You worked hard to save enough money for retirement, but that’s only part of the battle.
Once you retire and rely on that money as your main income source, the last thing you want is for the government to get a big chunk of it. Most people will enter retirement with less money than they need, so taxes must be minimized. In fact, even if you have saved a lot of money, you'll still want to pay the lowest possible taxes.
1. Know What’s Taxable
That’s easy – just about everything is taxable. The question is, when is it taxable? If you have investments outside of tax-advantaged retirement accounts, they’re taxable each year, whether you are retired or not. These may include regular brokerage accounts, real estate, savings accounts and some others.
Most retirement-designated income, on the other hand, isn't taxable until you actually retire. Then, it is. Withdrawals from traditional IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s – and payments from annuities, pensions, military retirement accounts and many others – may be taxable.
The Roth IRA, meanwhile, is a hybrid. The money you put into the account is taxable before you make the deposit, but the investment gains are tax-free if you wait to withdraw them until you experience a "qualifying event." Turning 59½ is one qualifying event; some research on your own or with the help of a financial advisor will help you figure out the others, as well as which other assets are taxable. (See also: Retirement Savings: Tax-Deferred or Tax-Exempt?)
2. Know Your Bracket
According to Nathan Garcia, CFP, wealth advisor at Strategic Wealth Partners in Maryland, “The easiest way to reduce taxes is by keeping your income within the tax bracket that taxes long-term capital gains at 0%. Doing so will also keep your ordinary income taxes in the 15% bracket."
For couples in 2018, this means taxable income of up to $77,400; for single people, it means taxable income up to $38,700.
Meeting the income requirements is not always easy. "A lot of planning has to go into properly executing this strategy because you must incorporate Social Security, pension and other income sources along with any retirement account distributions," said Garcia. "You or your advisor has to have a clear understanding of your basis in your non-qualified investment accounts.”
He continues, “To properly execute this strategy you should take distributions up to the top of the marginal tax bracket (up to $77,400 as a couple) even if you don't need the income. Doing so will help you build a buffer for future years when you do need the income. If you find that you need more income than the $77,400 you can take this money from a Roth account.”
3. Do a Roth Conversion
Remember, a Roth IRA taxes you now instead of when you withdraw the money. Paying taxes now, while you’re still working, eliminates the tax burden later in life when you need all the money you can get.
Josh Trubow, CFP, of Sensible Financial Planning said, “Without assuming any changes to the tax code in the future, doing Roth conversions in low income years is a strategy for paying taxes at a lower tax bracket by shifting when you realize the income. We determine how much the client should convert on a year-by-year basis in order to fill up the lower tax brackets and pay taxes at a lower rate (now) than they would if they waited and withdrew funds in a year when they'll be in a higher tax bracket.”
4. Tax Diversification
Just as you should diversify your investment portfolio to avoid large-scale losses, you should do the same with your taxes because your tax bracket will likely fluctuate at various times in your life.
Chris Kowalik of ProFeds, federal retirement expert and frequent speaker to federal employees on financial planning, says, “Tax diversification is the concept that during various economic times, a retiree has several buckets of money to choose from. When taxes are relatively high, a retiree might choose to take income from a tax-free account. When taxes are relatively low, a retiree may choose to take income from a taxable account.”
5. Consider Moving
Ever wonder why Florida is such a popular destination for retirees? It’s not just the beaches – it’s the lack of state income tax. Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wyoming and Alaska all lack a state income tax as well.
Anthony D. Criscuolo, CFP, Palisades Hudson Financial Group, says, “This strategy can work, but it isn’t the only solution. One option is to invest in state-specific municipal bond funds. But before you do anything, understand how state and local taxes will affect your retirement nest egg.” (See also: The Best States to Retire to for Tax Reasons.)
The Bottom Line
The key to keeping your retirement taxes low is not to wait until retirement to start making plans. Instead, make plans well before you have to rely on your retirement savings as your main source of income. Financial planning is no easy task. It’s best to seek the advice of a financial advisor with experience in designing tax-efficient wealth management plans.