Financial Tip #10: Convert traditional 401(k) funds to a Roth when income is low

The cost of converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, the additional tax paid on the amount of the conversion, is generally low in years where a person leaves the workforce. The potential tax savings in retirement is considerable.


Often people leaving the workforce raid their retirement plans to fund current consumption.  A departure from the workforce creates an opportunity for people to convert traditional retirement assets to Roth assets at low cost.  The low-cost conversion to Roth assets can substantially improve financial outcomes in retirement. Households are only able to make this low-cost conversion if they have a decent ratio of liquid assets to debts.


  • A previous post, financial tip #6, found that people leaving a firm with a high-cost 401(k) plan should roll over funds from the high-cost 401(K) to a low-cost IRA to increase wealth at retirement.   The rollover is often a prerequisite to converting traditional 401(k) assets to a Roth.
  • The tax code allows for the conversion of traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. Distributions from a Roth account in retirement are not taxed and do not count towards the amount of Social Security subject to tax. The person converting previously untaxed funds in an IRA pays income tax on the converted funds in the year of a conversion.   The cost of converting traditional assets to Roth assets, the additional tax paid stemming from the conversion, is low when households have marginal tax rates.   
  • Marginal tax rates are lowest when a worker or a spouse leaves the workforce.  This can happen when a person returns to school, decides to care for a family member, becomes unemployed or retires.  
    • Conversion costs are $0 if AGI including the amount converted is less than the standard deduction ($12,950 for a single filer).
    • Conversion costs for single people filing an individual return are 10 percent of taxable income AGI minus the standard deduction for taxable income between $0s and $14,200.  Increases in taxable income up to $54,200 increase conversion costs by 12 percent, the marginal tax rate.
  • The potential gains from converting traditional retirement assets to Roth assets early in a career perhaps when returning to school are tremendous.   
  • A person leaving the workforce for school for a couple of years at around age 28 might convert $20,000 from a traditional IRA to a Roth at a cost of around $2,000.
  • The balance of the Roth account from this conversion after 30 years assuming a 6.0 percent return is $114,870. 
  • The direct tax savings from the conversion assuming a tax rate of 10 percent would be $11,487.  An indirect tax savings from the omission of tax on Social Security, assuming around $50,000 in Social Security payments spread over a couple of years, would be around another $5,000.  The conversion can be thought of as an investment of $2,000 leading to a return of around $16,000 in around 30 years.  The rate of return for an investment of $2,000 and a return of $16,000 in around 30 years is around 7.2%.
  • A person in a low tax bracket because she is young and single and returning to school and only working for the part of the year could be in a much higher tax bracket in retirement, especially if married and both spouses worked and claimed Social Security.  In many cases, the returns from converting a traditional IRA to a Roth will be much higher than the one reported by the simple example in the above bullet. A person living 100 percent on Roth distributions and Social Security could easily pay $0 in annual tax after accounting for the standard deduction.
  • A person returning to school full time with no reported earnings could convert an amount equal to the standard deduction to a Roth and pay no additional tax.  It would be irrational for a person with a 0 percent marginal tax rate to fail to make a conversion.
  • Workers leaving the workforce are often more concerned about meeting immediate needs than for planning for retirement.  However, conversion costs are small during a year a person leaves the workforce.
  • Workers leaving the workforce with debt or with 401(k) loans often distribute funds from their 401(k) plan, pay a penalty and tax, and are unable to rollover or convert funds to a Roth.
  • The five-year rule imposes tax and penalty on funds disbursed from a Roth IRA funded through a conversion from a traditional IRA within five years from January 1 of the year of the conversion.  A separate five-year waiting period is applied to each conversion.     The five-year rule applies for conversions after age 59 ½ even though all funds in Roth accounts funded by contributions can be withdrawn without penalty and tax at that age.  The purpose of the five-year rule for conversions and its implementation even after age 59 ½ is to prevent immediate access to funds in a traditional retirement account.  The five-year rule for conversions appears to apply to disbursements from both contributions and earnings for both pre-tax and after-tax IRAs. 

Concluding Remarks:   The cost of converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, the additional tax paid on the amount of the conversion, is generally low in years where a person leaves the workforce.  The potential tax savings in retirement is considerable.

Several additional posts on IRA conversions are planned.  One post considers issues related to conversions of non-deductible IRAs in a procedure called a backdoor IRA.  A second post considers the advantages of converting pre-tax IRAs during retirement.

Financial Tip #3: Maximize use of after-tax Roth IRAs

Tip number 3:  Most households use traditional retirement accounts instead of Roth accounts.  The Tax Policy Center reports around 23% of taxpayers have a traditional IRA compared to around 12% of taxpayers with a Roth IRA.  According to CNBC, in 2016 around 70 percent of firms offered a Roth 401(k), but only 18% of workers used the Roth 401(k) option.  

More people should choose a Roth retirement plan over a traditional one.  People should use Roth accounts in the following circumstances.

  • Workers at firms not offering a retirement plan with a marginal tax rate less than 25% should use a Roth IRA instead of a deductible IRA.
  • Workers at firms offering both a traditional and Roth 401(k) should choose the Roth 401(k) if their marginal tax rate is less than 25%.
  • Workers with marginal tax rates less than 25% at firms with 401(k) plans without employee matching contributions should select a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) over a traditional 401(k) plan.
  • Workers who maximize receipt of employer matching contributions should place additional contributions in a Roth IRA.
  • Spouses of workers with family AGI below the contribution limit for Roth contributions should contribute to a Roth IRA, if eligible.


  • Gains from 401(k) contributions are relatively small when employers don’t provide a matching contribution and a worker’s marginal tax rate is low.  
  • Workers with Roth accounts are less likely to withdraw and spend all funds prior to retirement than workers with traditional accounts because they can access the amount contributed without penalty or tax prior to age 59 ½. 
  • The tax saving from Roth disbursements in retirement are high both because disbursements after age 59 ½ are not taxed and the Roth disbursement does not increase the amount of Social Security subject to tax.
  • Workers at a firm that do not match employee contributions, around 49 percent of employers, should contribute to a Roth IRA instead of a 401(k) plan unless the worker has a high marginal tax rate.
  • One effective contribution strategy is to take full advantage of the employer match and contribute all additional funds to a Roth IRA. Two common 401(k) matching formulas are 50 percent of the dollar amount contributed by the employee up to 6.0 percent of the employee’s salary and 100 percent of contributions up to 3 percent of the employee’s salary. 
  • Most new employees at firms with a vesting requirement, a rule delaying full ownership of 401(k) matches, should contribute to a Roth IRA instead of a 401(k) plan.
  • Stay-home spouses of workers with income should choose a Roth IRA over a traditional one if they are eligible. In 2021, a single filer with MAGI less than $140,000 and a married joint return filer with MAGI less than $206,000 cannot contribute to a Roth IRA.  Workers with income above these contribution limits should contribute to a Roth IRA.  Other workers should use a backdoor IRA.

Readers should remember to open their Roth IRA early in life as explained in financial tip number one.

Financial Tip #1: Open and fund a Roth IRA early in your career

Tip #1: Open and fund a Roth IRA and invest funds in a low-cost ETF when you get your first job in high school or college.

  • People who open a Roth IRA early in life have a long investment horizon.   The longer investment horizon allows individuals to invest in equities and accumulate substantial wealth.
  • A person who invests $1,000 in a Roth at age 17 will have $25,729 at age 65 if the average rate of return was 7.0% per year.   The total wealth at age 65 would be $62,585 when rate of return is 9.0% per year.  This Nerd Wallet article suggests the average rate of return on stocks is around 10 percent per year.
  • Firms like Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard offer exchange traded funds with low fees and no minimum balance. A fund like VOO from Vanguard which covers the entire S&P 500 at low cost could easily earn 7% over long investment horizons.
  • The wealth estimates presented above assume the person does not tap funds in the Roth IRA prior to age 65.   This is not always possible.   The owner of the Roth IRA is allowed to disburse the after-tax contribution without penalty or tax at any time.   The Roth contributions can be used without penalty or tax for emergencies or to repay debt. The investment returns from inside a Roth are subject to penalty and tax if disbursed prior to age 59 ½.
  • All funds disbursed from traditional 401(k) plans and deductible IRAs are subject to penalty or tax if disbursed prior to age 59 ½. A young person embarking on her first job with a lifetime of obligations ahead of her should select the Roth over the traditional retirement plan, especially if there is no employer match, which is generally the case on a first job.

Concluding Thoughts:  Many employers automatically enroll new employees in a traditional 401(k) plan even though the worker would do much better in a Roth IRA.  Too many workers contributing to a traditional 401(k) plan, disburse funds prior to retirement and incur penalty and tax.  My view, expressed here and in several future posts, is that the Roth IRA should become the default option.

A Modified Roth IRA


Many people, for a wide variety of reasons, are failing to save enough for retirement. The proposal presented and evaluated here seeks to expand retirement savings by replacing 401(k) plans with a modified Roth IRA.  

The modified Roth IRA maintains key features of current Roth IRAs but adds additional sources of contributions in the form of employer matching funds and contributions for low-income households from the government.  The modified Roth IRA creates incentives for young people and people with debt to start saving for retirement early in their career and prevents people from disbursing their entire retirement accounts prior to retirement.  The tax incentives for contributions to the modified Roth could increase workforce participation.  The introduction of the modified Roth is more equitable than the current system, which favors workers at firms with generous but expensive 401(k) plans.

Description of the modified Roth IRA:

  • The basic rules governing worker contributions to the modified Roth are identical to rules governing current Roth IRAs. Contributions are fully taxed during the year the contribution is made.  Contributions as with current Roth rules.  Contributions cannot exceed wage income of the household.  All employee contributions to the modified Roth IRAs can be withdrawn without tax or penalty at any time.  All disbursements from the modified Roth after age 59 ½ are untaxed.
  • The modified Roth allows for additional contributions from employers, from people hiring an independent contractor, and from the government.   The rule allowing non-taxed compensation to independent contractors will allow more people to work independently and save for retirement.  The government contributions are only available for workers from low-income households and will not exceed $10,000 over the lifetime of the workers.
  • Disbursements from investment returns, government contributions and employer contributions would not be allowed until age 59 ½.  
  • The maximum allowable employee contribution to the modified Roth account is $10,000 per year, indexed for inflation.

Advantages of the modified Roth account:

  • There are strong incentives for young people to open a Roth account and start saving as soon as they enter the workforce.   The modified Roth account expands gains from saving at a young age because matching contributions would compound for years.
  • People entering the workforce with student debt often delay or forego 401(k) contributions. There is less incentive to delay contributions to a Roth retirement account than a traditional one because contributions can be used for emergencies or for debt reduction without penalty or tax.  The modified Roth maintains this advantage and allows for additional matching contributions, which will compound over time.
  • Many young adults now routinely distribute a substantial portion of their 401(k) savings early in their career often when switching to a new position.   The rules of the modified Roth IRA guarantee that a portion of retirement savings, employer and government contributions cannot be withdrawn until age 59 ½.   This proposal substantially reduces shortfalls in retirement income caused by early distributions. 
  • Many employees work at firms that do not offer 401(k) plan or work at firms that do not match employee contributions.  The modified Roth IRA will provide for some matching funds for workers
  • Independent contractors do not have access to matching funds from people hiring them.  The modified Roth allows for matching contributions for people hired as independent contractors.  The matching contributions for contract employees would be the outcome of a negotiation between the firm and the independent contractor.   
  • Workers at firms without employer contributions could obtain matching contribution.
  • Some current 401(k) plans lock workers into a high-fee 401(k) plan, which leads to a substantial loss in retirement wealth.  The modified Roth account described here allows workers to choose a low-fee investment vehicle from a firm like Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard.
  • Unlike the child tax credit, the government contributions to the modified Roth are only available for households with wage income.  The combination of tax-free retirement savings and some matching contributions from employers or the government could induce some people to remain attached to the workforce.
  • Some people will choose to report income they otherwise might have reported because without reported income they will be ineligible to contribute to the modified Roth an ineligible for matching contributions. 

How to pay for the modified Roth IRA:

  • The selection of the modified Roth leads to lower use of 401(k) plans and lower loss of tax revenue from decreased 401(k) usage.
  • Additional tax revenue from the introduction of the modified Roth account could be obtained by reducing allowable contributions to 401(k) plans. 
  • A tax of 1 percent of Roth balance over $2,000,000 would recoup some revenues and would be more equitable than current required minimum distributions.
  • The increased retirement savings induced by the modified Roth IRA could lead to a phased change in the Social Security retirement age from 62 to 63 to reduce the long-term Social Security deficit.
  • Part of the cost the modified Roth could be offset by a reduction in the child tax credit.   The combination of a modified Roth and a smaller child tax credit would remain favorable to low-income households and would expand labor force participation relative to current subsidies.

Concluding Remarks:

Many policy proposals either improve equity and reduce economic growth or worsen equity and increase growth.  The additional subsidies created in the modified Roth proposal are both progressive and pro-growth.   The new subsidies stimulate savings by low-income households, workers without access to the most generous 401(k) plans and new entrants to the workforce with high levels of debt and low levels of liquid assets for emergencies.  The new subsidies, in sharp contrast to some existing subsidies like the child tax credit, stimulate workforce participation, which will lead to higher economic growth.

Conventional vs Roth Retirement Accounts

Some Tips on Saving and Distribution Strategies

  • Distributions from Roth retirement accounts are not subject to federal income tax, are often not subject to state income taxes and reduce the amount of Social Security benefits subject to tax.
  • People in low marginal tax brackets should choose to contribute to a Roth rather than a conventional plan and should covert conventional accounts to Roth accounts.
  • The conversion of conventional to Roth often requires workers roll over 401(k) plans to IRAs.
  • Non-deductible contributions to traditional IRAs can be converted to a Roth IRA without paying tax. 

Introduction:   Workers today have a choice between saving for retirement through a conventional or a Roth retirement. Both conventional and Roth retirement accounts allow investors to defer tax on gains from their account until funds are disbursed.   However, there are significant differences between the two types of retirement plans.

  • Contributions to most conventional retirement plans are made on a pre-tax basis and are not taxed during the year the contribution is made.  Contributions to Roth accounts are after-tax and fully taxed in the year the contribution is made.
  • Funds disbursed from the conventional account are fully taxed when disbursed. Funds disbursed from the Roth account are untaxed after age 59 ½.  
  • Funds distributed from a conventional retirement plan are part of adjusted gross income (AGI) and their inclusion in AGI can increase the portion of Social Security benefits subject to income tax.   Funds distributed from a Roth IRA are not included in AGI and do not result in an increase in Social Security benefits subject to income tax.
  • All funds disbursed from a conventional retirement account prior to age 59 ½ are subject both to income tax and a 10 percent penalty.   Withdrawals of contributions from a Roth account prior to age 59 ½ are not subject to penalty or tax because the funds were fully taxed at the time of the contribution.  Early withdrawals of investment income from the Roth account are subject to tax and penalty.

Most workers fund their retirement plan through a 401(k) or similar defined contribution plan at work.   Workers at firms that do not have access to a retirement plan through their employer may fund their retirement through an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).  Firms can offer either a conventional or Roth 401(K) plan and individuals can choose between a conventional or Roth IRA.  Some workers choose to invest in both their firm-sponsored retirement plan and an IRA. 

The conventional vs Roth choice for people who do not have access to an employer-sponsored plan depends primarily on potential tax and financial situations during working years compared to potential tax and financial situations in retirement.   

The conventional vs Roth choice for people with access to a firm-sponsored retirement plan is more complicated.    The choice depends on the characteristics (fees and employer match) of the firm-sponsored retirement plan and the availability of a Roth option.  In some cases, it makes sense for a worker to maximize the employer match available from the firm-sponsored retirement plan and invest additional funds through an IRA.

This memo provides several tips on how to save through retirement plans during working years and how to distribute funds from retirement plans during retirement.

Tips on the Conventional vs Roth Decision

Tip Number One – Tax avoidance during working years should not dictate the choice between conventional and Roth contributions. A smaller Roth contribution is comparable to a larger conventional contribution.  Whether a person with a smaller Roth balance is better or worse off than a person with a larger conventional balance depends on potential savings in retirement. 

Since contributions to conventional retirement accounts are pre-tax and contributions to Roth accounts are after-tax, people can afford to contribute more to conventional account than a Roth account.  

  • A person in the 10 percent tax bracket who contributes $4,000 to a conventional account would forego the same amount of current resources by contributing $3,600 to a Roth account and paying $400 in tax.
  • A person in the 32 percent tax bracket making a $4,000 contribution to a conventional retirement account would forego the same level of current resources by contributing $2,720 contribution to a Roth and paying $1,280 in tax.   

Naturally, a person who contributes pre-tax dollars into a conventional retirement account will have a larger balance than a person who contributes after-tax dollars to a Roth.  

Estimates of the differences in conventional retirement account balances were calculated assuming lifetime marginal tax rates of 10 percent and 32 percent.   The assumptions behind the estimates are equal after-tax conventional and Roth payments, a pre-tax conventional payment of $4,000, 30 years of work, 26 payments per year and a rate of return of 8 percent per year.  

  • At the 10 percent tax rate, the wealth at retirement is $499,132 for the conventional account and $449,219 for the Roth account.
  • At the 32 percent tax rate, the wealth at retirement is still $499,132 for the conventional account but is now $339,410 for the Roth account.

The larger magnitude of wealth in the conventional account does NOT mean people are better off with Roth accounts than conventional accounts because Roth disbursements are not subject to tax after age 59 ½ and their exclusion from AGI reduces Social Security benefits subject to income tax.

Tip Number Two: People in low marginal tax rates should choose a Roth account over a conventional account.

Most people start their career at a low marginal tax rate and move to a higher bracket when their career advances.  Note that at low-marginal tax rates the difference in contributions between conventional and Roth plans is relatively small.  People should contribute to a Roth rather than a conventional plan when their marginal tax rate is low and should contribute to a conventional plan rather than a Roth when their marginal tax rate is high.

The choice between conventional and Roth contributions may involve a reduction in the amount contributed.  As noted above, a $4,000 contribution to a conventional retirement plan is equivalent to a $3,600 contribution to a Roth account for a person in the 10 percent tax bracket.   

Tip Number Three:   Workers need to consider relative advantages of firm-sponsored retirement plans and individual retirement accounts.   In some cases, the choice of an individual retirement account leads to an increase in Roth investments.

Most people routinely enroll in the firm’s retirement plan.  Some firms do not offer a Roth 401(k) plan.  Workers at firms that do not have access to a Roth 401(k) plan may be able to contribute to a Roth IRA.

The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is phased out for people with income of $125,000 for individual filers and income of $197,000 for married joint return filers.  Higher income filers are often unable to invest through a Roth IRA and must instead rely on the firm-sponsored plan.

All people can contribute to a traditional IRA as well as their employer-sponsored retirement, however, the tax deduction associated with the contribution to traditional IRAs is phased out for people at work.  The non-deductible IRA can be converted to a Roth IRA through a process called a backdoor IRA, discussed further in Tip Number Six below. 

Workers at firms that offer a 401(k) plan but impose high fees or do not match employee contributions might be better off with an IRA than the firm-sponsored plan. The most common rule is for employers to match 50 percent of contributions up to 6 percent of income.  A person at a firm with this matching benefit could contribute 6 percent of income to a 401(k) plan and then save additional funds in a Roth IRA if the person’s income is below the phase out limit. 

Tip Number Four:   Conversion of conventional retirement accounts to Roth IRAs can substantially increase after-tax retirement savings.  Tax considerations determine the best time to implement the IRA conversion.  It is possible for a person in retirement with a zero or low marginal tax rate because of Roth IRA disbursements to convert additional funds to Roth IRAs at little or no cost.

Some people with assets in a conventional retirement plan may be able to convert the assets to a Roth retirement plan.  The ability to make this transfer varies based on several circumstances described below.

  • Some, but not all, firms with both conventional and Roth 401(k) plans will allow employees to convert their conventional 401(k) plan to a Roth 401(k) plan.   
  • Employees who leave a firm can roll over their 401(k) assets to an IRA.   This action is highly desirable if the firm 401(k) plan has high fees or if the investment opportunities at the firm’s retirement plan are highly limited.  The conventional IRA can then be converted to a Roth IRA.
  • Some firms allow employees over the age of 55 to make an in-service rollover from the firm’s retirement to an IRA.   The conventional IRA can then be converted to a Roth IRA.
  • A person with a conventional IRA can convert to a Roth IRA at any time.  There are, however, limits on disbursements from the newly converted Roth IRA for five years after the conversion.

The cost of the conversion is the additional tax from the increase in adjusted gross income.   The payment for the conversion should come from funds outside the retirement plan to avoid a 10 percent penalty.  Some analysts argue the payment of taxes from sources outside the retirement plan is preferrable to allow greater tax deferral inside the retirement plan.  However, some investments outside retirement plans, like Treasury I-Bonds and EE-Bonds, also defer tax.   

The most desirable time to make a conversion from a conventional to Roth account is when the taxpayer is in a low marginal tax bracket.   This will occur when a worker becomes unemployed, takes a sabbatical, returns to school, has low taxes due to some other life event, or has low taxes in retirement.   

A person in retirement who is paying low or zero taxes because she is disbursing Roth assets can covert additional conventional assets at an extremely low cost.  

Tip Number Five:   Disbursements from Roth IRAs can substantially lower the amount of Social Security benefits subject to income tax.  People who delay claiming Social Security benefits should delay disbursements from Roth accounts and use funds from conventional accounts until they claim Social Security benefits.

Conventional 401(k) disbursements are included in Adjusted Gross Income (AGI).  Disbursements from Roth accounts are not included in AGI.  The portion of Social Security benefits subject to federal income tax is based on a concept called combined income, which is reduced by disbursements from Roth IRAs which are not include.

The reduction in AGI and potential taxes can be considerable.

  • A person with a $25,000 Social Security benefit and a $30,000 distribution from a conventional retirement account would, based on my back of the envelope calculation, have an AGI of $44,850.  (The conventional retirement account plan distribution is fully taxed along with $19,850 of Social Security benefits. 50 percent of benefits between $30,000 and $34,000 plus 85 percent s of the remaining $21,000.) A person filing an individual return, with a $25,000 Social Security benefit and a $30,000 Roth disbursement would have an AGI of $0.  (The Roth distribution is not taxed and all Social Security benefits below $25,000 are untaxed.)

The person in this example paying $0 in tax because of Roth will claim the standard deduction of $12,400.   If the person has no additional income, she could convert an additional $12,400 from a conventional to a Roth account and still pay $0 in tax.

Larger Roth disbursement lower the taxpayer’s marginal tax rate and lower the cost of additional conversions from conventional to Roth accounts.  A married couple disbursing $80,000 from a Roth instead of a conventional account, with no additional income would likely be in the 0% tax bracket and be able to convert $24,800 from a conventional to a Roth account at zero cost.

The total savings from the use of Roth is the sum of the direct savings from distributions from the Roth account not being taxed, the lower marginal tax rate from the exclusion of Roth distributions from AGI and the reduction in tax on Social Security benefits from the exclusion of Roth distributions from AGI.   The benefits from the use of Roth tend to be larger when the person is claiming Social Security benefits because of this third component.

Hence, a general rule of thumb is, distribute conventional assets when you are not claiming Social Security benefits and distribute assets from the Roth account when you are claiming Social Security benefits.

Tip Number Six:  Funds in a Non-Traditional IRA that were not deducted from income in the year the contribution was made can be converted to a Roth account without paying additional tax.

All people even those with high income or access to a firm-sponsored retirement plan can contribute to a non-deductible IRA.  Funds in the non-deductible IRA can be converted to a Roth with the investor only paying tax on investment returns because the investor has already paid tax on the contribution to the non-deductible IRA.   

The process of contributing to a non-deductible IRA and immediately converting all funds to a Roth account is called a backdoor IRA.   It basically allows higher-income people who are not eligible to directly contribute to a Roth account to circumvent the income limits on Roth accounts.   This useful tutorial shows how to establish a backdoor IRA.

Tip Number Seven:  People withdrawing funds from retirement accounts prior to age 59 ½ are likely to be better off with a Roth than a conventional plan.

Research indicates that distributions from 401(k) plans prior to retirement are widespread. One study by E-trade indicates that 60 percent of millennials have withdrawn funds from their 401(k) plan.   A study by the Boston Research Group found that 22 percent of people switching jobs routinely take funds out of their 401(k) plan and spend it.   My own recent research has indicated that people tapping 401(k) plans tend to have poor credit ratings and high levels of other consumer loans.  The use of Roth rather than conventional accounts may allow some people to avoid unanticipated taxes and penalties.

A person who is likely to withdraw funds prior to retirement will likely be better off having made contributions to a Roth account than a conventional account. Distributions from conventional accounts prior to retirement are fully taxed at ordinary income tax rates and are subject to a 10 percent penalty.   The initial contribution to a Roth account is not subject to tax or penalty.  

Tip Number Eight:  People who inherit a Roth IRA will be substantially better off than people who inherit a conventional IRA.

As explained in this CNBC article,  the 2019 Secure Act changed rules governing distributions from inherited IRAs and 401(k) plans.   The new rules require people, with the exception of spouses and minors, who inherit a 401(k) plan to take disbursements within a 10-year period. Funds not distributed by year 10 are subject to a 50 percent penalty.

Funds distributed from the Roth retirement account during the 10-year period are untaxed.  Funds distributed from a conventional account are taxed as ordinary income.   The additional tax for the person inheriting an IRA during peak working years can be considerable.

Tip Number Nine:  State tax considerations also impact investments in Roth IRAs.

The decision to use a Roth rather than a conventional retirement plan is more attractive in States with an income tax, especially if the state has a high marginal tax rate and states that tax Social Security benefits.

Thirteen states tax Social Security benefits.  Most states follow federal rules and do not tax Roth distributions and do not count Roth distributions towards the taxation of Social Security benefits.  However, it is permissible for states to differ from federal rules. 

The cost of the conversion from a conventional account to a Roth account is also impacted by state income taxes as discussed in this CNBC article.  People planning to move from a state with an income tax and a high marginal tax rate to a state with either no income tax or a low marginal tax rate should delay conversions until they move.   People moving in the opposite direction might convert prior to the move.

Concluding Remarks:   Financial planners often stress the need to accumulate large retirement plan balances.  Retirement plan balances are generally much larger for people who use conventional retirement accounts than Roth accounts.  However, people saving primarily through Roth accounts often pay very little tax during retirement and a person with a medium sized Roth account may be substantially better off than a person with a larger conventional account.


Quick Tip: Invest in Roth Not Conventional Retirement Plans

  • Households paying little or no income tax in working years should select a Roth retirement account over a conventional one.  
  • The gain from the exemption on tax or deduction from a contribution to a conventional retirement account during working years is negligible for these taxpayers.
  • The potential reduction in tax during retirement from use of Roth is huge and from several sources.   The Roth distribution is not taxed.   Substantial Roth distributions lower marginal and average tax rates.   The Roth distribution reduces Social Security benefits subject to tax.  The Roth is not subject to a required minimum distribution, which improves tax planning.
  • The choice between Roth and conventional accounts can be a bit harder for higher income taxpayers.  These taxpayers may have access to Roth 401(k) plans at work that allocate contributions to a Roth account and employer matches to a conventional account.
  • The lack of tax on inherited Roth IRAs allows many beneficiaries to avoid large taxes during peak working years.
  • Roth accounts can be used as an emergency fund because contributions can be distributed without penalty or tax.

Over 40 percent of U.S. households pay zero or negative federal income tax.  A CNBC article finds this number will increase n 2021 due to the family tax credit.   Under the current tax code, there are also a lot of people in the 10 percent tax bracket.

People don’t like paying tax.   I certainly get that.  However, people who are already paying zero or negative tax due to tax credits should pursue other financial goals in addition to tax reduction.

Many of these people will be asked to choose between a traditional deductible retirement plan or a Roth retirement plan.    

People not covered with an employer-based retirement plan can usually choose between a Roth and conventional IRA, although, there is an income limit on eligibility for Roth IRAs.  Many firms now offer both conventional 401(k) plans and Roth 401(k) plans.

The traditional deductible IRA reduces income tax during the year the contribution is made while the Roth IRA reduces tax in retirement.

The tax reduction for many working-age people who contribute to a conventional retirement account is small, maybe even negligible.

People with negative income tax due to a refundable credit will get a slightly larger refund if they contribute to a conventional retirement plan.  People in the ten percent tax bracket could get a savings of 10 percent of the 401(k) contribution, likely a small number.

The existence of a Roth IRA during retirement will substantially reduce tax obligations in retirement through multiple channels.   

  • The distribution itself is not subject to tax.
  • A large Roth distribution could substantially reduce marginal and average tax rates relative to a large distribution from a conventional retirement account.
  • The distribution from a Roth rather than a conventional account often leads to a reduction and maybe even elimination of the taxation of Social Security benefits because Social Security benefits are only taxed above certain AGI thresholds.
  • People with Roth accounts are not required to take a required minim distribution (RMD) after age 72.   The lack of a RMD requirement extends retirement income and improves tax planning.

Working-age people can reduce their tax obligations many ways.  They can take the family tax credit if they have children, they can contribute to a health savings account, or they can buy a house and deduct mortgage interest.  Many of these measures are generally not used or not available for older households.    For example, people over age 65 are covered by Medicare and generally do not contribute to a health savings account.  Most people over 65 have paid off their mortgage and no longer deduct mortgage interest or other housing expenses.  Few people over 65 have minor dependent children and can claim the child tax credit.

The decision to take a Roth instead of a conventional account can be a bit harder if you are in the top tax bracket.  Many of these households will work at a firm that offers both Roth and conventional 401(k) plan.   These taxpayers can send their contribution to the Roth account.  Employer matching funds are placed into a conventional plan.

There are other advantages with Roth IRAs.

Roth IRAs can be used as an emergency fund.   The IRS allows contributions from Roth IRAs to be withdrawn without penalty or tax because they are fully taxed at the time of the contribution.  People should not rely on a Roth as the primary source of funds for an emergency. There is also a limited window to repay funds taken from a Roth prior to retirement.    This benefit from the use of Roth accounts is extremely important because as indicated by my paper many people taking distributions from conventional accounts prior to retirement are struggling.

The use of Roth accounts allows recipients of an inherited IRA or 401(k) to avoid a large tax bill.  Under current tax law, all IRA funds must be distributed over a 10-year period.  Conventional retirement accounts, inherited by someone other than a spouse, are taxed as ordinary income.  Roth accounts are untaxed.  A person that inherits a conventional retirement account during peak earning years could have larger than anticipated tax bills.

The main message here is don’t let immediate tax avoidance dominate your investment, savings and even tax planning goals.  Think long not short term.  The narrower message here is use Roth not conventional retirement plans.

Outline of an Alternative Financial Plan for the New Generation

  • Traditional financial strategies, which prioritize accumulation of wealth in a conventional retirement plan, as soon as people enter the workforce are not working for many households.
  • The alternative financial strategy outlined here involving — aggressive elimination of student debt, greater use of 15-year mortgages, the use of Roth retirement accounts instead of conventional accounts, and additional investments outside of retirement accounts — will reduce financial stress and lead to a more secure retirement than the traditional financial plan.

Many households are struggling with historic levels of debt.

Average student debt for college graduates in 2019 was 26 percent higher in 2019 than 2009.  Around half of bachelor’s degree recipients in 1992-1993 borrowed to finance their education, compared to around 65 percent today.

Increasingly, young and middle-aged adults are tapping 401(k) funds prior to retirement to meet current needs.  A CNBC article reveals that nearly 60 percent of young workers have taken funds out of their 401(k) plan. A study by the Employment Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) reveals that 40 percent of terminated participants elect to prematurely takeout 15 percent of plan assets. A poll of the Boston Research Group found 22 percent of people leaving their job cashed out their 401(k) plan intending to spend the funds. 

Statistics presented in a recent Business Economics article show that people who tap 401(k) plans prior to retirement were more likely to have taken out consumer loans, were more likely to have a poor credit rating and were more likely to be underwater on their mortgage than people who did not tap their 410(k) plans prior to retirement.   

A CNBC portrayal of the financial status of millennials nearing the age of 40 found many members of the age cohort highly leveraged struggling to pay down student debt, using innovative ways to obtain a down payment on a home and barely able to meet monthly mortgage payments.

2019 Congressional Research Service Report found that the percent of elderly with debt rose from 38% in 1989 to 61% in 2021.   The Urban Institute reported that the percent of people 65 and over with a mortgage rose from 21% in 1989 to 41% in 2019.  A 2017 report by the Consumer Finance Protection Board found that the number of seniors with student debt increased from 700,000 to 2.8 million over the decade.

The standard financial plan, proposed by most financial advisors, emphasizing large contributions to traditional 401(k) plans instead of aggressive reduction of consumer and mortgage debt often fails to provide a secure financial outcome.  Future outcomes will be worse, barring a change in strategy in financial strategy, because people are starting their careers with higher debt burdens.

The aggressive pursuit of long-term investments in stocks and bonds instead of rapid reduction in debt is especially problematic in the current market environment where stock valuations are stretched, and interest rates are at historic lows.   The purchase of expensive securities inevitably leads to subpar returns when valuations return to more normal levels.

The alternative financial strategy proposed here differs from the traditional financial strategy in four important respects.   

First, the alternative approach prioritizes the establishment of a solid credit rating, the creation of an emergency fund and the rapid reduction of student debt for individuals leaving school and entering the workforce.  The achievement of these goals usually requires new entrants to the workforce delay or reduce 401(k) contributions for a number of years when starting their careers.

Second, the alternative financial strategy places a high priority on the growth of house equity and the elimination of all mortgage debt prior to retirement. 

Many households with less than stellar credit purchase a home with a subprime mortgage.  Subprime mortgages tend to have high interest rates, adjustable rates with short adjustment periods, a balloon payment, and restrictions on prepayments.  The alternative financial strategy opposes the purchase of a home with an unfavorable interest rate or subprime features.

Most households currently use a 30-year fixed rate mortgage.   The alternative financial strategy recommends the use of 15-year mortgages, either through the original home purchase or through a refinancing, to reduce lifetime mortgage payments and to accelerate growth in house equity.  

Many financial advisors currently recommend additional catch-up payments to 401(k) plans for workers nearing retirement even when the worker will retain a mortgage in retirement.   The alternative financial strategy prioritizes mortgage payoffs over additional 401(k) contributions.

Third, the alternative financial strategy utilizes Roth retirement accounts instead of conventional retirement accounts. 

The decision to use Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts can increase tax burdens in working years; however, there are multiple other ways for working-age households to reduce current tax obligations.  In particular, contributions to health saving accounts linked to high-deductible health plans reduce current-year tax obligations, reduce insurance premiums and like retirement accounts increase income during retirement.

The use of Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts directly reduces tax obligations in retirement, reduces the marginal tax rate for people with other sources of income and indirectly reduces tax on Social Security benefits for some households.

The use of Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts reduces the amount of money a person must park in stocks inside a retirement account because the investor no longer needs to save for taxes on disbursements.  The lower taxes from use of Roth accounts reduces financial exposure to market downturns.   

Retirement account fees will be lower on Roth accounts because the total annual fee is a percent of total invested assets, which is lower because tax on Roth accounts is paid prior to contributions.   

The use of Roth rather than conventional retirement accounts will substantially reduce tax on inherited IRAs.   This savings is larger today because of recent changes in tax rules governing inherited IRAs.

Fourth, the alternative financial strategy makes greater use of investments outside of retirement accounts including investments in stocks and investments in inflation linked bonds. 

Retirement accounts are an effective way to defer taxes until retirement.  However, the existence of assets outside a retirement account reduces tax obligations during retirement years.  

Disbursements from conventional retirement accounts are taxed as ordinary income while taxes on capital gains and dividends are currently taxed at preferential rates.   (The tax preferences for capital gains and dividends may be reduced by the Biden tax plan.) 

The availability of funds outside a retirement account are especially important when retirement accounts have high annual fees and interest rates are low.  The effective interest on some bonds held in retirement accounts is negative when the retirement account has a high annual fee. 

There are no fees associated with the purchase bonds directly from the U.S. Treasury.  These bonds have relatively low market risk.  The purchase of Treasury bonds with specific maturity dates is an effective way to hedge against market down turns impacting consumption during retirement.

The traditional approach to retirement often centers on the question – How much money should be placed in a 401(k) plan in order for you to retire?   There are even calculators that create estimates of the amount people need to place in a 401(k) to retire with adequate income.

The actual amount of wealth you need to place in your retirement account is indeterminate.  The amount you need to save depends on several factors including whether the retirement account is Roth or conventional, retirement account fees, amount of debt, whether you plan to downsize, the quality of your health insurance and the tax status of assets outside your retirement account.

The alternative financial strategy outlined in this introductory memo recognizes that financial security cannot be summarized by the dollar value of a 401(k) plan.  A person with large net worth dominated by large equity holdings in a conventional 401(k) plan is faced with large future tax obligations and is perpetually exposed to a market downturn, especially if she has a monthly mortgage bill to meet.  The person could be better off with a lower 401(k) balance if she had paid off her mortgage, put money in a Roth rather than a conventional retirement account, and purchased some inflation-indexed bonds.  

Several features of the alternative plan presented here will reduce the amount that you must contribute to a retirement plan and the amount you pay over your lifetime in retirement plan fees.  Fees charge by retirement accounts are not a trivial matter.  This report by the Center for American Progress reveals a median-wage worker might pay $138,000 in retirement fees over her lifetime.

The traditional goal of financial planners is the construction of a portfolio that will allow retirees to initially distribute 4 percent of the 401(k) balance and maintain that distribution level though out retirement.   The 4 percent rule often fails to provide a sustainable level of consumption in retirement with the largest failures occurring when portfolios are closely tied to the market and the market takes a downturn early in retirement. 

Some financial advisors advocate a more flexible distribution rule that mandates reductions in distributions during market downturns.  It seems as though a strategy calling for sharp reductions in distributions during retirement is an admission that the financial strategy planning for retirement was a failure.  An alternative financial strategy which includes alternative investment including, I-Bonds, E-Bonds and perhaps annuities, will lead to more stable consumption patterns in retirement.  The alternative financial strategy would include a more stable and sustainable rule determining monthly distributions of funds.

The upcoming blog posts presented here and a larger formal paper will describe the potential benefits of the alternative financial strategy in greater detail.  A detailed discussion on how to best rapidly reduce student debt and the potential advantages of the debt elimination strategy will be available at this blog soon.

Roth vs Conventional Retirement Accounts: Impact of the Biden Tax Plan

The CNBC article makes the case the Biden tax plan will make Roth accounts more desirable than conventional accounts.  The article understates the benefits from choosing Roth over conventional accounts, which pre-date the Biden administration.

The article states that Roth accounts are generally more desirable than conventional accounts if you expect your marginal tax rate to be lower in retirement than during working years.

Actually, the decision between Roth and conventional accounts largely determines your tax bracket in retirement.   Roth distributions are not part of your taxable income.   People with other income, an annuity, interest, dividend or capital gain income, and wage income for a part-time job or from a spouse can keep their income and tax bracket down if they have funds in a Roth account rather than a conventional account.   The advantage of Roth over conventional accounts during retirement is not just that distributions from the Roth are untaxed but also that distributions from Roth reduce the taxpayers marginal and average tax rates.

The article points out that distributions from Roth rather than conventional accounts will reduce the amount of Social Security that is taxable income for taxpayers with income above a particular threshold.   This is also huge because the exclusion of both the Roth distribution and the Social Security benefit from taxable income both reduces tax and taxable income and moves the taxpayer into a lower tax bracket, thereby, reducing marginal and average tax rates.

The exclusion of contributions to conventional accounts from current-year taxable income is a key benefit of conventional retirement accounts.   However, there are many other ways to reduce taxable income and tax during working years, including, contributions to health savings accounts, newly enacted child tax credits, and deductions on mortgage interest and other housing deductions.

Many people with scarce funds and medical expenses should choose contributing to a health savings account over contributing to a 401(k) if they have a high-deductible health plan.  Health savings accounts and conventional retirement accounts are highly substitutable because both reduce current year taxable income and excess funds in health savings accounts can be used for non-health purposes in retirement.   People who lower their marginal tax rate by contributing to health savings accounts or through other means should place whatever funds they have remaining in a Roth rather than a conventional retirement account, especially if their tax reduction strategy was successful.

A lot of working-age people pay no or very little income tax.  But for some reason, financial advisors really like to push the tax advantages in working years associated with contributions to conventional retirement accounts.   This decision can be extremely costly in retirement years.  Household with a disproportionate amount of wealth in a retirement account, who also have mortgage debt, must distribute funds to pay the debt and funds to pay tax on the distribution to pay the debt.

The article mentions the new tax provision discussed here that requires many people with inherited IRAs to make distributions within 10 years.   This tax change was enacted in 2019 prior to the Biden presidency.  Heirs of a conventional account will pay tax, at the ordinary income tax rate, on these distributions.   This could be quite painful if distributions are forced during peak-income years.  Heirs of Roth accounts will not pay tax on these distributions.   Do your heir a favor and convert your traditional accounts to Roth account before you die.

The CNBC article states that lower estate tax thresholds proposed by Biden will cause Roth conversion.   Perhaps.  But there are already a lot of reasons to convert and even if the Biden administration succeeds in getting a sizeable expansion in the base subject to the estate tax most wealth in households impacted by the estate tax will not be associated with retirement accounts.

Roth accounts are for most people the better choice.  Not a close call.  This has been the case for quite some time.   The horse is out of the barn.