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A Lesson for Teachers

Through the end of August, go back to school with The Motley Fool. You'll find more educational book reviews, stock analysis, and financial advice here.

"School days, school days, dear old golden rule days ..." Summer always seemed to end too soon for me. The same school hallways that are now being filled with students will also have smarmy salesmen lurking and pitching some of the worst retirement plans to unsuspecting educators.

Teachers can generally defer salary through 403b plans instead of 401k plans. But most 403b plan choices are limited to variable annuities. Yep, you are putting tax-deferred annuity inside a tax deferral mechanism. It's like taking a shower while wearing a raincoat. In fact, the dubious characters selling these products euphemistically call them "Tax-Sheltered Annuities" or TSAs. Misleading, right?

Variable annuities have three strikes against them. They have high annual expenses, lousy investment choices, and burdensome surrender charges. Hey, but other than that ...

To me, the surrender charges are the most loathsome. A surrender charge can be imposed if your annuity is cashed in before a certain date -- often they can be applied during a period of 10 years. It's an outrage.

So what lessons should teachers learn from all this? First, unless a teacher has a lot of experience and an advanced degree, he or she is often in a low tax bracket, so there is little benefit in tax deferral. Therefore, a Roth IRA is a better choice, particularly since few school districts offer a matching contribution. If you max out the Roth, consider a 403b contribution only if your district offers a low-cost option through Fidelity or TIAA-CREF.

No low-cost option available? Save in a taxable account with a no-load index fund. Next, lobby your HR department for mutual fund choices inside the 403b, if they're not already offered. Finally, bookmark, an essential website for teacher retirement planning. Besides, I always wanted to give homework to a teacher.

Fool on!

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For additional helpful advice, try a free trial to GreenLight, our new personal finance service. Click here for more details.

Fool contributor Buz Livingston, CFP, likes to kayak in the Gulf of Mexico, and believes most investors will benefit from professional advice. He does not own any stocks mentioned, but he and his wife own a home in Florida. The Fool's diclosure policy gets straight As.

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