MONEY Roth IRA

Here’s the Best Way to Invest a Roth IRA in Your 20s

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I just rolled over a Roth 401(k) from my previous employer into a Roth IRA. How diversified should my Roth IRA investments be? How do I select the right balance being a 28-year-old? – KC, New York, NY

A: First, good for you for reinvesting your retirement savings. Pulling money out of your 401(k) can do serious damage to your retirement prospects—and that’s a common mistake that many people make, especially young investors, when they leave their employers. According to Vanguard, 29% of 401(k) investors overall and 35% of 20-somethings cashed out their 401(k)s when switching jobs.

Cashing out triggers income taxes and a 10% penalty if you’re under 59 ½. And you lose years of growth when you drain a chunk of savings. Cash-outs can cut your retirement income by 27%, according to Aon Hewitt.

So you’re off to a good start by rolling that money into an IRA, says Brad Sullivan, a certified financial planner and senior vice president at Beverly Hills Wealth Management in California.

At your age, you have thirty or more years until retirement. With such a long-time horizon, you need to be focused on long-term growth, and the best way to achieve that goal is to invest heavily in stocks, says Sullivan. Over time, stocks outperform more conservative investments, as well as inflation. Since the 1920s, large cap stocks have posted an average annual return of about 10% vs. 5% to 6% for bonds, while inflation clocked in at 3%.

Granted, stocks can deliver sharp losses along the way, but you have plenty of time to wait for the market to recover. A good starting point for setting your stock allocation, says Sullivan, is an old rule of thumb: subtract your age from 110 and invest that percentage of your assets in stocks and the rest in bonds. For you, that would mean a 80%/20% mix of stocks and bonds.

But whether you should opt for that mix also depends on your tolerance for risk. If you get nervous during volatile times in the stock market, keeping a higher allocation in conservative investments such as bonds—perhaps 30%—may help you stay the course during bear markets. “You have to be comfortable with your asset allocation,” says Sullivan. “You don’t want to get so nervous that you pull your money out of the market when it is down.” For those who don’t sweat market downturns, 80% or 90% in stocks is fine, says Sullivan.

Diversification is also important. For the stock portion of your portfolio, Sullivan recommends about 70% in U.S. stocks and 30% in international stocks, with a mix of large, mid-sized and small cap equities. (For more portfolio help, try this asset allocation tool.)

All this might seem complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. You could put together a well-diversified portfolio with a few low-cost index options: A total stock market index fund for U.S. equities, a total international stock index fund and a total U.S. bond market fund. (Check out our Money 50 list of recommended funds and ETFs for candidates.)

Another option is to invest your IRA in a target-date fund. You simply choose a fund that’s labeled with the year you plan to retire, and it will automatically adjust the mix of stocks, bonds and cash to maximize your return and minimize your risk as you get older.

That’s a strategy that more young people are embracing as target-date funds become more available in 401(k) plans. Among people in their 20s, one-third have retirement savings invested in target-date funds, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Keeping your investments in a Roth is also smart. The money you put into a Roth is withdrawn tax-free. What’s more, you’re likely to have a higher tax rate at retirement, which makes Roth IRAs especially beneficial for younger retirement savers.

Still, you can’t beat a 401(k) for pumping up retirement savings. You can put away up to $18,000 a year in a 401(k) vs. just $5,500 in an IRA—plus, most plans offer an employer match. So don’t hesitate to enroll, if you have another opportunity, especially if the plan offers a good menu of low-cost investments.

If that’s the case, look into the possibility of a doing a “reverse rollover”: transferring your Roth IRA into your new employer’s 401(k), says Sullivan. About 70% of 401(k)s allow reverse rollovers, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America, and a growing number offer a Roth 401(k), which could accept your Roth IRA. It will be easier to stay on top of your asset allocation if you’ve got all your retirement savings in one place.

Read next: This Is the Biggest Mistake People Make With Their IRAs

MONEY financial advice

Vanguard’s Founder Explains What Your Investment Adviser Should Do

Jack Bogle, founder of the mutual fund giant, shares what makes an investment adviser worth paying for.

The life of a financial adviser can be very tricky. Many of them believe that leaving a client’s investments alone is the best option, but when, year after year, clients come in asking what the best course of action is for their money, what do you tell them? Jack Bogle, who 40 years ago founded the mutual fund giant Vanguard (it now has about $3 trillion of assets under management), explains exactly what a financial adviser should do and what a financial adviser should say.

Read next: Jack Bogle Explains How the Index Fund Won With Investors

MONEY Savings

Here’s How Much Cash You Need in Retirement

Q: I am in my eighth year of retirement. A few years in, I found myself spending a considerable amount on repairs and upkeep on my old house. I also had to replace my car. Luckily, I was able to build up a reserve fund to cover costs so I didn’t have to dip into my investments for these “life happens” events. What is your advice on how much cash a retiree should have on hand to feel secure? – Karen Hendershot

A: Of course, everyone should have a cash cushion to handle unexpected expenses, but retirees need a larger cash reserve than people who are still working, says Richard Paul, president of Richard W. Paul and Associates in Novi, Mich. “The stakes are higher for retirees,” Paul says. “When you’re no longer earning an income, the money you have saved isn’t easily replaced.”

If you need to tap your investments for emergencies, you risk spending down your portfolio too quickly. And if you have to sell securities in a down market, you’ll need to take a bigger chunk to get the amount you need.

Relying on your investments for unexpected expenses could also trigger some nasty tax consequences. If you liquidate money from a taxable account, the income could bump you into a higher tax bracket and cost you even more.

So, how much do you need? While the standard recommendation is to have six to 12 months of money set aside to cover emergencies, retirees should have at least 12 to 18 months of cash, says Paul. That should be enough to cover daily expenses as well as any emergencies that might crop up. “This creates a safety valve, so you’re not at the whims of the market,” he says. Use an interactive worksheet like this one from Vanguard to tally up your monthly expenses.

Exactly how much you will need depends on your individual circumstances. If you have guaranteed cash flow, say from a pension and Social Security, that covers your daily expenses, you won’t need to have as much set aside as someone who is already withdrawing money from a portfolio to cover living costs. You can’t foresee emergencies but you can plan for them. If you have an older home, for example, you can anticipate needed repairs or upgrades like a new roof. If you have any medical issues, you’ll want to keep a larger stash for medical costs. “Medicare doesn’t cover everything,” Paul notes.

Since people tend to enter retirement with most of their money tied up in investments, such as 401(k)s and IRAs, Paul recommends that you start building up an emergency fund before you retire. While you’re still earning, start funneling money into a savings account and move a portion of an IRA into a short-term bond fund.

On the flip side, you don’t want to keep too much of your savings in cash. You won’t earn much interest in a money market fund or basic savings account, so balance that cash cushion with investments that can keep up with inflation. “You still need your money to grow,” Paul says.

MONEY Savings

When Good Investments Are Bad for Your Retirement Savings

Q: I have an investment portfolio outside of my retirement plans. That portfolio kicks out dividend and interest income. If I roll all that passive income back into my portfolio, can I count that toward my retirement savings rate? — Scott King, Kansas City, Mo.

A: No. The interest income and dividends that your portfolio generates are part of your portfolio’s total return, says Drew Taylor, a managing director at investment advisory firm Halbert Hargrove in Long Beach, Calif. “Counting income from your portfolio as savings would be double counting.”

There are two parts to total return: capital appreciation and income. Capital appreciation is simply when your investments increase in value. For example, if a stock you invest in rises in price, then the capital you invested appreciates. The other half of the equation is income, which can come from interest paid by fixed-income investments such as bonds, or through stock dividends.

If your portfolio generates a lot income from dividends and bonds, that’s a good thing. Reinvesting it while you’re in saving mode rather than taking it as income to spend will boost your total return.

But dividends can get cut and interest rates can fluctuate, so counting those as part of your savings rate is risky. “The only reliable way to meet your savings goal is to save the money you earn,” says John C. Abusaid, president of Halbert Hargrove.

It’s understandable why you’d want to count income in your savings rate. The amount you need to save for retirement can be daunting. Financial advisers recommend saving 10% to 15% of your income annually starting in your 20s. The goal is to end up with about 10 times your final annual earnings by the time you quit working.

How much you need to put away now depends on how much you have already saved and the lifestyle you want when you are older. To get a more precise read on whether you are on track to your goals, use a retirement calculator like this one from T. Rowe Price.

It’s great that you are saving outside of your retirement plans. While 401(k)s and IRAs are the best way to save for retirement and provide a generous tax break, you are still limited in how much you can put away: $18,000 this year in a 401(k) and $5,500 for an IRA. If you’re over 50, you can put away another $6,000 in your 401(k) and $1,000 in an IRA.

That’s a lot of money. “But if you’re playing catch-up or want to live a more lavish lifestyle when you retire, you may have to do more than max out your 401(k) and IRAs,” Taylor says.

Read next: How to Prepare for the Next Market Meltdown

MONEY retirement income

3 Retirement Loopholes That Are Likely to Close

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Design Pics/Darren Greenwood—Getty Images

The government has a knack for catching on to the most popular loopholes.

There are plenty of tips and tricks to maximizing your retirement benefits, and more than a few are considered “loopholes” that taxpayers have been able to use to circumvent the letter of the law in order to pay less to the government.

But as often happens when too many people make use of such shortcuts, the government may move to close three retirement loopholes that have become increasingly popular as financial advisers have learned how to exploit kinks in the law.

1. Back-door Roth IRA conversions
The U.S. Congress created this particular loophole by lifting income restrictions from conversions from a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to a Roth IRA, but not listing these restrictions from the contributions to the accounts.

People whose incomes are too high to put after-tax money directly into a Roth, where the growth is tax-free, can instead fund a traditional IRA with a nondeductible contribution and shortly thereafter convert the IRA to a Roth.

Taxes are typically due in a Roth conversion, but this technique will not trigger much, if any, tax bill if the contributor does not have other money in an IRA.
President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal suggests that future Roth conversions be limited to pre-tax money only, effectively killing most back-door Roths.

Congressional gridlock, though, means action is not likely until the next administration takes over, said financial planner and enrolled agent Francis St. Onge with Total Financial Planning in Brighton, Michigan. He doubts any tax change would be retroactive, which means the window for doing back-door Roths is likely to remain open for awhile.

“It would create too much turmoil if they forced people to undo them,” says St. Onge.

2. The stretch IRA
People who inherit an IRA have the option of taking distributions over their lifetimes. Wealthy families that convert IRAs to Roths can potentially provide tax-free income to their heirs for decades, since Roth withdrawals are typically
not taxed.

That bothers lawmakers across the political spectrum who think retirement funds should be for retirement – not a bonanza for inheritors.

“Congress never imagined the IRA to be an estate-planning vehicle,” said Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and author of “Ed Slott’s 2015 Retirement Decisions Guide.”

Most recent tax-related bills have included a provision to kill the stretch IRA and replace it with a law requiring beneficiaries other than spouses to withdraw the money within five years.

Anyone contemplating a Roth conversion for the benefit of heirs should evaluate whether the strategy makes sense if those heirs have to withdraw the money within five years, Slott said.

3. “Aggressive” strategies for Social Security
Obama’s budget also proposed to eliminate “aggressive” Social Security claiming strategies, which it said allow upper-income beneficiaries to manipulate the timing of collection of Social Security benefits in order to maximize delayed retirement credits.

Obama did not specify which strategies, but retirement experts said he is likely referring to the “file and suspend” and “claim now, claim more later” techniques.

Married people can claim a benefit based on their own work record or a spousal benefit of up to half their partner’s benefit. Dual-earner couples may profit by doing both.

People who choose a spousal benefit at full retirement age (currently 66) can later switch to their own benefit when it maxes out at age 70 – known as the “claim now, claim more later” approach that can boost a couple’s lifetime Social Security payout by tens of thousands of dollars.

The “file and suspend” technique can be used in conjunction with this strategy or on its own. Typically one member of a couple has to file for retirement benefits for the other partner to get a spousal benefit.

Someone who reaches full retirement age also has the option of applying for Social Security and then immediately suspending the application so that the benefit continues to grow, while allowing a spouse to claim a spousal benefit.

People close to retirement need not worry, said Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff, who wrote the bestseller “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Social Security.”

“I don’t see them ever taking anything away that they’ve already given,” Kotlikoff said. “If they do something, they’ll have to phase it in.”

MONEY withdrawal strategy

Which Generates More Retirement Income—Annuities or Portfolio Withdrawals?

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People's overconfidence in their investing ability makes them less likely to opt for guaranteed income.

New research by Mark Warshawsky, the retirement income guru who’s now a visiting scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center, suggests more retirees should consider making an immediate annuity part of their retirement portfolio—and also highlights a reason why many people may simply ignore this advice.

When it comes to turning retirement savings into lifetime retirement income, many retirees and advisers rely on the 4% rule—that is, withdraw 4% of savings the first year of retirement and increase that amount by inflation each year to maintain purchasing power (although in a concession to today’s low yields and expected returns, some are reducing that initial draw to 3% or even lower to assure they don’t deplete their savings too soon).

But is a systematic withdrawal strategy likely to provide more income over retirement than simply purchasing an immediate annuity? To see, Warshawsky looked at how a variety of hypothetical retirees of different ages retiring in different years would have fared with an immediate annuity vs. the 4% rule and some variants. The study is too long and complicated to go into the particulars here. (You can read it yourself by going to the link to it in my Retirement Toolbox section.) The upshot, though, is Warshawsky concluded that while an annuity didn’t always outperform systematic withdrawal, an annuity provided more inflation-adjusted income throughout retirement often enough (with little risk of ever running out) that “it is hard to argue against a significant and widespread role for immediate life annuities in the production of retirement income.”

Now, does this mean all retirees should own an immediate annuity? Of course not. There are plenty of reasons an annuity might not be the right choice for a given individual. If Social Security and pensions already provide enough guaranteed income, an annuity may be superfluous. Similarly, if you’ve got such a large nest egg that it’s unlikely you’ll ever go through it, you may not need or want an annuity. And if you have severe health problems or believe for some other reason you’ll have a short lifespan, then an annuity probably isn’t for you.

Even if you do decide to buy an annuity, you wouldn’t want to devote all your assets to one. The study notes the advantage of combining an annuity with a portfolio of financial assets that can provide liquidity and long-term growth, and suggests “laddering” annuities rather than purchasing all at once as a way to get a better feel for how much guaranteed income you’ll actually need and to avoid putting all one’s money in when rates are at a low.

But there’s another part of the paper that I found at least as interesting as the comparison of systematic withdrawals and annuities. That’s where Warshawsky says he worries whether the “lump sum culture” of 401(k)s and IRAs will interfere with people seriously considering annuities. I couldn’t agree more. Too many people laser in on their retirement account balance—the whole, “What’s Your Number?” thing—rather than thinking about what percentage of their current income they’ll be able to replace after retiring. And when choosing between, say, a traditional check-a-month pension vs. a lump-sum cash out, many people still tend to put too little value on assured lifetime monthly checks.

Although the paper didn’t mention this specifically, I think there’s a related problem of people’s overconfidence in their investing ability that makes them less likely to opt for guaranteed income. I can’t tell you the number of times after doing an annuity story that I’ve gotten feedback from people who essentially say they would never buy annuity because they think they can do better investing on their own—never mind that that’s difficult-to-impossible to do without taking on greater risk because annuities have what amounts to an extra return called a “mortality credit” that individuals can’t duplicate on their own.

Along the same lines I’m always surprised by the number of people who pooh-pooh the notion of delaying Social Security for a higher benefit because they’re convinced they can come out ahead by taking their benefits as soon as possible and investing them at a 6% to 8% annual return (although why anyone should feel confident about earning such gains consistently given today’s low rates and forecasts for low returns is puzzling).

Clearly, we all have to make our own decisions based on our particular circumstances about the best way to turn savings into income that we can count on throughout retirement, while also assuring we have a stash of assets we can tap for emergencies and unexpected expenses. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That said, I think it’s a good idea for anyone nearing or already in retirement to at least consider an annuity as a possibility. If you rule it out, that’s fine. Annuities aren’t for everyone. Just be sure that if you’re nixing an annuity, you’re doing it for valid reasons, not because of a misplaced faith in your ability to earn outsize returns or because you’re unduly swayed by lump-sum culture.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

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MONEY retirement planning

9 False Moves That Could Derail Your Retirement

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Biehler Michael—Shutterstock

For many of us, retirement is a great unknown. In your 20s, it seems so far away that it’s easy to figure you’ll start saving when you have more money. Of course, if you wait until you have “extra money,” you might never start at all.

But 20-somethings aren’t the only ones who do things that sabotage their retirement. Their parents may be putting their own retirement at risk by, for example, borrowing money to pay for a wedding, just when they should be turbocharging their own savings, especially if they started late.

So what are we to do? We don’t know that we’ll live to be 85 and still healthy enough to travel, or that the stock market will crash just before we retire. And yet we hope to plan as if we do know. Some of us dream about retirement — and many of us sabotage it at the very same time. Here are some money moves you may regret down the road.

1. Raiding Your Home Equity

Home equity can seem like a a piggy bank when you’re short on cash. And a “draw period” on a home equity line of credit before repayment of principal is due can make it feel almost like free money. Worse, it feels like you are borrowing from yourself. After all, you built up that home equity, right? But if you spend it now, you won’t have it later. And should you decide you want to sell or get a reverse mortgage at some point, that decision can come back to haunt you. You will walk away with less from a sale or be eligible for lower payments from a reverse mortgage. Either way, Retired You could suffer from the decision.

2. Unplanned Roth IRA Withdrawals

Some experts recommend Roths as vehicles to save for a first home or as a place to park an emergency fund because the money grows tax-free. If you have planned to use the money for a first home, you can withdraw up to $10,000. It can also come to your rescue for unforeseen expenses (particularly tempting because, after five years, you can withdraw principal penalty-free). Its flexibility is both an advantage and a temptation, since raiding your retirement account now robs you of those funds and their compounding interest down the road.

3. Failing to Put Away Anything

For many of us, it’s easier to wait to save until we’re “more established” or until we’re making a little more money. Why aren’t we saving? Because there’s no extra money! The problem, of course, is there may well never be any extra money. Most of us don’t come to the end of the month and try to figure out what to do with all the money that’s left. Saving needs to be in the budget from the beginning. It’s often easiest to automate this.

4. Helping Adult Kids Financially

But they’re your children. And everyone makes mistakes. (Or maybe they think you did when you didn’t save thousands for a wedding.) There are exceptions, of course, but if you do help out financially, be sure you minimize your own costs or that you do not jeopardize your own retirement. It’s not usually a good idea to let them grow accustomed to a parental supplement. Relationships and money can be fraught, too. So think very carefully before you make your help monetary.

5. Co-Signing for a Child or Grandchild

They are just starting out and don’t have much of a credit history. Or they want to take out private student loans, and all that’s standing between them and next semester is your signature. The car they are financing, the lease they are signing … if your signature is on it, you are on the hook. If they pay late, your credit could be affected. And should you need a loan, this obligation will count as your debt for purposes of determining eligibility. Student loans can be particularly risky. In many cases, they can’t be erased in bankruptcy. If you have already co-signed on a loan, it’s important to check your credit regularly to see how it’s affecting your credit.

6. Failing to Have a Plan B

You probably hope or assume your good health (and that of your spouse, if you are married) will continue. You may be planning to stay with your current employer until you reach full retirement age. But people fall ill, or they get laid off before they planned to leave the workforce. Do you have a reserve parachute? Your standard of living won’t be as high, but knowing that you have a plan can make the situation a little less worrisome.

7. Poor Investment Choices

Even if you’ve managed to sign up for the 401(k) at work or to open an IRA for yourself, choosing the wrong funds or failing to diversify can set you up for failure. A target-date fund can be useful, but only if you choose the appropriate target. (If you’re in your 50s and choosing a 2050 target retirement date, you may get really lucky and see big gains — but you could also see big losses and not have much time to recoup them.) Likewise, it’s smart not to put all your nest eggs in the same investment basket. Do your own research or find a planner to find a mix you are comfortable with and that is appropriate for your age and goals.

8. Not Making Changes When Needed

Are your investments changing with your goals? And are you keeping track of all of your investments? If you’ve had several jobs (and several 401(k)s), it’s a good idea to do some consolidation. Keeping track of funds in several investment houses can make figuring out minimum withdrawals much more difficult once you are retired. Keep accounts organized.

9. Taking Social Security As Soon As You Can

In many cases, it’s better to wait. Your payment will be higher, although if you take it younger, you will get it for more years. Claiming it the minute you can may be tempting, but if you come from a family with a history of people living well into old age, consider whether you think the smaller checks will be worth it. (You can calculate a “break-even” age of how long you would have to live to collect as much as you would have had you started younger — so that checks from then on truly are additional money.) Conversely, if no one in your family has ever turned 80, you may want to opt for the earlier payout. And, of course, your financial situation when you retire will have a say. If you can’t make ends meet without Social Security, then you should take it.

Another mistake? Making all your plans — including retirement — for later. A life of sacrificing for a “later” that may or may not come is not much of a life. They key is balance. We’re not suggesting you never take a vacation, never give to a cause that is close to your heart or buy the car you’ve desperately wanted (and can now afford) so that years of self-denial will pay off someday … maybe. But it is good to know that if you live a long life, you’ll have the financial resources you need.

Read next: Can You Pass This Retirement Quiz?

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MONEY Taxes

Start Saving on Your 2015 Taxes Now

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It's never too early to get a leg up on Uncle Sam.

Though the ink’s barely dry on your return for 2014, getting an early start on tax planning for 2015 can save you both money and stress next April. Here are five techniques to keep in mind.

1. Tax-loss harvesting. If you already realized a large capital gains tax in 2015 or anticipate one later this year, this tactic might help. Loss harvesting involves selling an investment at a loss and simultaneously buying a similar, substitute investment.

Let’s assume that you purchased $10,000 worth of oil company ABC stock last year. Due to lower oil prices, your investment drops in value to $7,000. If you take no action and oil prices rebound, raising the stock price, you receive no tax benefit for the temporary $3,000 loss from your stock.

If you sell your ABC stock and buy a substitute simultaneously (say, in oil company XYZ), you can use the $3,000 to offset gains on your tax return and participate in the stock price recovery that accompanies eventually rising oil prices.

You can use this strategy with individual securities (stocks) or with diversified bundles of securities, such as mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. Either way, you can lower your capital gains liability and possibly achieve greater after-tax returns.

2. Optimized charitable giving. Increasing your donations in the year that you realize a large capital gain can also help reduce your tax liability.

If you don’t have a favorite charity and need time to research qualified organizations before making a contribution, consider creating a donor-advised fund (DAF) to take a tax deduction in the year that you make the contribution (in this case, 2015) and make grants to your favorite charities in the future.

Funds in a DAF can be invested to grow over time. You can also contribute to DAFs with appreciated securities that are now worth more than when you bought them, giving you two tax breaks: on the charitable contribution and on the unrealized capital gain in the investments.

You can even create a board of advisors for your DAF to get other members of your family involved in grant decisions.

3. Higher retirement plan contributions. For 2015, your maximum deferral to defined contribution plans (to which you kick in a set fraction of your pay) increased to $18,000, and the catch-up contribution for those 50 and older increased to $6,000 — a total of $24,000 in potential tax deferrals.

Consider increasing your contributions to match these limits, which can also reduce your taxable income. Contact your plan administrator for more information.

4. A Roth individual retirement account conversion. Such switches from an existing IRA or employer-sponsored plan were once only available to investors with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of less than $100,000. Congress eliminated that restriction in 2010, making Roth IRA conversions available to nearly all investors regardless of marital status or income level.

You can benefit from a Roth IRA conversion if you expect your taxable income to be significantly lower or your deductions to be significantly higher in 2015, or if you’re in a lower tax bracket now than your expected retirement tax bracket.

Best to be proactive: Ask your tax advisor to prepare a projection regarding your optimal amount to convert before December. If necessary, you also have until Oct. 15, 2016, to re-characterize your Roth IRA back into a traditional IRA.

5. Maximized company stock options. If you’re in an employer-sponsored stock option plan, start tax planning before the year in which the options mature to retain the most flexibility and savings.

If your options mature or start vesting in 2015, meet with your financial advisor to prepare tax projections. Planning ahead helps you get ready to take advantage of future tax savings as well as regulate your cash flow.

Integrating tax planning with your investment management optimizes your after-tax returns and enhances your whole financial plan, both in this year and in those to come.

Lora Murphy, CPA, CFP, CDFA, is a consultant with Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors LLC in Milwaukee.

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TIME Retirement

The Retirement Risk We All Share

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Our retirement system is as hard to understand, opaque, and predatory as ever

As wealth begins to get transferred from baby boomers to the millennial generation—the largest single generation in history and within five years fully half of our nation’s workforce—many social contracts that were enjoyed by the parents and grandparents will not be relied upon, or available, for their children. Two financial bubbles have burst: American cities have gone bankrupt, and the notion of guaranteed pensions has come to seem like a relic from a more innocent time in the world where society paid back its firefighters, teachers, and hard-working middle class for keeping us safe, educating our children, and ensuring the engine of our economy keeps running. So pronounced is this breakdown between our country, our corporations, and our workers that entire political campaigns are won and lost over middle class workers and the pensions they receive in retirement.

Corporations don’t want any part of guaranteed pensions. It’s too expensive, their shareholders don’t like it, and it crimps profits. Neither do governments—politicians are laser focused on the next election cycle and would rather divert taxpayer dollars toward shiny new concepts that will get them re-elected over boring old public pension funds. Today, only 1 in 5 workers in corporate America still has access to a guaranteed pension. Half of American workers have no access to any workplace retirement plan whatsoever. That’s right: in the future, we are going to own all of this risk. We’d better learn to make good decisions for ourselves.

Unfortunately, the 401(k) system is as hard to understand, opaque, and predatory as ever. Two thirds of Americans do not know that they pay fees on their 401K plans, and 90% of people could not accurately tell you what these fees are. Why? Because they never actually write a check to anyone—the fees are automatically deducted from their accounts. I challenge you to go log in to your employer’s 401(k) plan now, and figure out within 5 minutes, or 5 hours, or 5 days the total amount of fees you pay per year. You won’t find it. And it is a huge amount of money. Lifetime fees for the average American household are greater than $150,000 and can erode a third of total savings. Broadly speaking, total mutual fund fees could be the least-known and least-understood $600 billion that come out of Americans pockets every year.

We need to make this far simpler for people. It should be law that you can only give people advice on their 401(k) or IRA, or futures for that matter, if you owe them a legal fiduciary duty to only act in their best interest. Fees should be disclosed in terms that people can understand. Nobody understands what “basis points” or “expense ratios” are. This is purposeful. How about: “this will cost you $5 per year?” That shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Finally, hundreds of investment choices are often used as an illusion to give unsuspecting people the sense that they, too, can beat the market if they just choose right. By now, we know that beating the market is impossible and we should steer people toward the things we can control—diversification, low costs, and good savings behavior over long periods of time, and through many market cycles. Watching CNBC is a waste of time. Index funds are the way to go (although some 401(k) plans still don’t offer them).

The Obama administration and Department of Labor have been trying for years to institute protections for investors against high fees and high-risk products. But the lobbying against these protections has been vicious—billions of dollars of profits do not just go quietly into the night.

So how about a simple and effective do-it-yourself solution in the meantime? The next time someone is offering you serious advice about your retirement or the stock market, print this out and ask them to sign this statement:

“I ________, as your advisor, will act as a fiduciary and only give you advice that is in your best interest.”

If your advisor will not sign this statement—for your own good—run as fast as you can in the other direction and find one of the many advisors that will. It could save you tens of thousands of dollars and years in retirement.

In a world where we are left to fend for ourselves in retirement, the stakes are too high not to at least make sure that someone is legally obligated to tell you the right thing to do. Your 65-year-old self will thank you for it some day.

Greg Smith is president of blooom, an online service that evaluates, simplifies, and manages 401(k) accounts for individuals, and the best-selling author of Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story.

MONEY

Hate Your Company’s 401(k)? Here’s How to Squeeze the Most From Any Plan

squeezing orange
Tooga Productions—Getty Images

Four steps to getting your savings plan right—even if your employer didn't.

Your 401(k) plan is potentially one the best tools you have to save for retirement. You get a tax advantage and often a partial match from your employer. But let’s face it: Not all company plans have the most compelling investment options. These strategies will help you use your plan to maximum advantage.

Money

1. Plug the biggest hole in your account: Costs.

Mutual fund charges look small, but the cost of paying an extra 1% a year in fees is that you give up 33% of your potential wealth over the course of 40 years. If there’s at least a basic S&P 500 or total stock market index fund in your plan, that’s often your best option for your equity allocation. Some charge as little as 0.1%, vs. 1% or more for actively managed funds.

2. Look beyond the company plan.

If your 401(k) doesn’t offer other low-cost investment options, diversify elsewhere. First, save enough in the 401(k) to get the company match. Then fund an IRA, which offers similar tax advantage. You can then choose your own funds, including bond funds and foreign stock funds, to complement what’s in your workplace plan.

3. While you’re at it, dump company stock.

About $1 out of every $7 in 401(k)s is invested in employer shares. But your income is already tied to that company. Your retirement shouldn’t be too.

4. Share strategy with your spouse.

It’s a good idea no matter how much you like your plan: If you hold a third of your 401(k) in bonds, for example, your combined mix may be riskier than you think if your spouse is 100% in stocks. But coordinating also improves your options. If your spouse’s plan has a better foreign fund, you can focus your joint international allocation there.

Adapted from “101 Ways to Build Wealth,” by Daniel Bortz, Kara Brandeisky, Paul J. Lim, and Taylor Tepper, which originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of MONEY magazine.

Read next: What You Can Learn From 401(k) Millionaires in the Making

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