You’ve figured out your budget, your retirement nest egg is substantial, and you’re ready to make the transition to living on income from savings instead of income from work. But have you thought through the tax implications? It’s very common for tax planning to be overlooked, under the assumption that you’ll be in a lower tax bracket and Social Security payments aren’t fully taxed. In fact, a recent study found that 57% of Americans rarely consider the taxes they will pay/are paying in retirement.1 This can be an expensive mistake, and it has implications for other retirement benefits.
A New Tax Landscape
Depending on your income from other sources, up to 85% of your Social Security benefits may incur Federal income taxes. Additionally, withdrawals from a 401(k) and traditional IRAs are taxable, since the money you funded them with was tax-deferred. Pension payments are also considered taxable income. If you have taxable investment accounts you should be aware that dividends, interest income and capital gains from stock sales will all create tax liabilities.
Your new retirement tax bracket is derived from your combined income, which is your adjustable gross income, nontaxable interest income and some portion of your Social Security. If your income is high enough, you may have to pay a premium over regular rates for Medicare Part B.
Lifestyle Tactics to Lower Your Tax Bill
The first step to reducing your potential tax bill is to lower your income needs. To do this, many people try to pay off or pay down as much as possible on mortgage and other debts before retirement. This means you won’t have to withdraw as much income, which will lower your tax liability. This may require some re-jiggering of budgets or putting off discretionary expenses during the last years of working, but the advantage over the course of your retirement may be worth it.
If you’re planning to move in retirement, or even if you hadn’t thought of it but are open to the idea – consider moving somewhere with lower taxes. This can include lower state income taxes or even states that don’t tax retirement income.
If you’re set for income needs and had planned to make a charitable contribution, consider doing it directly from a traditional IRA. Once you reach the age of 72, Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) will kick in. The lower your balance, the lower the amount of the RMD.
Investment Strategies for Managing Income
Asset allocation is a strategy for diversifying your accounts across investment types. Asset location refers to a strategy for placing investments in accounts where they have the potential to lower your tax liability.
Taxable accounts, such as brokerage accounts, should hold tax-efficient investments. These include stocks you will hold for more than a year; tax-exempt municipal bonds; and index funds. Tax-deferred accounts are good homes for tax-inefficient investments. These include fixed income, commodities, some alternatives, and other actively managed strategies.
If you have a Roth IRA from which you can withdraw tax-free, along with a traditional IRA, you may want to be thoughtful about your total income picture when determining which account to withdraw from. Taking from the appropriate account based on whether your income is likely to be higher or lower in a given year can lower taxes.
Converting to a Roth IRA may also be a good strategy – but you’ll need to think through when and how much you’ll convert, or your upfront tax bill will be quite large. Staggering the conversion over several years can make it more manageable.
The Bottom Line
Retirement planning doesn’t stop with creating an investment strategy to generate the income you want. Carefully thinking through the tax implications and making tactical moves to keep income as tax-advantageous as possible can have a lasting impact.
1. The 2021 Nationwide Retirement Institute Tax-Efficient Retirement Income Survey. The Harris Poll. March 25, 2021.