Understanding Retirement Accounts


Of all of the topics that come up in my line of work, this has to be the one that creates the most confusion. We Americans are at the point where we have all heard about 401k's and pensions and probably about IRA's and Roth's. And for the most part, we are relying on these strange creatures to feed and house us in the last years (decades?) of our lives. But precious few of us really understand retirement accounts. This post is meant to give you a bit of a run-down on how retirement plans work with a  quick graphic at the end to get you thinking about the plans that might work for you.

The Magic of Tax Deferral

Let's start with the basics—anytime we call something a "retirement" account, we are actually saying that the account has some special mention in the IRS's regulations that will amount to a temporary tax break. You noticed the word "temporary", right? Except for the Roth, which I'll get to in a minute, retirement plans allow you to put a certain amount of your income into the account instead of paying taxes on it...for now. It's called tax deferral, and you not only get out of paying the taxes the year you earned them, you also don't have to pay any capital gains taxes when you sell investments in that account over the years. That gives you the ability to freely move in and out of investments without the usual tax consequences and lets the income you originally put in keep compounding—assuming those investments you chose are any good.

But you do have to pay taxes eventually. In the case of retirement accounts, this happens when you start taking money out— a process known as taking distributions. What's more, the IRS has something to say about when you will be doing this. In most cases, you will pay a penalty for "early withdrawal" if you take your first distribution before age 55. And you will be required to start taking your money at age 70 1/2, because after all, the IRS won't wait forever.

The Roth IRA (often just called a Roth) is a little different. Like 401k's and regular IRA's, your money can grow free of capital gains taxes over the years in a Roth. But if you open one of these accounts, you put your money in after paying the income taxes. This means you won't get that immediate tax break, but believe it or not, this might actually work out well for you. When you do go to take money out of the Roth account, you don't have to worry about the taxes on the money you first put in the account (you already paid those taxes, after all). This can reduce the strain of taxes in retirement and may even mean paying a lower tax rate on that money, say, if you are in a higher tax bracket in your mature years.

In reality, the most successful savers will use both Roths and whatever other accounts they can. The caps on how much you can contribute to a retirement account often mean layering accounts to the extent you are able.

Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution

This is the biggest change in the U.S. retirement system over the past 50 years. Defined benefit plans are exactly that—the plan defines in advance how much you will get in benefits. Most of us just call these pensions, and they were the most common type of retirement income for most of our history. Based on the length of time you've worked at a job and the amount you earned, your HR department will calculate how much you get in your monthly check during retirement. Nowadays, though, you are far more likely to be offered a defined contribution plan. These plans set terms for how much you can contribute and make no promises whatsoever about what you get back later.

This change is a big deal— and not just because people are less likely to contribute to the often-voluntary defined contribution plans. In the case of a pension (defined benefits) someone else is taking the risk that the markets will go down or that the beneficiaries (including you) will live longer than expected. If you have a defined contribution plan, that risk is all on you. This means that you need to do some careful calculating and some educated guessing to come up with a balance of investments that will grow enough to cover your needs and will likely be there when you need them. The change over from defined benefits to defined contributions has made it necessary for Americans to become smart investors.

The Magic of Timing

If you are worried about living for more than a few years after your retirement, you are going to want to focus on your timing when it comes to retirement accounts. I am not referring to when you start putting money away here—the earlier the better, of course. Honestly, though, most successful retirees started saving at the peak of their careers, not the beginning. Get started when you can and work from there.

But you should be strategic about which accounts you put money into first and which accounts you start withdrawing from when.

The timing of adding to accounts is relatively simple for most people. We always start by looking to see if a client's employer will "match" contributions. If so, we maximize that first (getting someone else to fund your retirement is always good). If the client has his or her own business, even if it is a "side" business, we have a lot more to play with and timing will often depend on the needs of the business, which is often itself part of the retirement solution.

Taking out the money is different matter. The trick here is to take advantage of the incentives that employers and the government give you and to recognize the requirements. Social security, for instance, gives you all sorts of incentives to wait until 70, so if you can draw from a 401k account or an IRA instead during your 60's, you probably should. Likewise, an old company pension might give you a much better monthly payment for waiting. But you can only wait so long on IRA's and 401k's—as I mentioned above, the IRS requires that you start taking at least some distributions when you reach 70 1/2. The Roth, always the exception, allows you to keep money in that account as long as you want. Choosing which accounts to draw from and when is a delicate game of knowing your income needs, getting the most you can from the incentives and keeping an eye on the taxes you will pay as your start taking that retirement income.

Which Retirement Accounts Should You Use?

Retirement accounts are only one piece of the puzzle when you are coming up with a plan for enjoying life after 65. But they are one of the most important pieces. Here is a quick graphic showing the most popular types of retirement accounts and which ones you might want to learn more about:

Retirement Plan Choices