By Christian Patterson, CFP®, Wealth Advisor
When it comes to saving for retirement, most of us are familiar with the traditional pre-tax retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs. These accounts offer significant tax advantages during your working years, but they also come with limitations and restrictions when it comes to accessing your money in retirement. In this blog post, we will explore the often-overlooked importance of saving in after-tax brokerage accounts. These accounts provide flexibility in spending and tax management that can be invaluable in retirement. We will also discuss the significance of automating the investing process to ensure you save consistently and avoid impulsive spending.
Though, before diving headfirst into after-tax brokerage accounts, it is generally advisable to maximize your contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs, and HSAs (Health Savings Accounts). These accounts offer valuable tax benefits, including tax deductions on contributions, tax-deferred growth, and, in the case of Roth IRAs and HSAs, tax-free withdrawals under certain conditions. Maxing out these accounts can help you optimize your tax situation and build a solid foundation for your retirement savings.
There are some instances where it may be opportune to make after-tax investments before maximizing all tax advantaged options and, as such, consulting your financial advisor to discuss your specific goals and circumstances is important.
Diversify Your Sources of Retirement Income
Tax Diversification: One of the key benefits of saving in after-tax brokerage accounts is tax diversification. While pre-tax accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs offer tax-deferred growth and contributions, withdrawals are typically taxed as ordinary income. In contrast, after-tax brokerage accounts are funded with money that has already been taxed, meaning any capital gains and qualified dividends are often taxed at lower rates. By having both pre-tax and after-tax accounts, you can set yourself up to build a tax-efficient withdrawal strategy in retirement.
Bridge to Traditional Retirement: What if you aspire to retire early, before the IRS’ standard retirement age of 59 ½ or even earlier, using the Rule of 55 for 401(k) withdrawals? After-tax brokerage accounts can play a crucial role in your early retirement strategy.
Early retirees often face penalties or restrictions when accessing pre-tax retirement accounts prior to age 59 ½. After-tax brokerage accounts can act as a bridge, providing income to cover your expenses until you can access your pre-tax accounts penalty-free. This can be a great tool in combination with some of the early retirement distribution strategies we discussed previously in this article.
Flexible Withdrawal Options: Having a mix of pre-tax and after-tax accounts allows you to tailor your retirement income to your needs. For instance, in years when you need to withdraw a little extra, you can pull money from your after-tax accounts. This gives you the ability to strategically manage your tax bracket by having additional control over when and how much to withdraw from the various accounts. This can be especially helpful in avoiding unnecessary spikes in your tax rate. Your financial advisor can help to plan a tax-efficient withdrawal strategy that incorporates all the facts and circumstances of your situation.
Let us illustrate the importance of flexible withdrawal options with the story of two individuals, Mark and Laura, in retirement:
Mark's Story: Mark diligently saved for retirement in pre-tax accounts, such as a 401(k) and a traditional IRA. He assumed his savings would be enough to cover all his expenses in retirement, but life had different plans. At age 68, Mark faced an unforeseen medical expense. He needed a substantial amount of money for a surgery that his insurance would not fully cover. Desperate to cover the costs, he had no choice but to withdraw a substantial sum from his pre-tax accounts.
However, this decision pushed Mark into a higher tax bracket, resulting in not only a hefty tax bill but also increasing his Medicare premiums in future years. The unexpected expense and the increased tax liability significantly reduced the funds available for his retirement. Mark started struggling to make ends meet, and his retirement lifestyle suffered as a result.
Laura's Story: Laura, on the other hand, was proactive about her retirement planning. In addition to her pre-tax retirement accounts, she also diligently saved in an after-tax brokerage account. When she reached retirement age, she found herself in a similar situation to Mark—a significant, unforeseen expense.
However, Laura had a financial advantage. She decided to withdraw the necessary funds from her after-tax brokerage account to cover the unexpected expense. This decision allowed her to avoid pushing herself into a higher tax bracket. Because her after-tax account provided tax-efficient income, she could manage the expense without incurring a substantial tax bill.
Laura's retirement remained stable, and she continued to Spend Life Wisely, while Mark's retirement dreams were diminished due to the unplanned expense and the associated tax consequences.
This example highlights the importance of having after-tax savings in retirement. These savings can act as a financial safety net, allowing you to cover unforeseen expenses without causing a significant tax burden. Having a mix of pre-tax and after-tax accounts provides you with the flexibility to make strategic decisions when faced with unexpected financial challenges in retirement, helping you preserve your retirement lifestyle and financial security.
Automate Your Savings
Pay Yourself First: When it comes to managing your finances, pay raises can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they offer an opportunity to enhance your lifestyle and enjoy the fruits of your hard work. On the other hand, they can lead to lifestyle creep, where increased income leads to increased spending, often leaving little room for saving. To navigate this financial challenge successfully, consider the strategy of 'paying yourself first' when you receive a raise. Automatically increasing your contributions to retirement accounts or savings goals each time you get a salary bump is a smart way to ensure you're building a more secure future without sacrificing your present enjoyment. By allocating a portion of your pay raise toward savings, you create a disciplined savings habit that can help you achieve your long-term financial goals while still allowing another portion to enhance your current lifestyle. It is a balanced approach that ensures your financial future remains a priority even as you savor the rewards of your career progress.
Consistency is Key: Saving for retirement can be challenging, especially when it competes with immediate financial needs and desires. Let us illustrate the power of automation with an example.
Imagine two high-earning individuals, Alex and Emily, both earning over $300,000 per year and aiming to save a substantial portion of their income for retirement. Alex saves manually, depositing $5,000 into his after-tax brokerage account each month. Emily, on the other hand, sets up automatic contributions to her account, consistently investing $5,000 per month. Both invest in the same assets.
Over time, Alex occasionally forgets to contribute, and sometimes he increases or decreases his contributions based on his financial situation. Emily, however, follows a disciplined approach and consistently invests $5,000 per month. The power of automation becomes even more pronounced with their higher contributions.
Emily's automated approach ensures a steady flow of investments into her account, while Alex's contributions vary. Emily's investments benefit from dollar-cost averaging, effectively reducing the impact of market volatility. As a result, Emily's retirement portfolio grows more consistently over time.
In contrast, Alex's investment returns may be influenced by market timing errors, and he may miss out on potential gains due to inconsistent contributions.
By automating her contributions and remaining disciplined with her savings strategy, Emily accumulates a more substantial retirement nest egg compared to Alex, highlighting the significant advantages of consistent and automated savings for high earners.
This example demonstrates that, regardless of income level, automating your contributions can lead to better long-term results, and for high earners, the impact of automation becomes even more pronounced. It is also likely that Alex will be more susceptible to lifestyle creep and that Emily will be more likely to further increase the amount she is already setting aside on a monthly basis.
While pre-tax retirement accounts are undeniably valuable, they are just one piece of the retirement planning puzzle. To truly optimize your retirement strategy, consider the importance of saving in after-tax brokerage accounts. The flexibility they offer in terms of tax management and withdrawal options can make a significant difference in your financial well-being during retirement.
Additionally, do not underestimate the power of automating your investing process. It is a simple yet effective way to ensure that you consistently save for your future, reap the benefits of compounding growth, and also help to avoid lifestyle creep.
So, take control of your financial future by diversifying your retirement savings, setting up automated contributions, and understanding the role of after-tax accounts, especially if early retirement is on your horizon. Your future self will thank you for it when you are able to Spend Life Wisely.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as financial or legal advice. Please consult with your financial and tax advisors to determine plans for your individual circumstances.
Exencial Wealth Advisors is an SEC-registered investment adviser. Any references to the terms “registered investment adviser” or “registered,” do not imply that Exencial or any person associated with Exencial has achieved a certain level of skill or training.