Executives and other highly compensated employees might notice a different option in their benefits plan, beyond the usual 401(k). Some employers also offer Section 409A nonqualified deferred compensation plans to high earners, which have their own mix of rules, regulations and potential drawbacks to navigate. However, when you’re earning income in the hundreds of thousands, it’s important to consider every option for saving on taxes and setting aside a larger nest egg for retirement. Contributing to the usual bevy of IRAs and 401(k) might not be enough to see you through your golden years, and tools like deferred compensation plans could also help you bridge the gap of early retirement.
Deferred compensation plans look a bit different than the 401(k) you already know. Like a 401(k), you can defer compensation into the plan and defer taxes on any earnings until you make withdrawals in the future. You can also establish beneficiaries for your deferred compensation. However, unlike 401(k) plans, the IRS doesn’t limit how much income you can defer each year, so you’ll have to check if your employer limits contributions to start building your deferred compensation strategy. Elections to defer compensation into your nonqualified plan are irrevocable until you update your choices the following year, and you have to make your deferral election before you earn the income. If you’re in the top tax bracket (37.0% in 2019), this can allow you to defer income now and receive it at a later date (such as when you retire) in a lump sum or a series of payments, when you expect to be in a lower tax bracket.
Unlimited contribution amounts and optional payout structures may sound too good to be true, but nonqualified deferred compensation plans also have significant caveats to consider. The big risk is that unlike 401(k), 403(b) and 457(b) accounts where your plan’s assets are qualified, segregated from company assets and all employee contributions are 100% yours—a Section 409A deferred compensation plan lacks those protections. 409A deferred compensation plans are nonqualified, and your assets are tied to the company’s general assets. If the company fails, your assets could be subject to forfeiture since other creditors may have priority. The IRS permits unlimited contributions to the plan in exchange for this risk, and the potential loss of deferred compensation can motivate company officers to maintain the health of the company.
Let’s review potential distribution options from nonqualified deferred compensation plans. A Section 409A deferred compensation plan can provide payment no earlier than the following events:
A fixed date or schedule specified by the company’s plan or the employee’s irrevocable election (usually 5 to 10 years later, or in retirement)
A change of company control, such as a buyout or merger
An unforeseen emergency, such as severe financial hardship or illness
Once your income is deferred, your employer can either invest the funds or keep track of the compensation in a bookkeeping account. Investment options often include securities, insurance arrangements or annuities, so it’s important to evaluate the potential returns and tax benefits of your deferred compensation plan versus other savings options. Plan funds can also be set aside in a Rabbi Trust; however, those funds still remain part of the employer’s general assets.
Nonqualified deferred compensation plans have a variety of structures, rules and withdrawal options depending on how your employer builds the plan. Consider the following pros and cons of deferred compensation plans when reviewing your employer’s options.
You can defer a significant amount of income to better help you replace your income in retirement. The IRS does not limit contributions.
You have the ability to postpone income in years when you’re in high tax brackets until later when you expect to be in a lower tax bracket.
If your employer offers investment options, you may be able to invest the money for greater earnings.
There are no nondiscrimination rules for participants, so the plan can benefit owners, executives and highly compensated employees specifically. Other retirement plans may limit contributions or participation due to discrimination rules.
Your deferred compensation plus any investment earnings are subject to forfeiture based upon the general financial health of the company.
The election to defer compensation and how/when it will be paid out is irrevocable and must be made prior to the year compensation is earned.
Depending on the terms of your plan, you may end up forfeiting all or part of your deferred compensation if you leave the company early. That’s why these plans are also used as “golden handcuffs” to keep important employees at the company.
The plan may or may not have investment options available. If investment options are available, they may not be very good (limited options and/or high expenses).
If you leave your company or retire early, funds in a Section 409A deferred compensation plan aren’t portable. They can’t be transferred or rolled over into an IRA or new employer plan.
Unlike many other employer retirement plans, you can’t take a loan against a Section 409A deferred compensation plan.
The questions below are helpful for assessing whether a deferred compensation plan makes sense for you.
Is your company financially secure? Will it remain financially secure?
Will your tax rate be lower in the future when this deferred compensation is paid?
Can you afford to defer the income this year?
Does the plan have investment options? Are the fees and selection of funds reasonable?
Does the plan allow a flexible distribution schedule?
Section 409A deferred compensation plans have inherent drawbacks and prominent risks, but they could help you save toward your retirement planning goals. We recommend working with a Merriman advisor to review your specific plan terms and financial situation when preparing for the future. We can help you decide whether a nonqualified deferred compensation plan makes sense for your situation, weigh issues like future taxes and create a long-term plan. We want you to feel ready for everything life has to offer.
When you are thinking about how to put your hard-earned dollars to work, it’s important to consider every avenue for tax-advantaged savings. Backdoor Roth IRA contributions are great tools for high earners to take advantage of Roth IRAs even after passing the income limits for standard contributions, and the steps for making backdoor Roth IRA contributions are pretty simple. However, the documentation and tax forms for the process can be confusing, and you may run into trouble when it comes time to report everything to Uncle Sam. Whether you work with a professional tax preparer, use tax software such as TurboTax or complete your taxes by hand, understanding the mechanics of the money movements can help ensure you file your taxes correctly.
Let’s walk through each step in the backdoor Roth IRA process to illustrate the moving parts. You got here by making too much money to deduct Traditional IRA contributions or to contribute to a Roth IRA normally. However, there is no income limit on converting a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, which is the crux of the backdoor Roth IRA.
Step one of the Backdoor Roth IRA is making a non-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA. It’s your responsibility to report the non-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA at tax time on IRS form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs. Form 8606 helps track your basis and avoid paying additional tax on your non-deductible contribution as you convert the balance to a Roth IRA.
The second step after making your non-deductible Traditional IRA contribution is converting your Traditional IRA balance to a Roth IRA. You will owe tax on any earnings in the Traditional IRA before converting, but from that point on, those dollars are now Roth IRA assets and aren’t subject to future tax. Use Form 8606 for calculating the taxable amount from the conversion if you had any earnings in the Traditional IRA.
Around tax-time, you’ll receive a 1099-R from your custodian showing the distribution from your Traditional IRA that was converted to your Roth IRA the previous year. Later in the year you’ll also receive an information reporting Form 5498 that shows the contribution you made to the Traditional IRA and the amount that was converted to Roth. We recommend keeping Form 5498 for your records, but you don’t need to report Form 5498 in your tax filing.
Now that we have walked through the steps, let’s look at an example of how to report a backdoor Roth IRA contribution. Tom, a 35-year-old physician in the Pacific Northwest and diehard Seahawks fan, is working on his Married Filing Jointly tax return after making a $6,000 non-deductible Traditional IRA contribution last year that he converted to his Roth IRA. Tom didn’t have any other Traditional IRA assets aside from his non-deductible contribution in 2018, and he didn’t have any earnings in his Roth IRA conversion. Part 1 of Tom’s Form 8606 is filled out below.
Next let’s look at Part 2 of Tom’s Form 8606, where the conversion portion is reported. If line 18 is 0, as it is in this example, none of the conversion ends up being taxable.
Note: Our example uses the increased 2019 IRA contribution limit ($6,000 for individuals under age 50) on the 2018 tax year forms. The 2019 tax year forms won’t become available until January 2020.
Tom won’t end up owing any taxes on his Backdoor Roth IRA, and his correct reporting of the contribution and conversion will avoid running afoul of the IRS. However, tax forms and reporting can be a daunting challenge. If stressors like tax law changes, new forms and confusion around the whole process keep you from sleeping soundly, reach out to a Merriman advisor to discuss whether a backdoor Roth IRA makes sense for you. You might even have other options available for tax-advantaged savings that you haven’t considered. Check out Mega Backdoor Roth Explainedto see how you might be able to do a backdoor Roth in your employer 401(k) plan. We love navigating complex issues like these and giving guidance to elevate your finances.
With summer upon us and your thoughts wandering to visions of paradise, have you questioned how to save money on expensive trips? Major travel expenses like airline tickets, hotel nights and rental cars can push trip costs into the thousands. Travel credit cards are an excellent way to save money while traveling and improve your entire vacation experience. However, no single card is perfect for every traveler. Let’s review the factors that set some cards apart and how to find the best card for your travel plans this summer. So what kinds of rewards can you earn with top travel credit cards?
Unlike cash back credit cards, travel card bounties typically come in the flavor of rewards points or miles. You will earn points or miles for every dollar spent, and some cards offer additional rewards for spending in specific categories like hotel accommodations or restaurants. To choose the best card for you, it’s important to know your major spending categories. For example, a card may offer 3x points for travel and dining, as well as 1 point per dollar spent on everything else. Unless you spend a considerable amount on travel and dining, a different card that offers 2x points on all purchases might help you earn more rewards.
One example we can look at to illustrate rewards differences is if you spend $4,000 per month on a credit card and are also planning a $5,000 trip this year. You could earn 3x points on $5,000 of travel spending and 1x points on $48,000 of monthly spending for a total of 63,000 points that year. However, earning 2x points on your entire budget with a different card nets you 106,000 points. That’s over two-thirds more rewards for using another card!
Types of Travel Cards
Now that you know how to earn rewards, the next step is examining types of travel credit cards. Travel credit cards feature two main categories of rewards options—co-branded versus generic.
Co-branded cards bear the name of specific airlines, hotels or rewards programs and often have strict rules for redeeming points. For example, you may be limited to redeeming rewards with the card issuer or their program partners. While co-branded cards are less flexible for where you can spend rewards, they often come with other perks. Some cards allow you to get priority boarding, avoid baggage fees, earn double points on brand purchases or have annual discounted hotel stays.
Extra perks can help you feel like a movie star on your next trip, but rewards on other spending like groceries are often less with co-branded cards. If a co-branded card sounds appealing, we recommend checking out how to use multiple cards across all your spending to maximize rewards. Aligning your purchases with credit cards that offer the best reward for each spending category can help you earn more bonuses. Whether you’re using a travel card to earn 3x miles on your next ticket to Maui or buying groceries with a 2% cash back card, researching the best card for each of your major spending categories pays off.
Compared to co-branded travel credit cards, generic cards offer more flexibility and are not tied to a specific travel company. Generic cards may be used for any airline, hotel or cruise without requirements for redeeming your rewards with a specific brand. This is a great option for people who aren’t committed to a single frequent flier program, loyal to any particular airline, or always stay at the same resort. With a generic card, you can choose travel options that fit your itinerary, even when surprises pop up (like missing the last boat for the night and being stuck staying in the hotel across from the dock, don’t ask how we know). If a generic card fits your style, check out whether your card of choice offers valuable perks like trip cancellation or rental car insurance coverage. Co-branded cards are not the only plastic with awesome perks.
Evaluating Card Benefits
Once you narrow down your travel card options, evaluating other benefits like sign-up bonuses, low annual fees and higher value rewards can help you make the best choice.
Sign-up bonuses can be worth hundreds of dollars and may be the deciding factor between two cards.
Annual Fees offset rewards. You will need to assess if your spending level justifies the potential benefits from higher fee credit cards.
Point Valuations determine how much you get from your reward points. A point on one card or a specific reward option might not be as valuable as rewards offered by another card or different redemption choice.
When you’re thinking of backpacking through Yosemite or hiking up to Machu Picchu, travel credit cards are a great way to save money on your next trip. Credit cards are valuable tools, but it’s also important to use credit wisely and be wary of carrying a high-interest balance. We recommend reaching out to a Merriman advisor if you have questions about credit, spending, or other ways to enhance your finances. We are here to help and offer guidance throughout your financial journey.
Restricted stock units (RSUs) play a big role in compensation packages, especially for high-tech companies. Thanks to the tech industry, RSUs have become increasingly popular as many employers offer them as part of their compensation package. It’s important to understand what RSUs are and how they work, to ensure you’re not leaving any money on the table when negotiating your salary, and to help you determine when/how to sell them for cash needs or diversifying your investments.
RSUs are issued by an employer to an employee in the form of company stock. They’re restricted because you can’t sell them until they vest, meaning you don’t really own them yet. Vesting typically occurs after you’ve been with your company for a pre-determined length of time or have hit pre-determined performance goals. The shares either vest in stages (grading) or all at once (cliff). When your RSUs vest, they’re considered income and are taxed as such. Your employer will hold back a certain amount of your shares to pay your income taxes, and you’ll receive the rest. Your taxable income is the market value of the shares at vesting. Once your shares vest, you can sell them.
We always recommend that folks sell their RSUs once they vest to better diversify their risk. You already rely on your company for your paycheck and many other benefits that it’s best to limit how much of your wealth is dependent on your company. It’s also best to diversify your investments and avoid concentrated positions in any one stock regardless. If you do choose to hold your RSUs when they vest rather than selling them, any future gains will be taxed at current capital gains rates.
If RSUs are a part of your compensation package and you’d like help to better understand how to make them work for your needs, please reach out to us.
If you work at a company like Facebook, Amazon or Microsoft, a large portion of your total income is probably made up of restricted stock units (RSUs). After tackling your savings goals, there might not be a lot left over in your paycheck, so you may be asking yourself the following question:
How do I use my RSUs for income and spending?
At Merriman, we take our clients through a discovery process to learn about goals and lifestyle. Through that process we often discover total income may be made up of more than just a salary. To ensure our clients are hitting all their savings goals for early retirement, vacations and higher education, we need to create a plan for how to use multiple sources of income. For example, we may need to figure out what to do with RSUs, how to effectively use an employee stock purchase plan (ESPP) and how to invest annual bonuses. Mapping out a month-by-month plan helps our clients get organized and feel confident they’re taking the right steps toward saving enough and achieving their goals. Having this peace of mind allows guilt-free spending with the money that’s left over each month.
I recently met with a couple, Scott and Julie, who needed help creating a plan for their monthly cash-flow needs. At first, putting together a monthly budget seemed simple enough, but for Scott and Julie, it became clear it would be more complex because of their different income options. We had to figure out what to do with their income from salary, when to sell RSUs and how to take advantage of their company’s ESPP.
To create a plan that balanced their income vs. expenses, we took a three-step approach.
Step 1: Optimize savings options.
Each contributes $19,000 per year to their 401(k).
Each contributes to their ESPP to take advantage of the discounted share price.
Each makes contributions into their after-tax 401(k) so they can take advantage of the Mega Backdoor Roth. (Note: This is not available at all companies.)
They contribute monthly to a 529 college savings plan for their two kids.
Step 2: Calculate what the income gap is each month.
After they meet their savings goals, pay their taxes and take care of other miscellaneous payroll items, their monthly income from their paychecks equals $10,000.
Their monthly expenses are -$15,000, so this leaves them with a monthly deficit of -$5,000.
Step 3: Sell RSUs and ESPP shares to supplement income.
Below is a spreadsheet that shows a month-by-month cash-flow plan for their “spending bucket,” which is their checking account. Notice we first filled the bucket with $50,000. This initial $50,000 came from the sale of some of their RSUs. At the beginning of each month, you can see the starting amount gradually go down. We refill the bucket every quarter by liquidating more RSUs, and then every six months we sell shares in their ESPP.
We never want the bucket to go to $0, so we make sure there’s a buffer every month. Also, it’s important to note that this spreadsheet does not show what we’re doing with their annual bonuses or remaining RSUs. Without going into too much detail, those excess income amounts could be saved or used for guilt-free spending.
Income from paychecks continue to fill the bucket, and when the amount gets low we refill their spending bucket using the proceeds from selling their RSUs and shares in their ESPP.
Because they’re on track to hit all their savings goals, they can put their annual bonus in their “live fully” bucket and use it for dining out, vacations and other guilt-free spending.
Each year we’ll review how the actual cash flow went. If it turns out spending was a little higher, then we’ll adjust how much of their RSU proceeds are used for cost of living needs. If they spend less than we anticipated, we’ll instead invest more of their RSUs.
The complicated budgeting that we helped Scott and Julie put together is something we’re doing more and more for clients who work in tech. Here at Merriman, we get it. While working 50+ hours a week, it’s tough to find time to ensure you’re efficiently saving in all the right ways. It’s our job to help you keep your financial plan on track and so you can enjoy your life. In other words, our goal is to help you Invest Wisely and Live Fully. Feel free to contact us if you’d like to learn more about how to implement a customized cash-flow strategy that fits your compensation plan.
There is a good chance you, or a close family member, carry debt. It’s common for the typical American household to carry amounts exceeding six figures (Tsoie & Issa, 2018). Debt can be mysterious in the sense that individuals might owe a similar amount, but perspectives on how to repay debt vary dramatically. Debt is also not always negative and can provide strategic benefits in your financial plan. Consider a home mortgage for example, the underlying asset is likely to increase in value. Mortgages often offer a valuable source of leverage, but loans on depreciating assets like cars can quickly end up with negative equity. Other loans, like high interest credit card debt, can be especially menacing. This article will focus on consumer debt repayment and we will highlight a few common approaches to help the borrowers make real progress on eliminating debt.
Many households across the country have debt related to auto loans, credit cards and even personal loans. The decision to take on debt is personal and the need or desire for debt means different things to just about everyone. Below are some common questions to consider when developing a debt repayment plan.
How do you organize debt?
Which debt should be paid first?
Should debt be paid off ahead of investing for retirement?
One strategy that many people find effective for debt elimination is using rolling payments. Rolling payments involves focusing on aggressively paying off one loan at a time, while making the minimum payments on other debt. With rolling payments, you throw as many excess dollars in your budget as possible toward repaying one loan. Once the target loan is paid off, roll that loan payment into paying off the next debt beyond the monthly minimums. Keep rolling your payments to the next loan on your list until the ball and chain of your bad debt is paid in full. To illustrate a couple different ways to prioritize your debt list, we are going to look at three approaches for prioritizing debt, including, an interest rate approach, a behavioral approach and a combination strategy that factors in retirement savings.
When evaluating debt repayment from an interest rate approach, order all debts from highest interest to lowest, and attack the highest rate first. Focusing on interest rates makes sense because you are reducing the debt with the highest interest rate drag. Although progressive, the downside to this approach is that it might take months or even years until you finally check a loan off your list. Many people become worn out and lose motivation to follow the plan. There will also be cases where a loan with a lower interest rate, but larger balance will be more impactful on the overall repayment plan than a small loan with a higher rate. However, prioritizing debt strictly by interest rates ignores that.
Interest Rate Approach Example
Let’s meet Steve, who has three outstanding debts. Steve has student loans totaling $22,000 at 6%, a car note of $15,000 at 3.5% and $8,000 of credit card debt at 17% annual interest. Utilizing the interest rate approach, Steve will prioritize his debts according to the table below and use the rolling payment method, we discussed for repayment.
Illustrating the Behavioral Approach
Now let’s consider Steve’s situation from the behavioral approach. This behavioral method prioritizes starting with the smallest loan regardless of interest rates. Compared to the interest rate approach, you will likely end up paying more interest overall with the behavioral strategy, but the small wins along the way provide motivation and reason to celebrate. This method has been popularized by the personal finance personality, Dave Ramsey, who consistently recommends focusing on behavior. He refers to this approach as the “debt snowball”. You can still take advantage of rolling payments with the behavioral strategy, so once each loan is paid off, roll the payment to the next debt on the list.
Combining Perspectives: Debt Repayment and Retirement Savings
The power of compounding interest reveals its best to contribute early and often towards retirement savings for maximum growth. If your debt is not too overwhelming, it can be valuable to continue retirement savings while paying down loans. With this in mind, we can utilize a combination approach that addresses both debt reduction and retirement savings. One method is to target either a specific debt reduction or savings goal. Use your primary goal as a minimum benchmark then throw as many extra dollars in the other direction (debt or savings) as possible. Combining goals of retirement savings and debt elimination is best utilized when loan interest is less than the expected return of investments for retirement. Focusing on both savings and paying off debt can be helpful for identifying opportunities to “beat the spread” by investing versus paying off debt.
No matter how you decide to repay debt, take comfort in knowing the best strategy is one you can commit to and stick with during tough times. Here at Merriman, we believe in the power of committing to a sound plan for guidance throughout your financial life. If you’re lost on where to start, please take a few minutes to read First Things First by Geoff Curran, which provides a guide toward prioritizing your savings. If you have questions or would like to learn a bit more, please contact a Merriman advisor who can help navigate your specific situation.
Tsosie, C., & Issa E.E. (2018, December 10). 2018 American Household Credit Card Debt Study. Retrieved from https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/average-credit-card-debt-household/