Retirement Savings: I Lost $400K in a Roth IRA

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Finance and retirement planning experts are usually quick to recommend that one set money aside in a Roth account. And it looks like the vast majority of Americans agree with them.

A new survey hosted by Derek Sall, a personal finance expert and the founder of LifeAndMyFinances, found that 92% of Americans think they should be investing in a Roth IRA. Sall wasn’t surprised by just how many people are of the belief that Roths are a financial must-have.

“I estimated that 95% of people would say they should invest in a Roth — I wasn’t too far off!” Sall told GOBankingRates. “But why? Why did I think the percentage would be so high? Simple. It’s what I’ve heard all my life — from every smart investor, from every influencer. Even Dave Ramsey himself tells his millions of listeners to invest in a Roth. ‘It’s tax-free growth,’ they say. ‘You’ll have tax-free money in retirement,’ is another common one, [and] ‘taxes will likely go up in the future, so it’s smart to invest in a Roth now.'”

It all sounds so wise and the insight comes from wise people in the realm of personal finance. But in Sall’s opinion, this is horrible advice. Speaking to his own personal experience, he estimated a $400,000 loss of retirement income by having invested in a Roth IRA versus a traditional 401(k). What exactly did he discover?

The Tax Rate You Have Now Likely Won’t Be the Same in Retirement

The root of the problem, as Sall sees it, is that people assume that if they’re paying 22% tax on the money that’s going toward a Roth today, they’ll likely owe at least 22% tax on other income in retirement. But that’s perhaps not how it will pan out.

Are You Retirement Ready?

“You’re way more likely to have a lower income in retirement than you have today, so you’ll likely be in a lower tax bracket in the future,” Sall said. “You can see this from current retirees. Instead of earning a household income of $70,784 (the median household income), they’re earning just $47,620. After the standard deduction, they only owe $1,992 in taxes each year, which is a 4.2% effective tax rate. You’re paying 22% tax today to save 4.2% in retirement. No thanks.”

What You Can Save in Taxes Today Is Not Equal to the Taxes You Can Save in the Future

The second reason a Roth IRA isn’t the right choice for most Americans is a bit trickier to comprehend, but it comes down to the fact that the amount you can save in taxes today (by investing in a traditional IRA) is not apples to apples when compared to the taxes you can save in the future (by investing in a Roth today).

“It comes down to the marginal tax rate vs. the effective tax rate,” Sall said. “The effective tax rate is the average tax you pay. So with our laddered tax system, you pay 10% on some income, 12% on the next step and then perhaps 22% if you make enough, and so on. If you earn $122,000 in a year, you’ll have an effective tax rate of 9.8%. You pay $11,980, which is 9.8% of your income of $122,000.”

But wait, there’s more. Take a deep breath, because it gets pretty complex.

“The marginal tax rate is the tax rate of the bracket you’re in. So at a $122,000 income, you’re in the 22% tax bracket, so your marginal tax rate is 22%,” Sall explained.

Are You Retirement Ready?

“If you put your money in a traditional IRA, you’re deferring the marginal tax rate (the upper tier tax bracket) so you can pay the effective tax rate (the average rate) in retirement. In other words, you’re saving yourself 22% in taxes today if you agree to pay a 9.8% tax in retirement (assuming the same income and same tax rates). Ummm … yeah, I’ll defer taxes! But if you invest in a Roth, that means you’re paying 22% tax today so you can save 9.8% in retirement. No thanks. Bad deal!”

How To Figure Out Whether a Roth Is Right for You

One could go on and on about the complexities that make investing in a Roth IRA a poor financial choice for so many Americans. But there are situations wherein doing so could be a smart choice. To simplify the question of whether or not you should opt for a Roth, use this free Roth calculator.

“Chances are, [you] should avoid the Roth,” Sall said. “But if [you’re] young, contribute a ton to retirement and plan to produce a huge income in later years, then a Roth may still be for [you].”

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