I spend a lot of time talking about retirement accounts, and for many Americans, the only stocks they will ever own are in their 401(k) and IRAs. I don’t know why, but many have never even considered investing outside of a retirement account, and a few have even thought it was not possible.
It is a GREAT idea to invest outside of your retirement accounts. Why? Because the contribution limits are so low for IRAs ($5,500) and 401(k) accounts ($18,500). There are a lot of people who put in that amount and then think they can’t do any more investing or that they don’t need to. There’s nothing magical about these amounts. No one is promised that if you save $5,500 a year into an IRA that you will have enough to retire (especially if you are getting a late start). And if you have ambitions to be wealthy, it may take you 30 or 40 years of 401(k) contributions to break the $1 million mark.
While we often talk about the tax benefits of retirement contributions, let’s actually run through the math of an IRA investment and making the same investment in a taxable account. The results may surprise you.
Let’s say you put in $5,000 to a Traditional IRA this year and also deposit $5,000 into a taxable account. In each account, you buy the same investment, such as a S&P 500 ETF, and hold it for 20 years until retirement. Assuming you get an 8% annualized return for those 20 years, in both accounts, your position would have grown to $23,304.79.
At the 20 year mark you withdraw both accounts. What taxes are due?
From the Traditional IRA, the entire withdrawal is treated as ordinary income. You may be in the 24% tax bracket, in which case you would owe $5,593.15 in taxes. That’s pretty painful and the reason why so many retirees hate taking money out of their IRAs and limit their withdrawals to their Required Minimum Distributions.
What about for the taxable account? You started with a $5,000 cost basis, so your taxable gain is $18,304.79. It is a long-term capital gain (more than one year), and will be taxed at the capital gains rate of 15%. Your tax due is $2,745.72. That’s less than half of the tax you’d pay on the withdrawal from the retirement account that you did for the “tax benefit”. Is that IRA a scam?
No, because you also got an upfront tax deduction for the IRA contribution. If you were in the 24% bracket, you would have saved $1,200 in taxes for making that $5,000 contribution. If you subtract the $1,200 in tax savings from $5,593, you still see that your net taxes paid was quite high: $4,393.
However, that is ignoring the time value of money and getting to save that $1,200 now. If you actually invest the $1,200 you saved that year, and have it grow at 8% for 20 years, guess what it grows to? $5593.15. (If you invested this in a retirement account, you will owe 24% in taxes on this gain, or another $1342.)
The key to coming out ahead with doing an IRA versus a taxable account is that you need to actually invest the tax savings you receive in year one. If you just consume that tax savings, instead of saving it, you actually might have been better off instead doing the taxable account where you could receive the lower capital gains rate.
The best solution is to maximize your retirement accounts AND save in a taxable account. If you want to become a millionaire in 10 years, save $5,466 a month. People have ambitious finish lines, but don’t set savings goals that are in line and realistic with their goals. The short-term activity has to match the long-term objectives. Once you are in retirement, it is a great benefit to have different types of accounts – IRAs, Roth, and taxable – to manage your tax liability.
My point is: Don’t be afraid of a taxable account. Retirement accounts are good, but mainly if you are going to save the upfront tax benefit you receive! Today’s ETFs are very tax efficient. While you will likely have dividend distributions of about two percent a year in a US equity ETF, when you reinvest those dividends, you are also increasing your cost basis. If you’re looking to invest in both a retirement and taxable account, let’s talk about how you can do this in the most effective way possible.