If you've been working hard and saving responsibly to build up your retirement nest egg, the last thing you want is to see a big chunk of it eaten up by taxes. Fortunately, there are several strategies and tools at your disposal that can greatly reduce your tax burden once you retire. We asked three of our experts to share their favorites.
A Roth IRA is an excellent way to keep your taxes low after you retire, but you may have an even better option: a Roth 401(k). Many employers offer these retirement savings accounts, and they can save you a bundle in taxes after you retire. And, unlike a Roth IRA, they have no income limit for eligibility.
A Roth 401(k) can save you even more than a Roth IRA, depending on how much you decide to contribute. While contributions to a Roth IRA are limited to $5,500 for the 2015 tax year (or $6,500 if you're aged 50 or older), the IRS allows up to $18,000 in elective deferrals to your IRA ($24,000 for those 50 and up) -- and this doesn't include any contributions your employer makes.
You might feel a slight sting now, as you'll have to pay taxes on your contributions up front. Unlike traditional 401(k) contributions, Roth contributions are counted as part of your taxable income. However, once you reach age 59-1/2, you can make withdrawals tax-free. Roth accounts also have several other benefits, such as the ability to withdraw your contributions (but not any investment gains) at any time without penalty.
It's worth noting that whether you invest through a Roth or a traditional 401(k), your total tax burden will likely be roughly the same. But if your goal is to minimize your tax burden after you retire -- especially if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire -- it might be worth taking the tax hit now.
One thing that many retirement savers don't realize is that regardless of whether they use a traditional or Roth IRA or 401(k), they might be able to get the IRS to match part of their retirement contributions. With the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit, also known as the Saver's Credit, you can get a tax credit for as much as half of what you contribute to a retirement account.
The Saver's Credit is available to low- and middle-income taxpayers, with income limits of $30,500 for single filers and $61,000 for joint filers. The credit is the largest for those with the lowest incomes, with a 50% credit applying to singles making $18,250 or less and joint filers with incomes of $36,500 or less. Single filers with income of $18,250 to $19,750 and joint filers with income of $36,500 to $39,500 get a 20% credit, while a 10% credit is available to those with higher incomes up to the overall maximum threshold.
With maximum contributions of $2,000 per person taken into account for credit purposes, the Saver's Credit can give single filers a tax break worth up to $1,000 and joint filers as much as $2,000 in tax savings. Especially for those facing financial challenges, the credit can make a huge difference in your eventual retirement nest egg.
An important step in reducing taxes on your retirement savings is considering whether your tax rate will likely be higher today or in retirement, then contribute to the right kind of account each year accordingly.
Why? Because the major difference between Roth accounts and traditional retirement accounts is when you get the biggest tax benefit.
As Matt describes above, the Roth is tax-free when you take distributions, but you don't get any tax benefit when you make contributions. If you're paying a high tax rate today, you may be better off contributing to a regular 401(k) and deducting your contributions from your income now. This is especially true if you're sure your tax rate will be lower in retirement than it is now.
If you have money left over to save, open a Roth IRA outside of work and contribute to that, too. However, if you exceed the IRS income limits, you may not be able to contribute to a Roth. If that’s the case, but you still have cash to contribute toward retirement, put it in a traditional IRA, which has the same limits as a Roth IRA ($5,500 for those under 50 and $6,500 for those aged 50 and older). You may not be able to deduct the contributions from your income if your employer offers a retirement plan, but you'll still get the benefit of growing your returns tax-free.
In short, figure out which options are best for your individual tax situation, and be prepared to change as that situation does. Ideally, following these basic rules should lead to both lower taxes in your peak income years and a nice source of tax-free income in retirement.