Friday, December 4, 2009

Q&A: When and Where to Save

Now that we've made a decision on where to put our money, generally speaking (and it's okay if your decision is different than mine), it's time to decide on when to put it there. First, we'll look at which accounts get priority when allocating contributions. Then, we'll look at the timing of those contributions throughout the year.


The highest priority for your money is definitely 401(k) contributions that qualify for employer matching contributions. This is typically an instant 50-100% return, depending on your employer's plan. Once you've passed the match cutoff, deciding between 401(k) contributions and IRA contributions depends on a number of factors. Hey, it sounds like we need yet another bulleted list!
  • Maxing out contributions? - If you plan to max out both 401(k) and IRA contributions, keep in mind that the only way to contribute to your 401(k) is through salary deferrals. It is important to contribute enough to your 401(k) early in the year to make maximizing your contributions possible. There is more flexibility in contributing to an IRA. You have all year to contribute, plus until tax filing of the following year. Your 401(k) is more time-sensitive, and therefore may have a higher priority.

  • Investment options - 401(k)s typically have a very limited number of investment options. For example, IBM offers mutual funds that follow large sector indexes. Additional mutual funds are available for a small administration fee, though even these choices are limited. By contrast, my IRA through E*TRADE has access to over 7000 mutual funds, 1000 ETFs, plus stocks, bonds, and options, of course. The nice thing about 401(k) investment options is that they usually (but not always) have very low expense ratios. Still, it's important to look at net returns, and IRAs often have many more investment options than 401(k) plans, which means more opportunities for better overall returns.

  • Roth vs Traditional - If your employer doesn't offer a Roth 401(k), but you've decided that Roth is a better option for you, prioritizing contributions to a Roth IRA before additional 401(k) deferrals makes sense.

  • IRA vs Nothing - Of course, if your employer doesn't offer a 401(k) at all, an IRA is your only option. I would strongly suggest taking the issue up with management or HR!

Naturally, tax-advantaged accounts have received the priority. When you have extra money and no tax-advantaged accounts left to put it in, a regular brokerage account finally comes into the picture.


Generally speaking, trying to time the market is not recommended. It is possible, perhaps likely, that you will miss out on significant gains. I'll admit to some attempts at timing the market, though. I think the important thing is to be careful not to try to time the market too much. It would probably be bad to hold your $5000 IRA contribution waiting for a low point in the market, but I don't think it's bad to alter your 401(k) deferral percentage based on large market trends. For example, I lowered my my 401(k) deferral percentage at the beginning of 2008 and 2009, then raised it about halfway through so that I would contribute more during the latter half of the year, while still maxing out my contributions. For 2006 and 2007, when the market was good, I maxed out my 401(k) contributions in little more than 6-8 months. The economy shows some signs of improving, so I might set my deferral percentage to max out my 2010 contributions around August. This is different than the usual definition of timing the market, too - I still have all previous contributions invested, and I am still making regularly timed contributions. Basically, I don't feel bad about my 401(k) deferral adjustments. In all years, I contributed to my IRA fully in the first quarter. As discussed previously, I am using my Roth IRA for more aggressive stock and option trading through E*TRADE. This year, I didn't try to time the market with my IRA contribution(s), but I did not make a contribution until I had a specific trade I wanted to make. It just so happened that there were trades I wanted to make in February and March.

There are, of course, some other things to consider than how to best time the market without trying to time it too precisely. For example, it is very important to maximize your employer match, as it is highly unlikely that market gains will be as high as 50-100%. When I max out my contributions early in the year, IBM will continue to make their matching contributions with each paycheck. Basically, as long as I've contributed up to the match cutoff, IBM will match fully, no matter what the timing of my contributions. Some employers may not have a match maximizer program. In this case, it is important to spread out your 401(k) contributions so that you get your full matching contributions each paycheck. This isn't always ideal from a budgeting standpoint, however. It can be nice to max out your contributions (and here I don't necessarily mean the yearly contribution limit, but whatever amount you plan on contributing) a bit before the end of the year so you have more spending money for the holiday season.

One nice thing about 401(k) contributions is that they are usually added to your portfolio without transaction fees. In regular brokerage accounts and IRAs, investing money can often be subject to transaction fees, immediately reducing your return. You can get around this by choosing to invest in no-load, no-transaction fee mutual funds, for example. Another option involves the timing of your contributions - making fewer but larger individual investments will result in lower overall transaction fees. If your IRA is not readily accessible online, it can also be a hassle to write multiple checks throughout the year. Before I moved my IRA to E*TRADE, I made my IRA contribution in one or two payments just because I am that lazy when it comes to check writing.

Finally, I'd like to mention a more technical note on mutual funds and taxes as it relates to timing investments. As we discussed earlier, mutual funds are required to pass on gains to share owners. They usually do this at the end of the year, but the actual timing can vary. As I mentioned before, as an owner of the mutual fund, you own a portion of the profits and those count as income, even when reinvesting them in the mutual fund. When buying mutual funds in a taxed account, it can be beneficial to wait until after this distribution so that you avoid the tax liability on profits you didn't actually receive. (More information on mutual fund NAV pricing and distribution tax consequences.) Similarly, it can be beneficial to sell a mutual fund from a taxable account before this profit distribution. If you read the second link in the preceding parenthetical statement, this may sound counter-intuitive. If the distribution lowers the NAV, wouldn't the gain from the sale be reduced accordingly, making the tax burden the same? The difference is that the distribution likely contains significant short term gains, while a sale is more likely to be long term gains. Of course, how much of this sale is long term gains depends on your transaction history, but you should be able to estimate the upcoming gains distribution's short term percentage based on prior years' distributions.


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