Contributing to a retirement plan is widely considered a no-brainer if the goal is to attain a meaningful retirement. But the decision on how to invest contributions within the plan can be daunting. Determining what type of contributions to make further complicates things. While tax-deferred contributions reduce taxable income in the year in which they are made, the taxes owed on those contributions as well as the investment earnings are deferred until a later time, possibly at retirement. Roth contributions don’t reduce current taxable income, but the tradeoff is no tax liability on the investment earnings when a distribution is taken (provided the individual is at least age 59½ and has held the account for at least five years).
The decision to contribute to a Roth 401(k) instead of deferring at a tax-deferred level is often based on an anticipation of changes to future tax rates. While this is a personal decision based on future income, several other factors should also be considered. The truth behind the decision is similar to other choices in life, more complicated than we’d like it. For example, the reduction in tax-deferred income can affect tax liability, possibly increasing refunds. If tax-deferred contributions increase a tax refund, how can the “newly found” money be taken advantage of? Depending on a person’s filing status, different advantages or disadvantages may exist.
None of us are fortune-tellers. It’s difficult to predict future income or tax brackets over a period of several years. It becomes even more complex when trying to anticipate things that are out of anyone’s control, such as politicians altering tax rates to address policy changes and deficits. Recent history underscores this fact with significant changes occurring at the top rate, ranging from 50% in 1982 to 38.5% in 1987, 28% in 1988, 31% in 1991, 39.6% in 1993, 35% in 2003, and settling at back at 39.6% starting in 2013 (with rates exceeding 90% at certain points in the last century). Accordingly, depending on when money is taken out of a retirement plan, the tax results can dramatically change over a period of years.
A diversified investment strategy has long been considered a way to optimize investment returns over time while reducing risk. A diversified tax strategy may be equally important. By utilizing tax-deferred and Roth savings options, tax liabilities may be mitigated, ultimately creating more flexibility to reduce individual tax burdens.