taxes

How to Lessen the Tax Bite in Retirement

Tax rates on retirement accounts vary widely. Make sure you're being tax-efficient about your withdrawals.

Once you retire, certain expenses will diminish or disappear. You won’t spend as much on dry cleaning, for example, and if you’re in good shape, you can fire the dog walker. And you’ll no longer be saving for retirement—a much bigger expense.

TOOL: State-by-State Guide to Taxes on Retirees

One expense that won’t go away is taxes. You may have $1 million in retirement savings, but the amount available for your retirement income is much less because a portion of the money will go to pay federal and state taxes. This is where having different types of retirement accounts—-taxable, tax-deferred and tax-free—-comes into play. Depending on the account you tap, along with the type of investment, your federal tax rate could range from 0% to 39.6%. You can keep your tax rate on the low end of the scale by taking tax-efficient withdrawals from your accounts.

What to tap first. Conventional wisdom has long held that retirees should take withdrawals from their taxable accounts first. That way, you can benefit from low capital gains rates while investments in your tax-deferred and tax-free retirement accounts continue to grow, unfettered by taxes.

In a taxable account, the capital gains rate on assets you’ve owned more than a year ranges from 0% for taxpayers in the 10% and 15% tax brackets to a maximum rate of 23.8% for taxpayers in the top tax bracket. To minimize taxes, use your taxable accounts for investments that qualify for long-term capital gains rates or are tax-free. The list typically includes growth stocks, tax-efficient mutual funds and exchange-traded funds, says Christine Fahlund, senior financial planner for T. Rowe Price. If you own individual municipal bonds or muni funds, they also belong in your taxable accounts. In addition, many planners recommend keeping two years’ worth of living expenses in these accounts, typically in a money market or other low-risk account.

Next in line are your tax-deferred accounts, which include traditional IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement-savings plans. Withdrawals from these accounts will be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate (except for any after-tax contributions you made, which will be tax-free). In most cases, you’ll also pay a 10% penalty if you take withdrawals before you’re 59 ½. Use these accounts for the portion of your portfolio allocated to investments that are already taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, such as individual bonds and bond funds, real estate investment trusts, and preferred stocks. Many retirees should have stocks and stock funds in their IRA, too.

Last in the queue is your Roth IRA. You may withdraw your Roth contributions at any time, tax- and penalty-free. As long as you’re 59½ and have owned a Roth for at least five years, earnings are tax-free, too. Unlike traditional IRAs, you’re not required to take minimum withdrawals when you turn 70½. If you don’t need the money, you can leave it to your heirs, who will be able to take distributions tax-free.

Because withdrawals from a Roth aren’t taxed, Roths are suitable for a wide range of investments. Income-oriented investments are good candidates for both traditional and Roth IRAs, says Mark Bass, a financial planner in Lubbock, Tex. Fahlund recommends using your Roth for the slice of your portfolio invested in aggressive stock funds, because you’ll never be required to take withdrawals—which means you’ll have more time for the investments to grow—and you won’t have to worry about paying taxes on your profits.

Exceptions. There are a few good reasons to depart from the conventional withdrawal hierarchy: Once you turn 70½, you’ll need to take annual required minimum distributions from your traditional IRAs and other tax-deferred retirement accounts. If these accounts grow too large, the mandatory withdrawals could push you into a higher tax bracket. To avoid this problem, start taking withdrawals from your IRAs before you turn 70½. Mark Joseph, a certified financial planner with Sentinel Wealth Management, in Reston, Va., advises retired clients who aren’t yet required to take RMDs (and are likely to be in a higher tax bracket down the road) to look at their other income, such as interest and capital gains from taxable accounts, Social Security and pensions, and withdraw just enough from their tax-deferred accounts to remain within the 15% tax bracket. Additional expenses can be covered by withdrawals from the principal of their taxable accounts first, followed by withdrawals from Roth accounts, he says.

It’s also a good idea to take withdrawals for emergency expenses—say, for a new roof or long-term care—from a Roth. You’ll owe taxes on money from tax-deferred accounts, which could push you into a higher tax bracket.

Most Popular

Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021
11 Best Healthcare Stocks for the Rest of 2021
healthcare stocks

11 Best Healthcare Stocks for the Rest of 2021

The 2020s could be the decade of healthcare stocks. Here are 10 companies and one ETF to watch not just for the remainder of this year, but well beyon…
July 13, 2021
Warning: You May Have to Pay Back Your Monthly Child Tax Credit Payments
Tax Breaks

Warning: You May Have to Pay Back Your Monthly Child Tax Credit Payments

Unlike stimulus checks, you might have to repay your monthly child tax credit payments if you get too much money from the IRS.
July 16, 2021

Recommended

Don't Want Another Child Tax Credit Payment? Opt-Out by August 2
Tax Breaks

Don't Want Another Child Tax Credit Payment? Opt-Out by August 2

The next deadline for opting out of the monthly child credit payments is approaching fast. Use the IRS's Child Tax Credit Update Portal to unenroll.
July 30, 2021
Are You Itching for an Earlier-Than-Expected Retirement?
retirement planning

Are You Itching for an Earlier-Than-Expected Retirement?

Lots of folks are pulling the rip cord on their careers sooner than they had initially planned. Before you rush to join them, make sure you are really…
July 30, 2021
Retirement Can Keep You Busy
Empty Nesters

Retirement Can Keep You Busy

Your lives are filled with jobs, creative ventures and intellectual enjoyment.
July 29, 2021
IRS Is Sending More Unemployment Tax Refund Checks This Week
Coronavirus and Your Money

IRS Is Sending More Unemployment Tax Refund Checks This Week

The IRS is sending out an additional 1.5 million tax refunds to pay back Americans who qualify for the $10,200 unemployment compensation tax exemption…
July 28, 2021