December 1, 2023

4 Smart Ways to Maximize Your IRA Contributions

Unless you’re near retirement, chances are you’re depositing a certain amount of cash each year in your IRA at tax time, then kind of forgetting about it, not thinking much about it until the next year. This dynamic can cost you a lot of money – today and at retirement age. Here are few ways to make all your hard-earned money work even harder.

Invest your money, don’t simply fund it. According to a Vanguard study, two-thirds of last-minute IRA contributions end up just sitting in money market funds. The result? They’re just a little more than a checking account with a fancy name. Lesson: Don’t let your funds sit idle. They should be placed in the right investment; perhaps, a target-date mutual fund. Maybe a bond fund, or some carefully selected stocks. Do the work now. Take time to analyze what’s right for you so you can max out your investment.

Convert to a Roth. This scenario might not apply to you, but it’s a reality that quite a few have encountered: A sharp mid-career income loss, say, because of the pandemic, which would put you into a lower tax bracket. If this applies to you, it’s a good time to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth. Another scenario where converting might be a good idea is if tax rates are temporarily lowered by Congress. There’s also the backdoor Roth, which is a good tax reduction strategy; it works best for people who have high salaries (think C-suite) and access to a workplace retirement plan that causes them to be ineligible to deduct their traditional IRA contributions in the first place. It’s easy. Open a new traditional IRA, make non-deductible contributions, then convert it to a Roth. All said and done, no matter where you fall on the income spectrum, Roth IRAs are well worth looking into.

Avoid the procrastination penalty. Sure, making a full-sized IRA contribution right before your filing deadline feels good. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do, right? Taking the tax break for the prior year, right? Yes, but not so fast. (Just to refresh, it’s $6,500 for individuals in 2023; $7,500 for people 50 and older; the contribution cap is $7,000 for individuals in 2024 and $8,000 for people 50 and older.) But here’s the rub: You’ve left more than 15 months of potential investment income on the table. What? Yes, that is $6,500 that you should have invested during the previous year, maybe placed in a mutual fund or stock, that could have been earning for you. So, think again about waiting until the last minute to contribute. It might end up being quite costly.

Invest in stocks and bonds – strategically. If you’ve been lucky enough to maximize your tax-advantaged account contributions and have some cash left over in your standard investment accounts, think about buying bonds in your IRA and stocks in your standard account. But why? Bond dividends are taxed as ordinary income. Stocks and stock-filled mutual funds generally generate capital gains. Specifically, these gains aren’t simply regular payments you get from your stocks. They’re the increase in their sticker price each year. It’s important to understand the difference. Capital gains, which only occur when you sell a stock or fund, are taxed at a lower rate. It makes sense to put them in taxable investment account and then save your tax-advantaged accounts for larger investments. Regardless of which IRA you decide upon, you won’t pay taxes on money while it stays put in your account.

Saving for retirement is one of the most important things you can do. Granted, life happens and sometimes you get off track. But if you keep your eyes on your future nest egg and max out contributions while you’re working, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy your next season of life.