I want to tell you a story about accessing tax-deferred funds in an IRA or 401k before age 59.5 without paying a penalty. But first I’m going full out White Fang on you.
A trapped animal will do just about anything to get free. When you get caught, normal rules of comportment and demeanor are sloughed off to make room for the demands of the primordial will to live. It’s all about survival. Adrenaline rushing, pumping through arteries and veins, clouding the judgment and dulling the pain, the wild animal will chew it’s own leg off to disengage itself from a trap. It’s all about survival.
What separates man from beast is consciousness and the ability to plan for the future. To plan for a tomorrow that’s better than today. We are wise enough to search for traps and avoid going down paths that might be trapped.
Travel back a few years in time to our recent military conflicts and take a journey with an infantryman across the arid desert landscape cut by wadis and pockmarked with rocks. When on patrol, the soldier avoids commonly tread footpaths because that’s where the improvised explosive devices (the dreaded IED) often lie in wait for unsuspecting soldiers. When left with no other alternative but to pass through a choke point like an alleyway between adobe mud compounds, the soldier sweeps the ground with a metal detector to check for IEDs. Feet and legs are important, and the utmost precautions are taken to prevent loss of life and limb.
A wild animal can’t think ahead like us higher order beasts. When the animal is out on patrol, a well placed trap can ensnare the unsuspecting creature. The end result is a leg caught in trap and the choice (that isn’t really a choice) to gnaw its own leg off.
A leg, from just above the knee down to the foot, is about ten percent of a human’s body weight. Ten percent is a big number when it comes to bodily integrity or the integrity of your investment portfolio. You don’t want your investment portfolio to lose a leg. Your portfolio might never walk again, and at the least it’ll need crutches or other assistance to carry you through retirement. It’s all about survival.
Early Withdrawal Penalties: How to not chop off 10% of your portfolio
Here’s one the most frequently asked questions I receive:
Hey dude, I read your awesome article on earning $150,000 per year while paying only $150 in tax. You put over $60,000 into traditional 401ks and IRAs by maxing out those accounts each year. But let me tell you, you’re so screwed because you have to pay a 10% penalty on top of ordinary income tax on every penny you withdraw now because you are in your thirties and nowhere near age 59.5.
The grammarians among us will quickly realize that’s not a question at all but rather a statement. Some of the nicer readers that aren’t trying to prove the impossibility of early retirement phrase things in a Jeopardy friendly format by asking “what is your plan to access traditional IRAs and 401ks before age 59.5 without paying a 10% penalty?“.
Like a smart soldier navigating a booby-trapped route on a battlefield, it all comes down to careful planning and execution (if you want to avoid losing that ten percent). There are two major paths that permit penalty free early withdrawals from 401ks and IRAs.
The first path, Rule 72t withdrawals (also known as Substantially Equal Periodic Payments or SEPP), will be discussed in great detail in a future post. The ten second explanation is that it allows you to withdraw around 3-4% of your tax deferred assets each year following a strict IRS formula. It requires a long term commitment to a rigid withdrawal scheme with severe penalties for messing up withdrawals. In other words, it’s very difficult to deviate from the 72t withdrawal plan before reaching age 59.5, and if you do so by accident, you’ll feel the snap of the trap and lose ten percent of your withdrawals backdated to your very first 72t withdrawal (ouch!).
The second path is the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder. It’s the plan I’m following to fund the next twenty five years of my early retirement before reaching age 59.5.
The Roth IRA Conversion Ladder
By cleverly maxing out our tax deferred savings options, we owed almost nothing in taxes every year in spite of our combined (very very low) six figure income. It feels like we stumbled into a deep pit of tax liability. The Roth IRA Conversion Ladder is the tool we’ll use to climb up and escape the tax pit.
But first a note on tax deferred accounts in general. You can debate the merits of Roth versus traditional IRAs and 401ks all you want, but know that we saved well over a hundred thousand dollars in taxes by maxing out tax deferred options. Those six figure savings were invested over the years and have grown into even more money today. When we owe federal income taxes again (in a decade or two), we’ll have a huge war chest filled with all those tax savings over the years to pay future tax liabilities as they arise.
The basis of the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder comes from an IRS rule that allows any amounts converted from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA to be withdrawn penalty free and tax free. The rule comes with some catches. The first is that you have to wait five tax years after the conversion before you can withdraw penalty free. The second catch is that you have to pay taxes at the time of conversion.
Here’s how it works in practice. Let’s say you convert $30,000 from your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA during 2015. You will have $30,000 of ordinary income in 2015 due to the conversion, and might owe tax on that amount depending on your filing status and other income earned during the year. In 2020, you can withdraw the $30,000 (but not any earnings) penalty free and tax free. Convert another $30,000 in 2016, pay the tax (if any), then you have $30,000 to withdraw in 2021. Convert another $30,000 in 2017, pay the tax (if any), then you have $30,000 to withdraw in 2022. Repeat each year and you have just built a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder of your own!
Let’s take a look at an example of a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder for a 45 year old early retiree:
|Convert to Roth||Withdraw from Roth||Age||Notes|
|2020||30000||30000||50||5 years since 2015 conversion|
|2021||30000||30000||51||5 years since 2016 conversion|
|2022||30000||30000||52||5 years since 2017 conversion|
|2023||30000||30000||53||5 years since 2018 conversion|
|2024||30000||30000||54||5 years since 2019 conversion|
|2025||30000||30000||55||5 years since 2020 conversion|
|2026||30000||30000||56||5 years since 2021 conversion|
|2027||30000||30000||57||5 years since 2022 conversion|
|2028||30000||30000||58||5 years since 2023 conversion|
|2029||30000||30000||59||5 years since 2024 conversion|
|2030||30000||30000||60||You're over 59.5 – do whatever|
Planning for the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder
It takes a little planning to launch your Roth IRA Conversion Ladder successfully. Take a look at that table and you might notice two problems.
First, there’s no money to provide for living expenses in years one through five. You’ll have to cobble together five years of expenses from somewhere. This is where it pays to have some taxable investments on hand to get you through the first five years of early retirement while you’re setting up the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder. Leading up to early retirement, it might be necessary to back off of the tax-deferred contributions a little in order to top off a taxable portfolio that holds five years worth of expenses.
If you don’t have a sufficient amount in your taxable account, other options for funding the initial five years include:
- withdrawing Roth IRA contributions (annual contributions can be withdrawn any time without paying tax or penalty)
- withdrawals from a 457 account if you have one (you’ll owe tax but no penalty)
- side hustle income from a hobby or part time job
- proceeds from sale of a business
- severance pay
- unemployment payments
Just remember to balance your tax liability in the last few years of work with your tax liability in the first five years of the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder. You might end up in the 10% or 15% bracket. Just make sure you don’t end up in the 25% bracket some years and the 0% bracket other years.
In our case, we managed to max out all tax deferred options every year. Eventually our incomes increased to the point where we were also saving a significant amount in our taxable accounts, too. The taxable account should get us through at least the first ten years of early retirement, allowing us to slowly set up our Roth IRA Conversion Ladder and stay in the 0% tax bracket most of the time.
The second problem is inflation. You can’t convert $30,000 today if you want to spend $30,000 in five years because inflation will erode the purchasing power of that $30,000. You’ll need to convert an inflated amount today to provide for future years’ expenses. If you want $30,000 in real terms (after inflation) in five years, you’ll need to convert around 16% extra to account for 3% annual inflation.
Instead of converting $30,000 today, you’ll need to convert $34,800 today to provide $30,000 of purchasing power in the sixth year. Then convert $35,800 in year two to fund year seven’s expenses, and so on.
Here’s a better Roth IRA Conversion Ladder that shows expenses for the first five years while setting up the ladder and the required amounts to cover inflation:
|Convert to Roth||Withdraw from Roth||Withdraw from Taxable||Age||Notes|
|2020||40300||34800||0||50||5 years since 2015 conversion|
|2021||41500||35800||0||51||5 years since 2016 conversion|
|2022||42700||36900||0||52||5 years since 2017 conversion|
|2023||44000||38000||0||53||5 years since 2018 conversion|
|2024||45300||39100||0||54||5 years since 2019 conversion|
|2025||46700||40300||0||55||5 years since 2020 conversion|
|2026||48100||41500||0||56||5 years since 2021 conversion|
|2027||49500||42700||0||57||5 years since 2022 conversion|
|2028||51000||44000||0||58||5 years since 2023 conversion|
|2029||52500||45300||0||59||5 years since 2024 conversion|
|2030||54100||46700||0||60||You're over 59.5 – do whatever|
In this table, the early retiree will have a consistent inflation adjusted $30,000 per year (in 2015 dollars). Withdrawals from the taxable account total $159,300 over the first five years of the withdrawal plan. That doesn’t mean the $159,300 has to be in the taxable account on day one, because some growth in the account is likely over the five year withdrawal period.
Taxes on the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder
Ignoring other income, a single person climbing the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder will pay $3,213 in federal income tax each year to keep the ladder going. That’s the tax due on a $34,800 IRA conversion. Since the standard deduction and personal exemption are indexed to inflation, the tax burden will remain $3,213 each year (in real terms).
Married couples with no children fare much better, owing only $1,420 in federal tax each year. Throw a child in the mix and the tax burden drops to $20 (due in part to a $1,000 child tax credit).
Since we have three kids, we could convert up to $58,750 each year without paying any federal income tax. Though we’ll probably keep our total income closer to $40,000 in order to optimize Affordable Care Act subsidies and other benefits tied to AGI as well as keep state income tax burden low.
Root of Good’s Roth IRA Conversion Ladder
So far we have dealt in hypotheticals. Here is the real Roth IRA Conversion Ladder we plan on following:
|Year||Convert to Roth||Withdraw from Roth||5 Yr. Roth IRA Conversion “Bank”||Withdraw from Taxable||Age|
Here are the assumptions to help understand our withdrawal plan:
- Annual spending of $32,400 based on our early retirement budget, with increases for inflation each year
- We have a $345,000 taxable account that we’ll spend down over the next 10 years. We need 1.6% investment returns to make that last for 10 years
- Half of the amount spent each year from the taxable account is basis, the other half capital gain or dividend income. In other words, a $32,400 withdrawal is $16,200 return of capital (not taxed) and $16,200 income (dividends and capital gains)
- We are aiming at $40,000 per year AGI which will produce a zero income tax bill for the next ten years, then we’ll owe $500 per year between 2025 and 2031 assuming our 2 year old is no longer a tax dependent. After that, our taxes will rise slightly.
In a nutshell, the table shows how we’ll be able to fund 25 years of early retirement before reaching age 59.5 without ever paying a 10% early withdrawal penalty. This plan also keeps our income taxes near zero for about half of that period and we won’t owe more than a couple thousand per year for the last ten years of the plan.
In the table I have a column labeled 5 Yr. Roth IRA Conversion “Bank”. I made this name up but it’s a critical component to any Roth IRA Conversion Ladder. It’s a running tally of how much 5+ year old Roth IRA conversions we have available each year. In year 2020, we will be able to withdraw the $23,800 converted in 2015. By 2024, the year before we plan on taking the first Roth IRA withdrawals, we’ll have $126,300 in the Five Year Roth IRA Conversion Bank. At the end of 2025, after taking the first Roth IRA withdrawal of $43,500, we will still have $110,400 in the bank.
Breaking the (Five Year Roth IRA Conversion) Bank?
By the end of 2029, our Five Year Roth IRA Conversion Bank will bottom out at only $41,700. That’s still almost one whole year of expenses in 2029. I’m not worried about coming that close to emptying our Five Year Roth IRA Conversion Bank because I have a few other cards up my sleeve.
I have a 457 account with $70,000 in it today (that will probably grow to $150,000+ by 2029) that lets me withdraw funds at any time without penalty (just pay the ordinary income tax on the withdrawal). The 457 can easily cover a multi-year Roth IRA Conversion Ladder shortfall in a pinch (with slightly sub-optimal tax impacts if amounts withdrawn are large).
We also have a Health Savings Account (HSA) with $60,000 in it today that offers tax free and penalty free withdrawals to cover any health related expenses. Since health related expenses are the biggest unknowns for us over the next several decades, this account will come in handy to smooth out the tax impact of withdrawals if we need a little extra cash in any given year.
And finally, we have $25,000 in Roth IRA contributions from a few low income years during college and some higher income years we were ineligible for traditional IRA contributions. I don’t want to confuse the details of the larger plan with this $25,000 of Roth IRA contributions, but know that we will technically be withdrawing this $25,000 of Roth IRA contributions in year 2025 when we make our first Roth IRA withdrawals. The IRS has rules (don’t they always?) on the order of Roth IRA withdrawals and they state that contributions come out first, then conversions. As a result, our $41,700 low point in our Five Year Roth IRA Conversion Bank will actually be $66,700.
Finding the rungs on your own Roth IRA Conversion Ladder
Reading over this post, I realize it sounds very complicated and in depth. Take it step by step and it isn’t that daunting a task to set up your own ladder.
1. Figure out what you’ll be spending each year in retirement. Here’s how we developed our $32,400 per year retirement budget. If you need to track expenses now, check out Personal Capital – it’s free and automates expense tracking for you.
2. Determine how you’ll fund the first five years of retirement while you’re setting up the ladder. Do you have extra cash on hand or a taxable brokerage account to bridge the gap?
3. Don’t forget to account for inflation when you start the Roth conversions. You’ll have to convert 16% more today to cover 3% inflation per year for five years.
4. Roth conversions sound scary but are pretty easy. At Vanguard, for example, you can execute a conversion in less than five minutes on their web page. If you need help, call your brokerage firm. It’s a five minute task once per year task once you get your plan figured out. And you can adjust as you go along if your plans change.
5. If you’re planning on paying for your own health insurance, consider your AGI level due to Roth Conversions in the context of the Affordable Care Act subsidies for health insurance. The sweet spot to maximize your subsidies is in the 150-200% of the federal poverty level range (<$31k for a family of 2, <$56k for a family of 5).
If you are approaching early retirement, how do you plan on funding your expenses each year? Or if you’re already retired early, how do you access your tax deferred savings?
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Nice, cool to see it laid out in a year to year chart like that! When I first read your 150k zero tax post a year or so ago I didn’t have a clue what a 457b was. Now, lo and behold turns out my wife has one. She also has a 403b which is what we have been using.
I’m not anywhere near a position to max both like you were ( maybe one day). For now we are starting small with 5-10% income while paying off debt.
Would you put it all in 457, half and half?
If the 457 investment options aren’t any worse than the 403b options, then I would stick it all in the 457 for the withdrawal flexibility. Where I worked at the state, the 403b investment options were way worse than the 457 options, so I stuck with the 457 and then found out I could withdraw at any time without penalty (just pay tax on withdrawals).
I think this is good, but I believe that the 5 year hold on the Roth $$ only applies to earnings made in the Roth. The contribution you make INTO the Roth can be used anytime in an emergency without suffering the 10% penalty, as long as you are over the 55 age. Of course, the point is to NOT touch the contribution, but I think that clarification is important – if you needed to, you could get to the Roth $$ (the contribution part) and convert it to taxable income. I’m not a tax person, just relaying (for clarity and my own accuracy) what I’ve gleaned.
Contributions into a ROTH can be tapped anytime without penalty because that money is already taxed, but the 5 year hold he is talking about is applied to the conversions from an untaxed account.
if you do your taxes in Feb/March, it’s nice to play around the number for the distribution in line 15a of the 1040 so you don’t inadvertently trigger a higher tax burden than you’re expecting ( I wait until the very of the end of the return and plug that number in last just to make sure it won’t mess up credits etc.) then afterwards, you can do the transaction with your financial institution.
Are you saying you make the Roth conversion in Feb or March for the previous tax year (ie convert in March 2015 for the 2014 tax year)? I thought it had to be done in the actual tax year.
As far as I know the 5 year waiting period for penalty free withdrawals starts running based on the year you convert in (whether you convert on Jan 1 or Dec 31). So you could actually convert on Dec 31 2015 and take a penalty free withdrawal 4 years and a day later on Jan 1 2020 (well, you might want to wait till Jan 2 so your financial firm will be open…).
What a clearly presented and well thought out financial plan. I have 9 years before I can access my tax deferred accounts without paying a penalty. My assets are a mix of taxable investments and tax deferred 401K and IRAs. I have enough in my taxable accounts to fund my expenses for at least 10 years. Like you, I am able to ascertain this because I keep track of my expenses and assets, in my case, on a monthly basis.
It sounds like you’ll be well set to set up a conversion ladder while living on taxable investments. In our case, the taxable assets let us slowly convert to Roths and pay less tax over time.
Excellent plan! I wasn’t aware of the options available to access your money early, so this is very helpful information. Thanks for sharing and keep us updated!
Any thoughts about what would happen if congress removed the roth conversion option? Wasn’t that a rule that was only recently put into place?
Thanks! I’ll definitely put out an updated post if or when we change the conversion ladder plan. That’s what it is today but I’m certain things will change somehow in terms of our wants or need for income, or finding new tricks along the way.
As for the tax law changes, see my response to Vawt just below this. I think the conversion option has been in place for a while, and even if they put a stop to it, the ladder will still provide 5 years to adjust to changes (assuming they continue to let you withdraw conversion amounts after 5 years, which is basically treating conversions like contributions).
If they make the Roth IRA conversion ladder impossible, there’s always the 72t SEPP option that can achieve the same result with less flexibility.
I will probably point some people your way to read this article. It is hard to explain a Roth conversion ladder without seeing it on paper (at least for some that are visual learners). I hope that I will be doing the same thing in 6+ years. I am still putting funds directly into our Roth right now, too. That makes up (hopefully) for having way less in my taxable accounts.
Let’s hope there are not any tax law changes to this process in the next 15-20 years!
Point em over here! I’ve been meaning to write this article for 18 months and finally sat down for almost a whole day to bang it out. I never felt fully comfortable with any other Roth IRA conversion ladder posts I’ve seen since they tend to leave out the inflation aspect or the difficulty of the initial 5 year gap where you have to have “outside” money.
And I wanted to actually make sure my conceptual grasp on the IRA conversion ladder penciled out to a plan that works since I never actually fleshed it out in detail before retiring. 🙂 I always knew we could make it work somehow.
As for taxes, anything can happen. The good news is that I think the Roth IRA conversion ladder is a fairly rare little trick that most people don’t use. The very early ER world is so small that it’s not on the policymakers’ radar. And hey, we’re converting assets and theoretically paying tax on the conversions sooner, so yay! for the Treasury getting some money sooner.
Great article – have been reading about this for a while, but the table with examples really helps. ONe thing though – kind of disappointing you gloss over the 457. I Have one as well, and as far as I can tell, it’s the ideal early retirement account – so much so that if I were 3 or so years away from retiring, I’d considering jumping to a job that had one just so I could load it up with funds before I retire and not have to draw down my taxable income stash. 457 could also be a good idea for a person early in FI – they could take a gov job early on, load it up for 3-5 years, then jump to private sector for a while while 457 grows & use that as the conversion ladder bridge later on.
Just some thoughts.
Great point on the 457. I figured most don’t have access to one, but if you do, definitely take advantage of it. We had a 401k and a 457 plan at the state and could max out both. But if you can only max 1, do the 457 (assuming investment options are similar). It’s a great feeling knowing I have ~2 years expenses sitting there just in case.
A word of caution though – if you’re pulling from a 457 for those 5 post retirement years while setting up the conversion ladder, you’ll be adding your 457 income to the conversion income. If you spend $30k/yr from the 457, and convert the $35k or so for the Roth ladder, you’ll end up with $65k income and a big tax bill (well bigger than zero 😉 ).
This post has great timing as we are trying to figure out the best way for an Roth IRA Conversion Ladder once I’m retired while still having a single income of ~$50K.
I have about 6-10 yrs before we hit our $2MM number and after that my wife will continue to work while I’m retired. My wife is a kindergarten teacher and she wants to work another 10+ years past my retirement date.
Our thinking is to have her max out the 403B/457 to lower our stated income + contribute to Trad IRA’s to cut the income to minimum while living off our taxable accounts – then convert our IRA’s right up to the 15% ($74.5K 2015) limit to maximize the amount we can transfer without triggering the 25%.
Perhaps you could post on the best way to save $$$ ( w charts) by doing a conversion w/ 1 working spouse as many of your readers will likely have 1 working /1 retired spouse similar to Joe@retireby40.org.
Thanks for all the great posts!
I think your plan makes a lot of sense. If you’re planning on being in the 15% bracket in retirement anyway (by pulling from 457 and/or continuing the Roth IRA conversion ladder), you’ll come out about the same tax-wise. Having more assets in your 5 Yr Roth Conversion Bank will also let you game your AGI post retirement in order to qualify for ACA subsidies (assuming your wife won’t have free/cheap family health insurance). I think the AGI cut off for a married couple with no kids is around $60-63k, so you can probably squeeze in under the AGI threshold to pick up some subsidies.
Thanks for the post. I never considered inflation when considering this method. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that you need to have 5 years of expenses saved and ready to utilize if you want to live off a Roth conversion ladder. I guess you could just go semi-retired and rely on a part-time job for the living expenses during that 5 year span. Either way, the arrow still points to saving as much as you can in tax-deferred accounts early on because of the ability to use the Roth ladder later to control the tax you pay, if any.
That’s pretty much the case. You have to figure out how exactly you’re funding that initial 5 year gap. And unfortunately any part time job income during those 5 years will be added on top of your conversion amounts, so you might push your marginal rate up, which is why it’s a balancing act with your marginal rate the last few years of working.
Could you add a discussion on how the ACA changes tax and income considerations for this plan?
I’ll have to work up that article at some point, because it definitely impacts our conversion ladder planning to some extent. In essence, the ACA acts as an implicit 15-18% marginal tax rate. So every extra dollar you convert to Roth, you’re paying an extra 15% or so on top of any federal income tax you pay. Which means even if you’re in the 0% tax bracket, you might not want to go crazy converting way more than you might reasonably need.
Great well thought out post Justin! I always cringe when I see those naysayers criticizing from their keyboards:
“Hey dummy! You can’t touch that money until you’re 59.5” or “Have fun paying a 10% penalty on top of your ordinary income taxes!”
I knew about both options but didn’t know how tricky the 72(t) was. Thanks for clarifying!
I had been converting my IRA and Husband IRA to Roth, since we are both retired at age 45 and 49. My purpose is to avoid RMD and a free inheratance. By doing the number on my IRA balance today I will be in a very high RMD at age 70.5 probably higher than 25% on taxes. Do you think is a good idea to even convert larger amount even is I have to pay a 25% on income tax.
If you can convert up to the 15% bracket each year from now until age 70.5 (that’s 20-25 years), would you get your traditional IRA balance low enough to avoid paying 25%+ taxes once you are taking RMD’s? It might make sense to try to keep yourself out of the 25% bracket by starting conversions now, and if that will still leave you in the 28%+ brackets once RMDs hit, then you might convert more now (even if it puts you in the 25% bracket today).
It looks like the 15% bracket is up to about $95,000 income per year, and the 25% bracket goes up to about $160,000. So there’s a lot of room to convert for the next 20-25 years and literally move millions of dollars to Roth IRAs.
I have never been a proponent of the Roth system because I believed the government will eventually find a way to screw over those who used it. But now that I am ER, I can see the wisdom of your approach, particularly since I am no longer paying high taxes from work. I will have to give some serious thought to this since we have enough from our other accounts to pay our way for the five years needed. Appreciate the time it took you to write this well thought out missive.
It’s a great way to access funds before 59.5, that’s for sure! We shied away from Roths while working so we could take the immediate tax break. But now they are a great tool in retirement.
I’ve read probably 15-20 articles on this topic, and it finally makes sense. Either you are a better teacher than most, or I’m just a bit denser. Either way, thanks!
I must say, like Dave, if I ever engage in this strategy, I will probably wait towards the end of the year to make sure I don’t accidentally make too much money and trigger infinity taxes! The conversion seems to work best if you commit to at least a few consecutive years of low/no income.
Well, great! Glad I could help.
We’ll probably wait till the end of the year too so we can see how much other income we get. Most of our funds pay dividends in December so we won’t know what we’re getting until the last week of the year usually.
I have to echo this. This the best article I’ve ever read on the Roth Conversion Ladder. Well done, Justin!
By the way, hello from a fellow Raleigh FIRE enthusiast. 🙂
Thanks! And hello back to you!
We’re still a few years out, but have been playing around with the idea of the Roth ladder in lieu of the 72t distributions recently. Both are possibilities for us, but we also hope to have enough in taxable and real estate investments to last us for the bulk of our pre-age 60 years.
Also – how the heck do you have $60K in an HSA! Holy moly! How long have you had that thing…. we’re limited to putting ~$3K in ours each year and the investment selection isn’t great.
That’s a great position to be in to not have to worry about withdrawing from retirement accounts before 60!
As for the HSA, we’ve had it for most of the last 8-9 years and maxed it out each year (there might be a year or two we didn’t have a HDHP and couldn’t contribute). We happened to fill this account up with small cap value and international REITs, and I think those asset classes have done pretty well since the 08-09 crash, which might explain the growth. Personal Capital says we’re up a little over 20% since 2 years ago. We’re also lucky to have the HSA at fidelity where we have access to pretty much any investment in the world (except maybe options??).
The level of detail here is really great. I get tired of list posts that lack substance (not by you). I’m looking forward to working this strategy as well in the future. It will probably be a bit easier as well since I currently contribute to a ROTH since I’m priced out of a regular 401k.
Thanks for the kind words, I’ll pass them on to the writing team. 😉
And I assume you mean priced out of a traditional IRA and forced into a Roth, right?
Really enjoyed the article. Just one quick question about the charts.
Wouldn’t it be in your best interest to stop converting to the Roth at age 55? Any money converted after 55 wouldn’t be eligible for tax free withdrawal until after you turn 60, at which point you can withdraw it tax free anyway. This way you avoid having the conversions count as taxable income in years 55-60.
You should at least use up the 0% tax bracket in general. That’s about $20,000 per year for a married filing jointly couple. I don’t think that level of AGI would cause you to lose out on ACA health insurance subsidies or anything else.
But yes, there’s technically no benefit in terms of avoiding a 10% early withdrawal penalty by converting at age 55+. I hesitated to show conversions for those years, but for most people it’ll make sense to keep on converting to get as much into the Roth space as possible (while managing their tax liability).
This is really helpful and thank you for spending the time to do this. I believe you have some of the best tax saving articles. I’ve gone back to your 0 income tax post at least 10 times now :). thanks again.
Thanks! The zero income tax post is my most popular post by far. People love not paying taxes as much as me apparently. 🙂
This is a great fresh write up on the Roth conversion ladder and I love that you included your actual projections, it makes it feel like much more of a reality. It’ll be interesting when you report on the ongoing process.
I did have a question on your tables. You stop at age 60 and say “do whatever”. I think I understand that you are inferring the early withdrawal penalty is no longer in effect at this point. But, my understanding of the conversion strategy is to keep doing it at a tax free level until you’ve drawn it all down. That way, it’s tax free forever: on the contribution, the conversion, and the withdrawal. If you stopped at 60 and took normal distributions, it would be subject to regular income tax. The ROTH would be tax free for good. Am I missing something?
Yeah, “do whatever” is shorthand for you have unlimited flexibility to withdraw from any account you want without penalty (except HSA which only allows withdrawal for non-medical purposes without penalty AFTER age 65, not 59.5).
As far as continuing to convert to Roth after age 60, it may not really matter. Withdrawing $30k from a traditional IRA and spending it is the exact same as converting $30k from trad IRA to Roth then withdrawing $30k from the Roth to spend (you’re in the same position with or without the conversion step).
But yes, if you have space in the 0% bracket or the 10% bracket and want to optimize your taxes, it might make sense to keep on converting. Otherwise you might face a huge tax bill once you hit age 70.5 with RMDs. If we end up with a few million (in 2015 dollars) left in our trad. IRAs at age 70.5, we’ll be facing RMDs at around $100k per year. That would push us to the top of the 15% bracket and maybe into the 25% bracket, so we would be smart to ramp up the Roth conversions in our 50’s and 60’s (or even earlier) in an attempt to keep ourselves in the 10% or 15% bracket as much as possible. Think of it as “tax smoothing” if you will.
Thanks for breaking the conversion process down. When you convert your IRA into a Roth do you have to sell your stocks in the IRA and then re-buy for the Roth? Or do you just slide over a $30K chunk without having to actually sell? I’m assuming you will re-invest in something while you’re waiting to spend the Roth bank. Also, I’m linking to an article from a Roth conversion skeptic. I don’t expect you to read it since you have limited time, but I just want to add it because I’m trying to figure out if this conversion process is really the right way to go or is just adding complexity (and I might be a little dense like Hanna too, haha):
The actual process of the conversion is very straightforward, at least at Vanguard. I just put in a conversion order but canceled it before hitting “submit” and it took about 2 minutes. You go online and execute an exchange from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Vanguard pops up a warning that you’re doing a conversion, there are tax implications, etc. Click through, pick whether you want taxes withheld (probably not!) then hit submit. I’ve heard other brokerages make it similarly easy to execute a conversion online by “sliding” a $30k chunk over without actually buying and selling.
As for the the link and the added complexity, I don’t really see it as being a particularly complex transaction. The conversion itself is incredibly simple (at Vanguard, it’s no harder than buying a mutual fund or exchanging from one fund to another fund within the same account). The hardest part is figuring out how much you want to convert, and I hope I’ve illustrated how much you should plan on converting to satisfy your spending needs 5 years out to get the ladder established.
Tax wise, it’s an entry on line 15 to show the conversion as income, and I think you put a quick explanatory note in with your tax return (that’s how I do it when filing on paper). It’s common enough that I bet turbo tax or similar programs handle it flawlessly.
Given the hundreds of thousands we have today due to a decade of aggressive tax savings, I’d say it’s well worth it to max out traditional IRAs and 401ks, then plan on slowly trickling that money out through a Roth IRA conversion ladder in order to manage your tax burden in retirement. We were saving taxes at the 15-25% bracket every year while working, and now we’ll be in the zero bracket for a while before dipping into the 10% bracket and maybe eventually the 15% bracket very slightly.
I think the article has a good point that Roth’s aren’t as awesome as some claim while working (if you have access to traditional IRAs). However in retirement, Roth conversions are a great way to access the tax deferred funds without paying a penalty. And you do decrease the amounts subject to RMDs eventually. The author in that article stated he could increase his net worth from 2-10% depending on the calculator used but it’s not worth it for the complexity. I’ll take $30,000 to $300,000 added to my net worth any day just for clicking a few buttons at vanguard, maintaining a spreadsheet (which I pulled together for this article 🙂 ), and adding a number on a line on my tax form (which will already have a number if you withdraw from a traditional IRA after age 59.5). To each their own though – Roths and Roth Conversions won’t be appropriate to every investor and it really depends on where your assets are situated in terms of taxable, tax deferred or Roth.
(wow, that was a long comment response!)
Yeah, I think the article didn’t consider the need to access funds prior to 59.5 years old. There is tremendous value to this strategy during that time of early withdrawal penalty.
It’s a pretty big issue if the article is aimed at early retirees because the ability to spend your retirement assets before age 59.5 is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome, and it prevents a lot of people from contributing to tax advantaged retirement accounts altogether, to their great tax liability detriment (many tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime).
That was an awesome, long comment. Thanks for sharing so much. The benefits are starting to make a little more sense. I’m retiring this year but our situations are a little different. I have about about 85% of my nest egg in taxable accounts (I was making more money investing on my own than through the limited, poorly performing 401K mutual fund options) and 15% in an IRA. So, I won’t need to tap into IRA funds to live on. I also don’t have a pension heading my way so I won’t have to worry about RMDs along with a pension pushing me into a higher bracket. That being said, I decided to run one of the Roth conversion calculators and various scenarios showed that a conversion would lead to 0 to 27 extra dollars per month for me. As far as complexity goes, my lady friend of 25 years (also FI) and I are calculating the benefits/cost of getting married and all it entails (spousal SS benefits, marriage penalty or windfall, etc.) Romantic, huh? So my whole situation could change and I will need to evaluate the whole IRA conversion topic again.
Here’s the IRA conversion calculator, for those who want to see if conversion is worthwhile:
With that much in taxable accounts, any impact from Roth conversions will be pretty small.
Add in spousal financial considerations, it could change the Roth conversion picture.
Very cool illustration of the Roth IRA Conversion strategy.
So is 2015 your first year initiating this strategy?
I guess the only risk is that the government changes the rules before you complete your conversion. But no reason to worry about something that is out of your control.
Depending on whether Mrs. RoG quits in 2015 or 2016. If 2015, then yes, we’ll start converting some amounts now assuming we have room without getting the AGI too high.
As for future tax changes, I’m not too worried. I talked about tax changes in a couple of earlier comments here, but to summarize, we’ll have 5 years to adjust course if they eliminate the ability to convert from trad. to Roth. And there’s always the 72t SEPP option to access retirement funds.
Have you looked into using the Horse Race Strategy on your Roth conversions? Mad Fientist had an article on it: http://www.madfientist.com/roth-ira-horse-race/
Basically just converting to two different assets, and whichever one does better you keep as the Roth conversion. The other one you can recharacterize if it goes down, that way you don’t pay for a $10k conversion when it is down to $8k or something.
I’m aware of it, and might end up using it if it’s easy enough to implement. If I did the horse race with, say, large cap US as one fund and total international with the other fund, it looks like they have about a 10% difference in performance most years. So on a $35,000 conversion, I could maybe squeeze an extra $3500 profit into the Roth by using the Horse Race strategy. That’s $500 in tax savings on the extra amount (in the 15% bracket). Probably worth clicking a few buttons twice a year.
Just remember to balance your tax liability in the last few years of work with your tax liability in the first five years of the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder. You might end up in the 10% or 15% bracket. Just make sure you don’t end up in the 25% bracket some years and the 0% bracket other years.
Can you provide an example, not sure if I follow entirely. Thanks.
Don’t max out all your tax deferred accounts in the last few years of working just to get down to 0% bracket or 10% bracket and then go on to year 1 of starting your Roth IRA conversion ladder and have to make enough money to live on (part time/side hustle income, cap gains, etc) plus having to convert even more money to fund the first rung of the IRA ladder.
As an example, don’t max out all your tax deferred accounts to get your married AGI down to $30k your last year of working to stay in the middle of the 10% bracket then end up in the middle of the 15% bracket if you convert $40k to Roth and withdraw another $35k from a 457 (for a total AGI of $75k).
Better to skip about $8k of tax deferred contributions in the last year of work to use up the 10% bracket, then have a little less income the 1st year of early retirement (reducing the amount subject to 15% tax).
I think I follow this time. Because you are saying that 8K in your example would be saved up in year 1 to be used as income, instead of tax deferral. If that’s not it, I probably need a drawing to help me out, ha thanks for explaining.
Very useful post……. very well articulated! Thanks for sharing this useful knowledge 🙂
I may not be using all this information in near future as I plan to work for few more years. But have made a note to implement this in future !!!
I am a full time dad (36) with our baby after years of working and great savings as have good amount in 401k plans and some in Roth IRA. My wife (36) is a teacher and I found out they have 457 plan offer with 403b. She just stop her 403b after 5 years so we can do Roth IRA and been doing that for last couple months.
Is it pointless to do 457 plan if we already are putting the money in Roth IRA? As Roth IRA can withdraw without penalty on the contribution before 59 1/2 anyway. We plan to be FI at the age of 45.
You’ll have to run the math on the tax difference between 457 and Roth contributions and withdrawals. Most people end up in a lower tax bracket in retirement, so you might be able to save 15-25% federal tax on the 457 contribs while working and pay zero or 10% while retired when you withdraw.
Thanks for the reply. I just found you days ago and I am impressed with your articles and great details of information. I am looking forward to catch up with the rest I haven’t read yet!
No problem! Glad to have you as a reader!
Wow – I have been reading finance articles and blogs for a while & haven’t seen the ROTH conversion ladder before. I love it and you did a great job of explaining it in detail. One Question: Do you still have a mortgage? $32k a year and a family sounds like scorched earth if you have a mortgage to pay each month
Mortgage has about $28k left and under 2 years, so I don’t count that in the $32k budget since we can pay it off any time with cash on hand or by selling a tiny bit of the portfolio.
This was a really nice explanation of how to do the Roth Conversion ladder. I have learned a lot from your site, including the existence of a 457 plan, which in some cases could be used in conjunction with a 401 K. My plan is to one day follow a similar path with my tax-deferred 401K/IRA contributions. The only concern I have is if some day the rules of the game change, and conversions from IRA to ROTH IRA are not allowed. However, since congress needs cash, they want to encourage people to Rothify today, since many will not follow the Root of Good calculations, and would actually end up paying tax on conversions.
Dividend Growth Investor
I agree – Congress probably looks at this as a way to accelerate tax payments, so probably not likely to kill the program. Maybe limit it to something like $100k per year or similar amount so the middle class can still survive but screw the really wealthy fat cats (who actually pay the taxes…). 🙂
I know your comment about the rich paying most of the taxes was said with a wink and a smile. I really don’t want to create a flame war in such a great forum but I want to add that the rich pay about the same in taxes as everyone else as a percentage of income (considering payroll, state, local and fed taxes). It’s a common misconception that the rich are getting soaked: http://ctj.org/ctjreports/2013/04/who_pays_taxes_in_america_in_2013.php#.VTqsiGbjQfg
Feel free to delete this post if it causes any trouble!
I’ll leave the post up! 🙂
I was really referring to the fact that the rich pay a higher percentage of federal income tax (almost double the middle income people) and the top 1% pay around a quarter of all federal income taxes per your link.
Add in the regressive sales tax and sin taxes and the relatively flat rate state taxes and the regressive payroll taxes and you get the result you suggest – rich and poor aren’t as far apart as we’d like to think.
Good information with valuable strategies for anyone to implement. IT helps to see the examples between hypothetical and real case situations as you listed above. I think your in a great position no matter if you have to pay a few thousand in taxes. It seems like your funds will grow and that growth will be more than you pay in taxes every year, so there’s no need to worry from what I see.
I keep forgetting that $0 tax is ideal, but I can pull an extra $20-30k into the conversion ladder for only a few thousand $ per year in extra tax or loss of ACA subsidy.
Does the 5 year rule only apply to conversions from a Trad. IRA to a Roth? So money contributed directly to the Roth is still subject a penalty for a withdrawal before age 59.5.
Good news! Contributions to the Roth IRA can be withdrawn without tax or penalty at any time. There is no 5 year waiting period for withdrawing direct contributions to the Roth IRA.
Thanks, this seems to good to be true. Did they just change the rule so you don’t have to wait until 59.5 for the Roth?
It’s been that way as long as I can remember. That’s always been one of the selling points of a Roth. You can contribute the $5500 and if you ever need it back, you can withdraw it at any time without a penalty.
Curious, does Social Security Disability Income apply to the tax brackets when doing the conversion or 479 plan? Or SS/SSDI doesn’t count against you regardless?
If you earn more than a certain amount, you’ll have to include some or all of the SS disability income in your AGI which will push you up the tax brackets. I’m not too familiar with the specifics of when the disability income becomes taxable though.
Hi Mr. Good,
Another great article, thanks for writing it!
I do have a question about this strategy, and something I read recently on forbes, see the example below..
“For example: If a person has $45,000 in a Rollover IRA (untaxed money) and then attempts to utilize the strategy above to avoid income limitations on a Roth contribution by making a $5,000 non-deductible contribution to a Traditional IRA and then converting that account to a Roth IRA, the IRS will calculate that he owes taxes on an additional $4,500 of income – since it will look at the $50,000 in total non-Roth IRA money as it were one account, and since 90% of that balance (i.e., $45,000) is untaxed he owes taxes on 90% of the conversion amount of $5,000 (i.e., $4,500). Furthermore, after paying taxes on the $4,500 the converter will need to track that he has $4,500 of already-taxed non-Rollover money in his Rollover IRA account – which will not only complicate matters from an accounting perspective for years to come, but may also prevent him from rolling the money into an employer’s 401(k) plan in the future.”
Am I correct in thinking that because your taxable income in retirement is low, that the amount of tax you pay on this will be very low as well?
I’m not well versed in the tax rules for rolling a non-deductible IRA contribution into a Roth, but that quote seems to get it right from what I remember.
As far as taxes, yes, you’re right. If you convert the $5000 and only $4500 is taxable, you would be paying taxes at your lower tax rate in retirement on that $4500.
It might make sense to skip the non-deductible IRA contribution altogether if you’re only a few years away from retirement. Keep it in cash to fund the first 5 years of retirement so you can get your ladder going.
I enjoyed your post. What are your plans to fund your retirement after 60?
Assuming we have plenty of funds remaining, we’ll be pulling from traditional IRAs probably. Hopefully we can get the traditional IRA bucket low enough by age 70 to avoid huge RMDs and the resulting massive tax bills. We’ll likely postpone social security to age 70 so it’ll grow too. SS at age 70 will be almost enough to fund our retirement budget.
How much can you expect to get from SS if you don’t work (and pay into SS) from age 33 to age 70?
About $10,000 per year for each of us (in 2015 dollars) at age 67. Maybe $13,000 if we wait till age 70 to collect.
$26,000/yr is almost enough to fund our current $32,400 budget (which includes the cost of 3 kids), though I bet a lot will change in the next 35 years. 🙂
Nice writeup, Justin. I have a question regarding the 10% early withdrawal penalty. As an alternative to converting to a Roth IRA, I could pay the penalty. However, if I withdrew an amount low enough to accommodate the penalty, my taxes would end up being zero, correct?
Let me use an example to clarify. Example uses the 2015 tax bracket for Married Individuals Filing Joint Returns which is $12,600. Personal exemptions for two people would be $4,000 each. Total amount would be $20,600. Therefore, I could withdraw 18,500 from my traditional IRA which would be counted as ordinary income. In this example, assume no other income. The 10% penalty would make the total of $20,350 (18,500 * 1.1) which would be under $20,600.
Does my question make any sense? Thanks very much.
I ran through the 1040 form and it looks like the 10% early withdrawal penalty applies after all the tax is calculated and all credits are applied. In other words, you’ll likely owe the 10% penalty even if you owe zero tax and have more room in the 0% bracket and have extra credits that go unused. Refundable tax credits like the EITC and Additional Child Tax credit could be used to offset the 10% early withdrawal penalty, of course you could just take those refundable credits in the form of sweet sweet cash.
Good idea though – I had to check it out but don’t think it’ll work unfortunately.
I like the detailed way you presented this information and the “losing your leg” analogy. My wife and I are in the process of saving as much as we can in our taxable accounts/CDs since we’re only 3 years away from early retirement. Between selling an investment property (est. around $100k) and what we are able to save, we should have enough to buy our home and a stash to last for 5 years until we can tap into the roth conversion ladder.
Good to hear! Covering that first five year gap is often the tricky part with the Roth IRA conversion ladder but you have it covered it sounds like.
Thanks for the great post, really nice to see it on paper, as a real life example. One thing that I think has already been mentioned, but would love to know more about is how ACA health insurance is playing a role in all of this. And what kind of costs are associated, as I know you are trying to stay in the 40k range, to keep your health costs low.
We are currently looking into doing what you describe, but I am still trying to nail down the health care subsidies/costs, as well as how much I can convert.
Thanks again, great info!
Check out this post on the ACA subsidies. It’s all laid out how AGI impacts the various subsidies and what the AGI cut offs are. I’ll have to add a link to the ACA article in the Roth ladder article since they are intertwined strategies.
awesome, thanks. One other question. My situation is a little different, in that I most likely will pre-retire/work part time while I let my retirement account grow until the point I need to began withdrawing, or get tired of part time work. Knowing that, would you think it’s best to try to get my tIRA (401k work plan rollover) converted to Roth sooner rather than later? My income will be lower (40k ish) during part time work, but it most likely will be lower once I’m officially retired.
Based on income/taxes alone, it seems to make sense to wait and do the conversion when I can get income at it’s lowest point. But, I won’t ever have much in after tax accounts, it will mostly always exist in tax advantaged accounts. I am just wondering if there are any other things to consider other than taxes when doing the conversion.
It may just be as simple as roll it over as I can, on years where my income is lowest.
I would wait to start the Roth conversions until you’re working part time at least. That part time work will provide most (all?) of what you need to live on, then just convert to tIRA while working part time in amounts necessary to establish your ladder (assuming you won’t have taxable investments to rely on).
I just read that the Roth conversions do not count toward MAGI, so I can do them during my pre-retirement/part time work and not have it affect my ACA subsidies.
I’m pretty sure they do, so double check that.
Hmm. I guess I better read up. I thought for sure they did not, maybe I read it wrong. Bummer
Excellent write-up Justin and thank you very much.
I had to go through forms 8606 and 5329 for myself to convince myself that distributions wouldn’t have to satisfy the substantial equal periodic payment (SEPP) rules….
IRS Form 8606, line 23 instructions “Generally, there is an additional 10% tax on 2014 distributions from a Roth IRA that are shown on line 23. The additional tax is figured on Form 5329”
The basis for conversions are treated separately on line 24, so I had to fill out both forms to convince myself….
Year 2020’s form 8606, using your first 30k/year ladder example for a 45 yo, will have:
Line 19 Total Nonqualified distributions $30,000
Line 21 $30,000
Line 22 Basis in Roth IRA *contributions* $0
Line 23 $30,000
Line 24 Basis in *conversions* $30,000
Line 25 Taxable amount $0
Line 23 directs you to form 8606. The instructions for line 1 reads: “Distributions from Roth IRAs. If you received an early distribution from your Roth IRAs, include on line 1 the part of the distribution that you must include in your income. You will find this amount on line 25 of your 2014 Form 8606”.
So $0 in 2020 is indeed subject to the 10% penalty.
The reason I doubted you was that even the “experts” appear to be confused on the issue…. from Fidelity’s Roth Conversion Checklist page:
“A distribution from a Roth IRA is tax-free and penalty-free provided that the five-year aging requirement has been satisfied and at least one of the following conditions has been met: you reach age 59½, die, become disabled, or make a qualified first-time home purchase.”
…which is just not true!
Thank you very much indeed – indispensable information and very well presented.
Thanks! Glad it was helpful, and I’m even more glad that the info I put out matches what you see in the tax forms. I, too, run through the forms like you did when I need to double check that advice is accurate.
I have long lamented the notion of not having access to funds from my retirement accounts until after a specific age (59.5 or 60). I read a lot of stuff regarding investing and retirement so I was loosely aware of the 72t capabilities for pulling money out of retirement accounts penalty free. It wasn’t until I read your article that I began to understand the tax strategy of converting monies from a tradition/rollover IRA to a Roth IRA. Converting the funds while keeping aware of your respective tax bracket to keep the current tax rate as low as possible…while helping to reduce the likelihood of encountering excessive tax hits with RMD’s (based on the reduced balance of the tradition/rollover IRA)….while still getting to retire early. Did I get that right? 🙂 Thank you so much for opening my eyes to this approach!
Yes, that’s the basic summary of this Roth IRA Conversion Ladder approach to withdrawing from retirement accounts early. Glad you’re learning about this option!
WOW powerful tool. Thanks for sharing!
You are welcome! Hope it helps.
Since only conversions and not earnings can be withdrawn after five years, do you just leave all earnings in the Roth brokerage account and access them without penalty or tax after age 59.5? Do you keep track of earnings separately from your conversions?
That’s the plan. Contributions and conversions will come out pre-59.5 and earnings will come out after 59.5.
Yes, you have to keep track of earnings separately from conversions.
In practice, there’s 3 pots of money you have to keep track of for Roths.
1. Contributions (can withdraw any time).
2. Conversions (can be withdrawn after 5 year period)
3. Earnings (can be withdrawn after 59.5)
Contributions and conversions are easy to track since it’s usually 1 or just a few per year per person. Earnings is everything else above the contributions and conversion amounts.
When you say “keep track of earnings separately from conversions,” that doesn’t mean that you have to create separate accounts from them in your brokerage, does it? You’re just tracking the amounts somewhere like on a spreadsheet?
Also, earnings include capital gains, too, right? So does that mean if you sell a security that you’ve converted to your Roth IRA five years ago, and it has appreciated in value since then, you can only withdraw the amount of money equal to what it was worth at the time of conversion five years ago?
No, you don’t need to separate earnings in different accounts within the IRA. Just on a spreadsheet. You really only have to track conversions and contributions, since earnings are “everything else”.
Earnings are any growth above the initial amount converted/contributed. Transactions within the IRA don’t matter. In other words, if contribute $5000 in an IRA and then you have $7000 2 years later, you have a $5000 contribution and $2000 in earnings regardless of what you bought or sold within the portfolio, how much you received in dividends or capital gains distributions, and what the realized capital gains from any sales might be.
Got it. Thanks, Justin.
One more question: I’ve contributed some AFTER TAX money to my TRADITIONAl IRA the last few years. I can look up the exact amounts on my past years’ 8606 forms.
When I roll money from my Traditional IRA to my Roth IRA, how is this post tax money handled?
The amount of $ you contributed after tax can be converted to a Roth and you won’t owe tax on it. Any gains on the amount contributed after tax will incur tax. So if you put in $10,000 after tax and it’s grown to $15,000 today, then you would convert to the Roth $10,000 tax free (the original after tax contribution) and would convert $5000 (the gains) and owe tax on it.
apart from starting to roll stuff over 5 years in advance are there any other prerequisites to do this? like, do any of the accounts mentioned have to have been open or active a set amount of time prior to starting this or can you just decide one day to open up both ira accounts and start rolling over? i’m also a little unclear on how you interact with your 401(k) for this – do you roll your entire 401(k) over into the ira to start or do/can you do that incrementally in the same way you do the trad->roth ira conversion? also also (sorry, and this is probably a silly question) a spouse can’t roll over into your existing ira accounts, right? they’d have to make their own?
Accounts don’t have to be open for any length of time. You could open a traditional IRA and roll it to a Roth that day (or maybe the next). Though skip the traditional and contribute straight to the Roth in that case. 🙂 The backdoor Roth is basically what I just described, except to a non-deductible traditional IRA with an immediate conversion to Roth.
As for the mechanics of rolling a 401k into a roth IRA, you should be able to do it in smaller increments each year or quarter.
You can’t have a spouse roll their IRA into yours or vice-versa. It’s strictly on an individual basis, even for married couples.
My challenge is that most of my savings are in 401k / tax advantaged accounts, so when I retire I want to do roth conversions, but with them counting toward my income it kills my ACA subsidies that I was planning to get. So, either I have to live on 30k instead of 40k and convert a small amount of 10k/year which most likely won’t get me where I need to be fast enough.
or, I need to stop saving into 401k for a few years and save as much after tax money as I can so that I can live off of that for the first few years while I do conversions.
Do you see any other options / suggestions?
Those are pretty much the options. Or some hybrid of the two approaches – cut back some on 401k contributions the last few years of working to get enough to live on the first five years (if the numbers work out).
Don’t forget, if you have a taxable brokerage account, you can sell lightly appreciated shares to free up cash for living expenses and the minimal appreciation on those sold shares means you won’t have a lot of cap gains (therefore income for ACA purposes). Do that and you can convert more to Roth each year.
The good news is you have time to plan an optimal approach to this issue so you can make those first five years work for you and smooth out the taxes over this period.
It seems worth mentioning there are income limits on traditional IRAs if you want the most tax benefit from this plan.
Justin, great article! A few questions for you. I appreciate your time!
1) In your first table where you’re converting $30K to Roth each year… does it matter if this $30K coming from the Traditional IRA has a mixture of contribution and earnings?
2) You touched on your HSA a few times. I’m 30, male, and have never had any health issues or need for doctor visits outside of routine checkups. I assume I should be taking advantage of this despite having to take on a HDHP.
3) Based on the IRA RMD worksheet I’ve seen, you take your traditional IRA balance at age 70 and divide by a number called a distribution period (which I see is 27.4). So for example, if my traditional IRA balance at gae 70 is $2M, my RMD would be $72,992. Is this correct?
4) Did you do the backdoor roth each year or was your combined income within the MAGI limit for traditional IRA deductions? I am beyond the traditional IRA deduction limit, and will be beyond the roth IRA contribution limit next year as well. I am currently maxing out my 401K. So, I believe my best course of action will be to move my current traditional IRA balance to my 401K so I can then make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and convert to roth. Can you clarify if I have this right and if it sounds optimal?
Regarding 4) I read some of your other insightful articles and learned you were indeed below the MAGI limit for traditional IRA deductions. Makes sense! If you don’t mind giving your thoughts on my situation that would be great!
It’s looking more and more like my FIRE date will be this year. So I’m starting to look into planning my drawdown.
I’ve read quite a few great blogs, especially yours, about tapping into one’s retirement accounts for RE. What I’d like to know, though, is how exactly one goes about converting funds. Do I just call my brokerage’s customer service and tell them I’d like to move money from my traditional IRA to my Roth IRA? Do I need to sell the shares in my tIRA first and then move cash to my Roth, or can I move shares over without liquidating first?
You can almost always move funds/shares directly from tIRA to Roth without selling. The mechanics vary by brokerage firm. I believe at Vanguard you can do the transaction online (“exchange” shares from tIRA to Roth). It’s worth a call to customer service to verify the process at your brokerage firm. They might require a letter of instruction stating you intend to do a conversion.
Great article Justin, just got back to rereading closely as I explore some of my options in more depth.
If you have a prior employers 401k that was rolled into a traditional IRA, do you see any advantages to possibly starting the 5 years of laddering during your working years?
The downside is that you will incur a sizable tax bills for conversions during those years, but the possible upside is that it makes available a large chunk of tax free money immediately when you retire.
I’m also thinking there might be some benefits as far as the ACA goes. Once you retire then year one you will have access to a bunch of money – withdrawn Roth contibutions – that doesn’t (if I’m understanding correctly) count against income eligibility for insurance premiums.
Please, pick holes in my thoughts:)
you laid out the pros and cons correctly. Ofcourse if you could save more money in after tax accounts (such as Roth) prior to retirement, then you could use that to live on while you convert your ira to roth thus avoiding or keeping your tax very low both on the way in and the way out.
It’s important to get the first five years of early retirement living expenses funded. It might make sense to do Roth conversions while still working, but probably easier to simply save in taxable accounts (of course funding a roth each year too).
You are right that roth withdrawals won’t count as income for ACA subsidy purposes.
Hey Justin, if our MAGI is at the point where we can only do a partial Traditional IRA deduction (let’s say $3,000 out of the $11,000), would you still recommend doing that or would you completely switch to Roth IRA contributions?
I would put what you can into the traditional IRAs and the rest in Roth. Still snag some immediate tax savings!
Hello Justin, I’m a newbie to all of this and have a few questions please. I only have a Roth IRA and a traditional 401k and my wife only has a Roth IRA and 403b.
1. Are our only options to access our retirement funds early without penalty to pull out our Roth contributions and/or do a 72t against our 401k and 403b?
2. Or can we roll over our 401k and 403b to a Roth IRA and create a ladder like you describe? 3. Is it correct that we can only do a roll over of of our 401k and 403b when we are no longer actively employed?
4. Do we have to actually rollover the 401k and 403b to a traditional IRA first before being able to convert to a Roth IRA?
5. We have a lot more funds in our 401k and 403b than our Roth IRAs, so is it better to pull the Roth IRA contributions first and then once drained do the roll over/conversion of the 401k fund 403b funds to a Roth IRA?
6. Any other suggestions, articles to read, or things to think about that cover our scenario?
I believe you can convert 401k and 403b to Roth IRA but you usually have to wait till after separating from employment (unless your plan can do “in plan conversions” or rollovers).
You can spend the Roth IRA contributions while you are converting from 401k/trad IRA to Roth. Tax wise it works out perfectly – zero tax on the Roth IRA contributions withdrawn, so you won’t owe much tax when you convert the 401k/trad IRA to Roth.
Sorry, im still pretty new to this. How do you fund $30k in a Traditional IRA every year if the IRS only allows you to contribute $5500?
Are you talking about the $30,000 annual conversion? You can convert any amount from Traditional IRA to Roth.
Right. But my question is how to fund the traditional IRA if I can only contribute $5500 yearly according to the IRS? How do I get that up to $30k yearly? Im sure im missing something here. Thanks for your help by the way. I love your site, this is my first post though.
Gotcha. Can’t put $30k into a traditional IRA. $5500 is max in 2016, or $6500 if you’re 55+. But you can put $18,000 into a 401k and when you quit working roll that into an IRA. Given some growth, that initial $18000+$5500 should be $30,000+ by the time you retire and start doing the Roth IRA conversions.
Awesome write up, thanks for taking the time to share and respond to commenters!! A few questions if you don’t mind…
– How did you figure out you could start at 45 and still have enough for your golden years past 60? Would I estimate what balance I need in tax deferred accounts that would cover my expenses “forever” and then just estimate at what year I can hit that amount before 60?
– Do you have separate Roth accounts for these conversions or can they be bundled up into 1 roth?
I have a spreadsheet to help figure all this out. But yes, you have to make sure you aren’t spending all your assets and impoverishing your 60 year old self. The 4% rule takes care of most of that though (the Roth vs taxable vs traditional IRA question is one of tax treatment).
The conversions can go into the same Roth account(s) you already have open. No need to segregate those funds, and no benefit as far as I know.
Justin – Thanks a lot for taking the time to respond! It means a lot!
If you have a few moments, I would really appreciate your feedback on a calculator I made for myself to help with this at http://fireagecalc.com/. It originally was a Google spreadsheet but and lot of people asked if I could turn it into something they could input their own values with so I turned it into a simple website page. Your feedback on this would be invaluable especially since I’m still on the path and you’ll know if the estimates are useful or have error.
I took a quick look and plugged in some scenarios and the results seem realistic. Looks good!
I like your calculator! When I updated all the numbers and got a result and then changed the withdrawal rate and interest rate to see other scenarios, the calculator seemed to malfunction. For example, I lowered the withdrawal rate and then the retirement age and balance increased. Do you see that happening? Maybe it is just me?
I assume you have to wait until almost 12/31 to do the conversion each year.. ie I’ve been trying to do this but find calculating the dividends/Capital gains are difficult without final year end numbers. I’m also debating moving some of my dividend portfolio to more growth stock as to have less dividend income and more room to convert.
I usually do most of the fine tuned tax moves at the end of the year, so the last week of December is busy.
Since you are in essence a sole proprietor, can’t you also put your income from blogging into a taxed deferred SEP which allows a higher amount of taxes to be deferred as well as reduce your total income for taxation with your business expenses? In other words, leverage it all together as part of your clever plan?
I’ve been loading up a traditional solo 401k the past two years. Put in over $20,000 last year. In 2016 I’m planning on doing Roth 401k contributions to solo 401k for the $18000 employee max contribution.
So I need to keep investing into a traditional IRA and hold off the conversion? I’ve always invested in a roth until this year which I exceeded the income. I just completed my conversion from traditional to roth. Was this a mistake?
It’s usually better to wait to convert from traditional to Roth until you aren’t working. This way you will be in a lower tax bracket because you don’t have income from a job.
Thank you responding to my comment! I just recently found your blog and I am loving it! Great work! I forgot to add in on my question that I make over the taxable amount to write off a tROTH deduction. Does this change your opinion?
If you make too much to deduct a traditional IRA AND too much to contribute to a Roth, then you could do a non-deductible traditional IRA contribution and convert that to a Roth. If you have no other traditional IRA assets, you won’t owe any tax on the conversion (because you never got to deduct the traditional IRA contribution). If you have other trad IRA assets at the time of the conversion, it gets trickier and you’ll owe some taxes on the conversion since the conversion actually takes a proportion of your deductible and non-deductible trad IRA assets into the Roth. In other words it’s a little complicated.
Wow, glad I was lead here after reading some other stuff. I had a plan to use SEPP to withdraw my 401k and my wifes 403b during early retirement, but this strategy is much more flexible. You just need to plan 5 years ahead.
What’s great is I also work for the government (as an engineer) so I get that awesome 457 as well.
Yeah, the Roth IRA Ladder is pretty awesome. And adding the 457 into the mix means even more flexible withdrawals.
Ok, I read many of the comments but skipped ahead – so I apologize if you addressed this already.
Wouldn’t it make sense to use the conversion ladder to convert from a 401K to Roth even if you are not retiring anytime soon? We are a single income family, so my wife has no 401K. If I max out mine and max out two Roths, she still has no 401K. She is also 6 years older (I am 37, She is 43). With all our deductions we get down into the lower tax brackets with a taxable income of 40-50K (AGI around 120). But our effective tax rate is even less than that.
I would rather have my money in a Roth, period, due to flexibility. So shouldn’t I start converting now and just aim to keep our taxable income as low as possible?
You might come out ahead starting to convert small amounts to a roth while still working, as long as you aren’t paying more in tax now than you will during retirement. Any chance your 401k allows Roth contributions? That would be a much easier way to get more $ in the Roth space directly.
I love this post, made me start plotting our own with conversions and helping me figure out pre and post tax money needed.
Now, I have a random scenario see if you know the answers since I have been searching for a while and I am not clear yet (assuming current tax code remains).
Assumptions: 2017, Husband and wife earn a combined income of $200k, $100k each, in which case we would not qualify for Roth IRAs (for simplicity’s sake, hypothetical example as I know we could potentially scratch by with some deductions in real life…but bare with me). We are at our last year of working just ‘practicing’ for retirement and so we can comfortably live for this year with brokerage money that we set aside for next 5 – 10 years. Starting in 2018 we would begin a conversion ladder for the Traditional IRA / 401k money money we have accumulated.
Starting in Jan 2017, each decide to take an 80% deduction towards 401ks which means we max out after about 6 out of 26 paychecks + we ask to take out HSA money out of one account, so we would have a cumulative $1,550 give or take around end of March.
At this point our pre-tax/gross income would reach a combined $46.1k or so, but after 401k and HSA deductions the taxable income would be around $8,500 (even lower if we consider medical premium deductions taken from my paycheck…).
1. If we quit immediately after that (March 2017), can we then contribute to both Roth IRAs with post tax accounts up to the max for each? Or could we only add $8,500 to our accounts? Hope the question is clear…
2. My HSA is done via employee deductions and they take equal % of money by paycheck. Do you know if I would be able to send a check to them for the remainder of the years limit before I quit (and hence still have the insurance) up to the max for the year (knowing the following year I would not be able to fund it anymore as I would not be using that high deducible medical insurance)?
I think I get what you’re saying. 🙂
Q1: If you only have $8500 earned income after the 401k withholding and HSA deductions, then you can only contribute to IRAs up to the max of your earned income ($8500 in your scenario). One solution I’d like to suggest: if one of you has access to a Roth 401k, stick $2500 of your 401k contributions into the Roth 401k and that’ll leave you with $11000 earned income, thereby allowing you to stick $11000 into a Roth IRA (basically maxing out your tax deferred savings without substantially increasing your tax bill; might be a slight hit to ACA subsidies if that’s in your plans).
Q2: You’d have to ask your HSA provider if they would take a check for HSA contributions for the remainder of the year. If you’re using a HDHP for the whole of 2017 then you qualify to contribute the max for a full year to your HSA. Whether the HSA custodian accepts private contributions (ie not from the employer) is up to them. Mrs. RoG’s HSA is through Fidelity and they would accept additional funding from us I imagine (though we switched from HDHP to a $0 deductible plan when we jumped onto the ACA exchange policy).
As always, these are just my somewhat educated guesses based on the info provided. I’m just a dude on the internet so consult your own tax advisor if you want 100% reliable tax advice 🙂
hahaha thanks “dude on the internet”. I actually found my tax advisor was not necessarily as insightful as I would have hoped so now I am looking for a new one. Plus I *may or may not* supposed to have known already about that first question since I used to work in the industry…lol (shhh, to be fair so much regulatory changes to keep track of with 401as, 401ks, 403bs 457 private or public, government or not, ERISA or not, contract types, the different IRS limits to keep track of, etc. random employee specific rules, and it has been a while….).
Actually I do have Roth 401k – good thought! (and no to ACA I don’t think – depending on where we want to live and how things look then….). I suppose I could also work an extra month or two….nah! 😉
Signed, Dude on the Internet
I understand the mechanics of how the Roth IRA conversion ladder works, but I’m confused on some of the details on how you go about maximizing your tax savings in the ramp up phase to make it actually work in practice.
Say for example, I retire on December 1st of 2016.
In April of 2017, I do my taxes (for 2016) as usual.
1) Does it matter WHEN in 2017 I start the ladder? Can I do it on January 1 or does it need to be done at tax time? The Roth conversion is for the year when it’s actually done, correct? Unlike Roth contributions which can be done for the prior year up until the April tax deadline.
2) When 2017 comes, since I’m now retired and have no earned income, my only source of taxable income is from dividends and gains distributions from mutual funds in my taxable brokerage account. If the Roth conversion counts as income for tax purposes, how do I calculate the “optimal” amount to convert each year? (using 2016 numbers for this example) The standard deduction is $6300 and the personal exemption is $4050. That totals $10350. If I were to subtract my expected dividends and gains distributions from that total, the remaining amount would be the maximum Roth conversion for my ladder that I could do tax free in that year. Is my understanding correct?
3) How do the 10% and 15% tax brackets figure into this, if at all? For example, if I take money out of taxable investments for living expenses for the first five years of my ladder, how does one balance the tax liability from selling investments against the Roth conversion ladder while at the same time trying to stay in a certain tax bracket. It seems like there’s too many competing variables to juggle at one time without screwing yourself at tax time.
Maybe I’m overthinking it but it seems like you need a piece of software where you plug all the variables in and it tells you what you need to do.
Thanks for your time.
1. Doesn’t matter when you do the conversions. It could be Dec 31 and in that case you only have to wait 4 years and a day before you can withdraw the amounts converted penalty free.
2. You are correct – Roth conversions add to your taxable income (it’s just like withdrawing from the trad. IRA) so conversion+divs+cap gains = income. Keep it at $10,350 or below and you’ll owe zero. In fact, you could bump the Roth conversion to $10,350 then take another couple of ten thousand of LT cap gains and qualified dividends and STILL pay zero tax (just stay within the 15% tax bracket for your combined income).
3. Yeah, it’s complicated. A spreadsheet could help you balance it out to smooth out your tax liability over your lifetime. You don’t want convert too much and creep up into a high tax liability in the 15%+ brackets, but you also don’t want to under-convert and end up short on Roth assets to allow your ideal spending level.
I’m pretty sure there is still a penalty to withdrawing converted amounts in a Roth before age 59.5. The IRS considers withdrawals from a Roth in this order: contributed, converted, and earnings. Can you show the IRS code that states that you can take converted amounts penalty free before age 59.5?
Here’s the relevant link from the IRS Publication 590 that explains you can withdraw conversions tax free: https://www.irs.gov/publications/p590b/ch02.html#en_US_2015_publink1000231057
Derrick is correct there IS a penalty prior to making any withdrawals prior to age 59.5. Read what 590b says is a qualified distribution:
“A qualified distribution is any payment or distribution from your Roth IRA that meets the following requirements.
1.It is made after the 5-year period beginning with the first taxable year for which a contribution was made to a Roth IRA set up for your benefit, and
2.The payment or distribution is:
1.Made on or after the date you reach age 59½,
2.Made because you are disabled (defined earlier),
3.Made to a beneficiary or to your estate after your death, or
4.One that meets the requirements listed under First home under Exceptions in chapter 1 (up to a $10,000 lifetime limit). ”
Note there is an “and” at the end of item 1. This is critical. The distribution MUST meet BOTH criteria to be considered qualified. Read what the next paragraph states if a distribution in not qualified:
“Additional Tax on Early Distributions
If you receive a distribution that is not a qualified distribution, you may have to pay the 10% additional tax on early distributions as explained in the following paragraphs. ”
The methods you provide in your article are flawed and are bad advice if not over 59.5
Please go back and read the instructions for form 8606 part III carefully this time. I suggest you print out the pdf.
You even said it yourself..a non qualified distribution *may* be taxable.
Now go and read the rest to find the situations under which it is taxable.
I do think you owe Justin an apology and maybe even a modicum of gratitude?
I’d suggest Mickey consult a qualified tax professional and not rely on anything on this page. Probably good advice for everyone but Mickey in particular. 🙂
I don’t understand how you can be converting $30K+ a year, added to your regular income while building the ladder, without virtually all of the conversion being taxed at or near the top tax rate.
The other problem is, how much fun will retirement be on $50-65K income, ten or more years from now? 😮
For our family of 5, we can convert $32850 tax free (standard deduction + 5 personal exemptions), plus receive many tens of thousands of dollars in qualified dividends and capital gains with zero tax liability (up to top of 15% bracket). In fact, with the child tax credit we could incur a $3000 tax bill and have it wiped away too. Have you seen my article on earning $150,000 while paying $150 in tax?
As for how much fun it will be living on $50-65k, we’re doing pretty well on $25-35k the past several years (2014 and 2015 expenses). Don’t forget we pay basically no tax and don’t have a mortgage. So an income of $50-65k is probably what a working family earning $100k+ would take home after taxes and some basic deductions. It’s impossible to NOT live well on a $100k salary in Raleigh!
So you’re saying you’ve already stopped working, and actually have no other income while making the conversions?
Glad this works for you, and I wish you the best.
I live in an even cheaper area than Raleigh, by a large margin, but I have hobbies that I spend that much on per year, and once I retire I’ll have even more play time to spend money. LOL I won’t retire and play bingo, I expect to spend far more in retirement, even without a mortgage, than I do now.
Bingo? Haven’t played that since I was a kid.
How much are you planning on saving for retirement?
At least $2 million, in a portfolio of investments that will generate a combination of taxable and tax-free income. I’m estimating the taxable portion will be around $60K, with the tax-free adding about $30K more. I’m pretty close now, and plan to semi-retire in about 5 more years.
How much do you have to have in tax-deferred accounts TODAY to be able to do this for 25 years? What are your assumptions about returns during the full conversion ladder?
The sum of all those 5-digit numbers in the left column of your actual ladder plan is 1,356,200…
I haven’t looked lately, but probably $700-800k+ in tax deferred accounts. Don’t forget that the money I’m converting 10-15 years from now will probably have doubled from today’s valuation, which is why the sum of future amounts converted exceeds what we have today in those accounts (think of the “$1 million lottery” that’s really 20 years of $50,000 payments but is worth about half that amount in present value).
I have a SCorp and trying to decide to either go for SEP IRA or Self-employed 401K. I am not clear if the “Roth IRA Conversion Ladder” would work from a SEP IRA? Any input on whether to make the ladder work in the future with either SEP or SE 401K…. ?
Thank you for such a great post btw 🙂
As far as I know there aren’t any restrictions on converting from a SEP IRA, so that should work. Converting from a solo 401k would also work.
Is it possible to open a SIMPLE 401k now and contribute now for tax year 2016 and also open a SOLO 401k now for tax year 2017? Not sure if both can be opened in the same year but not same tax year. Also I have already contributed the max to ordinary IRA for 2016. Also can a SIMPLE and a SOLO both allow converting to a Roth account so I can withdraw the funds in 5 years tax free provided I have enough room to do the tax-free conversion? Trying to lower my $8k tax burden for 2016.
I’m pretty sure you have to open the 401k during the tax year for which you want to contribute (as in, on or before Dec 31 2016 if you want to make a 2016 contribution). I know you can make 2016 contributions in 2017, just like with IRAs, but I do believe the plan must be opened prior to end of the tax year for which you want to contribute.
Yup, you’re right. I ended up opening a SEP and contributing for 2016 and I’ll open a Solo 401k soon so I can contribute much more for 2017 to lower my burden even more.
I have contributed to a Roth since they began, stopped 10 years ago when I retired, have been converting about $30,000 a year the past 5 years. I’m 67. Do I understand correctly that since I’ve had the account more than 5 years and am over 59.5, I can withdraw any amount I wish, including last year’s conversion, and there is not tax or penalty ? Thanks for the great info. Also, I’ve always wondered if any surprises ever come up about record keeping. I’ve always reported conversions, but don’t recall how contributions were reported (or needed to be).
Yes, I believe so. Once you’re past 59.5 you can withdraw any amounts you want penalty free and tax free.
I think there’s a form you get every year (5498?) that shows your Roth contributions.
Thanks. I know I’ve always reported whatever is required so far as I know, and do get my statements from the brokerage firm showing my conversion amounts, and see them on my tax returns. Roths are great, assuming no gotchas down the line. Almost too good to be true.
“an IRS rule that allows any amounts converted from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA to be withdrawn penalty free and tax free.” Can you point me to this IRS rule? I looked at some publications on IRA and Roth IRA but couldn’t see where this conversion amount was a qualified distribution 5 years after. I saw that if you make a direct contribution, you could withdraw it 5 years later but not a conversion amount that was converted from a traditional IRA to the Roth.
Also in your table, if you only convert 23800 in year one of your conversions how can you withdraw over 40k in year 5?
I don’t have the IRS code # handy to cite it, but it might have been posted in these lengthy comments before. It’s there though.
I’m converting less than I’m withdrawing later because I start with a significant five figure amount in my Roth IRAs in year 1 (contributed while working).
read IRS pub 590b. It states that any distribution is a qualified distribution as long it meets two specific criteria as outlined in 590b.
do you know if someone over 59.5 needs to wait the 5 years to withdraw the money, seeing as how they would not have to worry about the early penalty?
Or, could someone age 60 convert 20k from Tira to Roth one year and begin spending that money tax free the following (ofcourse there will be taxes to worry about during conversion year)?
Pretty sure you can withdraw any time without penalty at age 60+. No rules restricting it on conversions.
There is a restriction on 72t withdrawals (if you go that route). I recall it’s a 5 year period where you MUST keep withdrawing per the SEPP rules once you start, even if you are over age 59 during that 5 year period. So you could be locked into a strict withdrawal schedule till age 63-64. Totally different issue from a Roth IRA conversion though.
Would someone age 60, who will not have to worry about early withdraw penalty, still have to wait the 5 years to use the money? Or can they convert say 20k from tIRA to Roth and then the next year spend that monies tax free? Thanks!
I really like how you explained the whole concept and your framework for the ROTH Bank was phenomenal. I can now visualize how I need to set up an excel table in order to determine how much I need for the first 5 years and how much I’ll have available to project out.
One Question I have that I don’t seem to see people addressing is State taxes. You live in NC which has a flat tax of about 5% last time I checked. Ever article I ever read about avoiding taxes only seems to be talking about the federal income tax and never the state income tax. How do you account for that in your calcs or is this income not taxed by the state?
It’s taxed by the state, but it’s pretty straightforward since pretty much every extra dollar is taxed at 5.x% by NC. I think the exemption is only first $15,000 of income here, so having income this year or the next costs the same thing from a state tax perspective (ignoring time value of money; better to pay taxes in the future rather than now, all else being equal).
If I convert from a regular IRA to a ROTH will they give me the cash value or would my investment carry forward. For example if I have $10,000 worth of investment in a low cost index fund such as VTSMX in a regular IRA and I would like to convert $10,000 into ROTH IRA would I get $10,000 cash rolled forward or would it be $10,000 invested in the mutual fund. sorry if i am not asking the question very clearly.
You can roll the $10,000 VTSMX directly into the Roth IRA and keep the investment. No need to go to cash.
Do you end up opening a different Roth each year or just ONE Roth? Trying to figure out how both you and the IRS keeps track of the 5 year periods for each batch of money. I get that you can, and do, keep track in a spreadsheet.
Anyway, very cool and once my income goes down to a low level here in another 13 months, I plan on freeing up my tIRA money each year up to the point of where I would start being taxed.
You just need one Roth. And keep track of all the conversions (and report them on taxes of course).
Great post Justin!
Very useful as I deal with an end of year dilemma:
– 401-k’s for wife and I are maxed out
– My traditional IRA is maxed out
– Wife’s IRA –> here is where the question comes: do we max out her traditional IRA or put the $5,500 into a Roth IRA.
The reasoning for choosing a Roth IRA for this year would be to have accessible funds for the first 5 years of the conversion ladder.
The reasons for choosing a traditional IRA would be to minimize current tax liability.
What would you do? Or what questions should I ask myself to make the best decision?
Tough call but I would probably go for traditional IRA for the immediate tax savings. You’ll probably have more time in the future to contribute to Roths when you are no longer eligible for Trad IRA contributions due to high income.
Great post! Without paying the 10% penalty, I think the question is down to taxes you pay now (I’m currently on a Roth 401K) versus tax you pay at conversion few years down the road. How do you make sure that the taxes you pay on conversion later is lower than today?
Try to stay in the same tax bracket while working and retired. For us that’s been 10% or 0%. We might be in 15% later on many years down the road if our investments are ridiculously profitable. When I have an extra million or two dollars and pay higher taxes to access the newfound wealth, I won’t scream too much about being in the 15% marginal bracket 🙂
Good stuff, Can I convert directly from my 401(k) to a Roth IRA or do I have to take the route of 401(k)->IRA->Roth IRA?
Typically you can go straight from a traditional 401k to a Roth IRA. I suppose it’s theoretically possible some custodians might not take the rollover from a 401k into a Roth for some reason but generally you can go straight to a Roth IRA.
Hi RoG, we met at ERE a year ago, and I am just reading thru your great blog again. I have a question around 401k, probably not easy, but may be you know someone that can help. I have a 401k from the past when I was working in USA as expat (I am from Europe). I am planning to wait till 60 to start withdrawels, but I have no clue how to organize this. My questions are: (a) do I need a Bank in the USA to receive money from the 401k account, or can I wire it internationally? (b) how can I lower or avoid Tax on what I withdraw?
Hey Hank! I remember our chats over there at ERE. Good to hear from you.
Tough question! It really depends on what your 401k custodian will allow you to do. I imagine most could wire you the proceeds but you might pay a wire fee (maybe at the 401k and at your local bank) and a foreign currency fee. Of course maybe we’ll have easier international currency transfer in the future.
As for lower taxes, waiting till 60 avoids the 10% penalty, so there’s that. Good to see you’re planning on doing that. Otherwise my pure 100% guess is that they will withhold a mandatory 20% to cover your federal tax bill and then you would have to file taxes to get any of that back. If you don’t have a lot of income during retirement then you might be able to get most of the amount back (A single person can take over $10,000 income completely tax free and the next several thousand are taxed at 10%). Another tip if you have a large account balance (as in $20,000+), you might want to spread the withdrawal over 2 or more years so you don’t go up into higher tax brackets in one year. Of course you have to balance the tax cost against filing international taxes (if you pay someone) and those wire transfer fees.
I’m looking at doing the conversion ladder for my early retirement in the future. I’m trying to run all the numbers through the tax forms to make sure I understand everything properly and don’t miss anything. One thing I’m confused on… I see everyone reference that you must wait 5 years to withdraw conversions (Hence the whole ladder discussion). However, on form 8606, line 24, the basis in conversions seems to be calculated without any regard to waiting 5 years? On the instructions, if you’ve never had a distribution in excess of basis then you enter the total of all previous years conversions, even the current year conversion.
I’m guessing there’s something I’m missing, but I can’t seem to figure it out…
I’m not sure but I bet it’s in there somewhere. Maybe in the instructions hidden deep down somewhere. The five year wait is definitely there though.
I would like to make sure I understand this properly. Say, for example, you want 20k a year. By the 4% rule, this means your number is 500k. Is it correct that to do this, you would need 500k saved away, plus 100k in addition (five years of living expenses)? Thank you.
The $100k you would need in your hypothetical is a part of the $500k total to get to 20,000 per year using the 4% rule. So $100k accessible somewhere else plus $400k in IRA to convert to Roth.
I haven’t started yet but I may start converting this year. The Roth conversion ladder is, by far, the most important technique I’ve learned since I started reading about early retirement.
I don’t know if this works for me. I’m a temp here in the US and will move back to my country once my L1 visa expires in 4.5 years. I’m contribution the minimal to my 401k because I don’t want to have a lot of money trapped here but also don’t want to loose some money the company matches ( up to 3%). That said, I would like to know if I’m doing the right thing here
I think it could work if you want to convert it all to Roth status and eventually withdraw it. The main benefit to the ladder is to slowly convert to a Roth in order to keep the tax burden low each year. If your balance isn’t all that great, you might be able to convert it all in one year without a huge tax bill.
Can I take after-tax and Roth money in a Solo 401k out up to my basis tax free? If not, could I rollover to Roth IRA and then do so?
Not sure if you can pull it straight from a 401k but your should be able to roll to a Roth IRA and withdraw the contributions that way. I’ll be in the same position at some point if I roll my solo Roth 401k over.
Thanks so much for this great article! The tables in particular provide a great visual aid to understanding the Roth Conversion Ladder.
One question about the tables: can’t you technically stop your Roth conversions 5 years before you hit age 59.5 (year 2026 in the two hypothetical tables and 2036 in the real RoG table)? You wouldn’t be able to withdraw those conversions penalty-free until after you hit age 59.5…at which point everything’s penalty-free anyway!
You could stop 5 years before 59.5 but why would you? At a minimum you should convert something to generate enough income to at least use up the zero percent tax bracket ($20k or so for a married couple without kids).
That’s true. I suppose if you really wanted to, you could instead earn some “real” income to use up the rest of the zero percent tax bracket. Thanks for the response!
Yes, you could have some earned income too. Or sell some appreciated stocks/funds in a brokerage account to realize capital gains. Lots of flexibility and best to use up the 0% bracket somehow (and maybe the 10% and part of 15% depending on potential for higher taxes later in life such as with RMDs).
Just watched your interview with 2 Frugal Dudes. I have been subscribed to your blog for a few months, but I immediately had to come back to find this blog post after listening to your interview.
Here’s my scenario…
51 Year Old Single Female, No Children
On track to retire at 55
My financial consultant has me pulling from the following funds in this order when I retire:
– Traditional 401K
– Traditional IRA
– Roth IRA
I like the idea of this Roth Conversion Ladder a LOT, but I’m not sure if it makes sense for me, considering I would be doing my first conversion when I’m 55, so I would already be 60 by the time I could take my 1st year’s conversion contribution.
Also – I have a ton of money in immediate savings (probably WAY too much). If I did go the conversion route, I could live off my savings starting at 55 (in lieu of the 401K), and then convert around $20-$25K/year to the Roth.
At 60, then I could start pulling from the Roth first, while still converting each year.
Would that be a good plan?
I know my financial advisor wanted me to drain the 401K first (as it would be a penalty free when I’m 55), then the traditional IRA, then the Roth.
I’m very interested in keeping my retirement income as low as possible in order to keep my taxes low. At my current spending rate, I can live on $20-$25K net each year.
Any thoughts? Should I change course? Find another advisor?
That plan sounds fine. It might be a little more optimal to spend down your “ton of money in immediate savings” while you convert $25k/yr or so to Roth. That way you’ll be increasing the $$ in the Roth space while depleting your trad. 401k/IRA assets (which will be subject to RMDs at 70.5). This latter plan would give you more flexibility with drawing from retirement assets later (to help you keep your taxes at an optimal level).
Of course, depleting those “immediate savings” comes with risks – if you need the $$ for a specific purpose you don’t necessarily want to spend it all down to zero.
Thanks so much for the reply, Justin! My immediate savings is large, and I would love to use it to live on for the first 5 years of retirement (and there is enough). Keeping my income low is key.
Really appreciate you feedback 🙂
…or retire today, start the ladder now, use the ton of (taxed) money in the next 5 years and begin withdrawing from the Roth ladder at 56.
Not sure why you would start pulling from the Roth at 60 if you still had money in a 401k/IRA, I think converting from IRA to Roth to pull from Roth is the same as just pulling from IRA, isn’t it? what am I missing?
When I pull from the Roth, it’s tax free. When I pull from the Traditional 401K or IRA, it is taxable income. By climbing the Roth Conversion Ladder, I will pay tax on the amount that is converted, but it will be low tax liability.
The more I deplete from the traditional accounts (and move to the Roth), the less I will be forced to take with RMD at age 70.5.
I would retire now, if I could. But, there is still wealth to be built over the next 4 years.
Why not separate the traditional IRA into two IRAs.
IRA 1 200000 – roth conversions – convert 40K per year for 5 years
IRA 2 800000 – sepp – get ~30K for 5 years then close sepp and keep doing roth conversions with this account
This way you need less money in taxabke accounts and all my money can grow faster in non taxed accounts.
What do you mean “close SEPP” for IRA 2? It’s a done deal once you start until you’re 59.5 (and a minimum of 5 years if you start at 55+ – must continue past 59.5 for 5 years minimum). For us 30-something early retirees we’re looking at 20-30 years of locked in payments from SEPP which is why it’s rather unappealing due to complete lack of flexibility.
The only way I know of to terminate SEPPs early without penalty is to deplete all funds from the account which is challenging when you’re only pulling 3-5% from the account per year.
I read you had to have the SEPP open for a min of 5 years, guess I misunderstood.
So what if you use the SEPP for a small base amount and supplement with roth conversion:
IRA 1 500000 – roth conversions – convert 20K per year
IRA 2 500000 – sepp – get ~17K
You would still need taxable accounts for first 5 years or some source of money but you would need less since sepp is there to help.
I am trying to determine if I max out all pretax accounts or start taking some of that money and putting it in a taxable account.
Another thing that might help some people is to sell their home or refi to get cash out for those first 5 years. I don’t see anyone mentioning that.
That approach would work and it would set you up nicely with an immediate 17k/yr to supplement a small taxable portfolio. And you aren’t pulling a huge amount from SEPP so you aren’t too bad off if you no longer need the income at a later date (but will be forced to take it anyway till 59.5).
Good point about the home refi or sale. I’ve talked to several folks in my early retirement consulting gig and that’s exactly their plan (sell the expensive house that might be in a high COL city, live off proceeds, then rent forever, travel for a few years, or relocate to a smaller house, possibly in much less expensive cost of living city).
great article Justin!
I will start converting my SEP Ira into the roth this year since I won’t be making much income the next 5 years.
Question for you: how much do you have allocated in stocks vs bonds with your portfolio?
The reason I am asking is that I am very conservative with my portfolio 60/40 but I feel im leaving money on the table, as the market is doing well. I do have a 2 year emergency fund to rely on, as well as rental income. I am thinking moving it to 80/20 or more.
I’m mostly stocks. Something like 93/7. Just started buying some bonds in the past 6 months as a defensive measure (I need a cash/bond buffer for early retirement living expenses).
How do you have so much in an IRA when the annual contribution limit is $5500?
You can rollover most retirement accounts into ordinary IRA accounts. So your company’s 401k can be rolled into a regular IRA which you can then convert to Roth.
Thank you, Ken, for that information!
401k rollovers go into IRAs. We maxed out 401ks over 10+ years and the employer contributed several thousand dollars through the match each year.
Ah, I see. Thanks! Sounds like it is not too beneficial until you actually retire, correct? Otherwise you’re just increasing your AGI. I am in the 28% tax bracket but if I were to convert everything at once it will bump to 33%.
Right. Wait till you are retired and you’ll probably be able to convert a lot and stay in the 10/15% brackets.
(I hope this comes out right)………. 72t or roth conversion? Is it a wash in my case?
Retired 4 yrs ago just prior to turning 52. Will be 59 1/2 in 4 1/2 yrs.
Have $500k in a trad IRA converted from a 401k.
And about $150k in Roth’s. Am living off rental income and a small cash balance / annuity option I had.
Am torn between doing roth IRA conversions over the next few yrs., or just doing a 72t taking $24k per year out now, and every year for the next 30 years. To keep me in the 15% bracket. ($500k / 2.75% return for 30 yrs = $24k per yr.) Either one should hopefully keep me in the 15% bracket the way I have things set up. Even with SS at 62. But would like to feel like I have access to this money and avoid possible huge future tax hits. . To spend, save / whatever. In 7 yrs, including SS my income will be at about $80k per year. The $24k annually from the IRA would put me at about $104k a year. And the Roth would be for a rainy day along with the liquid funds. Thoughts? Advice? Thanks!
I’d build a spreadsheet with these alternative strategies mapped out to see which one keeps you in the lowest tax brackets over the course of the rest of your foreseeable life span. Then implement that strategy 🙂
As for the 72t, the good news is you can switch it up at age 60 and stop it altogether if you want. Might not be a bad idea to do so before SS kicks in so you aren’t in a big tax bracket (unless you need the money – then pay up!).
You spend the 1st 1/2 of your life trying to make as much money as possible.
The 2nd half, you try to make as little as possible.
“The 2nd half, you try to make as little as possible.”
On paper, for tax purposes at least 🙂
Hi Justin. Thanks for the information. I’m trying to understand how you’re balancing melting down your 401k and the 4% rule. Assuming a 700-800k 401k balance, in your example you’re converting more than 4% in order to melt down the 401k. What about sustainability in the long term. How are you ensuring that you will have sufficient income in the later years? Will you be withdrawing at a 4% rate from the Roth at some point? Are you relying on other investment/dividend income? Just trying to better understand how you’re planning on not depleting your funds.
It’s a 4% withdrawal rate from ALL portfolios, so it might be much higher than 4% from just a single account (while you don’t touch the others). Generally the plan for me is to deplete the taxable brokerage account first as I’m converting 401k/IRA to Roth, then live off the Roth balance while I keep converting (until the 401k/trad IRA is all gone, if I ever get to that point).
When you retire and start converting, you need to pay taxes on the converted amount, obviously.
Do you need to do estimated quarterly payments? I’m concerned about getting penalized.
Yes, if you expect to owe taxes on converted amounts you’ll have to pay quarterly estimated taxes. It’s a little tricky to figure out the first time but I just set a reminder on my calendar and it takes about 5 minutes to pay online every 3 months. FYI for a married couple you get about $20,000 in income (or conversions) tax free each year due to standard deductions plus personal exemptions.
Noone has given me a straight answer on this… Can you contribute $24,000 to your company 401K and also $6500 to a Traditional IRA… to take the Tax sheltering? In the Same Year?
Reason started late savings, also want to MAX out reduction inn income taxes in these higher income years. Also would like to REtire at 59 1/2 …only 5 years to Retirement at 59 1/2
Yes, same year as long as your earned income is over $30,500 ($24,000 + $6,500) and you’re age 50+ so the catch up contributions apply.
Just as Follow up Question to have clarity.
If we understand you correctly, Single Tax filer Making over 120K/year…but less than $140K/year… and over 50 years old , in 2018 year can not only contribute $24000 to company 401K , also be able to put $6500 in a Traditional IRA? Therefore be able to lower his taxable income by $30,500
I think being single, you’re over the limit for deferred contributions to an IRA, especially if you have benefits at work.
I use a ROTH IRA, which doesn’t have the same income limits.
There’s an income limit above which you can no longer contribute to trad or Roth IRA if you have a 401k. I think you’re over it (something like 80-90k for single filers). Backdoor Roth IRA might be an option but it’s complicated.
This post is amazing. It’s my 3rd time reading it. I stumbled across this one day at work when I typed in “retire early” and since I live in the RTP area yours popped up near the top.
1, Any tax efficiency strategies for single people with 90k income? You and the others (e.g. retire by 40, financial samurai, the money mustache guy) seem to benefit tax-wise quite a bit from being married +/- kids.
2, How are you getting the ~$3,200 tax burden for the Roth conversion years for single taxpayers? I looked at a tax table for ~$34,000 income and it doesn’t match. I know you mentioned standard deduction…oh wait a minute, are you doing the 34,000 minus standard deduction, and then that is the income for the tax table?? Did I just figure that out in this minute after stewing on this for days?? Wait no, even subtracting out standard deduction, I’m not quite getting $3213. Hmm…
3, Also I’m really having trouble deciding between the Roth 401k and traditional. If I do traditional now, i’m saving 4k in taxes, but according to your little scheme, a roth conversion would put me at about $3k in taxes because your annual budget matches mine. And that’s ~$3k in taxes for every ~$30k converted on all the money in the traditional (which would include any earnings). I just can’t wrap my mind around it. Even if i put the tax savings in a taxable account, I have to pay taxes on that too, right? I’ve tried using several comparison calculators and just remain unconvinced. This is open to any readers! What’s your motivation for choosing one over the other. Paying taxes on future money just seems ahhhhh! to me. What am I missing?
– Novice Saver
I like your blog the best so far out of the “FIRE” blogs I’ve read to date. It’s not preachy nor does it read like a manifesto; even the font you chose makes it easier to read and easy to follow most of the time. The pictures are nice too. I just read the one about your 10k Europe vacation. That took my breath away (because I was holding it as I added up the figures and the careful planning).
That’s 3 questions, not 2 😉
At some point on the income scale you get screwed on taxes. I’d say focus on tax deferred options like trad 401k. Your AGI will likely be too high for trad IRA so that leaves the Roth IRA. My guess is you’ll be in a lower tax bracket in retirement so you can do the conversion ladder at that point and save a bit on taxes (plus you can invest the tax savings now to let it grow for a couple decades to pay future taxes).
Thanks for the accolades. Always nice to hear from folks who enjoy what I do.
Hi Justin, is there any reason not to perform the Roth Conversion as soon as you are on a low tax bracket?
No, you can start the conversions as soon as you drop down to the low tax bracket you’ll be in during retirement. Lots of folks cut back to some form of semi-retirement or work at a fun but lower paying job for a few years before entering full retirement with zero work. That might be a good time to start conversions to get that 5 year ladder going, especially if you are limited on your taxable investments or other source of assets to fund the first 5 years of early retirement.
Hey Justin! I just read that under the newly passed tax laws, the bill has removed the ability to recharacterize any Roth IRA conversions done in 2018 and onward. I’m just wondering what implications you think this has on people like us who have loaded up our traditional IRAs. Is the Roth Conversation ladder is still valid?
Roth IRA conversion ladder is definitely still a valid strategy. The removal of recharacterizations just means you have to get it right the first time 🙂 If anything, you can err on the conservative side and convert $1000-2000 less than you could do at an optimal level. However your total income in retirement shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since you’ll know what dividends and interest you receive by Dec 31 and you can wait till literally the last business day of the year to execute the conversion (basically what I do every year in last week of December 🙂 ).
came here for this comment, stumbled on it JUST in time to get this right for 2022
I’m not sure I understand the part about inflation, but it sounds to me like you are basically paying a 16.3% inflation tax to avoid a 10% conversion penalty. And I don’t understand why you even need to do this – is the Roth IRA not going to be invested in anything conservative during those 5 years so that it will at least keep up with inflation?
You can only withdraw the amount you convert. You are right in that you’ll likely have investment gains on the amount converted but GAINS can’t be withdrawn without penalty (only the converted amount).
It’s not like you’re “losing” the 16% for inflation since you get to withdraw it and spend it after waiting 5 years. It’s inflation – your expenses will naturally increase by about 16% after 5 years. But if you withdrew from a Trad IRA you’d also be paying a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
I cannot find the loophole that prevents the 10% early withdrawal penalty/tax on ROTH IRA conversions. Looking at pages 30 and 31 of publication 590 B, I see this:
“Unless one of the exceptions listed later applies, you must pay the additional tax on the portion of the distribution attributable to the part of the conversion or rollover contribution that you had to include in income because of the conversion or rollover.
You must pay the 10% additional tax in the year of the distribution, even if you had included the conversion or rollover contribution in an earlier year. You also must pay the additional tax on any portion of the distribution attributable to earnings on contributions.”
None of the listed exceptions seem to help with the early retirement scenario. Can you clarify which part of the tax code allows this?
The definition of qualified distributions uses the 5 year timeframe plus use of the word AND for one of the list of exceptions.
You were close 🙂
Read on a bit under the heading “Additional Tax on Early Distributions” on page 30 of Pub 590B. Basically the withdrawal of amounts converted aren’t “qualified distributions” but instead they follow their own rule for determining whether the 10% early withdrawal penalty applies. The IRS Pub explains in full, but basically it’s that 5 year min. holding period I outline in this article.
Consult your own tax advisor in all cases, and I’m just a guy on the internet 🙂
Thanks for the reply Justin! Hilarious that your timing was during the Super Bowl. The language in the first three paragraphs under that heading are very favorable indeed. It was paragraphs 5, 6, and 7 under that very same heading which had gotten me so confused and disheartened prompted my original comment on your blog.
Why can’t we all just have a simpler tax code? I swear they make this intentionally confusing.
Oh, was there a game on? 😉 Not really my thing. I was watching this new sci fi show on Netflix called Altered Carbon. Way better!
Yeah, about that tax code – we wouldn’t want to make it too simple and put all those tax accountants and attorneys out of work would we? 🙂
Yeah, not really my thing anymore either. However, I will be making significant improvements in education and financial literacy while leveraging our culture to do so. Therefore, it was helpful for me that I watched the last half of the game and saw some of the commercials.
I’m a sci-fi fan as well. We need to compare some notes on our favorites. I took my self-actualization name of Trip more than 6 years ago due to a character in Star Trek Enterprise name Charles Tucker III (Trip).
It’s still on my mind to meet up with you at my next opportunity. My two week move to North Carolina in March of 2017 means that I get the joy of filing a NC state return.
Perhaps I just like to take the very long term, future oriented view, but my preference is to think instead about what the accountants and tax attorneys could be doing with their lives instead. A simple tax code would mean a much smaller number in these professions and those people freed up could engage in activities that are actually useful for society as a whole. Tis a waste.
I started the Inheritance trilogy by NK Jemisin. Hat tip to Jeremy at Gocurrycracker for the recommendation. I’m not sure if she’s up and coming or officially arrived, since they’re making a TV show on TNT out of one of her later novels.
Re: tax attorneys and accountants – I have the same qualms about their utility. Is it any more productive than moving rocks from one pile to another? I see them as friction costs of the system and not intrinsically valuable. No offense to any readers who make a living that way, as it’s totally legitimate to earn a buck however you can and do what you’re good at. 🙂
I’ve now had a chance to watch Altered Carbon. Some interesting concepts to think about from that show. I enjoyed the first 2 seasons of The Expanse (someone else’s Amazon Prime account) and the 3 seasons of Dark Matter even more though.
Hi Justin, does one need to be fully retired (i.e. no longer employed at said company identified with the 401k) in order to begin pulling funds from the 401k into the TIRA? I believe that is the case “normally” for accessing one’s 401k. I am self-employed, and considering doing this ladder in lower income years while continuing to run my business, if possible.
It’s worth checking with your plan administrator. I think you are right that generally the 401k plan says you have to be no longer working to withdraw. But as a self employed person who’s to say when you’re done working vs taking a break vs still working?
Justin, I would love it if you would address the numbers again on tax liabilities for 2018 with the increased child tax credit and standard deduction. You’ve got your head wrapped around all the tax cuts and benefits better than I do. Great write up. It seems complicated when I try to apply it, but you make it all look so easy.
Good idea! An update due to the new tax code is overdue.
I’m wondering if I could get your take just a little early. I’m count on retiring just a “little early,” day around five years from now when I’m 59, living strictly on dividends until social security kicks in. Most of my investments are in a traditional ira, thought I have some na roth and taxable accounts. Does this t make any sense for me to consider laddering at this point?
I don’t want to take distributions other than collect dividends that have been rolling back into the market.
Depends on a lot of factors. If you’re taking ACA subsidies then you might not want to do Roth Conversions since it could push your income above the threshold for the credit (costing you thousands). Otherwise, if all you have is dividend income, then you cold probably do some small level of Roth conversions (say $12000 per year if single or $24000 for a married couple) without incurring much federal income tax liability (assuming all dividend income is taxed at 0% rate). Might as well take the “free” Roth conversions if it won’t eliminate your ACA subsidy. Also consider impact on state taxes if applicable.
Thank you for the inspiration.
Can you clarify something for me: are you still taking about 10k from qualified dividends from the taxable accounts and the rest of your living expenses of 30k is withdrawn as the principal from the same accounts?
Thank you in adavnce.
Still taking 10k in dividends. The other $30k is roughly what I end up earning from my blog and a little consulting a few hours per month. So I’m not actually selling much from my taxable and spending it. Still converting to Roth when I can tax-wise.
I only have 401k account as I was a resident alien but now I’m an Nonresident alien.
How can I tap my 401k funds without incurring in taxes and penalties using a ladder like you do?
No clue about that! You might just have to pay the taxes on withdrawals since our government will want their due now since you avoided taxes before! 🙂
Hey Justin. I have a question about his part of the post.
“Ignoring other income, a single person climbing the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder will pay $3,213 in federal income tax each year to keep the ladder going. That’s the tax due on a $34,800 IRA conversion. Since the standard deduction and personal exemption are indexed to inflation, the tax burden will remain $3,213 each year (in real terms).”
Specifically the part about ignoring other income. How much income can I make and still pull off the Roth conversion ladder. What tax bracket would be ideal to perform the Roth conversion ladder. If I’m in the 24% tax bracket should I try to get down to the 22% bracket and If I’m in the 22% bracket should I try to get into the 12% income bracket? I know a lot depends on defense and how much money you need to cover your expenses. Also if I have money in a taxable about that I will be withdrawing from during the Roth conversion period will I have to pay just long term capital gains tax or taxes based on how much income I withdraw?
All income adds together. So it’s a balancing act. If you convert a lot AND you have to sell a lot and take capital gains, you’ll probably end up in a higher tax bracket. You want to plan out a strategy that keeps you in the lowest brackets possible over the first five years while you’re getting the conversions started (and probably taking some cap gains to fund living expenses).
This may be a dumb question but what do you do when the accounts are empty? Do you stay below the 4% withdrawal rule so that doesn’t happen or did I miss something? Sounded to me like there’s not much left at 59 and your conversion.
We’re jumping on the FI ladder just don’t want it to tip over after a short time of living the dream!
Yes, you have to keep overall spending from the portfolio around 4% or less or you’ll run out of money! The Roth IRA Conversion ladder is simply a way to shift money into a more tax favored account and access that money penalty free way before age 59.5.
Great article !
A question about IRA balance during Roth ladder:
When we convert from traditional to roth (taxable event), do we need to convert entire IRA balance? E.g. i am working and lets say i have $100k sitting in IRA (from previous 401k rollovers). Now i retire from my current job. I start Roth ladder in 1st year of low income. Do i need to convert my entire 100k IRA balance during 1st year ? ( this question came to my mind when i heard a Bigger Pockets podcast and there was a financial planner guest who mentioned that you have to basically empty your IRA, then create new IRA for 2nd year ladder then empty it and so on). I might have understood it incorrectly, hence wanted to clarify.
I’ve been doing Roth conversions from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA in both 2018 and 2019. You don’t have to do the full balance of the account.
My brokerage allows me to transfer a specific number of shares of my choosing from the funds that I have. I always opt NOT to have federal income tax withheld (since the plan is to pay $0 in federal income tax). I find it super convenient that the shares don’t have to be sold and then re-purchased.
Trip – What brokerage do you use?
I suspect all the major online brokerages (TD Ameritrade, E Trade, Charles Schwab, Fidelity, etc.) would allow Roth conversions in this same way.
I used Scottrade for a very long time and loved their FRIP. No other brokerage provided a FRIP — everyone else uses DRIP. Unfortunately, Scottrade merged into TD Ameritrade and the combined company thought they knew better and stuck with the DRIP. AFAIK, the FRIP is now extinct.
I moved to E Trade and received large promotional bonuses due to the transfer. I’ve been happy with their site. If you’re seeking to move your accounts to receive their promotional bonuses, then please let me know as I can receive a referral bonus.
I wish you and your family prosperous, long lives!
Oh good, I already have E-Trade solo and solo roth accounts but I haven’t contributed to either yet so that’s good to know. Thanks.
Others have given good advice. I’ll just add that you definitely don’t have to empty the IRA. I’ve been doing small amounts the past few years like $3-7k per year and there’s probably half a million still in that IRA. Very easy to do at my custodian (Vanguard).
Did you pay state income taxes on TIRA–>Roth conversions?
Yes, Roth Conversions are subjected to state income taxes (for those states which have a state income tax).
Thanks, Colorado has a state income tax but it is confusing. They may treat it differently if the penalty for early distributions is applicable. Which is not in this case.
Did you file form 8606 also with your federal return?
Of course, but the tax preparation software takes care of that automatically for you.
I use H&R Block softwate, it only gives a message you may need to file an 8606. It is not automatic
Thanks Trip. I went back and I think it is a bug in the software. A Data Verification comes up at the end to fill out a form 8606. I checked, it does generate this form automatically.
Can you do a IRA or BAckdoor IRA..even if you contribute MAX to an Employer 401K?
Yes in general as long as you have enough earned income to support those contributions. And as long as you don’t make too much to contribute to an IRA. Of course backdoor is always an option regardless of income level.
Did you file form 8606 also with your federal return?
Justin, Have you considered increasing your roth conversion amount while you still have Kids to claim as dependents to get the child tax credit? Especially with the increase to $2k/dependent, it might be worthwhile to convert more now to help minimize the amount you will have to convert once they no longer qualify to be your dependents.
How much can you convert from traditional IRA to Roth IRA in 2018 without any tax liability assuming no other earned income? What will be changed when it comes to 2019?
Use the Turbotax Tax caster site to check: https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/calculators/taxcaster
Looks like roughly $13,400 if you are single will get you to net $0. Nothing much changes for 2019; the standard deduction is $12,200 for singles.
Essentially, if you have no other deductions or credits or income, then you can plan to convert up to the standard deduction.
Great article (and nice you’re still responding to people!) I have a question that I can’t seem to find an answer for. I’ve been doing the Roth conversion ladder since 2015 (& keeping track of it on an Excel spreadsheet).
YEAR ROTH CNV LEAVE IN UNTIL JAN I WILL BE
2015 13,000.00 2020 58
2016 11,000.00 2021 59
2017 7,000.00 2022 60
2018 8,500.00 2023 61
I know that each converted amount has to remain in the Roth for 5 years, but when can I withdraw earnings? (Since starting this, my Roth has earned around 13K.) Thanks again!
You CAN withdraw earnings anytime, but I assume you mean tax-free or penalty-free, so that’s what I will include below.
According to IRS Publication 590-B (section “Additional Tax on Early Distributions” for Roth IRAs), “You also must pay the additional tax on any portion of the distribution attributable to earnings on contributions.”
Thus, I read that to mean that prior to age 59.5, you pay a penalty if you withdraw any earnings, unless one of the 3 situations below applies.
Once you are beyond the 5-year time frame, you can also withdraw earnings tax-free if you meet one of these three criteria:
1) the money is used to buy, build or rebuild a first home, up to a $10,000 maximum that is spent within 120 days of the withdrawal
2) the money is withdrawn because you suffered a disability
3) the money is distributed to your beneficiaries or to your estate after you die
You may also withdraw contributions and earnings within the year in which you made the contribution and pay taxes on the earnings:
“Withdrawals of contributions by due date. If you withdraw contributions (including any net earnings on the contributions) by the due date of your return for the year in which you made the contribution, the contributions are treated as if you never made them. If you have an extension of time to file your return, you can withdraw the contributions and earnings by the extended due date. The withdrawal of contributions is tax free, but you must include the earnings on the contributions in income for the year in which you made the contributions.”
I still don’t feel like I get it, but this is the closest I have felt to getting it. Thanks for the examples, your personal example, and the instructions at the end.
What is it you still don’t understand? Perhaps I can offer some additional guidance.
This is the best Roth IRA conversion ladder article I’ve seen, Thank you!
I’m currently in the highest tax bracket but looking to retire in 5 years at the age of 48. I’ve been doing some Roth conversions but nothing large scale because I.m paying ordinary tax on the conversion. Question is, does it make more sense for me to wait to retire and then do more aggressive roth conversions, assuming a lower tax bracket? Thanks.
Absolutely. If you know you will be in a lower bracket, then wait and convert up to the top of whichever bracket makes sense for you when retired. Remember that right now, you will pay the highest marginal rate on each dollar of conversion, so even if you retire and move one bracket lower, you still save 2% on the conversion (37% to the 35% bracket).
As an example, say right now you have $550,000 in ordinary income, which places you in the 37% marginal bracket for singles. Even $1 of Roth conversion is taxed at 37%.
Now, assume in retirement you have $400,000 in ordinary income before any conversions, which is in the 35% bracket. You can then convert $110,300 from your Roth, which will increase your taxable income to the top of the 35% bracket.
In addition, you will probably have much more flexibility with your ordinary income in retirement unless you are slated for an enormous pension.
If you currently have enough every year from your investment income to cover you expenses why would you need to use the conversion latter?
Some of my investment income is within the IRAs and 401ks. So the conversion ladder is a way for me to gain access to those funds now instead of waiting until age 60.
Is this a good strategy if one does not require any funds till 59.5?
Just retired at 43
Enough funds to last till 59.5
Trad IRA value today: 500k
Roth IRA value today: 30k
Thanks much in advance.
Sure, spend your taxable/brokerage accounts till 59.5 and convert a bit each year from traditional to Roth IRA. Even $20-30k will put a big dent in your $500k Trad IRA balance after 17 years of doing so. Manage your taxable income each year of course, but definitely consider converting at least a part of it to Roth to manage your taxable income in later years, and to minimize RMDs at age 70.5.
Thank you Sir! I missed to think about taxation on RMDs.
While we’re on topic, I will be spending most of next 20 years outside USA in a country with Double taxation treaty with USA. Would that change anything on how you think about systematically converting from Trad to Roth?
Thanks once again.
I’m going to have to plead ignorance on the foreign tax treatment issues! Sorry…
Is there a way to do this if you have tax-deferred funds in a retirement annuity (like the kind Fidelity offers to those who already maxed out their retirement accounts for additional tax-deferred savings)?
I don’t think so with the annuity funds themselves, however you could still convert your trad IRA/401k assets to Roth using this conversion ladder approach (if that’s the question you are asking).
I think your annuity payments will always be taxed at the full income rate, which will limit the advantage of the Roth ladder by upping your tax rate on those conversions as well.
Sorry for not posing the question properly. Suppose I had $50,000 in one of these variable retirement annuities, like the kind Fidleity offers which they call “Fidelity Personal Retirement Annuity”. It’s all after-tax dollars with tax-deferred growth. These have the 59.5 penalty that all other retirement accounts have. Could I send, say, $25,000 of it directly into a traditional IRA then rollover to Roth to get around this in 5 years?
You may wonder why I’d consider even using such an annuity given wrapper fees. The reason is for asset/creditor protection since there’s no federal/state limit on what one can contribute to those.
This is a very good study on converting (laddering) ira to roth.
Converting or not converting doesn’t seem to have a big impact on overall retiree disposable income. The benefits really depend on individual circumstances. The conclusions that stuck out to me were:
1) IRA to Roth conversions protect against future tax increases by reducing the portion of retirement sav-ings subject to income taxes later in retirement (i.e., the IRA). The open issue is how much of a projected tax increase and to which tax brackets, warrant conversions.
2) Directing savings to the Roth with the intention reducing the tax burden for the heirs incurs a reduction in the retiree’s annual disposable income.
3. The decision to convert or not to convert may be influenced by external factors beyond maximizing disposable income. If the retiree is retiring into a down stock market it would intuitively seem a prudent time to make large IRA withdrawals in spite of paying income taxes. The state of the market is of course reflected in the depressed retirement savings account balances. It would seem desirable to convert when asset prices are depressed because there is less tax paid and the state of the market is amenable to a recovery. Following the same logic, converting when asset prices are inflated would seem imprudent.
Hi, thank you for all the information. I am looking to retire early in the next 5 to 7 years, and as a side hustle, I’m starting to build a small real estate portfolio, so hopefully I won’t need to dip into my 401k/IRA. Seems like doing the roth conversion would still be a good idea so I don’t need to pay taxes in future years. I’m just wondering if my rental income would limit the amount I could convert each year, e.g pushing my income into the 25% or higher bracket.
I know the tax laws changed since this was written, but I couldn’t figure this part of the article out blog post out…
“Since we have three kids, we could convert up to $58,750 each year without paying any federal income tax.”
I understand the standard deduction now is $24,800 for married filing jointly and anything less than that is $0 federal taxed. Does anyone know where the remaining ~$34k come from?
The kids are a tax *credit* vs deduction. If you use the pre-TCJA rules and tax brackets when this was written, the tax owed is ~$3K and the 3 x $1000 credit wipes out the remaining tax liability. The post-TCJA rules may allow for an even higher contribution now, since the child tax credit is now $2K / child (up to age 16), which allows for up to $6K of pre-credit tax owed. I think that ups the possible conversion to ~78K [(78000 – 24800) * .11ish blended rate = ~6K – 6K credit = 0]
For anyone else after this, assuming the above is right, if you don’t need the large conversion amount, could the new child tax credit be used as a way to generate income, since it’s partially refundable?
I think you’re right – the child tax credits are partially refundable so you make be able to “make” money on the tax credits! We did that one year when we were still working as I recall. Our overall tax burden was slightly negative due to refundable child tax credits.
Wow. You post from five years ago still gets comments and you patiently answer, each and everyone of them? That is just incredible.
Quick question: I work for the state of NC as well. I have two 457 options to choose from a pre-tax 457 and a Roth 457. Which one would you suggest contributing to?
Intuition tells me, pre-tax 57, because, you flatten the tax burden while employed and after retirement (hopefully an early one). I am correct in guessing this? Or I am missing something simple but critical?
You got it! Lower your taxes while working because when you retire your income will very likely drop quite a bit anyway.
Would this be a wise plan if one would not need access to money until age 59.5?
Yes, because you may be able to convert to Roth accounts in a low tax bracket (if your income is low before age 59.5). That would give you access to tax-free withdrawals after age 60 and would reduce your RMDs at age 72 or 75 or whenever they start.
You don’t have to post this comment but I wanted to express my gratitude and astonishment that the comments on this 2015 blog post are still going!!! I have just started reading your content and I appreciate the level of interaction you have with your readers. Thank you.