Should I Contribute to an IRA with a 401k?

If you don’t have a 401k offered by your workplace, then an IRA is a no-brainer. You may even be eligible, if you have your own business, to contribute $55,000 (in 2018) to a SEP-IRA. But what if your workplace gives you a 401k? Should you contribute to an IRA on top of that? If so, what type should you choose – traditional or Roth?

First, you should understand that your limit is $5,000 ($6,000 if age >= 50). Since you have a 401k plan already, the limits and rules for an IRA on top of that are less generous. Now let’s first look at the IRS’s rules for contributions:

The key here is tax deductibility. If you stay below certain income limits, your traditional IRA contributions are deductible from your taxes, which is 90% of the benefit from these plans. However, tight income limits of $63,000 for singles and $101,000 for married filers makes this a difficult proposition. The worth of tax deductibility is based on your marginal tax bracket. The higher the bracket is, the more you save on taxes for the year with an IRA contribution. Based on 2018 tax brackets, at those incomes limits, the corresponding tax bracket is 24%. That’s quite low by historic standards. The general rule about Roth vs traditional 401k is that if your tax bracket is low now, you should choose Roth, for which you pay taxes now and everything accumulates tax free within the account. However, if your tax bracket is high now, you may benefit from deferring taxes, taking the savings up front, and withdrawing in retirement at a lower bracket. That’s the traditional IRA plan.

So basically, the conclusion is that if your income is such that you qualify for an IRA while you already have a 401k, your bracket is by default so low that you should only consider the Roth option. Now a wrench in this general guideline is state income tax. If you are in a high state income tax state such as Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Minnesota, be aware that Roth contributions mean paying all taxes up front, including state income taxes. These are the only corner cases where a traditional IRA is still worth considering even with a low federal tax bracket.

Regardless of what you do with the IRA, make sure you maximize the company sponsored 401k first, and put away enough in savings to meet emergency needs.

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Can Locums Doctors Qualify for a 20% Tax Deduction?

The new tax bill has become law and accountants are eagerly poring over the details, dissecting it for loopholes. One of the biggest giveaways is to small businesses, allowing a 20% deduction for income that is passed through (called “pass-thru” in the law) to the individual. It’s called Section 199A, and I expect that this will become a household name as famous as the 401k. The intent of the addition is to benefit small businesses (larger ones tend to go for C-corp style taxation) that employ the bulk of Americans but would otherwise be penalized at higher individual tax rates versus C-corps. To avoid incentivizing too many of these entities to be forced to convert to C-corps, it was decided to offer some token tax cut to pass through businesses. Ron Johnson largely pushed this addition through by himself, given slim margins for Republicans in the Senate.

Remember, this website isn’t interested in debating the ethics of the law or the politics behind its passage or ramifications. Rather, we want to be more practical (or nakedly capitalist if you will) – can I exploit this loophole for my own gain? This will be a more fine tuned analysis geared towards medical professionals, due to my own expertise in this area, but the principles are largely applicable to other professional service businesses as well.

To qualify, first you must be taxed as a pass through business. This includes:

  • Sole proprietors. If you’re taxed by filling out Schedule C reports of your 1099 independent contractor income, you count in this category. It’s the default if you haven’t gone out of your way to form a more advanced business structure.
  • Partnership. Basically a few sole proprietors working together on the project, each owning a portion of the firm. Each passes through income proportionally. Note that a married couple can be counted as a sole proprietor because they file together.
  • S-corp. This is where things get fun. This business model can scale as big as you want. You have all the responsibilities of a big corporation in terms of payroll, offering 401k, health benefits, getting a corporate board, and filing quarterly tax payments. It’s a big setup and reporting hassle and can be expensive to maintain. Luckily there are software packages out there that can make it easy for you to create one.
  • LLC status is a legal distinction that doesn’t matter to the IRS.

Contracted physicians (this includes the locums category) tend to be either sole proprietors or S-corp. Many have opted for the latter because you can choose to structure some income as wage income (W-2) and the rest as a pass through business distribution that is not subject to payroll tax. The IRS closely scrutinizes the proportion that is in each category to prevent people underpaying themselves and taking almost everything as a distribution. The generally accepted principle is that your income should be close to the national average for your profession and the type of work you do. Given the high incomes of physicians, this won’t save you anything in Social Security (unless you work part time) once you pass the income limit, but it will only save you the 2.9% Medicare portion of payroll tax that is applied to all earned income. It’s up to you to determine whether the tax savings outweigh the setup and maintenance costs as well as tax reporting hassles.

When crafting this carve out, politicians were careful to limit its benefits to favoured categories of individuals. They like businesses that own real estate, employ people, and invest in capital equipment. They most definitely did not want this loophole to benefit high income professionals who don’t employ others. Politically that would be depicted as overly favouring the rich, who presumably don’t need this loophole. Thus the law featured two “tests” – the income test and the profession test.

The Income Test

If you’re single and your total taxable income (this includes all other investment, side job, and interest income) is less than $157,500, great! You can take this deduction no questions asked. If you’re married, the same limit is $315,000. Mind you, if your income is higher than this threshold, it doesn’t mean you can’t take it. Rather, there’s a phase out period up to $207,500 for singles and $415,000 for married individuals. The phase out is essentially linear. What it means is if your income is above the phase out thresholds, you can’t use *any* of this 20% deduction. It doesn’t mean that you can still deduct the portion that’s under $315,000.

Ironically, this creates significantly negative incentives around the phase out line where one’s marginal tax rate goes up temporarily to ~50-60% because of rising brackets and losing benefits. Greg Mankiw may chime in in five years and say that it’s a “upper middle class” income trap with bad incentives.

Don’t fret if your income is above either threshold (lucky you!). Remember this test just wants to check your total taxable income. Anything that reduces this number can make you thin enough to squeeze under the bar and claim the deduction. This includes SEP-IRA, 401k, and business expenses, all of which reduce what’s visible as taxable income.

The Profession Test

If you make more than the income cutoffs, you can benefit from the law if your business fits into one of these categories:

  1. Anyone who is in the business of being an employee (yes, being an employee is considered being in a business), and
  2. Any “specified service trade or business.” 

The IRS will spend several years filing lawsuits and refining this broad definition, but for now you can consider that if your business features your skills and services as opposed to owning property and selling goods, you’re one of the undesirable types. You will fail the profession test. Law, medicine, “consultant” and accounting are some of the professions that are explicitly mentioned as failing this test.

Somehow there are exceptions for architects and engineers. No one knows why but presumably their professional societies lobbied hard.

The Recap

So for our locums physician to take advantage of this benefit, he or she needs to satisfy the income test, because we know that medicine will surely fail the profession test. This is easier to do if you work in one of the lower paying specialties, work part-time, and are married. For our friends with S-corp setups, since the income test evaluates you on your overall income, it doesn’t matter if you slice your earnings as salary or a business distribution, they both will be counted for purposes of the limit. This obviates a big advantage of S-corps relative to sole proprietors.

Some of the more astute readers will note that there is another test called the W-2 test, which is supposed to limit abuse by preventing really high income people from quitting their jobs and becoming a consultant working the same job. Forbes explains better than I can:

I’m a partner at a BIG, PRESTIGIOUS ACCOUNTING FIRM. I am also, however, an employee; one who collects a wage. Now, let’s just assume that my annual wage is $800,000 (it is not). With the new rules coming down and offering a 20% deduction against my income, what would prevent me from quitting my current gig, and then having my firm engage the services of “Tony Nitti, Inc.” a brand new S corporation I’ve set up specifically to facilitate my tax shenanigans? Now, my firm pays that same $800,000 to my S corporation, and my S corporation simply allows that income to flow through to be as QBI. I, in turn, take a 20% deduction against that income, reducing my income to $640,000. See the problem?

My role at my firm hasn’t changed. I provided accounting services before, I provide accounting services now. But before, I was receiving wages taxed at ordinary rates as high as 37%. Now, by converting to an S corporation and foregoing wages in favor of QBI, I am now paying an effective rate on that income of only 29.6% (37% * 80%). That’s not fair, is it? Compensation for services should be taxed at the same rate, whether it’s coming to me as a salary or flow-through income.

To prevent these abuses, Congress enacted the W-2 limitations. Because, in my example, Tony Nitti, Inc. does not pay any wages, in both scenarios my limitation would be a big fat ZERO, meaning I get no deduction. Like so:

My deduction is the LESSER OF:

  1. 20% of $800,000, or $160,000, or
  2. The GREATER OF:
    1. 50% of W-2 wages, or $0, or
    2. 25% of W-2 wages, or $0, plus 2.5% of the unadjusted basis of the LLC’s assets, or $0, for a total of $0..

It’s a lot of calculation and looks complicated, but we can actually disregard it all as this limitation will only come into play if you fail the income test. Since we’ve already determined that a physician who fails the income test will automatically fail the profession test and be prohibited from taking the deduction, we shouldn’t even worry about this section.

As Forbes explains:

Section 199A(b)(3)(A) provides that if your TAXABLE INCOME for the year — not adjusted gross income, not QBI, but TAXABLE INCOME — is less than the “threshold amount” for the year, then you can simply ignore the two W-2-based limitations. The “threshold amounts” for 2018 are $315,000 if you are married, and $157,500 for all other taxpayers. These amounts will be indexed for inflation starting in 2019. And quite obviously, you determine taxable income WITHOUT factoring in any potential 20% deduction that we’re discussing here.

The Payoff

Phew. You’ve waded through all of the above because you’re eagerly salivating over seeing how much you can save on your taxes, right?! Let’s crunch some numbers.

Our example physician is married, works as a contractor (paid as 1099), and is set up as a sole practitioner (in the end, S-corp calculations won’t be too different from this) for simplicity’s sake. Assume no kids. This person is based in Texas and to avoid troublesome state income tax calculations performs contract work in Washington, Nevada, Texas, and Florida only. Yearly income starting in 2018, the first year the new law will apply, is estimated to be $400,000.

To fit under the threshold, we maximize our SEP-IRA contributions, which are $54,000. We accumulate $22,000 in deductible business expenses. Then we also take the standard deduction of $24,000 for a married couple. That leaves us with $300,000 exact in visible taxable income. All of it is eligible for the 20% deduction.

Let’s use Marketwatch’s calculator to calculate our total tax under the new bracket system for 2018:

  • $40,179 for federal income tax
  • $0 state income tax
  • $15,958.8 Social Security (double because of 1099)
  • $12,114 Medicare (including surtax)
  • Total of $68,251.8

For comparison, if we earn that $300,000 as W-2 income (employed physician), our total tax will be:

  • $60,578 for federal income tax
  • $0 state income tax
  • $7,979.4 Social Security
  • $6,633 Medicare (including surtax)
  • Total of $75,190.4

There is a net savings of $6,938.6 with business income as opposed to wage income. The numbers are close but not exact, since the business owner will be able to deduct business expenses and half of the payroll tax that the W-2 earner can’t itemize.

I haven’t included calculations for S-corp owners because there are complex rules depending on how much you take as W-2 salary and how much is a distribution. The same thresholds apply, and you are only allowed the 20% deduction on the portion that is a distribution.

 

(Much of the details are from the source text, as well as Forbes Tax Geek and Evergreen Small Business)

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Secrets to Successful Investing

It feels like we’re always hammering the same points on investing over and over again. Don’t watch your portfolio. Stop tracking the market’s daily gyrations. Focus on the long term. Stay diversified. Don’t try to stock pick or market time. Stick with the asset allocation determined earlier and rebalance. Stick to these tried and true principles based on solid research and you’ll be fine.

Sometimes, we feel that we can be exceptional or lucky and we try for the moon. Humans are poor learners from others’ failures, and rather learn best from a strongly emotional personal experience (like a major loss in the market due to a self-inflicted error). I believe everyone should learn that by starting out playing single stocks with small amounts of play money, ideally earlier in life rather than later, so we can quickly return to the right path having learned our lesson in a way that sicks.

In other words, use the “the martyr system” to your advantage, letting the hippocampus impart the long-term financial scars from personal failures that will leave lasting memories of what not to do.

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No Regrets

My last post touched briefly on the nature of regret in missing out (selling too soon, buying in too late). However, this is not a healthy mindset to have. As Marketwatch pointed out today, very few people have the intestinal fortitude to ride out the market’s gyrations and hold for the 10+ years needed for wealth to compound exponentially. How many of us would have sold out during one of the times when bitcoin or Netflix crashed >50%?

This Morningstar article serves as a reminder that we are our own worst enemies:

Well, it’s really about the target-date funds because they are sort of the confluence of good behavior. In other words, they are boring funds. You’ve got tremendous diversification. They don’t cause fear or greed. They are just boring. But then the other part of it is, in 401(k)s where you see nearly all the target-date money, people are investing every paycheck very steadily. So, they are also kind of shielded from the ups and downs of the market. So, if you go back to ’08, ’09, 2010, people just kept steadily investing, people generally did not panic in their 401(k)s, and so that meant you are really buying low and then staying with it to see those benefits. So, if you think about it, target-date is kind of the intersection of good funds and good investor behavior and it kind of suggests where we might want to go as an investing group as a whole because this is where things really work well.

The best returns actually came from disciplined boring investing. As Monevator likes to say, keep investing as boring as watching paint dry, so you won’t be tempted to buy and sell all the time. As another former mentor once told me, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” That is really the approach to take when investing.

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Take More Risk in Tax Advantage Accounts

The Bond King Bill Gross likes to philosophize about profound emotions such as joy and melancholy in his investment rants, and this post is driven in part by the emotion of regret seeing Bitcoin hit all time highs, and even surpassing the price of gold.

Such is the case for many in my field. When I was finishing my last year at Berkeley, I came upon news reports of the fancy new cryptocurrency idea called Bitcoin. Independently at the same time, so did my fiancee’s brother, childhood friend, and cousin-in law (all techies). We didn’t think much of it, and as risk averse as I was, I didn’t even bother putting $50 or so of play money into there. If I did, it would be worth almost a million! Similarly, my fiancee’s aunt regrets not buying Apple stock when it was down in the dumpster right before Jobs took over (seriously, most smart money was on the company going bankrupt, not staging a phoenix-like revival).

While we can all regret not doing the most “optimal” thing (life doesn’t have a save/reload button) in hindsight, we can also never with certainty predict what the future will hold. What we can do, and it will sound boring, is to make sure we have the right types of investments in the right places, and to stay allocated to assets in a way that allows us to sleep well at night. If we do dedicate a small (e.g. 5%) portion of our portfolio to lottery ticket bets on small cap stocks, that’s fine. Just make sure to do it in the tax advantaged section of the portfolio.

Standard portfolio theory suggests that we should make sure that our money is invested in the way that takes advantage of legal tax shelters to our benefit, as much as possible. Just to recap, there are in general three big categories of holdings: taxable, pre-tax 401k/IRA, and Roth 401k/IRA. Here’s what we should put in each:

  • Taxable: The goal here is to hold for as long as possible and to minimize the number of transactions and income generated, since each sale can generate a huge tax bill for capital gains. The best choice is a low fee total stock market index fund (Vanguard, iShares, and Schwab are all good choices) that is held and not sold until death. Then we can take advantage of the tax free basis step up when we bequeath to heirs. The small amount of dividends generated is taxable, yes, but at a much lower rate than the marginal rate. Bond holdings should be in tax-free municipal bonds as much as possible, doubly so if you’re in a high tax bracket.
  • Pre-Tax: We have to pay tax on the whole thing anyway but not until we cash the money out from the account. That quirk makes pre-tax accounts ideal for traders, stock pickers, and market timers who move in and out of positions with regularity. It’s also a good place to stash taxable bond funds and high dividend funds that throw out a lot of periodic income.
  • Roth: This is where you should make your highest risk “lottery” type bets. Let’s say you could (and want to) invest in bitcoin, startups in their infancy, micro cap stocks, penny/value stocks, turnaround stories, Greek bonds on the verge of default, and foreclosed homes. You would do so here. The bigger the potential gains, the better it will be. Whether you stumble upon a 10-bagger or 100-bagger doesn’t matter. You won’t pay any tax on it at the end.

So in summary, you want to use the right tool for the job. A balanced portfolio should consist of stock funds, bond funds, and maybe a dash of play money. Instead of making each tax category holding the same, we should concentrate our investments in the type of account that is best-suited from a tax perspective. Big gainers should be in the Roth, slow steady accumulator broad market funds should be in taxable, and income spewing investments in the pre-tax account.

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Passive Clearly Beating Active

These past few years have not been good to actively managed funds, or their managers. As this Morningstar article shows, funds are continuing to lose investor money and as a result, they have to lay off their fund directors. Shed no tears for them though, as they’ve had several years of high six figure+ income without providing a corresponding return to their investors.

Let Uncle Warren and Jack Bogle light the way. It’s no secret why the biggest indexer, Vanguard, is growing more than everyone else combined!

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There’s a Reason They Promote Active Management

Just saw this ad on Morningstar:

marketwatch ad

Investors have started to wake up to the high fees and poor performance seen with active management, and as a result, big financial service firms are trying to stem the flow of money away from active funds to passive funds. As a result, they’ve ramped up advertising trying to sell potential customers with fear. “Now is a turbulent time,” they say. “In an uncertain world, it’s not good to be passive.” “Have an expert guide you.”

But really, if they have to work that hard to sell you on something, it’s probably a bad investment. Just remember: they’re worried about profit, not about working in your best interest. They (apart from Vanguard) have little incentive to sell you on low-margin passive products.

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Declining Worth of Hedge Funds

Maybe it’s because of the high fees, persistent underperformance, or the recent spate of movies about the greed of Wall Street. Whatever the reason, investors are withdrawing money from hedge funds. Maybe some of them see the light at the opposite end of the spectrum, with low cost index tracking funds. Aside from Vanguard, the 800 lb gorilla, other brokerages are getting into the act as well, including my own Fidelity. Undoubtedly, they are responding to consumer demand. Those who have read my book on wealth know how much I emphasize the importance of tax-optimization and low fees are to returns. Maybe more people are naturally starting to realize this.

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Should You Dollar Cost Average?

It’s an interesting question. Let’s say you are an investor looking to start investing for the first time. Should you invested a large sum in bulk or purposefully trickle in a little bit every month?

First, we should recognize that not everyone has the luxury of doing this. Most of us in the accumulation phase of life have to invest alongside our biweekly paychecks. There’s no choice except to trickle in our money.

But what if you’re blessed with a sudden large windfall, say from an inheritance, a house sale, or lottery? Is there really an advantage to investing piecemeal or all at once?

Vanguard ran a study back in 2012 about this. By doing historical simulations on different strategies dating back to 1926, they found that lump sum investing outperformed dollar cost averaging in every country they studied over all time horizons, for all mixes of stocks and bonds.

The reason is that on average, the market goes up more than it goes down. Therefore, by maximizing time in the market by investing in a lump sum, we are able to enjoy the market’s rewards earlier. Delaying also means missing out on dividends as they are distributed. The only time that dollar cost averaging makes sense is if we time our investments to match a downturn, but if we knew there would be a downturn, why not delay 3-6 months when the market is lower and then invest lump sum? Dollar cost averaging makes no logical sense.

Vanguard though does note that even though it produces poorer returns, dollar cost averaging can be helpful in calming the nerves of some jittery investors because it reduces short-term volatility. That’s literally the only benefit it provides.

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Turbocharge Your Retirement with the “Backdoor” Roth

For those of you who have read my guide to wealth, you’ll remember that one of my points of emphasis is to save for retirement. Tax-deferred (traditional) and tax-free (Roth) 401k and IRA accounts allow us to minimize the taxes we pay in a legal manner. This allows our earnings to compound and grow faster than they would in a taxable brokerage account. Of the two, I like the Roth as it takes away all future tax headache as everything inside is tax exempt forever! It also has many advantages when drawing down (no required distributions) and as part of an estate package (automatic step up in basis).

Unfortunately, the government recognizes that the Roth IRA offers such good benefits that it has built in strict income eligibility thresholds. Singles making more than about $130,000, and married folks making more than about $190,000 can’t put anything into a Roth IRA. A Roth 401k remains a (great) option, but not all employers offer it.

For those who don’t qualify or are otherwise prohibited from contributing to a Roth IRA, we need to go in through the back door. Here are the step by step instructions:

  1. Open a traditional IRA
  2. Make a nondeductible (after-tax) contribution of $5,000 or $6,500 (depending on age), but don’t buy anything with the money yet
  3. Immediately convert the account into a Roth IRA
  4. Invest the money

Voila. Absolutely no difference in the end between this and a direct Roth IRA contribution. The back door approach exploits the loophole that tradition -> Roth IRA conversions don’t have the same income eligibility limits that Roth IRA contributions do. Now anyone without regard for income can take advantage of the great features of the Roth IRA.

Should you take advantage of this? The general rules of traditional vs Roth apply. If you plan on becoming wealthy in the future with the help of my book, you will have plenty of income-generating assets. Having as much of your wealth sheltered from tax in Roth IRAs helps to optimize your tax situation in that setting.

Keep in mind one big gotcha. If you have a large traditional IRA with a mix of deductible and nondeductible contributions, the “pro-rata” rule comes into effect. This means that you can’t just choose to convert only the nondeductible portion. If you have a $10,000 IRA with half of it as deductible (pre-tax) and the other half nondeductible (after-tax), a conversion of $5,000 will incur tax on $2,500. The best workaround is to keep the size of the IRA small and convert all of your contributions each year, or suck it up and convert the whole IRA.

Keep in mind that the pro-rata rule doesn’t apply to our 401k investments. This may be one situation where it’s advantageous to hold off on rolling over the 401k to an IRA when we change jobs.

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