, but your daughter won’t owe taxes when she withdraws the money for retirement down the road. Since she’s on the younger side – and likely to be in a higher tax bracket later – this choice may also offer a small tax advantage over other vehicles.

Why not the annuity?

As you say, the goal is to help your daughter get on the path to financial security. For that reason alone, a simple, low-cost instrument is your best bet. Annuities can play a role in retirement planning, but their complexity, high fees and, typically, high minimums make them less ideal for this situation, says Whytock.

Here’s another idea: Don’t just open the account, pick the investments and make the contribution on your daughter’s behalf. Instead, use this gift as an opportunity to get her involved, from deciding where to open the account to choosing the best investments.

Better yet, take this a step further and set up your own matching plan. You could, for example, initially fund the account with $2,000 and set aside the remainder to match what she saves, dollar for dollar. By helping your daughter jump start her own saving and investing plans, your $5,000 gift will yield returns far beyond anything it would earn if you simply socked it away on her behalf.

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

MONEY Taxes

5 Things to Know If You Still Haven’t Finished Last Year’s Taxes

Practicing golf in office
You can't put off finishing your taxes for much longer. Jan Stromme—Getty Images

Attention tax procrastinators: Time’s nearly up if you filed for an extension last spring.

Remember the relief you felt last April when—faced with a looming tax-filing deadline—you simply applied for an automatic six-month extension for your 2013 return? The dread is back. October 15, next Wednesday, is the filing deadline for everyone who took advantage of the government’s grace period. As of the end of September, more than a quarter of the nearly 13 million taxpayers who had filed for an extension had yet to file, according to the IRS. If you’re one of those procrastinators, here’s what you need to know.

1. This time the deadline is real. No more extensions (one exception: members of the military serving in a combat zone). If you don’t file and pay your tax bill, you’ll get a failure-to-file notice. And you’ll start the clock on a failure-to-file penalty (5% of your unpaid taxes per month, up to a max of 25%), a failure-to-pay penalty (0.5% of your tax bill per month, up to a max of 25%), and interest (currently 3%).

“You could have three things adding up month by month if you do nothing by October 15,” says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for Wolters Kluwer, CCH. Of course, if you’re expecting a refund, there’s no penalty for not filing—and also no refund until you do.

2. Do nothing, and the IRS will eventually file for you. And you may not like the results. That’s because the IRS will base your tax bill on the information it has, such as the income reported on your W-2, notes White Plains, N.Y., CPA Paul Herman. But they won’t know other things that could lower your tax bill, like all the deductions you’re entitled to or what you paid for stocks, bonds, or mutual funds you sold last year.

3. If you can’t pay your entire bill, throw out a number. File your return for sure—that at least saves you the failure-to-file penalty. When you do, request an installment agreement (Form 9465), and propose how much you can pay a month, or the IRS will divide your balance by 72 months. If the offer is reasonable, says Herman, the IRS may accept it.

4. Free help hasn’t gone away. Through October 15, you can still use the IRS’s Free File program, which makes brand-name tax-filing software available at no cost if your income is $58,000 or less. Earn more than that, and you can still use the free fillable forms at the IRS website.

5. You have one less way to cut your taxes. You’re out of luck if you had hoped to trim your tax bill by funding an individual retirement account for 2013 (depending on your income, as much as $5,500 was deductible last year, $6,500 if you’re 50 or older). Even though you got an extension to file, the deadline for opening an IRA for 2013 was last April 15. (Make a note: You have six months to open a 2014 IRA).

However, if you switched a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA last year—which meant a tax bill on your conversion—you still have until October 15 to change your mind. That’s something you might do if the value of your Roth has since dropped. You can “recharacterize” the conversion (in effect, switch back to a regular IRA) and then convert to a Roth again later, this time realizing a smaller taxable gain and owing less in taxes.

Finally, if you find yourself doing your taxes every fall, think about changing your ways. Maybe invest in a better system for organizing your records? “If you waited this long,” says Herman, “try to begin planning earlier for next year.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

What To Do When Your Pension Is Frozen

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My company froze our pensions last year. I am 53. Can I take the money out and invest it myself? – Tim Shields, New York

A: You’re in the same boat as many private sector workers today. Hundreds of companies have frozen their pensions in the past decade in order to shed the cost of providing guaranteed lifetime income to retirees. The trend accelerated after the recession—more than 40% of the Fortune 1000 companies now have frozen pensions, according to one study.

Your employer can’t take away the benefits you’ve earned. But if you’re currently covered by a pension, also known as a defined benefit plan, your pension benefit will no longer increase. This trend leaves older workers like you vulnerable, especially if you have long tenure, says Bonnie Kirchner, a certified financial planner and president of Sea Change Financial Education. That’s because pensions are back-loaded, reaching their peak value in your last years before retirement. You’re losing what would have been a large income stream in retirement, so you’ll need to figure out different saving and investing strategies.

Whether you can take the money out and invest it yourself depends on your plan’s rules, says Kirchner, who also wrote Who Can You Trust With Your Money? You should contact your human resources department to find out the specifics.

Chances are, your employer will want you to take that pension money as a lump sum, says Kirchner. Many pensions are underfunded, and companies must make up any underfunded liabilities with additional contributions to their plans. “Your corporation may be very happy to get rid of that liability from their balance sheet,” says Kirchner.

In fact, more companies are doing so. In a move known as “de-risking,” companies are offering settlement payouts to employees, thereby moving the pension obligation off their books. Three out of four employers with pension plans said they are—or are in the process of—unloading pensions obligations, according to a report by Towers Watson and Institutional Investors Forum.

To do so, your company may offer to pay you a lump sum in place of a monthly pension payment, or it may replace your pension by buying an equivalent annuity from an insurance company. Motorola recently did both, buying annuities from Prudential Insurance to cover its current pensions and offering lump sum buyouts to plan participants. General Motors and Verizon replaced their pension obligations with annuities in 2012.

For most people, taking an annuity that guarantees an income stream for life is a far better option than a lump sum payout. “It protects you against running out of money,” says Kirchner. An exception might be if you are in poor health and need to tap those assets sooner. (If you do take a lump sum, be sure to roll it over into an IRA—otherwise you could incur penalties and income taxes.)

Granted, investing a lump sum does offer the potential for higher returns, so it may be a better fit for those who want to manage their own money. Still, few investors are capable of outperforming the market, as studies have repeatedly shown. And today a guaranteed stream of income is something that is highly sought after by retirees, says Kirchner, so think twice about rejecting an annuity.

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

MONEY retirement planning

8 Things You Must Do Before You Retire

sébastien thibault

Getting ready to retire? The moves you make in the months before you call it quits can smooth the way to a secure future.

After working diligently for more than 30 years—so you could set yourself up financially for your golden years—the glow of retirement is finally on the horizon. Alas, it’s not time to relax just yet.

Each day more than 10,000 baby boomers enter retirement. Yet only around one-quarter of workers 55 and older say they’re doing a good job preparing for the next phase, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The last 12 months before you call it a career is especially critical to putting your retirement on a prosperous path. It’s time to get your portfolio, health care, and other finances in order so you can enjoy your new life.

THE TURNING-POINT CHECKLIST

12 Months Out:

Dial back on stocks now. You still need the growth that equities provide, but even a 15% market slide in the year before you retire can erase four years’ worth of income. Cap stock exposure to around 50% in your sixties, advises Rande Spiegelman, vice president of financial planning at Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Raise cash. Your paychecks are about to stop. So as you downshift from stocks, move that money into a savings or money market account to fund at least one year of expenses, says Judith Ward, T. Rowe Price senior financial planner.

Set a realistic retirement budget. Use the worksheet on Fidelity’s free retirement-income planner to list all of your fixed and discretionary expenses. Then use T. Rowe Price’s free retirement-income calculator to see how safe that level of spending is likely to be, based on the size of your nest egg and age.

6 Months Out:

Play out Social Security scenarios. You can claim Social Security at 62, but if you can hold off until 70 your checks will be 76% bigger. Tool around FinancialEngines.com’s free Social Security Income Planner to find the best strategy for you.

Figure out how you’ll pay for health care. Check if your company offers retirees medical, long-term care, and other insurance coverage. If you won’t get health insurance and aren’t yet 65 (when you qualify for Medicare), then compare plans offered via the Affordable Care Act at eHealthInsurance.com. Or use COBRA, where you can stay on your employer plan up to 18 months after leaving.

3 MONTHS OUT:

Begin the rollover process. In a small 401(k) plan, average fund expenses can run north of 0.6% of assets. You can cut those fees at least in half by shifting into index funds at a low-cost IRA provider. See if your plan provides free access to investment advisers to help you decide.

Sign up for Medicare. Nearing 65? You can enroll for Medicare up to three months before turning that age. Also, figure in supplemental plans to cover expenses that Medicare does not, such as dental care and prescription drugs.

Get a running start. Put your post-career itinerary into action. Research volunteer groups that you want to join, reach out to contacts if you plan to keep a hand in work, start a new exercise routine, or begin planning that big trip.

MONEY Ask the Expert

The Right Way to Tap Your IRA in Retirement

Q: When I do my IRA required minimum distribution I take some extra money out and move it to a taxable account. Good idea or bad idea? Thanks – Bill Faye, Rockville, MD

A: After years of accumulating money for retirement, figuring out what to do with “extra” money withdrawn from your IRA accounts seems like a nice problem to have. But required minimum distributions, or RMDs, can be tricky.

First, a bit of background on managing RMDs. These withdrawals are a requirement under IRS rules, since Uncle Sam wants to collect the taxes you’ve deferred on contributions to your IRAs or 401(k)s. You must take your distribution by April 1st of the year you turn 70 ½; subsequent RMDs are due by December 31st each year. If you don’t take the distribution, you’ll pay a 50% tax penalty in addition to regular income tax on the amount that should have been withdrawn.

The size of your required withdrawal depends on your age and the account balance. (You can find the details on the IRS website here.) If you’re over 59 ½, you can take out higher amounts than the minimum required, but the excess withdrawals don’t count toward your future distributions. Still, by managing your IRAs the right way, you can preserve more of your portfolio and possibly reduce taxes, says Mary Pucciarelli, a financial advisor with MetLife Premier Client Group.

For those fortunate enough to hold more than one IRA, you must calculate the withdrawal amount based on all your accounts. But you can take the money out of any combination of the IRAs you hold. This flexibility means you can make strategic withdrawals. Say you have an IRA with a big exposure to stocks and the market is down. In that scenario, you might want to pull money from another account that isn’t so stock heavy, so you’re not selling investments at a low point.

You can minimize RMDs by converting one or more of your traditional IRAs to a Roth IRA. Roths don’t have minimum distribution requirements, so you can choose when and how much money you take out. More importantly, you don’t pay taxes on the withdrawals and neither will your heirs if you leave it to them. You will owe taxes on the amount you convert. To get the full benefit of the conversion, consider this move only if you can pay that bill with money outside your IRA. Many investors choose to make the move after they’ve retired and their tax bill is lower. Pucciarelli suggests doing the conversion over time so you can avoid a big tax bill in one year.

Up until this year, you could avoid paying taxes on your RMD by making a qualified charitable contribution directly from your IRA to a charity. The tax provision expired in December. It’s possible Congress will renew the tax break, though nothing is certain in Washington. Meanwhile, if you itemize on your taxes, you can deduct your charitable contribution.

As for the extra money you’ve withdrawn, it’s fine to stash it in a taxable account. If you have sufficient cash on hand for living expenses, you can opt for longer-term investments, such as bond or stock funds. But be sure your investments suit your financial goals. “You don’t want to throw your asset allocation out of whack when you move the money,” says Pucciarelli. Consider a tax-efficient option, such as an index stock fund or muni bond fund. That way, Uncle Sam won’t take another big tax bite out of your returns.

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

MONEY retirement planning

4 Ways to Fix Our Retirement System

These changes would help all of us work longer, if we want to, and retire more comfortably.

Boomers have expressed a strong desire to remain engaged in the market economy. They still want to make a difference. They’re a creative force for change.

What could the government do to make it practical and desirable for more people to work longer? After spending two years researching my new book, Unretirement, I think the answer is: Fix four problems in America’s retirement system. In my opinion, these remedies would entice boomers to stay on the job, switch careers (possibly pursuing encore careers for the greater good) and launch businesses in midlife.

Below are four initiatives I think might accelerate unretirement; you may like all, a handful, or none of them. But hopefully, taken altogether, the ideas will spark a conversation about what’s possible and desirable for encouraging unretirement and encore careers.

1. Make America’s retirement savings system universal and with lower costs. It’s high time to acknowledge that our retirement savings system is not only broken, but unsuited for the new world of unretirement.

Only 42% of private sector workers ages 25 to 64 have any pension coverage in their current job. The result, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, is that more than one third of households end up with no coverage during their working years while others moving in and out of coverage accumulate small 401(k) balances. In short, the current system doesn’t even come close to universal coverage for the private economy.

The typical value of 401(k)s and IRAs for workers nearing retirement who do have them was about $120,000 in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve. That sum would provide a mere $575 in monthly income, assuming a couple bought a joint-and-survivor annuity, calculates Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Defined-contribution savings plans, like 401(k)s, can be improved. They’ve asked too much of people. You’ve usually had to voluntarily join (a difficult decision for lower-income workers living off tight budgets); many employees have been overwhelmed by their plans’ enormous mutual fund options, and high fees have eroded their returns.

In addition, most 401(k) participants don’t have the option of receiving payments from their plans as a stream of annuitized income that they can’t outlive in retirement. It’s widely recognized that plans need to offer their near-retirees this choice.

Lawmakers should require 401(k) plans have: automatic enrollment (where you can opt out if you wish); automatic annual escalation of the percentage of pay employees contribute (again, you could opt out of this feature); limited investment choice (say, no more than five or six); low fees and an annuity option for retirees.

The government could open up to companies that don’t offer a retirement plan to their workers—usually smaller firms—the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), one of the world’s best designed plans. Contributions could be made through payroll deduction, so the cost to firms would be minimal.

The TSP offers five broad-based investment funds along with the option of a lifecycle fund. Its annual expense ratio was an extremely low 0.027% in 2012, meaning for each fund, the cost was about 27 cents per $1,000 of investment.

“What’s the downside?” asks Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, during an interview at his office. “It’s common sense.”

Better yet, lawmakers could create a universal retirement plan attached to the individual. There have been a number of proposals over the years along these lines. For instance, the government could enroll every worker in an IRA through automatic payroll deduction.

2. Allow Americans who delay claiming Social Security to take their benefits in a lump sum. That’s a proposal being floated by Jingjing Chai, Raimond Maurer, and Ralph Rogalla of Goethe University and Olivia Mitchell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The scholars give this example: Older workers who decide to stay on the job until age 66, rather than retire at 65, would get a lump sum worth 1.2 times the age 65 benefit and would also receive the age 65 annuity stream of income for life when filing for benefits at 66. Those who wait until 70 would get a lump sum worth some six times their starting-age annual benefit payment, plus the age 65 benefit stream for life.

Among the attractions of a lump sum are financial flexibility, the option of leaving money to heirs, and—for “financially sophisticated individuals”—the opportunity to invest the money. The lure of the lump sum would encourage workers to voluntarily stay on the job, on average by about one and a half to two years longer, the researchers calculate. Nevertheless, the workers’ Social Security benefits wouldn’t be cut, they would still have a lifetime annuity to live on and Social Security’s finances would remain essentially the same.

3. Offer Social Security payroll tax relief. A leading proponent of this idea is John Shoven, an economist at Stanford University. The current Social Security benefit formula is based on a calculation that takes into account a worker’s highest 35 years of earnings. Once 35 years have been put in, the incentive to stay on the job weakens, especially since older workers usually take home less pay than they did in middle age, their peak earning years.

Why not declare that older workers are “paid up” for Social Security after 40 years, asks Shoven. Why not indeed? There are a number of proposed variations on the idea, but they all converge on the notion that eliminating the employee share of the payroll tax around that point would be an immediate boost to an aging worker’s take-home pay and getting rid of the employer’s contribution then would lower the cost of employing older workers.

The change seems like a win-win situation from the unretirement perspective. “It’s an incentive for people to work longer,” says Richard Burkhauser, professor of policy analysis at Cornell University.

4. Change the rules for required minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 70½ from 401(k)s, IRAs and the like. The requirements are Byzantine. For instance, with a traditional IRA, the RMD is April 1 following the year you reach 70 and six months, even if you are still working. The withdrawal requirement includes IRAs offered through an employer, such as the SIMPLE IRA and a SEP IRA. The same withdrawal date applies with a 401(k), unless you continue working for the same employer. But there is no RMD with a Roth IRA.

Got all this?

A pet peeve of mine is how unnecessarily complicated the rules are for retirement savings plans. Washington could raise the required minimum distribution rules on all plans to, say, age 80 or 85. Then again, Washington could simply eliminate the RMD altogether.

Like the other proposals mentioned earlier, I think it’s worth a try.

This article is adapted from Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing The Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, by Chris Farrell. Chris is senior economics contributor for American Public Media’s Marketplace. He writes about Unretirement twice a month, focusing on the personal finance and entrepreneurial start-up implications and the lessons people learn as they search for meaning and income. Tell him about your experiences so he can address your questions in future columns. Send your queries to him at cfarrell@mpr.org. His twitter address is@cfarrellecon.

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MONEY Taxes

5 Things to Do Now To Cut Your Tax Bill Next April

If you want to owe less for 2014, start your year-end tax planning today.

When everyone else starts loading their backpacks and shopping the back-to-school sales, I know it is time for me to dive back into TurboTax.

That’s because fall is the perfect time to plan my approach to the tax forms I won’t file until next April. By using the next four months strategically, I may be able to reduce the amount I have to pay then.

This is a particularly easy year to do tax planning, because the rules haven’t changed much from 2013. If you do your own taxes on a program like Intuit’s TurboTax or TaxAct, you can use last year’s version to create a new return using this year’s numbers, and play some what-if games to see how different actions will affect your tax bill.

If you use a tax professional, it’s a good time to ask for a fall review and some advice.

Here are some of the actions to take now and through the end of the year to minimize your 2014 taxes.

1. Feed the tax-advantaged plans. Start by making sure you’re putting the maximum amount possible into your own health savings account, if you have one associated with a high-deductible health plan. That conveys maximum tax advantage for the long term. Also boost the amount you are contributing to your 401(k) plan and your own individual retirement account if you’re not already contributing the maximum.

2. Plan your year-end charitable giving. You probably have decent gains in some stocks or mutual funds. If you give your favorite charity shares of an investment, you can save taxes and help the charity. Instead of selling the shares, paying capital gains taxes on your profits and giving the remainder to your charity, you can transfer the shares, get a charitable deduction for their full value and let the charity—which is not required to pay income taxes—sell the shares. Start early in the year to identify the right shares and the right charity.

3. Take losses, and some gains. If you have any investment losses, you can sell the shares now and lock in the losses. They can help you offset any taxable gains as well as some ordinary income. You can re-buy the same security after 31 days, or buy something different immediately. In some cases, you may want to lock in gains, too. You might sell winners now if you want to make changes to your holdings and have the losses to offset them.

4. Be strategic about the alternative minimum tax. Did you pay it last year? Do you have a lot of children, medical expenses and mortgage interest payments? If so, you may end up subject to the alternative minimum tax, which taxes more of your income (by disallowing some deductions) at a lower tax rate. Robert Weiss, global head of J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s Advice Lab—a personal finance strategy group—says there are planning opportunities here. If you expect to be in the alternative minimum tax group, you can pull some income into this year—by exercising stock options or taking a bonus before the year ends—and have it taxed at the lower AMT rate. It’s good to get professional advice on this tactic, though. If you pull in too much money you could get kicked out of the AMT and the strategy would backfire.

5. Look at the list of deductible items and plan your approach. Many items, such as union dues, work uniforms, investment management fees and more are deductible once they surpass 2% of your adjusted gross income. Tax advisers often suggest taxpayers “bunch” those deductions into every other year to capture more of them. Check out the Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 529 to view the list, and try to determine if you want to amass your deductions this year or next. Then shop accordingly.

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

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