Can you benefit from a “Backdoor” Roth?

Since their introduction in 1998, Roth IRAs have become an important part of the financial planning landscape. They offer the unique ability for investors to grow their money tax-free, not simply tax-deferred like traditional IRAs. They also avoid required minimum distributions so they can grow undiminished for many years. In fact, Roth IRAs are wonderful assets to pass along to the next generation, where they can continue to grow tax-free even longer.

Until recently, this unique retirement vehicle was available only to individuals with incomes below certain thresholds. “High-income” individuals could not contribute to Roth IRAs or convert traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs. Some of this changed in 2010, when the Roth conversion income limitations were permanently repealed. Now, anyone (regardless of income) can make a Roth conversion.  However, the Roth contribution limitation was not repealed. This means that if your income exceeds the levels in the table below, you cannot contribute directly to a Roth IRA—but you can achieve the same result by first contributing to a non-deductible traditional IRA and then converting it to a Roth IRA.

This presents an interesting opportunity for high income individuals, who perhaps yearn to save beyond their 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans or who simply desire the account diversification that comes with adding a Roth vehicle to their retirement mix. (more…)

The hidden costs of your 401(k)

Are you a participant in a 401(k) or similar retirement plan? If so, do you know what that plan is costing you? Ron Lieber of the New York Times thinks you don’t, and I think he is right. In a recent article, he says there’s really no way you could know what your plan is costing you – but the total might add up to thousands of dollars in hidden fees over the years while you work and (if you leave your money in the plan) after you retire.

To understand the issue, it helps to know that employee retirement plans typically have four players. The first is you, the employee. The second is your employer, who offers to withhold money from your pay and (sometimes) to match part or all of what you contribute. The third is a corporate administrator hired by your employer to operate the plan and choose investment options. The fourth player consists of the mutual funds, brokerages and insurance companies that provide those options. (more…)

It’s 10 PM. Do you know how much you’ll need in retirement?

Americans’ Financial Capability” by Professor Annamaria Lusardi is a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Professor Lusardi’s paper reports the results of a survey of nearly 1,500 Americans regarding their financial status and investment knowledge. As reported by Mary Pilon in an article from The Wall Street Journal, Most Americans Haven’t Planned for Retirement and Other Areas of Concern, there are many areas of concern. (more…)

When to start taking Social Security? It’s an important choice.

One of the many areas in which I help my clients is planning for retirement. Many people want to have a good understanding of how much they can spend, what type of investment return they need, and of how these decisions affect their portfolio.

A major source of income for most investors is Social Security. Every retiree has a choice of when to begin taking Social Security payments. While some people ignore this in their planning or take the decision lightly, this choice can make a big difference. (more…)

It’s not too late to consider a Roth conversion

Please Note: With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, beginning in 2018 a recharacterization of a Roth conversion is no longer allowed. You may still recharacterize any Roth conversions done in 2017, but this will no longer be allowed for Roth conversions done in 2018 or beyond.


The end of the year is a busy time for most of us. Don’t forget to consider whether the Roth conversion might be worth your while. This year’s deadline, December 31st, is quickly approaching.

The income limitations to convert to a Roth have been repealed for this year and beyond, so anyone with an IRA is now eligible. Also, don’t forget that for 2010 conversions only, you have the option of recognizing the conversion income in the subsequent two years (2011 and 2012). This allows you to receive the benefits of a Roth IRA immediately while delaying the tax hit for a few years.

If you convert now and later change your mind, you can “undo” the conversion with a recharacterization—so you are not necessarily locked into the conversion if you do it this year. You have until the extended due date of your tax return (i.e. October 17, 2011) to recharacterize the conversion if you change your mind.

You may consider doing partial conversions—converting just enough each year to use up the rest of a particular tax bracket, like the 15% or 25% tier. Although this requires more work and planning each year, it’s a great way to gradually gain Roth exposure while sensibly controlling the tax impact.

Your financial advisor or CPA can help you decide if a Roth conversion is right for you. You can also find more information on the pros and cons of a Roth conversion in my article “Roth IRAs: To convert or not to convert.”

What happens to your 401(k) when you leave your job?

What happens to your 401(k) when you leave your job?

Whenever you leave a job, whether it’s your choice or not, there are many details and changes competing for your attention, and it’s easy to overlook the disposition of your employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or 457.

You don’t actually have to do anything, but doing nothing is usually not your best choice. Making the right choice can let you add many thousands of dollars to your retirement nest egg. Making the wrong choice can unnecessarily squander some of your savings to the tax man and deprive you of future earning power.

You may get some very general guidance from your employer. But employers are prohibited by law from giving you specific advice. The custodian of your retirement plan (Vanguard or Fidelity, for example) has little incentive to overcome a basic conflict of interest: Even though your investment options will be restricted if you leave your money where it is, that’s exactly what your custodian hopes you will do.

This is a choice you need to make on your own. Fortunately it’s neither complicated nor difficult.   In addition, you don’t have to do it immediately (although the lack of a deadline is a mixed bag if it leads you to procrastinate and then become complacent). (more…)