MONEY retirement planning

Answer These 10 Questions to See If You’re on Track to Retirement

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More Americans are confident about retirement—maybe too confident. Here's how to give your expectations a timely reality check.

The good news: The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s 2015 Retirement Confidence Survey says workers and retirees are more confident about affording retirement. The bad news: The survey also says there’s little sign they’re doing enough to achieve that goal. To see whether you’re taking the necessary steps for a secure retirement, answer the 10 questions below.

1. Have you set a savings target? No, I don’t mean a long-term goal like have a $1 million nest egg by age 65. I mean a short-term target like saving a specific dollar amount or percentage of your salary each year. You’ll be more likely to save if you have such a goal and you’ll have a better sense of whether you’re making progress toward a secure retirement. Saving 15% of salary—the figure cited in a recent Boston College Center for Retirement Research Study—is a good target. If you can’t manage that, start at 10% and increase your savings level by one percentage point a year, or go to the Will You Have Enough To Retire tool to see how you’ll fare with different rates.

2. Are you making the most of tax-advantaged savings plans? At the very least, you should be contributing enough to take full advantage of any matching funds your 401(k) or other workplace plan offers. If you’re maxing out your plan at work and have still more money you can save, you may also be able to save in other tax-advantaged plans, like a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. (Morningstar’s IRA calculator can tell you whether you’re eligible and, if so, how much you can contribute.) Able to sock away even more? Consider tax-efficient options like broad index funds, ETFs and tax-managed funds within taxable accounts.

3. Have you gauged your risk tolerance? You can’t set an effective retirement investing strategy unless you’ve done a gut check—that is, assessed your true risk tolerance. Otherwise, you run the risk of doing what what many investors do—investing too aggressively when the market’s doing well (and selling in a panic when it drops) and too conservatively after stock prices have plummeted (and missing the big gains when the market inevitably rebounds). You can get a good sense of your true appetite for risk within a few minutes by completing this Risk Tolerance Questionnaire-Asset Allocation tool.

4. Do you have the right stocks-bonds mix? Most investors focus their attention on picking specific investments—the top-performing fund or ETF, a high-flying stock, etc. Big mistake. The real driver of long-term investing success is your asset allocation, or how you divvy up your savings between stocks and bonds. Generally, the younger you are and the more risk you’re willing to handle, the more of your savings you want to devote to stocks. The older you are and the less willing you are to see your savings suffer setbacks during market downturns, the more of your savings you want to stash in bonds. The risk tolerance questionnaire mentioned above will suggest a stocks-bonds mix based on your appetite for risk and time horizon (how long you plan to keep your money invested). You can also get an idea of how you should be allocating your portfolio between stocks and bonds by checking out the Vanguard Target Retirement Fund for someone your age.

5. Do you have the right investments? You can easily get the impression you’re some sort of slacker if you’re not loading up your retirement portfolio with all manner of funds, ETFs and other investments that cover every obscure corner of the financial markets. Nonsense. Diversification is important, but you can go too far. You can “di-worse-ify” and end up with an expensive, unwieldy and unworkable smorgasbord of investments. A better strategy: focus on plain-vanilla index funds and ETFs that give you broad exposure to stocks and bonds at a low cost. That approach always makes sense, but it’s especially important to diversify broadly and hold costs down given the projections for lower-than-normal investment returns in the years ahead.

6. Have you assessed where you stand? Once you’ve answered the previous questions, it’s important that you establish a baseline—that is, see whether you’ll be on track toward a secure retirement if you continue along the saving and investing path you’ve set. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to do this sort of evaluation. Just go to a retirement income calculator that uses Monte Carlo analysis to do its projections, enter such information as your age, salary, savings rate, how much you already have tucked away in retirement accounts, your stocks-bonds mix and the percentage of pre-retirement income you’ll need after you retire retirement (70% to 80% is a good starting estimate) and the calculator will estimate the probability that you’ll be able to retire given how much you’re saving and how you’re investing. If you’re already retired, the calculator will give you the probability that Social Security, your savings and any other resources will be able to generate the retirement income you’ll need. Ideally, you want a probability of 80% or higher. But if it comes in lower, you can make adjustments such as saving more, spending less, retiring later, etc. to improve your chances. And, in fact, you should go through this assessment every year or so just to see if you do need to tweak your planning.

7. Have you done any “lifestyle planning”? Finances are important, but planning for retirement isn’t just about the bucks. You also want to take time to think seriously about how you’ll actually live in retirement. Among the questions: Will you stay in your current home, downsize or perhaps even relocate to an area with lower living costs? Do you have enough activities—hobbies, volunteering, perhaps a part-time job—to keep you busy and engaged once you no longer have the nine-to-five routine to provide a framework for most days? Do you have plenty of friends, relatives and former co-workers you can turn to for companionship and support. Research shows that people who have a solid social network tend to be happier in retirement (the same, by the way, is true for retirees who have more frequent sex). Obviously, this is an area where your personal preferences are paramount. But seminars for pre-retirees like the Paths To Creative Retirement workshops at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and tools like Ready-2-Retire can help you better focus on lifestyle issues so can ultimately integrate them into your financial planning.

8. Have you checked out your Social Security options? Although many retirees may not think of it that way, the inflation-adjusted lifetime payments Social Security provides are one of their biggest financial assets, if not the biggest. Which is why it’s crucial that a good five to 10 years before you retire, you seriously consider when to claim Social Security and, if you’re married, how best to coordinate benefits with your spouse. Advance planning can make a big difference. For each year you delay taking benefits between age 62 and 70, you can boost your monthly payment by roughly 7% to 8%. And by taking advantage of different claiming strategies, married couples may be able to increase their lifetime benefit by several hundred thousand dollars. You’ll find more tips on how to get the most out of Social Security in Boston University economist and Social Security expert Larry Kotlikoff’s new Social Security Q&A column on RealDealRetirement.com.

9. Do you have a Plan B? Sometimes even the best planning can go awry. Indeed, two-thirds of Americans said their retirement planning has been disrupted by such things as major health bills, spates of unemployment, business setbacks or divorce, according to a a recent TD Ameritrade survey. Which is why it’s crucial that you consider what might go wrong ahead of time, and come up with ways to respond so you can mitigate the damage and recover from setbacks more quickly. Along the same lines, it’s also a good idea to periodically crash-test your retirement plan. Knowing how your nest egg might fare during a severe market downturn and what that mean for your retirement prospects can help prevent you from freaking out during periods of financial stress and better formulate a way to get back on track.

10. Do You Need Help? If you’re comfortable flying solo with your retirement planning, that’s great. But if you think you could do with some assistance—whether on an ongoing basis or with a specific issue—then it makes sense to seek guidance. The key, though, is finding an adviser who’s competent, honest and willing to provide that advice at a reasonable price. The Department of Labor recently released a proposal designed to better protect investors from advisers’ conflicts of interest. We’ll have to see how that works out. In the meantime, though, you can increase your chances of getting good affordable advice by following these four tips and asking these five questions.

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.

More From RealDealRetirement.com

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MONEY Careers

A Good Reason to Tap Your Roth IRA Early

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Alamy

You shouldn't always wait until you retire to pull money from your retirement account.

The Roth IRA is a great tool for retirement savings. But here’s something not as well-known: It’s great for developing your career as well.

Many of my young clients in their 20s and 30s struggle to balance current spending, saving for the next 10 years, and stowing away money for retirement. With so many life changes to deal with (weddings, home purchases, children, new jobs), their financial environment is anything but stable. And their retirement will look completely different than it does for today’s retirees.

To my clients, separating themselves from their current cash flow for the next 30 years feels like sentencing their innocent income to a long prison term.

They ask, “Why should we save our hard-earned money for retirement when we have no idea what our financial circumstances will be in 15 years, never mind 30? What if we want to go back to school or pay for additional training to improve our careers? We might also decide to start a business. How can we plan for these potential life changes and still be responsible about our future?”

The answers to those questions are simple. Start investing in a Roth IRA — the earlier you do it, the better.

There is a stigma that says anyone who touches retirement money before retirement is making a mistake, but this is what we call blanket advice: Although it’s safe and may be correct for many people, each situation is different.

The Roth IRA has very unique features that allow it to be used as a flexible tool for specific life stages.

Unlike contributions to a traditional IRA, which are locked up except for certain circumstances, money that you add to a Roth IRA can be removed at any time. Yes, it’s true. The contributions themselves can be taken out of the account and used for anything at all at any time in your life with no penalty. And, like the traditional IRA, you can also take a distribution of the earnings in the account without penalty for certain reasons, one of which is paying for higher education for you or a family member. (Some fine print: You’ll pay a penalty on withdrawing a contribution that was a rollover from a traditional IRA within the past five years. And you’ll have to pay ordinary income taxes on an early Roth IRA withdrawal for higher education.)

Although you shouldn’t pull money from your retirement account for just any reason, sometimes it’s a smart move.

Let’s say you graduate from college and choose a job based on your major. This first job is great and helps you get your feet wet in the professional world. You’re able to gain some valuable real-world experience and support yourself while you enjoy life after school. And this works for a while…until one day, 10 or 15 years into this career, you wake up and begin to question your choices.

You wonder if this career trajectory is truly putting you where you want to be in life. You think about changing careers or starting a business, but you need your income and have no real savings outside of your retirement accounts.

Now, let’s also say that you were tipped off to the magic of a Roth IRA while you were in college and you contributed to the account each year for the past 15 years. You have $75,000 sitting in the account, $66,000 of which are your yearly contributions from 2000 through 2014. It’s for retirement, though, so you can’t touch it, right? Well, this may be the perfect time to do so.

I recently spoke to a someone who did just this. Actually, his wife did it, but he was part of the decisionmaking process.

The wife has been working for years as a massage therapist for the husband’s company. Things were going quite well, but she had other ideas for her future. She wanted to go back to school to get her degree as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. The challenge was that this education was going to cost $30,000, and they did not have that kind of money saved.

So, they brainstormed the various options, one being to tap into his Roth IRA money. They determined that this would be a good investment for their future. Once the wife became a CRNA, her annual earnings would rise an estimated $20,000 — money they could easily use to recoup the Roth IRA withdrawal (though the 2015 Roth IRA contribution limit is $5,500 for those under 50 years old).

This decision gave them a sense of freedom. The flexibility of the Roth allowed them to choose an unconventional funding option for their future and gave the couple a new level of satisfaction in their lives.

And, that’s what it’s all about. We have one life to live, and it’s our responsibility to make decisions that will help us live happily today, while still maintaining responsibility for tomorrow.

Whether your savings is in a bank account or a retirement account, it’s your money. Although many advisers will tell you otherwise, you need to make decisions based on what is best for you at various stages of your life. The one-size-fits-all rule just doesn’t work when it come to financial planning. There is no need to rule out a possible solution because society says it’s a mistake.

———-

Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock, where he works virtually with professionals in their 20s and 30s, helping them use money as a tool to live a life they love. Through personalized coaching, Eric helps clients organize their finances, set goals, and invest for the future.

MONEY Ask the Expert

Which Wins for Retirement Savings: Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 30 and just starting to save for retirement. My employer offers a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) but no company match. Should I open and max out a Roth IRA first and then contribute to my company 401(k) and hope it offers a match in the future?– Charlotte Mapes, Tampa

A: A company match is a nice to have, but it’s not the most important consideration when you’re deciding which account to choose for your retirement savings, says Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Searchlight Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Contributing to a 401(k) almost always trumps an IRA because you can sock away a lot more money, says Rad. This is true whether you’re talking about a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. In 2015 you can put $18,000 a year in your company 401(k) ($24,000 if you’re 50 or older). You can only put $5,500 in an IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50-plus). A 401(k) is also easy to fund because your contributions are automatically deducted from your pay check.

With Roth IRAs, higher earners may also face income limits to contributions. For singles, you can’t put money in a Roth if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $131,000; for married couples filing jointly, the cutoff is $193,000. There are no income limits for contributions to a 401(k).

If you had a company match, you might save enough in the plan to receive the full match, and then stash additional money in a Roth IRA. But since you don’t, and you also have a Roth option in your 401(k), the key decision for you is whether to contribute to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). (You’re fortunate to have the choice. Only 50% of employer defined contribution plans offer a Roth 401(k), according to Aon Hewitt.)

The basic difference between a traditional and a Roth 401(k) is when you pay the taxes. With a traditional 401(k), you make contributions with pre-tax dollars, so you get a tax break up front, which helps lower your current income tax bill. Your money—both contributions and earnings—will grow tax-deferred until you withdraw it, when you’ll pay whatever income tax rates applies at that time. If you tap that money before age 59 1/2, you’ll pay a 10% penalty in addition to taxes (with a few exceptions).

With a Roth 401(k), it’s the opposite. You make your contributions with after-tax dollars, so there’s no upfront tax deduction. And unlike a Roth IRA, there are no contribution limits based on your income. You can withdraw contributions and earnings tax-free at age 59½, as long as you’ve held the account for five years. That gives you a valuable stream of tax-free income when you’re retired.

So it all comes down to deciding when it’s better for you to pay the taxes—now or later. And that depends a lot on what you think your income tax rates will be when you retire.

No one has a crystal ball, but for young investors like you, the Roth looks particularly attractive. You’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket earlier in your career, so the up-front tax break you’d receive from contributing to a traditional 401(k) isn’t as big it would be for a high earner. Plus, you’ll benefit from decades of tax-free compounding.

Of course, having a tax-free pool of money is also valuable for older investors and retirees, even those in a lower tax brackets. If you had to make a sudden large withdrawal, perhaps for a health emergency, you can tap those savings rather than a pre-tax account, which might push you into a higher tax bracket.

The good news is that you have the best of both worlds, says Rad. You can hedge your bets by contributing both to your traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k), though you are capped at $18,000 total. Do this, and you can lower your current taxable income and build a tax diversified retirement portfolio.

There is one downside to a Roth 401(k) vs. a Roth IRA: Just like a regular 401(k), a Roth 401(k) has a required minimum distribution (RMD) rule. You have to start withdrawing money at age 70 ½, even if you don’t need the income at that time. That means you may be forced to make withdrawals when the market is down. If you have money in a Roth IRA, there is no RMD, so you can keep your money invested as long as you want. So you may want to rollover your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA before you reach age 70 1/2.

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

Read next: The Pros and Cons of Hiring a Financial Adviser

MONEY Kids and Money

The Best Way to Bank Your Kid’s Savings

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After the piggy bank fills up, here's how to launch your child on the path of saving and investing.

When I told my 7-year-old that her wallet was getting full and it was time to open a bank account, her eyes widened. She wanted to know if she would be allowed to carry her own ATM card.

Um, no.

When transitioning from a piggy bank to handling a debit card linked to an active account, financial experts say it is best to start with a trip to a bank, but which one and when? Here are some steps to get started:

1. Bank of Mom and Dad

Don’t be in a rush to move away from the bookshelf bank, says financial literacy expert Susan Beacham. There are lessons to be learned from physical contact with money.

Sticking with a piggy can be especially effective if you teach your kids to divide their money into categories. Beacham’s Money Savvy Pig has four slots: save, spend, donate, invest.

When you cannot stuff one more dime into the slots, it is time to crack it open and seek your next teachable moment.

2. Neighborhood Convenience

Many adults bank online, but kids still benefit from visiting a branch, says Elizabeth Odders-White, an associate dean at the Wisconsin School of Business in Madison.

Do not worry about the interest, Beacham says. “A young child who gets a penny more than they put in thinks it’s magical. You’re not trying to grow their money as much as grow their habits.”

Your second consideration should be fees. Your best bet may be where you bank, where fees would be determined by your overall balance and you could link accounts.

Another option is a community bank, particularly a credit union, which are among the last bastions of free checking accounts.

“The difference between credit unions and banks is that credit unions are not-for-profit and owned by depositors,” says Mike Schenk, a vice president of the Credit Union National Association.

At either type of institution, you could open a joint account, which would be best for older kids because it allows them to have access to funds through an ATM or online, says Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president at the American Bankers Association.

Or you could open a custodial account, for which you would typically need to supply a birth certificate and the child’s Social Security number. Taxes on interest earned would be the child’s responsibility, but likely would not add up to much on a small account. A minor account must be transferred by age 18 to the child’s full control.

3. Big Money

If your child earns taxable income, the money should go into a Roth individual retirement account, experts say. There is usually no minimum age and many brokerage firms have low or no minimums to start an account. You can pick a mix of low-cost ETFs, and let it ride.

Putting away $1,000 at age 15 would turn into nearly $30,000 by age 65, at a moderate growth rate, according to Bankrate.com’s retirement calculator.

Not all kids can bear to part with their earnings, but there are workarounds. One tactic: a parent or grandparent supplies all or part of the funds that go into the Roth, akin to a corporate matching program.

The other is to work with your child to understand long-term and short-term cash needs. That is what certified financial planner Marguerita Cheng of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Potomac, Maryland, did with her daughter, who is now in her first year of college.

While mom and dad pay for basic things like tuition, the teen decided to pool several thousand dollars from her summer lifeguard earnings, money from her on-campus job and gifts from her grandparents to fund several educational trips.

“She would make money investing, but it’s only appropriate if you have a longer time horizon,” says Cheng. “It’s not even about the money, it’s the pride she gets from paying for it herself.”

MONEY Taxes

3 Tax Loopholes for the Merely Middle Class

You don't have to be super wealthy to find profitable loopholes in the tax code.

Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s legendary tax deduction for his horse may sound like the ultimate boondoggle of the super rich.

Ditto for writing off the private jet, stashing money in offshore accounts and paying the nanny as a corporate employee.

Here are some other tax loopholes that might be within your reach:

1. Maximize your 529

The tax benefits of a 529 college savings plan are baked right into the plan—you put in after-tax money and the proceeds grow tax-free, like a Roth individual retirement account. In some 34 states and the District of Columbia, you also get a tax benefit on your state taxes. But there’s more to it than that.

Depending on the state, each parent can make a contribution for each child. That’s why Patrick Beagle, a financial planner at WealthCrest in Springfield, Va., has four accounts for his two children. Beagle and his spouse each contribute the maximum of $4,000 per year for his state’s tax break, for a total of $16,000.

You can also front-load your 529 savings by making several years of contributions at once, something President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle were able to take advantage of for their two daughters, putting $240,000 away all at once in 2007.

Depending on the state, there may be no time limit on how long your contribution has to stay in the 529 account before you get a deduction. If you have a child who is already in college, you can make your yearly contribution, get the tax credit and then withdraw it for use immediately.

2. After-tax Roth conversions

Want to fill up your Roth IRA but either make too much to qualify or find the $5,500 per year limit too low? You can contribute after-tax money to your 401(k) and convert it to a Roth, thanks to a new Internal Revenue Service notice.

Jim McGowan, a certified financial planner with the Marshall Financial Group in Doylestown, Penn., altered his tax-planning strategies for many of his clients because of this change.

For those whose companies allow it, McGowan is having clients put aside $20,000 to $30,000 extra in their 401(k)s after they have maxed out the $18,000 allowed with pre-tax money.

The total an individual can save per year, including any matching funds, is $53,000, so there is plenty of wiggle room.

McGowan’s clients are just starting to utilize Roth conversions, so nobody has rolled over funds yet. “Potentially, it could be an enormous benefit tax-wise,” he says.

Not the least of which is that if you put the same amount in a brokerage account, you’d be paying capital gains every year. But with the extra in a 401(k) and then rolled into a Roth, the funds are sheltered.

Likewise, you can make a “back-door” Roth contribution, even if you are over the income level of $183,000 for singles or $193,000 for married couples.

First, you contribute after-tax dollars to an IRA, which you can do up to the regular limits of $5,500 or $6,500 for those over 55. You can then convert this “non-deductible IRA” at will to a Roth, says Harvey Bezozi, a tax accountant with his own firm in Boca Raton, Fla.

“Some people commingle the funds with a traditional pre-tax IRA, but I like to keep them separate so you can keep track of what you did,” he says.

3. “Business” income

You don’t have to buy a farm, like one of Patrick Beagle’s clients did, just to get some additional expenses to off-set income. Any small business will do.

Beagle has clients who sell products at home-based parties through companies like Thirty-One and Silpada. This opens up a lot of other deductions because they are using part of their home as an office or to store merchandise. There are also phone costs, office supplies, and advertising costs to consider.

And all that guacamole for the handbag party? A legitimate business expense.

MONEY Taxes

How to Make Tapping a $1 Million Retirement Plan Less Taxing

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Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration)—Mike Lorrig/Corbis (1); iStock (1)

With a seven-figure account balance, you have to work extra hard to minimize the tax hit once you starting taking withdrawals.

More than three decades after the creation of the 401(k), this workplace plan has become the No. 1 way for Americans to save for retirement. And save they have. The average plan balance has hit a record high, and the number of million-dollar-plus 401(k)s has more than doubled since 2012.

In the first part of this four-part series, we laid out how to build a $1 million 401(k) plan. Part two covered making your money last. Next up: getting smart about taxes when you draw down that $1 million.

Most of your 401(k) money was probably saved pretax, and once you start making withdrawals, Uncle Sam will want his share. The conventional wisdom would have you postpone taking out 401(k) funds for as long as possible, giving your money more time to grow tax-deferred. But retirees must start making required minimum distributions (RMDs) by age 70½. With a million-dollar-plus account, that income could push you into a higher tax bracket. Here are three possible ways to reduce that tax bite.

1. Make the Most of Income Dips

Perhaps in the year after you retire, with no paycheck coming in, you drop to the 15% bracket (income up to $73,800 for a married couple filing jointly). Or you have medical expenses or charitable deductions that reduce your taxable income briefly before you bump back up to a higher bracket. Tapping pretax accounts in low-tax years may enable you to pay less in taxes on future withdrawals, says Marc Freedman, a financial adviser in Peabody, Mass.

2. Spread Out the Tax Bill

Taking advantage of low-tax-bracket years to convert IRA money to a Roth can cut your tax bill over time. Just make sure you have cash on hand to pay the conversion taxes.

Say you and your spouse are both 62, with Social Security and pension income that covers your living expenses, as well as $800,000 in a rollover IRA. If you leave the money there, it will grow to nearly $1.1 million by the time you start taking RMDs, assuming 5% annual returns, says Andrew Sloan, a financial adviser in Louisville.

If you convert $50,000 a year to a Roth for eight years instead, paying $7,500 in income taxes each time, you can stay in the 15% bracket. But you will end up paying less in taxes when RMDs begin, since your IRA balance will be only $675,000. Meanwhile, you will have $475,000 in the Roth. Another benefit: Since Roth IRAs aren’t subject to RMDs, you can pass on more of your IRAs to your heirs.

3. Plot Your Exit from Employer Stock

Some 401(k) investors, often those with large balances, hold company stock. Across all plans, 9% of 401(k) assets were in employer shares at the end of 2013, Vanguard data show—for 9% of participants, that stock accounts for more than 20% of their plan.

Unloading those shares at retirement will reduce the risk in your portfolio. Plus, that sale may cut your tax bill. That’s because of a tax rule called net unrealized appreciation (NUA), which is the difference between the price you paid for the stock and its market value.

Say you bought 5,000 shares of company stock in your 401(k) at $20 a share, for a total price of $100,000. Five years later the shares are worth $50, or $250,000 in total. That gives you a cost of $100,000, and an NUA of $150,000. At retirement, you could simply roll that stock into an IRA. But to save on taxes, your best move may be to stash it in a taxable account while investing the balance of your plan in an IRA, says Jeffrey Levine, a CPA at IRAhelp.com.

All rollover IRA withdrawals will be taxed at your income tax rate, which can be as high as 39.6%. When you take company stock out of your 401(k), though, you owe income tax only on the original purchase price. Then, when you sell, you’ll owe long-term capital gains taxes of no more than 20% on the NUA.

Of course, these complex strategies may call for an accountant or financial adviser. But after decades of careful saving, you don’t want to jeopardize your million-dollar 401(k) with a bad tax move.

MONEY stocks

10 Smart Ways to Boost Your Investing Results

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Alamy

You don't have to be an investing genius to improve your returns. Just follow a few simple steps.

Recent research shows that people who know their way around investing and finance racked up higher annual returns (9.5% vs. 8.2%) than those who don’t. Here are 10 tips that will help make you a savvier investor and better able to achieve your financial goals.

1. Slash investing fees. You can’t control the gains the financial markets deliver. But by sticking to investments like low-cost index funds and ETFs that charge as little as 0.05% a year, you can keep a bigger portion of the returns you earn. And the advantage to doing so can be substantial. Over the course of a career, reducing annual fees by just one percentage point can boost the size of your nest egg more than 25%. Another less commonly cited benefit of lowering investment costs: downsizing fees effectively allows you to save more for retirement without actually putting aside another cent.

2. Beware conflicted advice. Many investors end up in poor-performing investments not because of outright cons and scams but because they fall for a pitch from an adviser who’s really a glorified salesman. The current push by the White House, Department of Labor and Securities and Exchange Commission to hold advisers to a more rigorous standard may do away with some abuses. But the onus is still on you to gauge the competence and trustworthiness of any adviser you deal with. Asking these five questions can help you do that.

3. Gauge your risk tolerance. Before you can invest properly, you’ve got to know your true appetite for risk. Otherwise, you could end up bailing out of investments during market downturns, turning paper losses into real ones. Completing a risk tolerance questionnaire like this one from RealDealRetirement’s Retirement Toolbox can help you assess how much risk you can reasonably handle.

4. Don’t be a “bull market genius.” When the market is doing well and stock prices are surging, it’s understandable if you assume your incredible investing acumen is responsible for those outsize returns. Guess what? It’s not. You’re really just along for the ride. Unfortunately, many investors lose sight of this basic fact, become overconfident, take on too much risk—and then pay dearly when the market inevitably takes a dive. You can avoid such a come-down, and the losses that accompany it, by leavening your investing strategy with a little humility.

5. Focus on asset allocation, not fund picking. Many people think savvy investing consists of trying to identify in advance the investments that will top the performance charts in the coming year. But that’s a fool’s errand. It’s virtually impossible to predict which stocks or funds will outperform year to year, and trying to do so often means you’ll end up chasing hot investments that may be more prone to fizzle than sizzle in the year ahead. The better strategy: create a diversified mix of stock and bond funds that jibes with your risk tolerance and makes sense given the length of time you plan to keep your money invested. That will give you a better shot at getting the long-term returns you need to achieve a secure retirement and reach other goals while maintaining reasonable protection against market downturns.

6. Limit the IRS’s take. You should never let the desire to avoid taxes drive your investing strategy. That policy has led many investors to plow their savings into all sorts of dubious investments ranging from cattle-breeding operations to jojoba-bean plantations. That said, there are reasonable steps you can take to prevent Uncle Sam from claiming too big a share of your investment gains. One is doing as much of your saving as possible in tax-advantaged accounts like traditional and Roth 401(k)s and IRAs. You may also be able to lower the tab on gains from investments held in taxable accounts by investing in stock index funds and tax-managed funds that that generate much of their return in the form of unrealized long-term capital gains, which go untaxed until you sell and then are taxed at generally lower long-term capital gains rates.

7. Go broad, not narrow. In search of bigger gains, many investors tend to look for niches to exploit. Instead of investing in a broad selection of energy or technology firms, they’ll drill down into solar producers, wind power, robotics, or cloud-computing firms. That approach might work, but it can also leave you vulnerable to being in the wrong place at the wrong time—or the right place but the wrong company. Going broader is better for two reasons: it’s less of a guessing game, and the broader you go the lower your investing costs are likely to be. So if you’re buying energy, tech or whatever, buy the entire sector. Better get, go even broader still. By investing in a total U.S. stock market and total U.S. bond market index fund, you’ll own a piece of virtually all publicly traded U.S. companies and a share of the entire investment-grade bond market. Throw in a total international stock index fund and you’ll have foreign exposure as well. In short, you’ll tie your portfolio’s success to that of the broad market, not just a slice of it.

8. Consider the downside. Investors are by and large an optimistic lot, otherwise they wouldn’t put their money where their convictions are. But a little skepticism is good too. So before putting your money into an investment or embarking on a strategy, challenge yourself. Come up with reasons your view might be all wrong. Think about what might happen if you are. Crash-test your investing strategy to see how you’ll do if your investments don’t perform as well as you hope. Better to know the potential downside before it occurs than after.

9. Keep it simple. You can easily get the impression that you’re some kind of slacker if you’re not filling your portfolio with every new fund or ETF that comes out. In fact, you’re better off exercising restraint. By loading up on every Next Big Thing investment the Wall Street marketing machine churns out you run the risk of di-worse-ifying rather than diversifying. All you really need is a portfolio that mirrors the broad U.S. stock and bond markets, and maybe some international exposure. If you want to go for more investing gusto, you can consider some inflation protection, say, a real estate, natural resources, or TIPS fund. But I’d be wary about adding much more than that.

10. Tune out the noise. With so many investing pundits weighing in on virtually every aspect of the financial markets nearly 24/7, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice. It might make sense to sift through this cacophony if it were full of investing gems, but much of the advice, predictions, and observations are trite, if not downright harmful. If you want to watch or listen to the parade of pundits just to keep abreast of the investing scuttlebutt, fine. Just don’t let the hype, the hoopla, and the hyperbole distract you from your investing strategy.

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 Social Security

The Taxing Problem With Working Longer

Earning money after you start collecting Social Security can be a tax headache.

The question of when and how to file for Social Security is a tough one for many retirees—I regularly field questions on the topic. Recently a reader wrote to say he’d like to draw Social Security benefits at age 66 yet keep working until 75. What are the tax implications?

When you continue to work and draw Social Security, your benefits are reduced temporarily if you’re 65 or younger and your outside income exceeds certain levels. After 65, these reductions do not apply. You may, however, owe taxes on your Social Security income.

How Earnings Can Hurt

Not all of your Social Security income is taxable. Social Security uses a measure it calls “combined income” to determine how much of your benefit is taxable, and it can be tricky to understand.

To determine your combined income, take your adjusted gross income (check last year’s tax return), then add any nontaxable interest income and half of your Social Security benefit. (If you haven’t started claiming, you can get a projection online by setting up an account at ssa.gov.)

If the total is less than $25,000 ($32,000 on joint tax returns), you owe no income taxes on your Social Security benefits. If the total is between $25,000 and $34,000 ($32,000 and $44,000 on joint returns), you may have to pay taxes on half of your Social Security that’s over that threshold. Above that, 85% of your benefits may be taxable—the top rate.

Here’s how that could play out. Take a retiree in the 15% federal tax bracket who is taxed on 50% of his Social Security. When he earns another $1,000, his so-called combined income rises by that much too, subjecting another $500 of Social Security income to taxes. So the tax bill on that $1,000 won’t be $150 (15% of $1,000) but $225 (15% of $1,500), for an effective rate of 22.5%.

150223_RET_WorkingLate
MONEY

Your Workarounds

Beefing up your tax-free holdings, especially Roth IRAs, can mean money coming in that won’t trigger more taxable Social Security income. (Working less lowers your tax bill too, but you’re usually better off earning the money.)

If you can live on just your salary, deferring Social Security until age 70 also helps. Your taxes should be lower while you wait. And delaying benefits will increase your monthly Social Security payments by 8% a year (plus annual inflation adjustments).

Hedging Your Bets

Single retirees should think about one other option: filing for and suspending Social Security benefits at age 66. By doing so you will be able to request a lump-sum payment for all the suspended benefits
anytime until age 70.

Even the best of plans can change, so that payment could come in handy if you face an emergency cash crunch. But there’s a downside: Once you request a lump sum, your payout will be valued as if you took benefits at 66, as will your regular monthly benefit going forward.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His book, “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security,” was published in February by Simon & Schuster. Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

MONEY IRAs

The Retirement Investing Mistake You Don’t Know You’re Making

The investor rush to beat the April 15 deadline for IRA contributions often leads to bad decisions. Here's how to keep your investments growing.

It happens every year around this time: the rush by investors to make 11th-hour contributions to their IRAs before the April 15 tax deadline.

If you’ve recently managed to send in your contribution, congrats. But next time around, plan ahead—turns out, this beat-the-clock strategy comes at a cost, or a “procrastination penalty,” according to Vanguard.

Over 30 years, a last-minute IRA investor will wind up with $15,500 less than someone who invests at the start of the tax year, assuming identical contributions and returns, Vanguard calculations show. The reason for the procrastinator’s shortfall, of course, is the lost compounding of that money, which has less time to grow.

Granted, missing out on $15,500 over 30 years may not sound like an enormous penalty, though anyone who wants to send me a check for this amount is more than welcome to do so. But lost earnings aren’t the only cost of the IRA rush—last-minute contributions also lead to poor investment decisions, which may further erode your portfolio.

Many hurried IRA investors simply stash their new contributions in money-market funds—a move Vanguard calls a “parking lot” strategy. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of such contributions are still stashed in money funds a full 120 days later, where they have been earning zero returns. So what seems like a reasonable short-term decision often ends up being a bad long-term choice, says Vanguard retirement expert Maria Bruno.

Why are so many people fumbling their IRA strategy? All too often, investors focus mainly on their 401(k) plan, while IRAs are an after-thought. But fact is, most of your money will likely end up in an IRA, when you roll out of your 401(k). Overall, IRAs collectively hold some $7.3 trillion, the Investment Company Institute (ICI) found, fueled by 401(k) rollovers—that’s more than the money held in 401(k)s ($4.5 trillion) and other defined-contribution accounts ($2.2 trillion) combined.

Clearly, having a smart IRA plan can go a long way toward improving your retirement security. To get the most out of your IRA—and avoid mistakes—Bruno lays out five guidelines for investors:

  • Set up your contribution schedule. If you can’t stash away a large amount at the start of the year, establish a dollar-cost averaging program at your brokerage. That way, your money flows into your IRA throughout the year.
  • Invest the max. You can save as much as $5,500 in an IRA account in 2015. But for those 50 and older, you can make an additional tax-deferred “catch up” contribution of $1,000. A survey of IRA account holders by the ICI found that just 14% of investors take advantage of this savings opportunity. (You can find details on IRS contribution limits here.)
  • Select a go-to fund. Skip the money fund, and choose a target-date retirement fund or a balanced fund as the default choice for your IRA contributions. You can always change your investment choice later, but meantime you will get the benefits—and the potential growth—of a diversified portfolio.
  • Invest in a Roth IRA. Unlike traditional IRAs, which hold pre-tax dollars, Roths are designed to hold after tax money, but their investment gains and later payouts escape federal income taxes. With Roths, you also avoid RMDs (required minimum distributions) when you turn 70 ½, which gives you more flexibility. Vanguard says nine out of every 10 dollars contributed to IRAs by its younger customers under age 30 are flowing into Roths. Here are the IRS rules for 2015 Roth contributions.
  • Consider a Roth conversion. High-income earners who do not qualify for tax-deferred Roth contributions can still make post-tax contributions to an IRA and then convert this account to a Roth. The Obama Administration’s proposed 2016 federal budget would end these so-called backdoor Roth conversions, which have become very popular. Of course, it’s far from clear if that proposal will be enacted.

Once you have your IRA set up, resist tapping it until retirement. The longer you can let that money ride, the more growth you’re likely to get. Raiding your IRA for anything less than real emergency would be the worst mistake of all.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His latest book is “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: 25 Ways to Get Smarter About Money Right Now

MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Secure Your Finances When Reality Doesn’t Bite

Investing illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am a 22-year-old college grad with a six-figure income and minimal student debt. I have no car and live with my parents. Is there something I should do now to lead a secure and fiscally responsible life? My father gave me the name of his planner but he was of little help — Timothy

A: Given your age, healthy salary, low expenses, and minimal debt, you’re financial situation is pretty straight forward. “There is a time and a place to work with a financial planner, and now may not be one of them,” says Maggie Kirchhoff, a certified financial planner with Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver.

If you still want some guidance, you may have better luck getting referrals from friends or colleagues. “A planner who’s a good fit for your parents may not be a good match for you,” she adds.

In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can be doing to improve your financial security. The biggest one: “Save systematically,” says Kirchhoff. If you start saving $5,500 a year, even with a conservative 5% annual return, you’ll have nearly $600,000 when you turn 60. “That assumes you never increase contributions,” she says.

It sounds like you’re in a position to save several times that amount now that your expenses are still low. Make use of your current economic sweet spot by taking full advantage of tax-friendly retirement vehicles, such as an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. You can sock away up to $18,000 a year in such a plan, and any contributions are exempt from federal and state taxes. If your employer offers matching benefits, contribute at least enough to get the most you can from that benefit.

Your 401(k) plan likely offers an allocation tool to help you figure out the best mix of stocks and bonds for your time horizon and risk tolerance. Based on that recommendation, you’ll want to choose a handful of low-cost mutual funds or index funds that invest in companies of different sizes, in the United States and abroad. “You can make it as complicated or simple as you like,” says Kirchhoff.

If you want to keep things simple, look at whether your plan offers any target-date funds, which allocate assets based on the year you expect to retire (a bit of a guess at this point) and automatically make changes to that mix as that date nears. Caveat: Don’t overpay to put your retirement plan on autopilot; ideally the expense ratio should be less than 1%.

Now, just as important as investing for retirement is making sure you protect that nest egg from its biggest threat: you. Build an emergency fund so you won’t be tempted to dip into your long-term savings — and owe taxes and penalties — if you lose your job or face unexpected expenses.

“A general rule is three to six months of expenses, but since his expense are already so low, he should aim to eventually save three to six months of his take-home pay,” says Kirchhoff, who recommends keeping your rainy-day fund in a money market account that isn’t tied directly to your checking account.

With the extreme ends of your financial situation covered, you’ll then want to think about what you have planned for the next five or 10 years.

Is graduate school in your future? What about buying or renting a place of your own? Once you get up to speed on your retirement savings and emergency fund, you can turn your attention to saving up for any near-term goals.

You might also consider eventually opening a Roth IRA. You’ll make after-tax contributions, but the money will grow sans tax, and you won’t owe taxes when you withdraw for retirement down the road. (Note: You can save up to $5,500 a year in a Roth, but contributions phase out once your modified gross adjusted income reaches $116,000 to $131,000.)

A Roth may not only save you more in taxes down the road, it also offers a little more flexibility that most retirement accounts. For example, you can withdraw up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase, without tax or penalty, if you’ve had the account at least five years. Likewise, you can withdraw contributions at any point, for any purpose.

What about the student debt? Depending on the interest rate and whether you qualify for a tax deduction (in your case probably not), you could hang onto it and focus on other financial priorities.

That said, if you can make large contributions to your 401(k) plan, build your emergency fund and pay off your student debt at a quicker pace, says Kirchhoff, so much the better.

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