Is a Roth Conversion Right for You?

A Roth conversion is a critical consideration for many high-earning tech professionals and business owners, but is it right for you?

To be sure, as you delve into the work of planning for your financial independence journey, it’s essential to understand the intricate dance between taxable and tax-free retirement accounts. And as we’ve pointed out in recent articles, with a strategic approach, you can make the most of your hard-earned money and ensure a comfortable retirement that aligns with your aspirations.

But, now, at what point should you consider a Roth conversion?

Well, picture this: You’re diligently setting aside a portion of your earnings in a traditional 401k or a similar taxable retirement account. It’s a tried-and-true method, offering immediate tax benefits, but there are long-term implications that you may not have considered.

For example, as your savings grow, so does the potential tax liability. From this perspective, then, the question arises, “how can you strike a balance between receiving tax advantages today and dealing with a future tax burden?”

That’s where tax-free retirement savings vehicles like Roth IRAs come into play.

That’s because with a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on your contributions upfront, but the growth and withdrawals are entirely tax-free in retirement. It’s like planting seeds today that will blossom into a tax-smart future.

But, again, the big question here is is this the right strategy for you? Should you maximize your 401k contributions to take advantage of immediate tax benefits? Or would it be wiser to prioritize Roth IRA contributions, offering tax-free growth potential. So then, how do you navigate these choices and find your optimal balance?

Now, make no mistake, retirement planning is rarely a one-size-fits-all endeavor because it’s about crafting a strategy that suits your unique circumstances. That’s why as you embark on the journey of maximizing your retirement savings, understanding the interplay between taxable and tax-free accounts is paramount.

By strategically considering your order of operations, leveraging 401k contributions, evaluating your traditional and Roth IRA options, and even delving into the realm of Roth conversions, you can lay a solid foundation for a financially secure future.

Understand the Difference Between Tax-Deferred (Taxable) and Tax-free Retirement Accounts

Now, as you embark on your journey towards financial independence, it is crucial to grasp the distinction between taxable and tax-free retirement savings contributions. This understanding likely will empower you to make informed decisions about your savings options, optimize tax efficiency, and potentially enhance the longevity of your retirement savings.

Now, to achieve these objectives, one powerful tool at your disposal is a Roth conversion. Before delving into its benefits, let’s explore the concept of taxable retirement savings options like the 401(k) and Traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA), as well as tax-free options such as the Roth IRA. That’s because by understanding these choices and how they differ, you can strategically plan for your future in a more thoughtful manner.

Tax-Deferred (Taxable) Retirement Savings

So, what exactly is a taxable retirement account? In simple terms, it refers to savings accounts like 401(k)s and Traditional IRAs, where contributions grow without tax consequences in the present, but future withdrawals are subject to ordinary income taxes.

401(k) Plans

And how does this work with a 401(k)?

Well, as you’ll recall, these types of accounts are employer-sponsored retirement savings programs enabling you to allocate a portion of your pre-tax earnings towards your retirement fund.

Now, one notable benefit of these accounts is that the contributions you make are not taxed in the year that the income is earned. This reduces your taxable income, allowing your savings to grow tax-deferred and potentially reducing your overall income tax liability. Furthermore, any employer matching contributions effectively yield a 100% return on your own savings.

However, when it comes time to withdraw funds from your 401(k), these distributions are treated as ordinary income and subject to taxation. This makes 401(k)s tax-deferred accounts, as all distributions are typically taxed either upon withdrawal or when required minimum distributions (RMDs) become mandatory.

Traditional IRA

Now, let’s shift our focus to the tax-deferred cousin of the 401(k): the Traditional IRA. Similar to a 401(k), a Traditional IRA allows you to defer taxes on contributions made with after-tax income.

Contributions to this type of account are typically tax-deductible, reducing your taxable income for the year. Like a 401(k), capital gains, dividends, and interest earned within a Traditional IRA remain untaxed until you start withdrawing funds.

Even so, upon withdrawal or when RMDs are required, the distributions are taxed as regular income, with the tax bracket in retirement determined by your total annual income.

Tax-Free Retirement Savings

Alright, now that we’ve explored tax-deferred accounts, let’s now turn our attention to tax-free retirement savings options. These include accounts like the Roth IRA, where contributions are made with after-tax dollars, and withdrawals are completely tax-free.

Roth IRA

And how does a Roth IRA work?

Well, as we mentioned earlier, a Roth IRA is funded with after-tax income, meaning you contribute to the account using your take-home pay. And while this may seem less advantageous compared to pre-tax contributions, the real benefit lies in tax-free withdrawals during retirement.

That’s because, as long as the Roth IRA has been open for at least five years, and you are at least 59 ½ years old, any distributions you make from this account will be entirely tax-free.

And this makes the Roth IRA a compelling choice if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket during retirement, expect future tax rate increases, or simply want to avoid mandatory distributions altogether.

Now, after exploring the differences between taxable and tax-free accounts, the question remains, “how do you decide which type of account to fund?” Well, the answer depends on several factors.

Current vs. Future Tax Bracket

If you anticipate being in a lower tax bracket during retirement compared to your current situation, sticking with a 401(k) or Traditional IRA may be advantageous. That’s because by deferring taxes now and paying a lower tax rate upon withdrawal, you can potentially minimize your overall tax burden.

However, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, a Roth IRA becomes a more appealing option. That’s because paying taxes upfront allows you to enjoy tax-free withdrawals later, effectively sidestepping potentially higher taxes in the future.

Now, it’s crucial to note that you don’t have to choose one account type exclusively. In fact, a mix of both taxable and tax-free retirement savings accounts can provide optimal flexibility and tax diversification. This approach allows you to manage taxable income in retirement and hedge against future changes in tax rates.

Indeed, understanding the differences between taxable and tax-free retirement savings options is a crucial step when considering a Roth conversion. Both types of accounts offer unique advantages and disadvantages, and the right choice depends on your individual circumstances, including your current income, expected future income, and retirement goals.

Consider Your Order of Operations

Alright, now that we’ve discussed the differences between taxable and tax-free accounts, let’s review your order of operations when it comes to savings contributions. Just like solving a complex math equation, there’s an ideal way to put your income to work before fully converting your savings to a Roth IRA.

Maximizing Your 401k Contributions

So, then, where should you put your money to work first?

Well, when it comes to saving for retirement, your employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401k, can be a potent resource. That’s because these plans offer unique advantages that significantly enhance your long-term savings strategy.

And as we’ve mentioned before, one of the biggest benefits is the potential for an employer match. Now, this happens when your employer contributes additional money to your 401k based on how much you contribute in the first place.

And it’s essentially free money, providing an immediate 100% return on your investment that you can’t get through most other retirement savings strategies. And the fact is that many people leave money on the table every year by not taking full advantage of the employer match.

And so, why is an employer match so important?

Let’s consider an example to illustrate why matching is so important. Suppose your employer offers a 100% match on your contributions up to 6% of your salary. If you contribute 6%, your employer adds an additional 6% (i.e., 100% of your 6% contribution). That’s why failing to contribute that 6% in the first place means missing out on that extra 6% from your employer, effectively leaving money on the table.

So then from this perspective, the first step in maximizing your retirement savings should always be to contribute at least enough to your employer-sponsored retirement plan to fully capture your employer’s matching contribution.

Now, it’s also worth noting that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sets limits on how much you can contribute to these types of retirement accounts each year. As of 2023, the maximum contribution limit for a 401k, 403(b), or TSP is $22,500. And if you’re aged 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $7,500 per year. And this catch-up contribution is designed to help individuals who are closer to retirement age bolster their savings.

So then, if your financial situation permits, consider maximizing your contributions to these accounts up to their limits. Doing so not only allows you to take full advantage of the tax benefits these plans offer but can also significantly enhance your long-term savings due to the power of compounding on a pre-tax basis.

Taking Advantage of Traditional IRA Contributions

Alright, so now that you’ve taken full advantage of your employer’s 401k match or reached your contribution limit, another smart strategy to consider is funding a Traditional IRA. A Traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) offers numerous advantages that can help you grow your retirement savings more effectively and efficiently.

And the primary advantage of a Traditional IRA is the tax deductibility of contributions. That’s because any money you contribute to a Traditional IRA can be deducted from your income for a given tax year, effectively reducing your taxable income. This means you’ll owe less income tax, freeing up more of your money for saving or investing.

And as of 2023, the contribution limit for a Traditional IRA is $6,500 per year. And this contribution limit applies collectively to all of your IRAs, including both Traditional and Roth accounts.

While the tax benefits of a Traditional IRA are notable, it’s crucial to be aware of certain limitations that apply if you or your spouse have a retirement plan through work. The IRS imposes income limits that can reduce or even eliminate your ability to deduct your Traditional IRA contributions if you or your spouse are covered by a workplace retirement plan.

For example, in 2023, if you’re covered by a retirement plan at work, the deduction for contributions to a Traditional IRA is phased out for singles and heads of household with modified adjusted gross incomes (MAGI) between $73,000 and $83,000.

For married couples filing jointly, where the spouse making the IRA contribution is covered by a workplace retirement plan, the income phase-out range is $116,000 to $136,000. If you’re not covered by a workplace retirement plan but your spouse is, the deduction is phased out if your combined income is between $204,000 and $214,000.

Now, it’s important to note that these income ranges are subject to change and can vary from year to year, so it’s essential to verify the current ranges with the IRS before making a contribution.

So then, if you’re eligible, it’s wise to contribute the maximum amount to your Traditional IRA each year. Doing so provides you with an immediate tax deduction and allows your savings to grow tax-deferred over time. This means you won’t owe taxes on your investment earnings until you start taking distributions in retirement, enabling your money to compound more effectively.

Prioritizing Roth IRA Contributions

Now, once you’ve maximized your contributions to your 401k and Traditional IRA, the next logical step in your retirement savings journey is to consider a Roth IRA. While Roth IRA contributions don’t provide an immediate tax deduction like Traditional IRA contributions, they offer several unique benefits that make them a valuable part of a balanced retirement savings strategy.

Now, before we talk about these benefits, let’s take a step back and recap what makes a Roth different from a Traditional IRA or employer-sponsored plan.

Unlike 401k and Traditional IRA accounts, contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars. This means you pay income tax on the money before contributing it to the account. While this might seem like a disadvantage compared to tax-deductible contributions, it still offers a significant payoff down the line in the form of tax-free withdrawals.

To be sure, with a Roth IRA, both your contributions and the earnings on those contributions can be withdrawn tax-free during retirement, provided the withdrawals meet certain qualifications. This means the money you invest in a Roth IRA today could grow substantially over time, and all of that growth will be yours to keep when you retire.

Now, as of 2023, the Roth IRA contribution limit is the same as that of a Traditional IRA which is $6,500 per year and $7,500 for those aged 50 or older. Even so, with a Roth IRA it’s essential to note that certain income restrictions can limit your ability to put money into these accounts.

For those filing single and head of household, the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA begins to phase out at a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $129,000 and is eliminated entirely at $144,000. For married couples filing jointly, the phase-out range is between $204,000 and $214,000.

Put simply, if you make too much money, more often than not you likely can’t make a direct contribution to a Roth IRA.

Even so, the Roth IRA is a powerful retirement savings tool because it allows you to pay taxes now in exchange for tax-free income later. This can be particularly beneficial if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket in retirement than you are currently or if you believe that tax rates are likely to increase in the future.

And by contributing to a Roth IRA, you’re essentially locking in your current tax rate. This could result in substantial tax savings in the long term, as you won’t owe taxes on the growth of your investments when you start taking distributions.

Additionally, Roth IRAs aren’t subject to required minimum distributions during the account owner’s lifetime, unlike Traditional IRAs and 401ks. This flexibility allows you to manage your retirement savings and withdrawal strategy on your terms.

Calculate the Benefit of a Roth Conversion Using the NPV Approach

Alright, so what if you find yourself in a position where you’ve maximized your contributions to your employer-sponsored plan, and taken full advantage of your Traditional IRA but make too much money to contribute to a Roth IRA? Well, you could consider doing a Roth conversion.

And what is a Roth conversion?

Well, a Roth conversion is the process of transferring assets from a traditional IRA or 401k into a Roth IRA. Now, as we’ve mentioned before, this is a strategic financial decision that can offer significant tax benefits, enabling you to maximize your retirement savings. However, like any financial decision, it entails complexities and requires careful consideration.

Indeed, understanding the benefits of a Roth conversion is just one aspect of the puzzle. To determine if it is the right move, you need to compare the cost of the conversion which is essentially the taxes you would have to pay now versus the potential benefits which is mainly the tax-free withdrawals in the future.

And how do you do this comparison? Well, this is where the net present value (NPV) approach comes into play.

The NPV approach is a financial calculation used to determine the present value of an investment while taking into account the time value of money. In essence, it calculates the worth of future cash flows in today’s dollars.

And when applied to a Roth conversion, the NPV calculation helps compare the current tax cost of the conversion with the present value of future tax-free withdrawals. And so, how do we determine if the NPV is good or bad?

Well, if the NPV is positive, it suggests that the present value of the future benefits of a Roth IRA outweighs the immediate tax cost, indicating a beneficial conversion. Conversely, a negative NPV suggests that the conversion may not be advantageous.

How to Calculate NPV for a Roth Conversion

To calculate the NPV for a Roth conversion, several variables need to be estimated:

  1. Current Tax Cost: This represents the tax amount you would pay if you converted your traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to a Roth IRA today. For example, if you have a traditional IRA worth $100,000, and your current tax rate is 25%, the tax cost of converting to a Roth IRA would be $25,000.
  2. Future Tax Savings: This estimates the value of the tax you would save on distributions from a Roth IRA in the future. Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRA withdrawals are tax-free during retirement. To calculate this, you need to estimate your future tax rate and the expected annual withdrawal amount. For instance, if you anticipate withdrawing $50,000 per year from your Roth IRA in retirement and expect your tax rate to be 25% at that time, your annual tax savings would amount to $12,500.
  3. Discount Rate: This is an estimate of the rate of return you could expect to earn on your investments if you didn’t convert to a Roth IRA. For example, if you expect your investments to earn an average of 6% per year, this would be your discount rate.
  4. Investment Horizon: This refers to the number of years until you plan to start withdrawing money from your retirement account. If you intend to retire in 20 years, your investment horizon would be 20 years.

Once you have estimates for these variables, you can use the following formula to calculate NPV:

NPV = (Future Tax Savings / (1 + Discount Rate)^Investment Horizon) – Current Tax Cost

The result of this calculation will provide you with the net present value of your Roth conversion in today’s dollars. A positive NPV suggests that the conversion is likely a good financial decision, while a negative NPV suggests that you may be better off not converting to a Roth IRA.

Considerations When Using the NPV Approach

Make no mistake, the Net Present Value (NPV) approach is a powerful tool in the decision-making process when considering a Roth IRA conversion. With that said, this approach is not without its complexities, that’s because this approach relies on several estimates and assumptions that can significantly influence the results.

The Impact of Changes in Tax Law

Now, one fundamental assumption in an NPV calculation is that current tax laws will remain constant. However, tax laws are subject to political forces and can change over time.

For example, future changes could affect the tax benefits associated with Roth IRAs, such as tax-free distributions, or modify the tax rates applicable to Traditional IRA distributions. If income tax rates were to decrease in the future, the tax savings from a Roth conversion would be less than what you might have estimated using current rates.

Predicting Your Future Tax Rate: A Not-So-Certain Exercise

Another factor to consider when conducting conversion analyses is that the trajectory of your future specific tax bracket is largely unknown. Indeed, while determining your current tax rate is relatively straightforward in the present, estimating your future tax rate can be much more challenging. That’s because numerous factors can influence this rate, many of which are difficult to predict accurately.

And these factors can include changes in your income, whether from employment, investments, or retirement distributions, which can significantly impact your future tax bracket. And even your personal circumstances, like a change in marital status, can also alter your future tax liabilities.

The Role of the Assumed Rate of Return

And, finally, another key assumption in the NPV calculation to take into consideration is the discount rate, which represents the assumed rate of return on your investments. This rate plays a pivotal role in determining the present value of future tax savings or costs.

Now, while history is typically a useful indicator of market direction, predicting the rate of return can be challenging due to the variability of market conditions and investment performance. And this uncertainty is a key consideration when performing an NPV analysis because the rate of return significantly influences the results of the NPV calculation.

That’s because a higher assumed rate of return reduces the present value of future tax payments, making a Roth conversion appear less attractive. Conversely, a lower rate increases the present value of these future tax savings, potentially favoring the conversion.

Either way, using the NPV approach to evaluate a Roth IRA conversion is a powerful method for understanding the potential long-term financial impact of this decision. However, it’s important to remember that this calculation relies on estimates and assumptions that are subject to change. That’s why it’s essential to consider multiple scenarios and work with a professional who can provide personalized advice based on your specific circumstances.

Is a Roth Conversion Right for You?

Taken together, in the ever-evolving landscape of preparing for financial independence, the thing that remains constant is the need for a strategic and informed decision-making process. And, as high-earning tech professionals and business owners, you possess the power to shape your financial destiny and secure a measure of financial independence that reflects your purpose and values.

Remember, the path to financial freedom is as unique as your fingerprint. That’s why it’s essential to understand the intricacies of balancing taxable and tax-free accounts, strategically leveraging your 401k contributions, and making informed choices regarding traditional and Roth IRA contributions.

And by calculating the net present value of a Roth conversion, you can gain a clearer understanding of the potential benefits and make decisions that align with your long-term goals and help ensure that you’re making a decision that’s right for you.

Indeed, by understanding the various tradeoffs, considering the order of operations, and harnessing the power of Roth conversions, you’ll be well-equipped to make confident and informed decisions about your wealth. Even more crucial, doing so will take you one step closer to becoming the master of your own financial independence journey.