Related topics

Here’s an Unconventional Idea: Don’t Fund Your IRA This Year

March 14, 1995

I recently shoveled some more money into my individual retirement account, and I’m already starting to regret it.

It’s not that I picked a lousy investment or ran afoul of some obscure tax rule. Rather, I have come to believe that the problems of retirement accounts often far outweigh the benefits.

This is heresy, I realize. Stuffing $2,000 a year into an IRA has become the hallmark of high financial rectitude. But before you dismiss me as a crank, consider five major headaches that face retirement-account investors.

First, your money is locked up. There are special provisions that allow folks to borrow from their 401(k) plan or get their hands on their IRA money early. But in all likelihood, if you tap your retirement accounts before age 59 1/2, you will get hit with a 10 percent penalty on the amount withdrawn.

This really bothers me. My wife and I have most of our money sitting in retirement accounts. What happens if one of us gets canned, our daughter gets sick and our furnace finally dies? Sure, we could cover some of these expenses out of our emergency reserves. But at some point, we might have to tap into our retirement savings.

Second, if you’re like me, you’ve made nondeductible IRA contributions, which means we’ll both have throbbing headaches starting at age 65.

How come? When we withdraw money from our retirement accounts, we don’t have to pay taxes on the nondeductible dollars we contributed. But figuring out how much isn’t taxable ``is an administrative nightmare,″ says Alan Cohn, a financial planner in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Third, if you’re saving for retirement, you can take the risk of investing heavily in stocks so that you earn some decent capital gains. But when you withdraw money from a retirement account, everything gets taxed as income, even if most of your gains came from capital appreciation.

That’s a big disadvantage for those in the top tax brackets. For these folks, capital gains are currently taxed less heavily than income.

Fourth, there’s the so-called success tax. What’s that? If you withdraw more than $150,000 from your retirement accounts in any one year or you die with more than $1 million or so in all your retirement accounts combined, you could get hit with a 15 percent tax penalty.

Which brings us to our fifth and final problem. Even without the tax penalty, death is brutal for retirement accounts, because the government still insists on collecting all the income taxes that are owed.

Sure, your heirs may be able to delay the impact, but eventually a combination of income taxes, estate taxes and the 15 percent tax penalty will wreak their havoc. ``With larger estates, you can get 75 percent or 80 percent of the retirement plan going to taxes,″ says Arthur Warady, a tax lawyer in Malvern, Pa. By contrast, if you die with your money in a regular taxable account, only estate taxes get levied.

Of course, with all these problems, retirement accounts still offer some huge advantages. Your retirement-account contributions may be tax deductible and your employer may match all or part of your company retirement-plan contributions. Those are both big incentives to contribute.

But if your contributions aren’t tax deductible and there’s no company matching, think twice before dumping money into a retirement account. Sure, IRAs and similar accounts offer tax-deferred growth and that tax-deferred growth can be worth big bucks over the years. But if you’re careful, you can also get tax-deferred growth with a regular taxable account.

Suppose, for instance, that you buy and hold a collection of stocks. You will have to pay income taxes on the dividends you receive each year. But the taxes due on the capital appreciation can be delayed until you sell your stocks. And when you do sell, you will pay tax at the capital-gains rate, not the sometimes more-punitive income-tax rate.

If the idea of buying and holding a collection of stocks appeals to you, consider index funds. These funds purchase the stocks that comprise a market index, in an effort to match the index’s performance. Because index funds rarely sell any of their stocks, they tend to generate modest tax bills for their shareholders.

Vanguard Group offers a slew of index funds with rock-bottom annual expenses. In addition, the Valley Forge, Pa., fund group has brought out three tax-managed funds, which aim to keep annual taxable distributions to a bare minimum.

Also check out the three index funds offered by San Francisco’s Charles Schwab Corp. These funds can’t match the barebones expenses at Vanguard. But the Schwab funds are managed with an eye to generating the lowest possible taxable gains each year, which makes them attractive to tax-averse investors.

Update hourly