Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Q&A: Roth Versus Traditional

I was recently asked a few interesting (to me) financial questions about 401(k)s, IRAs, and contribution strategies. I've decided to answer those questions in a few Q&A blog posts so everyone can benefit (or get screwed if my strategies aren't sound).

The primary difference of concern between Roth and traditional IRAs and 401(k)s is taxes. Traditional contributions are pre-tax (they are tax deductible), but the distributions are considered as regular income and taxed accordingly. Roth contributions are post-tax, but the distributions are tax-free. So, traditional contributions lower our tax burden now, but increase it later, and Roth contributions raise (or don't benefit) our tax burden today, but lower it later. Another way of looking at it is that traditional contributions are tax-deferred, and Roth contributions include prepaid tax. This gives us two things to think about: our tax bracket now and our expected tax bracket when we start taking distributions.

The general wisdom is that if you expect your income tax bracket to be higher in the future, you should choose Roth retirement accounts. Determining if your tax bracket will be higher can be a complicated question. Personally, I took the following items into consideration when trying to evaluate my future tax bracket:
  • Current income - For IRAs, traditional contributions are only tax deductible for those earning less than $53,000 (phased out through $63,000). This made my decision for IRA contributions easy - Roth is still allowed until you make $105,000-$120,000. Traditional 401(k) vs Roth 401(k) still required the following bullet points, too.

  • Future income - I've been maxing out my 401(k) and IRA contribution limits since I've been working at IBM. I am on track to have more money coming in than I really know what to do with. I expect my future income to be quite high.

  • Current vs. future tax deductions - I can currently deduct mortgage interest, but when I retire, I will not have a mortgage. That's actually my only major deduction at the moment. But, does your employer only offer a traditional 401(k) plan, or have you already decided against the Roth 401(k)? Have children? Taking classes? More deductions that might not apply in retirement!

  • Historical tax bracket trends - As you can see from the graph in the link, we are enjoying relatively low tax rates (especially for the rich, which we all hope to be). Does this mean tax rates will rise in the future? Not necessarily, but it wouldn't surprise me.

  • National sales tax - I like a lot of the features of a national sales tax instead of an income tax. However, if we go to a national sales tax, our future tax brackets will all be zero percent. After George W. Bush got torn apart for merely suggesting that we look at the plan, I decided a national sales tax isn't too likely to happen, but it's still something to consider.

  • Alternative Minimum Tax - The AMT is one of the most complicated set of tax laws out there. It was designed to ensure the wealthy can't deduct their way out of too many taxes, basically. There is some fear that an AMT-like system will be implemented to tax some ROTH distributions that are currently promised to be tax-free. As much as the government loves to tax, I think this, too, is unlikely.

Another thing to consider is how much you will contribute. When you contribute fully, there is an advantage to Roth accounts. Each dollar contributed into a Roth account is equivalent to a pretax contribution plus taxes. Thus, you can make a larger (pre-tax equivalent) retirement contribution via a Roth account. This assumes the same tax bracket now and at retirement, and is definitely not the only consideration. This same type of idea is relevant to estate planning, too. Roth accounts are more valuable, dollar for dollar, than traditional retirement accounts. Retirement accounts are assessed at their account value, not at their after-tax value. A traditional and a Roth account of the same value will be taxed the same amount as part of the estate tax, but the traditional IRA will then have additional income taxes taken out when your heirs take their mandatory distributions.

There are a couple of features that really sold Roth IRAs to me. Because Roth 401(k)s can be converted to a Roth IRA without having to pay taxes when you leave the company, these also end up applying indirectly to Roth 401(k)s! The first feature is that there are no forced distributions from a Roth IRA. You can keep compounding those returns as long as you don't need the money. This gives you a lot more flexibility in your tax and estate planning. The second feature is that Roth IRAs allow you to withdraw the contributions at any time. This makes Roth IRAs a sort of emergency fund - but definitely an emergency fund of near-last resort. Once withdrawn, there is no way of putting that money back in, and you will lose future compounding returns. A better option is probably a 401(k) loan, and a better option than that is probably a home-equity loan (HELOC). Still, it's a nice feature.

As I mentioned in the current income bullet above, only the Roth IRA made sense for me at all. For 401(k)s, there are no income limitations for the vast majority of people. When deciding between a traditional 401(k) and Roth 401(k), or a mix between the two, I looked at the above points and decided that my income is likely to be greater in the future, my tax rate is likely to be higher, and the Roth variety gives me more flexibility later. Still, it is tempting to hedge your future-tax-bracket bet by splitting 401(k) contributions between traditional and Roth 401(k)s. Splitting contributions is allowed, but I have decided against it for the time being for two reasons. First, the Roth 401(k) option has only been offered at IBM as of the beginning of 2008. This means I've already bet two years worth of contributions on traditional 401(k) being better because there was no other bet to make. This year will mark two years of Roth 401(k) betting. Second, employer match contributions have to sit in a traditional 401(k) account. I view these matching contributions as an additional bet on traditional 401(k). Even if you don't view it as a bet, it is at least going to affect your future income levels at retirement and/or when forced distributions kick in at 70.5. Thus, I am maxing out my Roth 401(k) contributions, for the time being.

[For anyone curious, as of the time of this writing, Roth contributions make up 47.19% of my 401(k), and 100% of my IRA.]

In my next post, I will take a look at how tax-advantaged accounts can affect investment choices and how I (plan to) balance my portfolio across my varying accounts to better utilize that tax advantage.

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