MONEY IRAs

Closing the Loophole Behind $10 Million Tax-Free Retirement Accounts

Fewer than 1,100 of 43 million IRA owners have what may be called outsized balances, and the IRS wants to rein them in.

The former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney lit a fuse three years ago when he disclosed his IRA was valued at as much as $102 million. Now the federal government wants to keep the issue from exploding, and is weighing actions that would prevent rich people from accumulating so much in a tax-advantaged account.

Last week, the General Accounting Office recommended that the IRS either restrict the types of investments held in IRAs or set a ceiling for IRA account balances. The idea is to give all taxpayers equal ability to save while making certain the amounts put away tax-advantaged do not go beyond what is generally regarded as sufficient savings to secure a comfortable retirement.

Romney’s campaign disclosure caught almost everyone by surprise. How could one person build such a large IRA balance when yearly allowable contributions — up to $5,500 a year in 2014 and $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older — have always been comparatively low? The answer lies in the types of investments he and privileged others were able to put in their IRA: extremely low-priced and often non-public securities that later soared in value.

One such security might be the shares of a privately owned business. These can reasonably be expected to take flight if the business does well and later goes public. That produces a wealth of tax-advantaged savings to company founders, investment bankers and venture capitalists. But these gains are not generally available to any other investor. Once an asset is inside an IRA there is no limit to how valuable it may become and still remain in the tax-advantaged account.

Restricting eligible IRA holdings to publicly available securities is one way to level the field and rein in the accumulation of tax-advantaged wealth. Another way is to cap IRA balances at, say, $5 million and require IRA holders to take an immediate taxable distribution anytime their combined IRA holdings exceed that threshold.

The GAO found that the federal government stands to forego $17 billion of 2014 tax revenue through the IRA contributions of individuals. That’s not a high price to pay for added retirement security for the masses. The problem is that under current rules only a select few will ever be able to put together multi-million-dollar IRAs. There are 43 million IRA owners in the U.S. with total assets of $5.2 trillion. Fewer than 10,000 have more than $5 million, and the GAO seems to have little quarrel with even this group. They tend to be above-average earners past age 65 who had been contributing to their IRA for many years—pretty much exactly as designed.

But just over 1,100 have account values greater than $10 million and only 300 have account values greater than $25 million, the GAO found. “The accumulation of these large IRA balances by a small number of investors stands in contrast to Congress’s aim to prevent the tax-favored accumulation of balances exceeding what is needed for retirement,” the report states.

Officials are now gathering data on the types of assets held in IRAs, including the so-called “carried interest” stake that private equity managers have in the investment funds they run. These stakes, which give them a percentage of a fund’s gain, are another way that a select few manage to sock away multiple millions of dollars in IRAs. No one doubts the data will illustrate that only a privileged few have access to outsized IRA savings. The Romney campaign showed us that three years ago.

Read next: 3 Ways to Have a Happier, Healthier Retirement

MONEY retirement income

Retirees Risk Blowing IRA Deadline and Paying Huge Penalties

Egg timer
Esben Emborg—Getty Images

With just seven weeks left in the year, most IRA owners required to pull money out have not yet done so.

Two-thirds of IRA owners required to take money out of their account by Dec. 31 have yet to fulfill the obligation, new research by Fidelity shows. Now, with the year-end in sight, and thoughts pivoting to holiday shopping and get-togethers, legions of senior savers risk getting distracted–and socked with a punishing tax penalty.

IRA owners often wait until late in the year to pull out their required minimum distributions. Especially at a time when interest rates are low and the stock market has been rising, leaving your money in an IRA as long as possible makes sense. Some retirees may also be reluctant to take distributions for fear of spending the money and running short over time.

But blowing the annual deadline can be costly. The IRS sets a schedule of required minimum distributions, or RMDs, to keep savers from deferring taxes indefinitely. After reaching age 70 1/2, IRA owners must begin to take money out of their account each year and pay income tax on the amount. Failure to pull money out triggers a hefty penalty equal to 50% of the amount you were supposed to take out of the account.

Among 750,000 IRA accounts where distributions are required, 68% have yet to take the full amount and 56% have yet to take anything at all, Fidelity found. These IRA owners should begin the process now to avoid end-of-year distractions and potential mistakes like using the wrong form or providing the wrong mailing address, which can take weeks to find and correct.

A report by the Treasury Inspector General estimated that as many as 250,000 IRA owners each year miss the deadline, failing to take required minimum distributions totaling about $350 million. That generates potential tax penalties totaling $175 million. The vast majority of those who fail to take their minimum distributions are thought to do so as part of an honest mistake, and previously the IRS hasn’t always been eager to sock seniors with a penalty. But the IRS began a crackdown on missed distributions a few years ago. Don’t look for leniency if you miss the deadline without a good reason, like protracted illness or a natural disaster.

Early each year, your financial institution should notify you of any required distributions you must take by year-end. If this is the first year you are taking a required distribution, you have until April 1 to do so, but then only until Dec. 31 every subsequent year. Once notified, you still need to initiate a distribution. A lot of people simply do not read their mail and fail to initiate action in time.

Among other reasons IRA owners miss the deadline:

  • Switching their account Institutions that open an account during the year are not required to notify new account holders of required minimum distributions until the following year.
  • Death Often there is confusion about inherited IRAs. The beneficiary must complete the deceased IRA owner’s distributions in the year of death. Non-spousal beneficiaries of any age must begin taking distributions in the year following the year that the IRA owner died—and no notice of this is required.

With the penalties so stiff and the IRS cracking down on missed mandatory distributions, this is a subject that seniors and their adult children should talk about. In general, financial talk between the generations makes seniors feel less anxious and more prepared anyway. Required distributions can be especially confusing, and the penalties may have the effect of taking away money that heirs stand to receive. So it’s in everyone’s interest to get it right. Consider putting mandatory distributions on autopilot with a firm that will make the calculation and send you the money on a schedule you choose.

Related:

How will my IRAs be taxed in retirement?

Are there any exceptions to the traditional IRA withdrawal rules?

When can I take money out of my IRA without penalty?

MONEY retirement income

Retirement Withdrawal Strategies That Can Pay Off Big

To figure out the right pace for your retirement withdrawals—and to avoid ending up in higher tax brackets—start planning before you stop working.

Having your own tax-deferred retirement account is a bit like having one of those self-titrating morphine buttons that hospitals use: Press it whenever you need quick relief.

But once you’re retired and able to tap your 401(k) or individual retirement account (IRA), it’s not easy to titrate your own doses of cash. Withdraw too much, and you use up your nest egg too quickly; too little, and you might unnecessarily crimp your retirement lifestyle.

Overlaying the how-much-is-enough question are several finer points of tax planning. Because you can decide how much money to pull out of a 401(k) or individual retirement account, and because those withdrawals are added to your taxable income, there are strategies that can help or hurt your bottom line.

That’s especially true for early retirees trying to decide when to start Social Security, how to pay for health care and more. Here are some money-saving withdrawal tips.

CURB TAXABLE INCOME

If you are buying your own health insurance via the Obamacare exchanges, keep your taxable income low to qualify for big subsidies, advises Neil Krishnaswamy, financial planner with Exencial Wealth Advisors in Plano, Texas.

“It’s a pretty substantial savings on premiums,” said Krishnaswamy.

Here’s an example using national averages from the calculator on the Kaiser Family Foundation web page. Two 62-year-old spouses with annual taxable income of $62,000 would receive a subsidy of $8,677 a year, against a national average premium of $14,567. If they took another $1,000 out of their tax-deferred account and raised their taxable income to $63,000, they would be disqualified from receiving a subsidy.

Not every case may be that dramatic, but it’s worth checking the income limits and available subsidies in your own state.

DELAY BENEFITS

If you retired early, consider taking out extra money to live on and delaying Social Security benefits until you are older. Withdrawing money from retirement savings hurts. You not only lose the savings, you lose future earnings on those savings. And in most cases, you have to pay income taxes on withdrawals from those tax-deferred accounts.

But Social Security benefits go up roughly 8% a year for every year you don’t claim them. And even after you claim them, they rise with the cost of living and are guaranteed for life. When you draw down your own savings to protect a bigger Social Security payment, tell yourself you are buying the cheapest and best annuity you can get.

PLAN IN ADVANCE

Plan ahead for mandatory withdrawals. In the year you turn 70 1/2, you have to begin drawing down your tax-deferred IRAs and 401(k) accounts and paying income taxes on those withdrawals. Unless you expect to be in the lowest tax bracket at the time, it makes sense to start withdrawing at least enough every year before then to “use up” the lower tax brackets.

For single people in 2014, you’re in a 10% or 15% marginal tax bracket until you make more than $36,000 a year. For married people filing jointly, that 15% bracket goes up to $73,800. It’s a lot better to pull out that money in your 60s and use up other savings to live on, than it is to save it all until you are 70 and then withdraw large chunks at higher interest rates.

GET A GOOD ACCOUNTANT

You may want to use early years of retirement to take the tax hit required to move money from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA that will free you of future taxes on that money and its earnings.

You may pull a lot of money out of your account in one year and spend it over two or three years, to keep yourself qualified for subsidies in most years.

You may titrate your withdrawals to keep your Medicare premiums (also income linked) as low as possible.

The best way to optimize it all? Get an adviser or accountant who is comfortable with a spreadsheet and can pull all of these different considerations together.

Related:

When do I have to take money out of my 401(k)?

How will my IRA withdrawals be taxed in retirement?

Are my Social Security payouts taxed?

MONEY retirement planning

22% of Workers Would Rather Die Early Than Run Out of Money

transparent piggy bank with one silver coin inside
Dimitri Vervitsiotis—Getty Images

Yet many of the same folks are hardly saving anything for retirement, study finds.

A large slice of middle-class Americans have all but given up on the retirement they may once have aspired to, new research shows—and their despair is both heartbreaking and frustrating. Most say saving for retirement is more difficult than they had expected and yet few are making the necessary adjustments.

Some 22% of workers say they would rather die early than run out of money, according to the Wells Fargo Middle Class Retirement survey. Yet 61% say they are not sacrificing a lot to save for their later years. Nearly three quarters acknowledge they should have started saving sooner.

The survey, released during National Retirement Savings Week, looks at the retirement planning of Americans with household incomes between $25,000 and $100,000, who held investable assets of less than $100,000. One third are contributing nothing—zero—to a 401(k) plan or an IRA, and half say they have no confidence that they will have enough to retire. Middle-class Americans have a median retirement balance of just $20,000 and say they expect to need $250,000 in retirement.

Still, Americans who have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, especially a 401(k), are doing much better than those without one. Those between the ages of 25 to 29 with access to a 401(k) have put away a median of $10,000, compared with no savings at all for those without access to a plan. Those ages 30 to 39 with a 401(k) plan have saved a median of $35,000, versus less than $1,000 for those without. And for those ages 40 to 49 with 401(k)s, the median is $50,000, while those with no plan have just $10,000.

Clearly, despite its many drawbacks, the venerable 401(k) remains our de facto national savings plan, and the best shot that the middle-class has at achieving retirement security. But only half of private-sector workers have access to a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Those without access would benefit from a direct-deposit Roth or traditional IRA or some other tax-favored account, but data show that most Americans fail to make new contributions to IRAs, with most of those assets coming from 401(k) rollovers. One exception: a growing number of Millennials are making Roth IRA contributions.

Most people do understand the need to save for retirement, but they don’t view it as an urgent goal requiring spending cutbacks, the survey found. Still, many clearly have room in their budget to boost their savings rates. Asked where they would cut spending if they decided to get serious about saving, 56% said they would give up indulgences like the spa and jewelry; 55% said they’d cut restaurant meals; and 51% even said they would give up a major purchase like a car or a home renovation. But only 38% said they would forgo a vacation. We all need a little R&R, for sure. But a few weeks of fun now in exchange for years of retirement security is a good trade.

Of course, the larger problem is that a sizeable percentage of middle-class Americans are struggling financially and simply don’t enough money to stash away for long-term goals like retirement. As economic data show, many workers haven’t had a real salary increase for 15 years, while the cost of essentials, such as health care and college tuition, continues to soar.

Given these economic headwinds, it’s important to do as much as you can, when you can, to build your retirement nest egg. If you have a 401(k), be sure to contribute at least enough to get the full company match. And if you lack a company retirement plan, opt for an IRA—the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year ($6,500 if you are 50 or older). Yes, freeing up money to put away for retirement is tough, but it will be a bit easier if you can get tax break on your savings.

Related:

How much of my income should I save for retirement?

Why is a 401(k) such a good deal?

Which is better, a traditional or Roth IRA?

MONEY Ask the Expert

How To Find Out What You’re Paying For Your Retirement Account

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: How can I find out how much I am paying in fees in my 401(k) retirement plan?

A: It’s an important question to ask, and finding an answer should be a lot easier than it is right now. Studies show that high costs lead to worse performance for investors. So minimizing your expenses is one of the best ways to improve returns and reach your retirement goals.

Yet most people don’t pay attention to fees in their retirement plans—in fact, many don’t even realize they’re paying them. Nearly half of full-time employed Baby Boomers believe they pay zero investment costs in their retirement accounts, while 19% think their fees are less than 0.5%, according to a new survey by investment firm Rebalance IRA.

Truth is, everyone who has a 401(k), or an IRA, pays fees. The average 401(k) investor has 1.5% each year deducted from his or her account for various fees. But those expenses vary widely. If you work for a large company, which can spread costs over thousands of employees, you’ll likely pay just 1% or less. Smaller 401(k) plans, those with only a few hundred employees, tend to cost more—2.5% on average and as much as 3.86%.

A percentage point or two in fees may appear trivial, but the impact is huge. “Over time, these seemingly small fees will compound and can easily consume one-third of investment returns,” says Mitch Tuchman, managing director of Rebalance IRA.

Translated into dollars, the numbers can be eye-opening. Consider this analysis by the Center for American Progress: a 401(k) investor earning a median $30,000 income, and who paid fund fees of just 0.25%, would accumulate $476,745 over a 40-year career. (That’s assuming a 10% savings rate and 6.8% average annual return.) But if that worker who paid 1.3% in fees, the nest egg would grow to only $380,649. To reach the same $476,745 nest egg, that worker would have to stay on the job four more years.

To help investors understand 401(k) costs, a U.S. Labor Department ruling in 2012 required 401(k) plan providers to disclose fees annually to participants—you should see that information in your statements. Still, even with these new rules, understanding the different categories of expenses can be difficult. You will typically be charged for fund management, record-keeping, as well as administrative and brokerage services. You can find more information on 401(k) fees here and here.

By contrast, if you’ve got an IRA invested directly with a no-load fund company, deciphering fees is fairly straightforward—you will pay a management expense and possibly an administrative charge. But if your IRA is invested with a broker or financial planner, you may be paying additional layers of costs for their services. “The disclosures can be made in fine print,” says Tuchman. “It’s not like you get an email clearly spelling it all out.”

To find out exactly what you’re paying, your first step is to check your fund or 401(k) plan’s website—the best-run companies will post clear fee information. But if you can’t find those disclosures, or if they don’t tell you what you want to know, you’ll have to ask. Those investing in a 401(k) can check with the human resources department. If you have an IRA, call the fund company or talk to your advisor. At Rebalance IRA, you can download templates that cover the specific questions to ask about your retirement account costs.

If your 401(k) charges more than you would like, you can minimize fees by opting for the lowest-cost funds available—typically index funds, which tend to be less expensive than actively managed funds. And if your IRA is too pricey, move it elsewhere. “You may not be able to control the markets but you do have some control over what you pay to invest,” says Tuchman. “That can make a big difference over time.”

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

More from Money’s Ultimate Retirement Guide:

How should I invest my 401(k)?

Are my IRA contributions tax-deductible?

Why is rolling over my 401(k) to an IRA such a big deal?

MONEY retirement age

How to Know When It’s Time to Retire

Birthday candles
Fuse—Getty Images

I’ve long argued that one’s quality of life should be a principal factor in deciding when to retire. At the same time, however, financial considerations can’t be ignored. With this in mind, here are three rules of thumb to help you decide whether you’ve reached the perfect age to retire.

1. Have you saved enough money?

The “multiply by-25″ rule is a popular tool that retirement experts encourage people to use to estimate whether they’ve saved enough money to stop working and, at least hopefully, begin a life of leisure.

Here’s how it works: Multiply your desired annual income in retirement, less projected annual Social Security benefits, by 25. If your savings are greater than that, then you’re in good shape. If not, then you may not be financially ready to retire.

For example, let’s say that Bob and Mary Jane estimate they’ll spend $40,000 a year in retirement. Using the rule of 25, they’ll need savings of $1 million.

A slightly different iteration of this is the “multiply by-300″ rule. This is the same thing, but it focuses on months instead of years — that is, take your average monthly expenditures, minus your monthly Social Security check, and multiply that by 300.

If your savings are greater than that, then you’re all set. If not, then you might want to continue working for a few more years.

2. Will you have enough income?

This question is related to the first one, but it attacks the issue from a slightly different angle. As such, it also has its own rule of thumb: the 4% rule.

This rule holds that you can safely withdraw 4% from your portfolio every year and still be confident it will last through retirement. Thus, to determine if you’ll have enough income in retirement, multiply your portfolio by 4% and then add in your projected annual Social Security benefits — to learn one potential problem with this rule, click here.

If the sum of these two numbers is enough to cover your expenses, then you’re ready to retire. If not, then it may behoove you to put off retirement for a while longer, as doing so should allow your portfolio to continue growing. It will also give your Social Security benefits time to accrue delayed retirement credits.

3. Is your portfolio properly allocated?

Finally, determining if you’re ready to retire isn’t just about how much you’ve saved, it’s also about how your savings are allocated into various asset classes — namely, stocks and bonds.

To be ready for retirement, you want to make sure that your assets are invested in as safe of a way as possible. To do so, it’s smart to steer your portfolio increasingly toward fixed-income investments like bonds as you approach your desired retirement age.

Experts use the following rule to determine the proper allocation: “The percentage of your portfolio invested in bonds should equal your age.” Thus, if you’re 60 years old, then 60% of your portfolio should be in bonds and 40% in stocks. If you’re 55, then the split is 55% to 45%, respectively.

While this may seem like it has less to do with the timing of retirement than the former two rules, the reality is that it’s of equal importance. As my colleague Morgan Housel has discussed in the past, one of investors’ biggest mistakes is to underestimate the volatility in the stock market. According to Morgan’s research, stocks fall by an average of 10% once every 11 months.

Suffice it to say, a drop of this magnitude would have a material impact on both of the preceding rules, as a 10% decline in your stock holdings would equate to a much smaller income under the 4% rule and, as a corollary, it would call for a delayed retirement date under the multiply by-25 rule.

And the impact of this would be even more exaggerated if the lions’ share of your assets were still in stocks as opposed to bonds. Consequently, the culmination of your strategy to bring your portfolio into accord with this final rule is a key step in determining the perfect age at which you’re ready to pull the trigger and actually retire.

MONEY Financial Planning

Here’s What Millennial Savers Still Haven’t Figured Out

Bank vault door
Lester Lefkowitz—Getty Images

Gen Y is taking saving seriously, a new survey shows. But they still don't know who to trust for financial advice.

The oldest millennials were toddlers in 1984, when a hit movie had even adults asking en masse “Who you gonna call?” Now this younger generation is asking the same question, though over a more real-world dilemma: where to get financial advice.

Millennials mistrust of financial institutions runs deep. One survey found they would rather go to the dentist than talk to a banker. They often turn to peers rather than a professional. One in four don’t trust anyone for sound money counseling, according to new research from Fidelity Investments.

Millennials’ most trusted source, Fidelity found, is their parents. A third look for financial advice at home, where at least they are confident that their own interests will be put first. Yet perhaps sensing that even Mom and Dad, to say nothing of peers, may have limited financial acumen, 39% of millennials say they worry about their financial future at least once a week.

Millennials aren’t necessarily looking for love in all the wrong places. Parents who have struggled with debt and budgets may have a lot of practical advice to offer. The school of hard knocks can be a valuable learning institution. And going it alone has gotten easier with things like auto enrollment and auto escalation of contributions, and defaulting to target-date funds in 401(k) plans.

Still, financial institutions increasingly understand that millennials are the next big wave of consumers and have their own views and needs as it relates to money. Bank branches are being re-envisioned as education centers. Mobile technology has surged front and center. There is a push to create the innovative investments millennials want to help change the world.

Eventually, millennials will build wealth and have to trust someone with their financial plan. They might start with the generally simple but competent information available at work through their 401(k) plan.

Clearly, today’s twentysomethings are taking this savings business seriously. Nearly half have begun saving, Fidelity found. Some 43% participate in a 401(k) plan and 23% have an IRA. Other surveys have found the generation to be even more committed to its financial future.

Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 71% of millennials eligible for a 401(k) plan participate and that 70% of millennials began saving at an average age of 22. By way of comparison, Boomers started saving at an average age of 35. And more than half of millennials in the Fidelity survey said additional saving is a top priority. A lot of Boomers didn’t feel that way until they turned 50. They were too busy calling Ghostbusters.

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.

MONEY Ask the Expert

How Smart Savers Choose Between a 401(k) or Roth IRA

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: My husband and I are in our middle 30s and both have good jobs in a professional field. We each make $60,000 a year. Should we be saving in our 401(k) plans, or contributing to a Roth IRA?

A: The answer, of course, is that you should be doing both—but not necessarily in equal amounts, and much depends on your expenses and how much you are able to sock away. Let’s look at some of the variables.

The first consideration is making certain both of you get the full amount of your employer’s matching 401(k) plan contributions. “Fill up the 401(k) bucket first,” says IRA expert Ed Slott, founder of IRAhelp.com. “That is free money and you shouldn’t leave any of it on the table.” In many 401(k) plans, companies kick in 50 cents for every $1 you save up to 6% of pay. If both of you are in such plans, you should each contribute $7,200 per year to your 401(k) plans to collect the $3,600 your employers will match. But don’t contribute more than that, and if you get no match, skip it entirely—for now. It’s time to move on to a Roth IRA.

A Roth IRA is a far different savings vehicle than a 401(k) plan. Having one will give you more flexibility in retirement. Your 401(k) plan is funded with pre-tax dollars that grow tax-deferred. You pay tax when you start taking distributions no later than your 71st year. A Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars that grow tax-free for the rest of your life and that of your spouse, and they have tax advantages for your heirs as well. You can also take early distributions of the principal that you contribute, without penalty or tax, should you run into a cash crunch. So after you have each maxed out your 401(k) match, shift to a Roth IRA. Each of you can save up to the $5,500 annual limit.

The downside of a Roth IRA is that you lose the immediate tax deduction that you get with a 401(k) contribution. Still, “you eliminate the uncertainty of what future tax rates may do to your retirement income plan,” says Slott. If tax rates go up, as many believe they must in the years ahead, your 401(k) savings will become a little less valuable. But your Roth IRA savings will be unaffected.

Once you have each saved $7,200 to get the company match of $3,600, and have also fully funded a Roth IRA to the tune of $5,500—congratulate one another. That comes to $16,300 each of annual savings, or a Herculean savings rate of 27%. Most experts advise saving at a 15% rate, and even higher when possible. If you still have more free cash to sock away, you can begin to put more in your 401(k) to get the additional tax deferral. But you should first consider opening a taxable brokerage account where you invest in stocks and stock mutual funds. After a one-year holding period these get taxed as a capital gain, currently a lower rate (15% to 20%) than the ordinary income rate that applies to your 401(k) distributions.

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

MONEY Pensions

How To Be a Millionaire — and Not Even Know It

Book whose pages are hundred dollar bills
iStock

A financial adviser explains to two teachers why they don't need a lot of money in the bank to be rich.

Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues, 65 and 66 years old, were in my office. Their plan was to retire later this year. But they were worried.

“Our friends are retiring with Social Security, lump sum rollovers, and large investment accounts,” said Mr. Rodrigues, a school teacher from the North Shore of Boston. “All my wife and I will get is a lousy pension.”

Mr. Rodrigues continued: “A teacher’s pay is mediocre compared to what our friends earn in the private sector. We know that when we start our career. But with retirement staring us in the face, and no more regular paycheck, I’m worried.”

Public school teachers are among the worst-paid professionals in America – if you look at their paycheck alone. But when it comes to retirement packages, they have some of the best financial security in the country.

For private sector employees, the responsibility of managing retirement income sits largely on their shoulders. Sure, Social Security will provide a portion of many people’s retirement income, but for most, it is up to the retiree to figure out how to pull money from IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts, and/or bank accounts to support their lifestyle each year. Throughout retirement, many worry about running out of money or the possibility of their investments’ losing value.

Teachers, on the other hand, have a much larger safety net.

Both of the Rodrigueses worked as high school teachers for more than 30 years. Each was due a life-only pension of $60,000 upon retirement. That totaled a guaranteed lifetime income of $10,000 per month, or $120,000 per year. When one of them dies, the decedent’s pension will end, but the survivor will continue receiving his or her own $60,000 income.

The Rodrigueses told me they needed about $85,000 a year.

Surely their pension would cover their income needs.* And since the two both teach and live in Massachusetts, their pension will be exempt from state tax.

As for their balance sheet, they had no mortgage, no credit card debts, and no car payments. They had a $350,000 home, $18,000 cash in the bank, and a $134,000 investment account.

But as far as the Rodrigueses were concerned, they hadn’t saved enough.

“All my friends boast about the size of the 401(k)s they rolled over to IRAs,” Mr. Rodrigues said. “Some of them say they have more than $1 million for retirement.”

It was time to show the couple that their retirement situation wasn’t so gloomy – especially considering what their private-sector friends would need in assets to create the same income stream.

“What if I told you that your financial situation is better than most Americans?” I asked.

They thought I was joking.

Their friends, I explained, would need about $1.7 million to match their $120,000 pension income for life.

To explain my case, I pulled out a report on annuities that addressed the question of how much money a person would need at age 65 to generate a certain number of dollars in annual income.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the answer:

Annual Pension Lump Sum Needed
$48,000 $700,539
$60,000 $876,886
$75,000 $1,100,736

If you work in the private sector, are you a little jealous? If you’re a teacher, do you feel a little richer?

The Rodrigues were shocked. Soon Mr. Rodrigues calmed down and Mrs. Rodrigues smiled. Their jealousy was replaced with a renewed appreciation for the decades of service they provided to the local community.

Whether your pension is $30,000, $60,000 or $90,000, consider the amount of money that’s needed to guarantee your income. It’s probably far more than you think. And it’s not impacted by the stock market, interest rates, and world economic issues.

With a guaranteed income and the likelihood of state tax exemption on their pension, Mr. and Mrs. Rodrigues felt like royalty. After all, they had just learned that they were millionaires.

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* The survivor’s $60,000 pension, of course, would be less than the $85,000 annual income the two of them say they’ll need. A few strategies to address this: (1) Expect a reduced spending need in a one-person household. (2) Draw income from the couple’s other assets. (3) Downsize and use the net proceeds from the house’s sale to supplement spending needs. (4) Select the survivor option for their pensions, rather than the life-only option. They would have a reduced monthly income check while they are both living, yet upon one of their deaths the survivor would receive a reduced survivor monthly pension benefit along with his or her own pension.
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Marc S. Freedman, CFP, is president and CEO of Freedman Financial in Peabody, Mass. He has been delivering financial planning advice to mass affluent Baby Boomers for more than two decades. He is the author of Retiring for the GENIUS, and he is host of “Dollars & Sense,” a weekly radio show on North Shore 104.9 in Beverly, Mass.

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