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.
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.