Physician Retirement Planning

Now Is The Time To Do A Roth Conversion

Whenever you hear the words ‘bear market’, you should be thinking the words ‘Roth conversion’. The U.S. stock market is currently down more than 15% compared to its all-time high on December 27, 2021. A falling stock market is the best time to do a Roth conversion. Therefore, now is the best time to do a Roth conversion.

Summary Points:

  • Convert a portion of your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA during a bear market
  • Convert those individual investments that have lost the most in their value
  • Replenish your traditional IRA by doing a rollover from your 401(a), 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan
  • Multiple small Roth IRA conversions are smarter than doing one large conversion in an attempt to time the bottom of the bear market


There are two situations when it is to your advantage to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA: (1) when your income tax rate is low and (2) when the value of your traditional IRA falls. We are currently in a time when both federal income taxes are low compared to the past and the value of stocks and bonds has fallen. When you convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, you will pay federal and state income tax on the value of the IRA at the time of the conversion. Therefore, if the value of the traditional IRA is low, you will pay less in income taxes when you do the conversion. History teaches us that when the stock market falls, it eventually goes back up. After you do the Roth conversion, the value of that Roth investment will eventually go back up and when it does, you will not have to pay any income taxes on it!

Let’s say that on December 27, 2021, you had $50,000 invested in an S&P 500 index mutual fund in a traditional IRA and you decided to convert it into a Roth. And let’s further say that your federal income tax rate is 15%. You would have to pay $7,500 in federal income tax when you did the conversion. But if you did that conversion last week, when the S&P 500 index had fallen to 3,901, the $50,000 in your traditional IRA was now worth $40,926 and you would have paid $6,139 in federal income tax – a savings of $1,361!

But what if I don’t have a traditional IRA?

There are 3 ways to put money into a traditional IRA. First, you can contribute pre-tax income directly into a traditional IRA but only if you have an income of less than $78,000 per year ($129,000 if married, filing jointly). In this situation, the traditional IRA is very similar to a 401(k) or 403(b).

Second, you can contribute post-tax income into a traditional IRA if your income is above $78,000 per year ($129,000 if married, filing jointly). Under either of these two situations, the annual contribution limit to a traditional IRA is $6,000 per year (or $7,000 per year if you are over age 50 years old). This is a great strategy for doing an annual ‘backdoor’ Roth but it is generally not a good strategy to put post-tax dollars into a traditional IRA and then leave it there. The reason is that you will pay regular income tax on the accrued value of the traditional IRA but would have paid the lower capital gains tax on the accrued value had you put that money in a regular investment.

The third way of putting money into a traditional IRA is to do a rollover from an employer-sponsored retirement plan. These plans include the 401(a), 401(k), 403(b), and 457 retirement plans. There is not a limit to the amount that you can rollover each year. There are several important rollover rules, however:

  1. You can only do 1 rollover per year. When you do a rollover, you have to wait 12 months before you can do another rollover.
  2. You must deposit the rollover money into the traditional IRA within 60 days of withdrawing it from the employer-sponsored retirement plan. The safest way to do the rollover is to do a “trustee-to-trustee” rollover meaning that the investment company that holds your traditional IRA arranges for the money to be directly transferred from the employer-sponsored retirement plan into the traditional IRA without touching your hands. If, instead, you have the employer sponsored retirement plan send you a check, then it is up to you to ensure that you deposit that money into the traditional IRA within 60 days.
  3. You can only do a rollover if either the employer discontinues the retirement plan or you are no longer employed by that employer. The latter most commonly occurs when you change jobs to a new employer or you retire.

Traditional IRAs give you more investment choices than employer-sponsored retirement plans. Also, you can often find similar investments with lower annual expenses that you can include in your traditional IRA. When you leave your employer for a new job, you have the option of either rolling your old employer’s 401(k)/403(b)/457 into your new employer’s 401(k)/403(b)/457 or rolling the funds into your traditional IRA. I would argue that it is better to do the rollover into your traditional IRA because of the prospect of lower expenses, the wider choices of investments, AND the opportunity to do Roth IRA conversions during bear markets.

It is easiest if you have your traditional IRA with the same investment company that you have your Roth IRA. If you have your Roth IRA with Vanguard, then also have a traditional IRA with Vanguard. If your Roth IRA is with Fidelity, then have a traditional IRA with Fidelity. Using a large investment company for both makes it very simple to move money from the traditional IRA into the Roth IRA when doing a conversion. Large investment companies (like Vanguard or Fidelity) will also work with you to facilitate trustee-to-trustee rollovers from your employer-sponsored retirement plan, even if that plan is with another investment company. On-line accounts allow you to do your rollovers and conversions from your own home on your own time, without having to drive someplace to meet with an investment advisor.

Beware of the 5-year rule

When you put money into a Roth IRA, that money grows tax-free and you do not have to pay any tax on withdrawals when you take the money out in retirement. That means no income tax, no capital gains tax, no interest tax, and no dividend tax. Furthermore, unlike other deferred income accounts (such as a traditional IRA, 401(l), 403(b), or 457), there are no annual required minimum distributions from the Roth IRA after you turn age 72.

However, it is important to be aware that you cannot withdraw money that you put into a Roth IRA for 5 years. In other words, if you convert $10,000 from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA today, you cannot withdraw that money from your Roth IRA account until 2027.

Because of the 5-year rule, you should consider any Roth conversion to be a long-term investment. In other words, don’t put the newly converted money into a low rate of return investment such as a money market account or certificate of deposit within the Roth account. Money from Roth conversions should ideally be put into a broad stock market index fund in the Roth account. In the past 30 years, there have only been 2 times that the S&P 500 index took more than 1-year to recover from a downturn: in 2000 (7 years to recover) and 2007 (6 years to recover). In both of these prolonged downturns, if you had waited to do a Roth conversion until the S&P 500 index had fallen by 15% of its peak, you would have only had 3 1/2 years to recover after the 2000 downturn and only had 2 1/2 years to recover after the 2007 downturn. In both cases, your Roth fund would have fully recovered and then increased in value by the time the 5-years was past.

How should I time my Roth conversion during a bear market?

One of the simultaneously wonderful and maddening things about the stock market is that no one can predict when it is going to go up and when it is going to go down. In a bear market, when stock prices are falling, the only way to know for sure when prices have bottomed out is in retrospect, after prices have started to rise again. Rather than trying to guess when stock prices have hit their lowest and then doing your Roth IRA conversion, it is safer to spread your conversion out and do multiple small conversions every month or two.

A bear market is usually defined as a 20% drop in the prices of stocks. But for the purposes of Roth conversions, I don’t think you need to wait for the S&P 500 index to fall by 20%. Instead, think of a ‘big bear’ market as a 20% drop in value and a ‘little bear’ market as a 15% drop in value. Begin doing small Roth conversions when the broad stock indices fall to the level of a ‘little bear’ market, you can continue regular small conversions until the indices rise back up and out of the ‘little bear’ market values for those indices.

Unlike a rollover from an employer-sponsored retirement plan into a traditional IRA that can only be done once per year, you can do many Roth conversions per year. There is no limit to the number of traditional IRA to Roth IRA conversions you do each year nor is there a limit to the amount that you can convert. However, it is important to remember that the money that you convert from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA is taxable income by IRS definitions. Therefore, the money that you convert will not only be subject to federal income tax but it will also add to your total taxable income for that year. As your annual taxable income goes up, your effective income tax rate will also go up. At some point, the amount that you convert will result in a large enough increase in your federal income tax rate to outweigh the advantages of doing a bear market Roth conversion.

Which investments should I convert?

If you have been a prudent investor, then you will have a diversified retirement investment portfolio. Your deferred income accounts may include your 401(k), 401(a), 403(b), 457, 415(m), and traditional IRA accounts. Within these deferred income accounts, you should have a mix of U.S. stock mutual funds, foreign stock mutual funds, U.S. bonds, foreign bonds, real estate investment trusts, and cash. The best individual investments to convert are those that have lost the most value in a bear market. Because bonds are less volatile than stocks, the value of stock mutual funds will generally fall more than the value of bond mutual funds and thus it is generally not a good idea to convert bond funds. It is almost never a good idea to convert cash (including money market accounts and certificates of deposits) since there will be no (or very little) tax advantages to convert these accounts in a bear market.

Look at your deferred income portfolio and identify those investments that have lost the most value and convert those investments from your traditional IRA into your Roth IRA. For example, if your Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund is currently down 23% and your U.S. Total Stock Index Fund is down 16%, then convert the Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund. In order to maintain your portfolio diversification balance, put the converted money into a new Emerging Markets Stock Index Fund in your Roth IRA.

It is wise to regularly replenish your traditional IRA by doing rollovers from your employer-sponsored retirement plans (assuming you are eligible to do rollovers, as discussed above). Since you can only do one rollover per year, you will want to do a sizable enough rollover to allow you to maximize any Roth IRA conversions that you might do later that year. Ideally, you should start each year with enough money in your traditional IRA to fund bear market Roth IRA conversions later in the year since no one can predict when a bear market will occur. You want to be prepared so that you can take advantage of those bear markets to do your Roth conversions. As an example, on January 3, 2022 when the NASDAQ composite index closed at 15,832, investors did not anticipate that the NASDAQ would fall by 29% to 11,264 less than five months later on May 24, 2022.

It’s all about investment strategy


Your retirement investment goals are to have enough money to do the things you want to do when you are retired, to ensure that you do not outlive your retirement savings, and to pay as little in taxes as legally possible. A strategy of periodic rollovers from employer-sponsored retirement plans into a traditional IRA and conversions of the traditional IRA into a Roth IRA during bear markets can help you meet all three of these retirement investment goals.

May 27, 2022

Academic Medicine Physician Retirement Planning

Retirement Planning For University Physicians

University-employed physicians (and all university faculty for that matter) have more retirement savings options than most physicians in private practice. Unfortunately, many of the decisions about these options have to be made at the time of hiring. This is a time in young physicians’ lives when they are least knowledgeable about personal finances and least equipped to make these decisions. This post will cover university faculty retirement planning with an emphasis on academic physicians at the beginning of their careers.

Summary Points:

  • Academic physicians have more retirement savings options than other physicians
  • Contribute the maximum amount into your 415(m)
  • Maximize 457 contributions before contributing to a 403(b)
  • 403(b), 457, and 415(m) plans offer hidden tax advantages
  • The decision about contributing to a state teacher’s retirement system versus an alternative 401(a) retirement plan is complex

The number of decisions that new university physicians have to make when they sign their employment contracts can be overwhelming. Will you be in the tenure track or clinical track? Who will be your mentor(s)? Which weeks do you want to block out for vacation over the next year? Where will your office be? What teaching assignments would you prefer? Fortunately, as months and years go by, you can change your mind about most of these decisions. But when it comes to retirement plan participation, some of the decisions you make initially are irrevocable and you cannot change your mind a few months later.

Understand your retirement options

Every university’s retirement plans are a little different and not all retirement savings options will be available to physicians at every institution. Here are the most common options:

  • Base retirement plans (401(a) plans). These are generally qualified retirement plans covered by section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. Each state will have different specific plans – here in Ohio, university physicians can choose between the State Teacher’s Retirement System (STRS) or the Alternative Retirement Plan (ARP). In both plans, a fixed percentage of the physician’s salary is contributed pre-tax to the plan with a matching contribution from the university. When contributed to STRS, the plan can function essentially as a pension with a fixed amount of monthly income for life. When contributed to the ARP, the physician selects among a number of investment options (typically mutual funds) that are controlled by the physician with no guarantee of monthly income in retirement (very similar to a 403(b) plan). Both of these plans serve as a substitute for Social Security so physicians are ineligible for Social Security for their income earned from the university.
  • 403(b) plans. These are deferred income retirement plans for employees of non-profit organizations. Most universities are non-profit so 403(b) plans are available to most academic physicians. These are essentially the same as a 401(k) (deferred income retirement plan in a for-profit company). In 2022, you can put up to $20,500 per year into a 403(b) (up to $27,000 if over 50 years old). This is money taken out of your paycheck pre-tax and then you pay federal and state income tax on it when you take money out of the account in retirement.
  • 457 plans. These are deferred income retirement plans for government employees. Faculty at public universities are usually considered state government employees and are eligible to participate in 457 plans in addition to the university’s 403(b) plan. The contribution limits are the same: $20,500 per year if under age 50 and $27,000 per year if over age 50. By contributing to both a 457 and 403(b), physicians at state-supported universities can put away a combined amount of up to $41,000 per year ($54,000 if over age 50). Although fundamentally similar to 403(b) plans, there is one unique advantage of the 457 plan in that unlike the 403(b) plans, there is no tax penalty for early withdrawal before age 59 1/2 years old.
  • 415(m) plans. These are deferred income retirement plans for highly paid government employees earning more than $305,000/year in 2022 in salary and bonuses or with contributions more than $61,000 to the university’s base retirement 401(a) plan (STRS or ARP). Many physicians at public universities will fall into this category since physicians command relatively high salaries compared to other university faculty and compared to regular state government employees. Contributions to 415(m) plans can be made by the employee, the employer (i.e. the university), or both, depending on each university’s specific plan. In essence, the 415(m) plan allows physicians and other highly paid university employees to put away more for retirement after the annual base retirement 401(a) contribution limits have been reached.
  • Traditional and Roth IRAs. These are not sponsored by the university but anyone can contribute to a traditional IRA. Because the income limit to contribute pre-tax money into a traditional IRA is $144,000 per year if filing single in 2022 ($214,000 if filing jointly), most physicians are not eligible to contribute pre-tax dollars into a traditional IRA, nor are they able to contribute post-tax dollars directly into a Roth IRA. However, physicians can contribute post-tax money into a traditional IRA and then promptly convert it into a Roth IRA (‘backdoor’ Roth). As I have posted previously, I think that everyone should have a Roth IRA as part of a diversified retirement portfolio, even if it requires doing a backdoor Roth.

The tax advantages of deferred compensation options

A widely discussed advantage of deferred compensation retirement plans, such as the 403(b), 457, and 415(m) plans, is that you can defer paying income tax on the withdrawals until you are in retirement when you will likely have a lower income tax rate. Although that may be true, it is impossible to predict what the income tax rates will be 35 years from now when you are retired. They may be higher, lower, or the same as they currently are and therefore, depending on the amount that you are withdrawing each year, your federal income tax rate could be higher, lower, or the same as it currently is. If your income tax rate is the same, then the amount of take-home money that you have after taxes will be the same whether you pay income tax now and invest the money or contribute the money to a deferred income investment and pay income tax later. But there are two often-overlooked advantages to using a deferred income retirement plan:

  1. Reduce your income tax rate today. When you contribute to a deferred income retirement account, you effectively reduce your taxable income that year. Thus, you end up paying less tax on all of your take-home income. For example, assume you have an annual income of $250,000 and you are married, filing jointly. Your effective federal income tax rate for 2022 is 16.81%. If you contribute $20,500 to a 403(b), your taxable income drops to $229,500 and your effective federal income tax rate drops to 16.16%. The difference in effective tax rates is 0.65% and this results in you paying $1,492 less in taxes on the $229,500 than you would have at the higher tax rate. In other words, by contributing to a 403(b), 457, 401(a), or 415(m) plan, you have in essence given yourself a tax deduction!
  2. Avoid paying investment taxes twice. If you were to put the $20,500 into a regular post-tax investment (such as a mutual fund) instead of contributing to the 403(b), then not only do you pay income tax on that money this year but you will also pay capital gains tax when you eventually cash-out the post-tax investment AND you will also pay taxes on the annual dividends and interest from those investments every year that you hold those investments. You can avoid the capital gains, dividend, and interest taxes by contributing to a backdoor Roth IRA but the contribution limit is only $6,000 per year ($7,000 if over age 50). So, unless you put that retirement money in a Roth IRA, you will end up paying much more in taxes by putting retirement money in a regular post-tax investment than you will by putting that money in a deferred income plan.

Maximize 415(m) contributions

The decision about whether or not to participate in a university 415(m) plan is usually made at the time of initial employment and is irrevocable (meaning that you cannot change your mind later). At the Ohio State University, the choices are 0%, 4%, 8%, or 12%. If the 0% option is chosen, then you are electing to not participate in the 415(m) plan.

The 415(m) plan only kicks in when you have reached the annual contribution limit to your 401(a) base retirement plan ($61,000 in 2022) or retirement eligible earnings over $305,000. Therefore, you will only be contributing to the 415(m) plan for the portion of you income that exceeds the portion of your income subject to 401(a) contributions.

My advice is to take the maximum contribution to the 415(m). Even at the highest option (12% at OSU), it will still be less than your contribution to the university’s base retirement 401(a) plan (14% at OSU). Also, you can always increase or decrease contribution amounts to a 403(b) and/or 457 in order to allow you to meet annual expenses such as a new home purchase or student loan repayment. But once you commit to a percentage contribution to the 415(m) plan, you cannot increase it in the future.

Think very carefully about base retirement plan selection

A second irrevocable decision at the time of initial employment is which 401(a) base retirement plan to choose. Most universities will have something like a state teacher’s retirement system choice versus an alternative retirement plan choice. Both options have advantages and disadvantage and the choice that is best for one academic physician may not be the best choice for another academic physician.

Many financial advisors will tell you that you can get a higher rate of return by investing your retirement money yourself than you will get from a state teacher’s retirement system (STRS) pension. And they are right – you can, if you invest that money in a portfolio with a large percentage of stocks. But you should think of a pension as the non-volatile fixed income component of a balanced retirement portfolio. In this sense, it will substitute for the bond or annuity component of your portfolio had you not contributed to STRS. Therefore, by contributing to STRS, you will have the ability to safely put a higher percentage of your other retirement investments in more volatile investments with higher potential rates of return (such as stock and real estate mutual funds). Most academic physicians will contribute far more to their 403(b), 457, and 415(m) plans than they will to their base retirement 401(a) plans and these physicians can then afford to put more of their 403(b), 457, & 415(m) investments into stocks and real estate than they otherwise would have been able to.

Once retired, the predictable fixed income monthly pension income reduces the amount that you will need to keep in cash. The cash portion of your portfolio after you are retired serves to cover sudden, unexpected expenses and serves as a buffer to having to withdraw money from volatile accounts when the stock and bond markets fall. By keeping less money in cash, you can put more money into investments that over the long-term will result in greater wealth.

Every state will have different options for base retirement plans. In Ohio, it is either the State Teacher’s Retirement System of Ohio (STRS) or the Alternative Retirement Plan (ARP). Because most states have plans that are similar, I will use Ohio’s options of STRS versus ARP as examples. Some of the factors to consider when choosing between 401(a) base retirement options include:

  1. How long will you be employed by the university? In order to get the maximum annual pension, you have to contribute to STRS for 35 years. If you leave the university to go into private practice or if you take a job at a university in a different state, then you can either withdraw your STRS contributions plus a 3% annual interest rate or you can take a rather small pension when you eventually retire. Some states allow you to purchase credit for some of the years that you worked as an educator in other states making STRS contributions somewhat portable.  However, if there is a high likelihood that you will work at a university in your current state of residence for less than 35 years, then the ARP may be the wiser choice.
  2. Will you need health insurance? If you retire before you are eligible for Medicare (currently age 65), then you will need to purchase health insurance. If you purchase an individual insurance policy on the open market, it can be incredibly expensive. STRS participants have access to group health insurance with good coverage that is considerably less expensive. Once you are covered under Medicare, you will still need supplemental health insurance and once again, it will be less expensive to purchase though STRS. Dental and vision insurance for retirees is also available through STRS. The ability to purchase STRS health insurance can result in saving a considerable amount of money after retirement.
  3. How do you value other benefits? In addition to health insurance, participants in STRS have access to other benefits. If you become disabled, then you may be eligible for a monthly disability benefit. There are also options for monthly benefits for surviving beneficiaries (spouse or children). My father died when I was in college and his STRS plan helped support me while I was in medical school and 42 years after his death, my mother still receives a monthly STRS benefit.
  4. Your confidence in STRS. There is a reason that most corporations have eliminated pensions – they are expensive and have the potential to run out of money. Although most  teacher retirement systems are supported by their state governments, they are not immune to financial crisis. For example, the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System is in danger of running out of money and not being able to pay its retirees. Each state’s system varies in terms of financial stability. My own opinion is that it is very unlikely that any state government will allow a teacher’s retirement system to default – if they do, that state will not be able to find new teachers willing to work there and the public education system would collapse. However, you should look at participation in an STRS plan as a type of investment and all investments have risk. For most states, that risk is equal or less than the risk of investing in bonds.
  5. You won’t have Social Security. At most public universities, physicians do not contribute to Social Security. The idea is that STRS substitutes for Social Security but even of you elect the alternative retirement plan (ARP) instead of STRS, you still do not contribute to Social Security. Therefore, when you are retired, you will not receive Social Security benefits. Even if you have contributions to Social Security from years that you worked for other employers or from outside consulting that you did while working at a university, your monthly Social Security payments in retirement will be considerably reduced. Therefore, if you elect the ARP instead of STRS, you will need to have a  higher percentage of your retirement savings in stable investments such as bonds, annuities, or certificates of deposit since you will not have the safety that a fixed income source brings to a diversified retirement portfolio.
  6. How old will you (and your spouse) live to be? Pension benefits are determined by actuaries who estimate how long the beneficiaries will live. If beneficiaries live a long time after retiring, then the monthly pension amounts have to be lower to be sure that the pension does not run out of money. On the other hand, if retirees die shortly after retiring, then the pension can afford to have higher monthly pension payments. Currently, a man who retires at age 65 can expect to live to age 83.2 years; a women retiring at age 65 can expect to live to age 85.8 years. If you anticipate dying younger than these ages, then the ARP may be better for you. If you anticipate living beyond these ages, then STRS becomes a better option. Factors to consider in estimating your longevity include any chronic diseases (diabetes, hypertension, etc.), personal or family history of cancer, age of death of your parents, your smoking history, whether you get regular vaccinations, your body mass index, etc.
  7. Your risk tolerance. Remember, a pension should be considered as the defined benefit component of a diversified retirement portfolio. As such, it is a low-risk component. Each person has a different risk tolerance. Those who have a higher risk tolerance will generally have a higher percentage of their retirement portfolio in higher risk stocks and real estate. Those with a lower risk tolerance will generally want to increase the percentage of their portfolio in low-risk bonds and fixed income. If you choose STRS, then the percentage of your overall retirement savings portfolio derived from your STRS pension should match your risk tolerance. If you find that contributing to STRS would make your overall portfolio diversification too conservative, then the ARP may be preferable.

What about the 403(b), 457, and Roth IRA?

The base retirement 401(a) plan will not be enough to fund your entire retirement portfolio. For most academic physicians, the largest component of their portfolio will be in their 403(b, 457, and 415(m) plans. As mentioned above, the 403(b) and 457 plans are very similar but the 457 plan’s lack of early withdrawal penalties gives it a slight advantage over the 403(b). For that reason, it is preferable to maximize annual contributions to a 457 plan before starting to contribute to a 403(b) plan. If you can afford it, ideally, you should be contributing to both.

Most universities will have options of directing contributions to different investment brokerages and to different mutual funds within each brokerage. It is within the 403(b) and 457 accounts that most people can create the proper risk diversification for their overall retirement portfolio by selecting funds that compliment fixed income sources such as STRS.

A Roth IRA is an essential component of a balanced and diversified retirement portfolio and everyone should have one. Ideally, one should contribute to all three options: a 403(b), a 457, and a Roth IRA. Maximizing annual contributions to all of these would add up to $47,000 per year and if you did that every year with an average annual rate of return of 8%, then after 35 years, you would have $8.7 million in retirement savings. However, $47,000 per year is beyond the reach of most people so I recommend doing an annual partial contribution to both a Roth IRA and a 457 initially. Once you reach the contribution limit of the 457, then increase your Roth IRA contribution to the IRS limit. Next, steadily increase your 403(b) contributions until you reach the IRS limit.

Academic physicians can save more

Physicians in private practice usually have access to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan… and that is about it. Physicians employed by public universities usually have access to a 401(a), 403(b), 457, and 415(m) plan. Moreover, most of the 401(a) plans include sizable employer matching contributions. Physicians in private practice will generally have a higher annual income than academic physicians. However, academic physicians can generally save more for retirement in deferred income plans with the tax advantages that come with those plans. For many academic physicians, these increased retirement savings can offset the lower annual income with the result that the decision between private practice versus academics can be based more on workplace preference and lifestyle rather than on economics.

May 12, 2022

Physician Retirement Planning

403(b) Or Roth 403(b) – Which Is Better?

Recently, a physician asked me whether it is better to put retirement savings in a regular 403(b) or a Roth 403(b). My answer was… do both. The strongest retirement portfolios are diversified portfolios that allow you to strategically withdraw from different retirement “buckets” in different years in order to keep taxes as low as possible. This means having both Roth and non-Roth deferred income accounts.

What is a Roth 403(b)?

A regular 403(b) is a deferred income retirement account that you pay local income tax, Medicare tax, and Social Security tax the year that you earn the money but you do not pay federal income tax or state income tax until the year that you take the money out in retirement. With a Roth 403(b), you pay federal and state income tax the year you earn the money and then you pay no income taxes the year that you take the money out in retirement. In other words, with a Roth 403(b), you pay income taxes now and with a regular 403(b), you pay income taxes later, when you are retired.

The 403(b) is a deferred income savings program used by non-profit organizations. Similar deferred income retirement savings programs include the 401(k) which is used by for-profit companies, the 457 which is used by government institutions, and the IRA which is used by anyone with a taxable income. Each of these deferred income programs can be offered as either a regular 401(k)/403(b)/457 or as a Roth 401(k)/403(b)/457. Some employers will offer both a Roth and regular option and other employers will only offer a regular 401(k)/403(b)/457.

This post will address what you should do if your employer offers both a regular 401(k)/403(b)/457 and a Roth 401(k)/403(b)/457 as well as the factors that affect your choice of one versus the other. Although I will be discussing the Roth 403(b), the information is also applicable to the Roth 401(k) and Roth 457.

What is the difference between a Roth IRA and a Roth 403(b)?

Most people are familiar with the Roth IRA and as I’ve posted before, I think everyone should have a Roth IRA as part of a diversified retirement portfolio. If your income is too high to contribute directly to a Roth IRA, then you can do a “backdoor Roth IRA” by first contributing post-tax dollars into a traditional IRA and then promptly converting that traditional IRA into a Roth IRA.  The Roth IRA and the Roth 403(b) are similar in that with both, you pay income taxes now and then the distributions are tax-are in retirement. However, there are some important differences between them:

  • Contribution limits. In 2022, the contribution limit for a Roth IRA is $6,000 ($7,000 if over age 50). The contribution limit for a Roth 403(b) is $20,500 ($27,000 if over age 50).
  • Investment options. With a Roth 403(b) account, you can only put money in specific investment options chosen by your employer. These are typically mutual funds or annuities offered by 403(b) administrators such as TIAA or Fidelity. With a Roth IRA, you can put the money in a much wider variety of investments, chosen by you.
  • Employer matching. Some employers will match a portion of your contributions to a 403(b). This is more common with 401(k)s than 403(b)s and rarely if ever found with 457s. These matching contributions are free money that you should never turn down. There is no matching contribution options to a Roth IRA.
  • Early retirement. If you retire before age 59 1/2, you cannot take money out of your Roth IRA without incurring a large tax penalty. However, you can withdraw money from a Roth 403(b) before age 59 1/2 without a penalty if you separated from your employer before age 55.
  • Required minimum distributions. The IRS requires you to take a minimum amount out of Roth 403(b) accounts starting at age 72 years old.  Roth 401(k) and Roth 457 accounts are also subject to these required minimum distributions. Unlike Roth 403(b)s, Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions.

It’s all about tax rates

The main determinate of whether to contribute to a regular 403(b) or a Roth 403(b) is whether your income tax rate will be higher or lower when you are retired than your income tax rate today.

If your taxes are higher today than they will be in retirement, then you should contribute to a regular 403(b). If your taxes are lower today than they will be in retirement, then you should contribute to a Roth 403(b). If your taxes are the same today as they will be in retirement, then there is no difference between contributing to a regular 403(b) or a Roth 403(b). The problem is knowing if your taxes today will be higher or lower than your taxes in retirement. There are three factors that will influence this.

  1. Tax brackets. In a previous post, I showed how everyone pays an effective federal income tax rate that is less than the income tax bracket that they are in. However, the federal income tax brackets do determine your effective income tax rates. Congress changes the tax brackets and therefore the effective tax rates every few years and it is impossible to predict what those tax brackets will be in your retirement years. Currently, Americans have been enjoying relatively low federal income taxes since the 2017 tax cuts making this a good time to contribute to Roth accounts. However, these tax cuts are set to expire in 2025 and then federal income tax rates will rise back up to 2016 levels (unless congress passes new legislation otherwise) at which time it will be more advantageous to contribute to a regular 403(b). Tax rates will also fluctuate during your retirement years so that there will be some years in retirement that your tax rates will be higher (favoring taking distributions from a Roth 403(b) and some years that your tax rates will be lower (favoring taking distributions from a regular 403(b).
  2. Income level. Most people start off their career with lower incomes and their income gradually increases as they get promotions and greater experience on the job. As income goes up, tax rates also go ups. Therefore, it is generally favorable to contribute to a Roth 403(b) early in your career, when your tax rates are lower. It is generally favorable to contribute to a regular 403(b) later in your career, when your tax rates are higher. In addition, there will be some years during your career that your income will be lower for a variety of reasons: going part-time, being laid off, not getting an annual bonus, etc. In these years, it is more favorable to contribute to a Roth 403(b).
  3. Retirement spending. The amount of money that you withdraw from your retirement savings will vary from year to year, depending on your spending. On retirement years that you do a lot of traveling, buy a vacation home, or buy a new car, you will need to take larger distributions from your retirement accounts. These larger distributions mean a higher income in those years and with higher income comes a higher income tax rate. Therefore, in those retirement years that you have a lot of expenses, it is better to take distributions from a Roth 403(b) and in retirement years that you have fewer expenses, it is better to take distributions from a regular 403(b).

Summarizing these factors, we can see that there are times during your career that contributing to a Roth 403(b) is more favorable than contributing to a regular 403(b). Similarly, there are years in your retirement when withdrawing distributions from a Roth 403(b) is more favorable than withdrawing distributions from a regular 403(b):

You should have BOTH a regular 403(b) and a Roth 403(b)

If you have access to a Roth 403(b) (or a Roth 401(k) or a Roth 457), then you should contribute to it in years when congressionally-determined tax rates are low and in years when you have a lower income (such as early in your career). You should contribute to a regular 403(b) in years that income tax rates are high and in years when you have a high income (such as late in your career). This will result in you having both a regular 403(b) and a Roth 403(b) so that when you are retired, you can withdraw distributions from one or the other, depending on whichever is more favorable from a tax standpoint on any given year.

The result of paying less in taxes is that you have more in disposable income. In order to maximize that disposable income in both your working years and your retirement years you need a diversified retirement portfolio. This allows for a tax-advantaged withdrawal strategy of withdrawing from regular deferred income accounts some years and Roth deferred income accounts other years. Thoughtful retirement saving today will pay off in a healthy finances when you use those savings once retired.

March 31, 2022


Physician Retirement Planning

Calculate The Amount Of Money You Need To Retire

There are a lot of suggested ways to calculate the amount of money you need to have in retirement savings in order to comfortably retire. The problem with most of them is that they are overly simplistic and do not take into account the nuances that each of our individual circumstances bring. Rules such as you need “10 times your annual salary” or “25 times your annual spending” can result in either underfunding your retirement portfolio or overfunding your retirement portfolio. The result of the former is that you will outlive your retirement savings, the result of the latter is that you will be funding a million dollar funeral. I have created an Excel spreadsheet that allows you to calculate the amount you need to save for retirement each year in order to maintain your current disposable income. You can download the spreadsheet with it pre-filled with an example using the average income for a general internist by clicking here:

Retirement Savings Calculator Example 1

Instructions on how to enter data into the spreadsheet can be downloaded by clicking here to download the Word document:

Retirement Savings Calculator Instructions

This blog post will explain the background for this calculator. Because life is complex, calculating your retirement needs are complex, so reading this post may seem overwhelming. However, this calculator takes most of the complexity into consideration to allow you to arrive at a reasonably accurate number with relatively little effort. I encourage you to download the Excel spreadsheet and play around with the numbers based on your own particular financial circumstances.

Building your retirement portfolio

There are two ways you can increase the amount of money in your retirement portfolio: (1) save more money each year or (2) work more years. Followers of the FIRE movement (Financial Independence Retire Early) will tell you to put more money away early in your career so that you can retire as soon as possible. There are two problems with this approach. First, excessively increasing your retirement savings in your youth reduces your disposable income and forces you to live austerely when you are young thus sacrificing quality of life. Second, the FIRE approach assumes that working is unpleasant and something to stop doing as soon as possible. My own opinion is that if that is the case, then you made a wrong career decision and have an unrewarding job that you are not passionate about.

The second way to increase your retirement portfolio is to work past the age that you planned on retiring. This may be totally acceptable if you are continuing to work because your job is fulfilling and you would rather be engaged in your career than be retired. On the other hand, working past your planned retirement age simply because you cannot afford to retire can result in you working in a career that you are not passionate about and missing out on doing the things you dreamed of doing in retirement when you are still healthy enough to do those things.

Thus, the goal of retirement saving is not to be rich monetarily, but to ensure that you can have a rich life, both while you are working and in retirement. In this post, you will learn how to calculate the amount you will need to save each year while you are working in order to meet your financial needs in retirement and ensure that you do not run out of money as you get older.

First, determine your current disposable income

Your disposable income is your annual income after you have paid all of your taxes and after you have paid expenses that you will have in your working years but not in your retirement years. Your taxes will include federal income tax, state income tax, local income tax, and FICA tax (composed of Medicare plus Social Security tax). The easiest way to get these values is from last year’s W-2 forms and IRS 1040 forms. You can also calculate these by using an online calculator such as the SmartAsset calculator and entering your total salary, filing status, number of dependents, geographic location, and deferred income contributions to calculate all of your various taxes.

Expenses that you will have during working years include retirement savings, mortgage payments, children’s college savings, and life insurance. Hopefully, once you are retired, your house will be paid off and your children out of college. As I have written in previous posts, I am not in favor of buying whole life insurance and instead, prefer buying term life insurance but only during the term of years that others depend on your income – once you are retired and drawing from your retirement accounts, you no longer need to purchase life insurance.

The amount of money left over after subtracting taxes and working year expenses is your annual disposable income. This is the money that you use to pay for food, housing upkeep, travel, clothes, entertainment, utilities, property taxes, healthcare, etc. These are purchases and expenses that you will have in both your working years as well as your retirement years. A major goal of retirement savings is to ensure that you have sufficient money to cover at least this same amount of disposable income once retired.

The amount of your current disposable income will need to be adjusted for inflation in order to calculate the amount of disposable income you will need when retired. Although it is impossible to predict exactly what the future inflation rates will be each year between now and your retirement, historically, inflation runs about 3.5% every year on average. In other words, what costs you $100.00 today will cost you $103.50 a year from now. By adjusting for inflation, you can maintain a constant purchasing power with your disposable income.

Many retirees will have new expenditures in retirement years that they do not have during working years, such as travel, a second home, a boat, etc. If you plan on doing any of these things, then add an annual amount to your retirement year disposable income – for example, if you plan on spending $30,000 per year in retirement traveling, then add $30,000 to your retirement disposable income. This amount will also need to be adjusted for the effects of inflation between now and when you retire.

Second, calculate your fixed income in retirement

The most common retirement fixed income is Social Security. The average American’s Social Security benefit is $20,000 per year and the maximum is about $40,000 per year. However, to get the higher amount, a person would need to have a very high income, contribute to Social Security for 35 years, and wait until after age 70 to begin taking Social Security benefits. The second form of fixed income is the pension. In the past, many Americans relied on pensions but these are increasingly uncommon for non-government employers. However, physicians employed by state supported universities and federal government agencies may have access to pensions through their State Teacher’s Retirement System or through the Federal Employees Retirement System. The third type of fixed income is the annuity which is essentially a self-funded pension sold by an insurance company.

In order to calculate the amount of money you will receive from fixed income sources, you can check your annual Social Security statement or pension statement. Social Security benefits have increased an average of 2.6% per year for the past 36 years so adjust your actual Social Security benefit for these anticipated cost of living increases in the years before you retire.

Third, determine the amount you will have in your investment portfolio when you retire

To calculate the value of your retirement portfolio in the year that you will retire, you will need to estimate the number of years until your retirement. Next, determine the amount of money in all of your retirement accounts at the end of the last calendar year. Finally, determine the total amount you are contributing to retirement this year – this should include all deferred income accounts (401k, 403b, 457, 415m, SEP, and IRAs), all employer matching retirement contributions, and all regular investments used for retirement saving. Because a person’s income will usually increase as inflation increases, it is expected that the amount contributed to retirement savings will also increase, proportionate to the increase in income each year. As such, the IRS periodically increases the annual maximum contribution limits for deferred income accounts and historically, this increase has averaged 3.0% per year over the past 36 years. Therefore, you can assume increasing your retirement contributions by 3% each year.

Because your retirement savings will be invested, you will need to estimate the annual rate of return that you expect during your working years. Historically, over the past 94 years, the average annual rate of return of bonds has been 5.33% and the average return of stocks has been 10.29%. Portfolios containing a mix of stocks plus bonds over this period of time have average annual returns falling in-between as shown in this table.

Historically, a common retirement investment portfolio of 70% stocks and 30% bonds has an average 9.2% annual return on investment. In reality, most investors will have a higher percentage of stocks in their retirement portfolio early in their careers and a lower percentage of stocks in their late careers. However, a 70%/30% mix is convenient to represent the average mix over the course of one’s entire working years. Not all stock investments have equal rates of return, however. Because of their higher expense, managed mutual funds will have lower net returns than low-cost index funds. Also, if you hire a wealth adviser to manage your portfolio, their fees will reduce your returns. In these situations, you should reduce your expected annual return by 1-2%.

The reason for the change in the stock:bond ratio with age is because stocks are far more volatile than bonds and are more likely to lose money in the short run, even though they are more likely to make money in the long run. As a person gets closer to retirement age, the risk that a retirement portfolio comprised of stocks will fall in the next few years because greater volatility increases and this could result in you having to withdraw money from your portfolio when the value of the portfolio is lower, thus depleting your retirement savings faster. From the graph below, if a person held stocks in 2000, the subsequent fall in the stock market resulted in the value of those stocks not recovering to the break-even value until 2007. Thus, a person retiring in 2000 with a retirement portfolio consisting primarily of stocks suffered a catastrophic loss of their retirement savings.

Not only will the ratio of stocks:bonds in your retirement portfolio change as you get older, but the ratio is also affected by your individual ability to accept investment risk. This risk assessment is affected by many factors including:

  1. Anxiety created by market volatility. If you lose sleep when stock prices fluctuate or if falling stock prices make you want to sell your shares, then you should adopt a low-risk portfolio.
  2. Optimist or pessimist? If you believe that the United States’ best years are behind us, if you are pessimistic about the economy or geopolitics, then you should adopt a low-risk portfolio.
  3. Pensions. If you have a pension, then a sizable portion of your retirement portfolio will be a non-volatile, dependable amount of income. This gives you the luxury of having a higher percentage of more volatile stocks in your other investments since the stability of the pension will substitute for the stability of bonds allowing you to have a higher-risk portfolio. Notably, state government institutions (including public universities) usually do not participate in Social Security and if their employees elect to self-direct their retirement contributions (rather than participate in the state teachers retirement system or public employees retirement system), then those employees will have no Social Security and no fixed income in retirement – these employees should choose a lower-risk portfolio because of the lack of a fixed income buffer to their retirement income.
  4. Anticipated life expectancy. If you anticipate living many years in retirement, then your investment horizon is longer and you can afford to have a higher-risk portfolio. If your life expectancy after retirement is shorter, then it is safer to favor the stability of a lower-risk portfolio.
  5. Annual living expenses. If your projected disposable income in retirement is very close to your projected living expenses, then you cannot afford the volatility of a portfolio comprised mostly of stocks and instead should favor the predictability of a lower-risk portfolio.

Here is an example of how to structure a retirement portfolio based on both age and risk assessment:

Fourth, determine the annual withdrawals from your retirement portfolio to achieve your desired disposable income

In your retirement years, your deferred income distributions, fixed income, and annuity income will all be subject to federal and state income tax (except for Roth accounts). Inevitably, income tax rates will go up and go down on different years when you are retired so it is not possible to accurately predict what your income tax rates will be in any given retirement year. The most conservative estimate is to use your current federal and state income tax rates. Once you calculate your desired disposable income in the first year of retirement, you can then calculate the amount of income tax that you will have to pay on fixed income sources and deferred income accounts in order to fund that desired disposable income.

In each year of retirement, inflation will result in an increase in the amount of money that you will need in order to maintain a constant purchasing power from your disposable income. Inflation rates will inevitably be higher in some of your retirement years and lower in other years but for convenience, use the historical average annual inflation rate of 3.5% per year. In addition, your retirement portfolio will increase each year based on your annual rate of return on the investments. Once again, it is impossible to know with certainty what your rate of return will be but if you assume a 50% stock and 50% bond mix in your retirement portfolio in the years after you retire, then based on historical rates of return, you can assume an 8.3% average increase in the value of your portfolio. The goal is to ensure that your investment rate of return exceeds the inflation rate, otherwise, your portfolio will lose purchasing power every year.

By estimating the value of your retirement portfolio at the time of your retirement, estimating how much you will need to withdraw from that portfolio each year to achieve your disposable income needs, estimating the inflation rate during your retirement years, and estimating the rate of return on your retirement portfolio investments, you can calculate how many years your retirement portfolio will last. In order to determine if it will last long enough, you will need to estimate your life expectancy (and your spouse’s).

According to the CDC, the life expectancy from birth is 77.0 years. However, this is not an accurate number to use in calculating how long your retirement portfolio needs to last. The problem is that a lot of people die between birth and age 65 and this brings the average life expectancy from birth number down. What you are interested in is how long you will live after age 65 since you are assuming you will not die before retirement. The average life expectancy for 65-year-old Americans in 2019 was 83.2 years for men and 85.8 years for women. In 2020, those life expectancy numbers dropped by an average of 1 year due to excessive deaths from COVID. Assuming COVID is now largely behind us, the 2019 life expectancy numbers are probably more valid than the 2020 numbers. But remember, these life expectancy numbers are an average and therefore, half of 65-year-olds will live longer than the average. To be conservative (and optimistic!), I recommend using a life expectancy of 95-years-old for financial planning purposes and then adjust that number up if you have a family history of longevity and you have no major medical problems. Adjust the number down if you have chronic medical conditions, if you are a smoker, or if you are unvaccinated. As an example, if you plan to retire at age 65, you should plan on funding 30 years in retirement (to age 95).

Fifth, determine the effect of changing your annual retirement contributions

If you calculate that your retirement portfolio will run out of money before your estimated age of death, then increase the amount you will contribute to your retirement portfolio this year and re-run the numbers until you estimate that you have enough to last for your entire estimated life. On the other hand, if you find that your retirement portfolio will still be large on your estimated death age, then scale back your annual retirement contributions or increase your desired annual disposable income in retirement and re-run the numbers.

Knowledge is freedom

To calculate the amount of money you need takes time and is complicated. The downloadable retirement calculator attached to this post can help and will probably take about 20 minutes once you assemble your current financial documents. However, doing the calculations can bring you the security to ensure that you do not run out of money in your retirement years and the security of knowing that you will be able to do all of the things that you dream of doing once retired. But most importantly, it gives you freedom – freedom to work in your 60’s or 70’s because you want to work and not because you have to work.

March 26, 2022

Physician Finances Physician Retirement Planning

‘Tis The Season… For Tax Loss Harvesting

Who doesn’t like free money? “Tax loss harvesting” is an investment tactic that does just that – gives you free money. And December is just the time to do it. Careful use of tax loss harvesting can take off up to $3,000 from your taxable income this year, just in time for the Christmas holidays.

What is tax loss harvesting?

In brief, tax loss harvesting allows you to off-set capital gains or regular income with capital losses from investments. Here is how it works. When you have an investment such as a stock or mutual fund that increases in value, the difference between the price that you paid to buy it and the price when you sold it is capital gains. If that difference is a positive value, you pay taxes on those capital gains based on your capital gains tax rate which in turn depends on your income level. There are two types of capital gains: short-term and long-term. Short-term capital gains are those on investments that you have held for less than 1 year and are taxed at your regular income tax rate. Long-term capital gains are on investments you have held for more than 1 year and are taxed at your capital gains tax rate. Most people fall into the 15% capital gains tax rate bracket.

IMPORTANT: capital gains taxes only apply to regular investments and not retirement accounts such as a 401(k), 403(b), 457, or IRA. You will pay regular income tax on all withdrawals from retirement accounts.

One the other hand, if that investment lost value from the time you bought it to the time you sold it, you have a capital loss and this is where tax loss harvesting comes into play. There are two types of tax loss harvesting:

  1. Use a capital loss to offset a capital gain. You get taxed on your net capital gains when you add up all of the investments you sold that you made money on and lost money on. So, if you made $5,000 in long=term capital gains from the sale of one investment but had $5,000 in long-term capital losses from the sale of another investment, the gains and the losses balance out so you do not owe any money in capital gains taxes that year. You have to track and report short-term and long-term capital gains/losses individually and the IRS requires you to first apply short-term losses against short-term gains and apply long-term losses against long-term gains before you can apply short-term losses against long-term gains and vice versa so the IRS reporting on your tax forms can get a bit complicated.
  2. Use a capital loss to offset regular income. What happens if you either do not sell any investments for a capital gain this year or if you sold more investments for a loss than you sold for a gain? You can apply net capital losses up to $3,000 against your regular income. In other words, you can reduce your taxable regular income by $3,000. If your effective income tax rate is 18.00%, that means that you can avoid paying $540 in income tax on that $3,000. In addition, that reduction of $3,000 from your taxable income will drop your effective income tax rate to 17.93% which in turn will drop your income tax by an additional $180 for a total reduction of $720 in income tax.  The net effect: you get $720 in free money!

What are the rules?

First, you have to be able to calculate your cost basis (what you actually paid when you originally purchased an investment). To do that, you have to know the date that you bought an investment and the date that you sold an investment. You also need to know the amount of money that you originally paid for that investment when you bought it and the amount of money you sold it for. This can get a little tricky if you purchased shares of a stock (or mutual fund) on different dates. It can also get tricky if you are automatically re-investing dividends from a stock (or mutual fund) to purchase additional shares of that stock (or mutual fund). Fortunately, most of the large investment companies will track your mutual fund investments for you and will be able to tell you what your short-term and long-term capital gains are at any given time with just a click of your mouse. This allows you to calculate how many shares of a mutual fund you need to sell in order to have a $3,000 capital loss.

Second, you have to avoid a wash sale. The IRS does not allow you to sell an investment to take a loss and then turn around and immediately buy back that investment right away – this is called a wash sale. To avoid wash sale penalties, you have to wait at least 30 days before you purchase shares of the stock (or mutual fund) that you just sold. You can, however, sell a losing stock (or mutual fund) and use the proceeds to buy a different, dissimilar stock (or mutual fund).

Third, you have to fill out IRS form 8949 when you fill out your annual income tax forms. This form summarizes all of the investments that you sold during that tax year. The total amount from form 8949 then has to be reported on schedule D of your 1040 form. Schedule D is where you can deduct up to $3,000 from your taxable income.

What should I sell?

We are living in the longest bull market in U.S. history. Except for the 6 months between February and August 2020 (onset of COVID), the overall stock market has been steadily going up for the past 11 years. As a consequence, most broad market mutual funds and most individual stock have increased in value rather than decreased in value so you may not have any investments to qualify for tax loss harvesting. However, certain specific types of investments have lost money over the past few years. For example, many U.S. and foreign bond mutual funds have lost value over the year and energy sector mutual funds have lost value over the past 10 years. Check all of the specific stocks and mutual funds in your investment portfolio – those that have lost value since you purchased them are eligible for tax loss harvesting.

It is important that you keep sight of your overall investment strategy which should involve maintaining a diversified portfolio of individual investments. Beware of selling off too much of any one type of investment if it puts your overall portfolio out of balance. For example, don’t sell all of your bond funds in order to harvest a tax loss or you will end up with a portfolio comprised exclusively of stocks and thus making you vulnerable to your portfolio losing too much money if/when the stock market falls in the future. If you sell shares of an energy sector stock mutual fund for tax loss harvesting purposes and you feel compelled to have energy stocks for long term investment purposes, just remember that you have to wait more than 30 days before you can buy new shares of that energy fund.

My investment philosophy has always been to “buy and hold”since investment should be for the long term. Stocks and bonds will go up and down in value and the wise investor will ride out the downs in order to take advantage of the inevitable ups. Tax loss harvesting is one exception to this strategy that can reduce your taxes and put more money in your pocket.

December 3, 2021

Physician Retirement Planning

The Closing Window Of Opportunity For Roth IRA Conversions

The best time to do a Roth conversion is in the next 4 years. There are two situations when contributing to a Roth IRA is particularly advantageous: when the stock market plummets and when income tax rates are low. In 2016, Congress voted to reduce income taxes, beginning in tax year 2017. Without additional legislation, those tax reductions will expire in 2025. Given historical precedent and the amount of Federal spending that has occurred in the past 2 years in combating COVID and in infrastructure spending, it seems likely that income tax rates will return to the 2016 levels in 2025. That means that we have 4 years  left to take advantage of some of the lowest income tax rates in recent memory. It also means that we have 4 years left to take advantage of lower-cost Roth IRA conversions.

To understand why Roth conversions are going to be less expensive now than in 2025, you first have to understand how income taxes work. In a previous post, I discussed the differences between income tax brackets and effective marginal income tax rates. The bottom line is that we place way too much emphasis on the tax brackets. What we actually pay in income tax depends on the effective tax rate and not the bracket. The effective tax rate goes slowly and steadily up for every additional dollar we earn. The income tax brackets simply determine the slope and position of the curve of the effective tax rates. In the graph to the right, you can see last year’s income tax brackets in the dotted line but the actual income tax rate a person pays is always less than the bracket that they are in, as shown in the solid line.

When congress voted to reduce the tax brackets beginning in 2017, the effect was to shift the curve of the graph downward so that everyone at all income levels paid lower effective income tax rates. Depending on one’s taxable income, the effective tax rate dropped by 3.5 to 6.0 percentage points. The graph on the right illustrates the difference in the effective tax rate for annual taxable incomes between $40,000 and $700,000 for 2016 (before the tax cuts) and 2020 (after the tax cuts). For example, a family with a taxable income of $250,000 per year had an effective income tax rate of 21.5% in 2016 but that dropped by 4.6 percentage points to an effective income tax rate of 16.9% in 2020. Looked at in a different way, that family paid $53,750 in federal income tax in 2016 but only paid $42,250 in 2020.

So, what do lower income taxes mean for Roth conversions?

Roth IRAs have two important advantages over other retirement savings accounts: (1) you do not have to pay taxes when you take money out of the Roth account and (2) you do not have to take required minimum distributions at age 72 like you do with a 401k or other deferred income accounts. There are two ways that you can contribute to a Roth IRA: direct contribution and conversion contribution. If you are married filing jointly, then you can annually contribute up to $6,000 ($7,000 if over age 50) directly to a Roth IRA if you make less than $198,000 (you can do a partial contribution if you make between $198,000 and $208,000). If your income is over $208,000, then you cannot contribute directly to a Roth. However, you can do a Roth conversion by first contributing to a traditional IRA and then converting those funds into a Roth IRA within 60 days. This sometimes called a backdoor Roth approach.

It is easiest to do a Roth IRA conversion from a traditional IRA, especially if both the traditional and Roth IRAs are in the same investment company. It is also possible to convert funds from a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan into a Roth IRA but it can be more complicated. You generally must be over age 59 1/2 and also no longer employed by the employer that sponsored the 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan. Also, the administrator of the 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan may not permit you to convert funds directly into a Roth IRA and so you may have to first rollover funds from the 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan into a traditional IRA and then convert the traditional IRA into the Roth IRA within 60 days. Of critical importance is that when you convert funds from a tax-deferred account (such as a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan) into a Roth IRA, that money is subject to regular income tax the year that you do the conversion. This means that not only do you have to pay income tax on the value of the conversion, but the amount converted adds to your total taxable income so it will push you up to a higher income tax rate the year that you do the conversion. The extra steps involved in doing this type of conversion can be a headache; however, as we will see, it can be worth it from a tax savings standpoint.

Although I personally think that everyone should have a Roth IRA as component of a diversified retirement portfolio, there are 2 situations when it is especially advantageous to do a Roth conversion: (1) when there is a significant drop in the stock market and (2) when your income tax rate is lower now than it will be when you are retired.

  • When the stock market falls. If you already have money in a traditional IRA, then the best time to convert that money into a Roth is when the value of the IRA is at the lowest (and therefore you pay the least amount in income taxes). The best example of this in recent years was in March 2020 when the S&P 500 index fell by 32% as a consequence of the COVID pandemic. If you had $1,000 in a stock index mutual fund traditional IRA on February 10, 2020, then it was only worth $680 on March 16, 2020. However, by August 2020, the stock market had completely recovered back to its January 2020 value. If your effective tax rate was 16.8%, then you would have paid $168 in taxes to do a Roth conversion of the total amount of the traditional IRA in February but only $114 in taxes to do the conversion in March. If you are older than 59 1/2 and retired, then you could also have done a Roth IRA conversion from a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 account. The stock market inevitably goes up, goes down, and then goes back up again. Take advantage of the drops in the stock market to do the Roth conversions – that way, when the stock market rises in the future, the recovery in value of your investment will all be tax-free. How much does the stock market need to drop to trigger a Roth conversion? That is a matter of opinion but a 20% drop is a reasonable trigger.
  • When your income tax rate is lower. For most people, income tax rates will be lowest when they first start out in the work force and their taxable income is relatively low. Their income tax rates will be highest in the years just before retirement when they are in their peak earning years. In retirement, their income tax rate will usually fall to a rate somewhere in-between their lowest and highest income earning years while working. Therefore, for most people, the best time to do a Roth conversion is early in their careers, when their taxable income (and thus their income tax rate) is still relatively low. However, the other time that a Roth conversion is advantageous is when everyone’s income tax rates are low but will go up in the near future.

History tells us that tax rates, like the stock market, periodically go up and periodically go down, as illustrated in the graph to the right. The problem is that no one can predict with certainty exactly when tax rates will go up or down. Federal income tax rates are low now so it is highly likely that they will go up in the future. The current lower tax rates are set to expire in 2025 at which time they will revert to the higher 2016 rates (unless congress votes to extend them). Which political party is in charge of congress and the White House will have a big impact on whether taxes will go back up in 2025 (as planned) or stay low (requiring additional legislation). However, unless there is a significant reduction in federal spending in the next 4 years, then it is likely that there will be no alternative to letting the tax rates go back up in 2025.

Therefore, if your income remains relatively constant, it will cost you less to do a Roth conversion now than it will cost beginning in 2025. As an example, in 2021, a person making $200,000 has a federal income tax rate of 15% but in 2025, a person making $200,000 will have a 20% income tax rate. So, by doing a $50,000 Roth IRA conversion in 2021 (and thus increasing their taxable income to a total of $250,000), this person would pay a total of $42,250 in income tax but if they wait to do the Roth IRA conversion in 2025, this person would pay a total of $53,750 in income tax. In other words, as shown in the calculation below, this person will pay $11,500 more in income tax to do a Roth conversion in 2025 than in 2021:

In fact, a person would need to make $380,000 per year in 2021 to be taxed at the same rate that an income of $200,000 will likely be taxed in 2025. Therefore, a person making an annual income of $200,000 in 2021 can convert an additional $180,000 into a Roth IRA this year and still pay the same income tax rate that they will pay on an income of $200,000 (with no Roth conversion) in 2025.

Know the rules about Roth Conversions

The tax laws regarding Roth IRA withdrawals are complicated and depend on your age, how long ago you opened the Roth IRA, whether you are withdrawing the contribution (amount you originally put in) versus earnings (amount you made off of the contributions), and whether the contribution was a direct contribution or a conversion contribution. For direct contributions (eligible for couples filing jointly with an income of < $198,000), you can take money out of the Roth contributions anytime but you cannot take money out of the Roth earnings until you have had the Roth account open for at least 5 years and you are at least 59 1/2 years old. For conversion contributions, the conversion must have occurred at least 5 years previously, regardless of your age, before you can withdraw the contributions from the Roth account. The IRS uses a “first in, first out” rule when tracking the conversions so that every conversion amount that you make to a Roth IRA has its own 5-year requirement before you can withdraw it. In other words, consider the amount of each Roth IRA conversion to be locked up for 5 years.

Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions, unlike other deferred compensation accounts (such as traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457s). Required minimum distributions are a certain percentage of the deferred compensation accounts that the IRS requires you to withdraw each year after age 72. If a person has a lot of money in these deferred compensation accounts at age 72, this can result in taxable income high enough to push the person’s effective income tax rate up. Therefore most retirees will start to preferentially draw down their traditional IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457s before age 72 and hold off on taking withdrawals from their Roth IRAs until after age 72 in order to maintain the lowest income tax rates during their retirement years. In general, you cannot convert required minimum distributions into a Roth IRA.

Now is the time to do a Roth conversion

If the 2016 tax cuts are left to expire in 2025, then there will be 4 more years of lower income taxes before income tax rates go back up. Therefore, it will cost you less to do a Roth IRA conversion in 2021, 2022, 2023, and 2024 than it will to do a Roth conversion in 2025 and later. The best Roth strategy depends on a person’s age:

If you are younger than 59 1/2: Do a direct Roth IRA contribution if your income is less than $198,000 (married filling jointly). If your income is higher, then you can make a contribution to a traditional IRA (up to $6,000 per person under age 50 and $7,000 per person over age 50) and then promptly convert the traditional IRA contribution into a Roth IRA (backdoor Roth). A common question that comes up is whether it is better to contribute to a deferred income account such as a 401(k)/403(b)/457 (pre-tax dollars) or better to contribute to a traditional IRA and do a backdoor Roth conversion (post-tax dollars). If your employer offers a matching contribution to your 401(k)/403(b)/457, then it is always better to contribute to the 401(k)/403(b)/457. There are two situations when doing a backdoor Roth is advantageous:

    • You have already contributed the maximum to your 401(k)/403(b)/457 and you have some additional post-tax money that you want to invest for retirement. In this situation, if you put the money into a regular investment, you will eventually pay capital gains tax on the earnings but if you put the money into a backdoor Roth, you pay no taxes on the earnings.
    • You believe that you will have a higher income tax rate in your retirement years than your current tax rate. Remember, however, that by contributing to a 401(k)/403(b)/457, you are lowering your taxable income for the contribution year and thus lowering your tax rate that year. Conversely, your income tax rate will be higher if you do not contribute to your 401(k)/403(b)/457 and do the backdoor Roth instead. Nevertheless, for the next 4 years, if you do not have a lot of extra cash on hand in your checking account, you may be better off to reduce your 401(k)/403(b)/457 contributions by enough to give you $6,000 after-tax ($7,000 if over age 50) and then put that $6,000 into a traditional IRA followed by a backdoor Roth conversion.

If you are between 59 1/2 and 67: You can do a direct contribution (if your income is low enough) or a backdoor Roth. But you should also consider converting a portion of your traditional IRA, 401(k), 403(b), or 457 into a Roth IRA. The optimal amount to convert will depend on how much higher you project your taxable income will be in 2025 than it is in 2021. If your taxable income is going to be about the same, then you may be able to convert up to $100,000 – $150,000 and still come out ahead from a tax standpoint. If you project that your income will be higher in 2025 than it is now (and thus have an even higher income tax rate), then you can convert more than $100,000 – $150,000. If you project that your income will be lower in 2025 than it is now, then it still may be advantageous to do a conversion now but the conversion amount should be less. If you are still working, you can do a Roth conversion from your traditional IRA but you probably will have to wait until retirement to do a Roth conversion from an employer-sponsored 401(k), 403(b), or 457 (withdrawals from these accounts while still working are usually not permitted). Importantly, remember that you will pay income tax on the amount of the conversion so you should only do the conversion if you have sufficient cash on hand to pay that extra tax.

If you are between 67 and 72: Things get a bit more complicated. Remember, each conversion contribution needs to be in your Roth account for at least 5 years in order to avoid an early withdrawal penalty. So, if you plan to start taking money out of your Roth at age 72, then the year you turn 72, you should only take an amount equal to the conversions that you did before age 67 to avoid paying the IRS penalty. This means that you have to track your Roth conversions and have a record of how much you converted each year. It may still be advantageous for you to do Roth IRA conversions between ages 67 and 72 but you should be sure that you do not plan on withdrawing those annual conversions from your Roth IRA for at least 5 years.

If you are older than 72: Doing a Roth conversion after age 72 is usually unwise. Because required minimum distributions from deferred compensation accounts are necessary starting at age 72, taking additional money out of these accounts to do Roth conversions will result in more taxable income and thus push the income tax rate up higher. Some people who are still working and contributing to a 401(k)/403(b)/457 after age 72 may be exempt from required minimum distributions and thus be in a position where a Roth conversion is still advantageous but they should check with a tax advisor because this is a very complicated area.

It’s all about the math

If the current tax rates expire in 2025 and revert to the 2016 rates as anticipated, then there is a 4-year window of opportunity for Roth conversions in order to take advantage of the lower tax rates. A carefully timed Roth conversion can save you money by reducing the total amount of income tax you pay over your lifetime. But you have to be strategic with your timing or you could end up paying more in income taxes. If you are not sure, then get help from a tax expert.

September 7, 2021

Physician Retirement Planning

Retirement Investment Allocations

So, you are finally done with all of your education and you are now actually earning an income. You want to start saving for retirement but the number of investment options can seem overwhelming. Many people turn to their company’s 401(k) and a “target date” mutual fund that automatically invests a certain percentage of the fund allocation in U.S. and foreign stocks and a certain percentage in U.S. and foreign bonds. When the investor is young, a higher percentage goes into stock and as the investor ages, the percentage invested in bonds increases. In fact, 24% of all money held in 401(k) accounts is in target date funds. Although this approach is simple and works reasonably well for most people, the savvy retirement investor can do better with understanding of the 4 buckets of retirement assets and the 4 types of retirement investments.

Retirement Investment Summary

Deferred Compensation Accounts

  • Do include:
    • Stock and bond funds in a pre-determined ratio
    • REIT funds
  • Do not include:
    • Cash
    • Tax-free bond funds

Roth Accounts

  • Do include:
    • Stock funds
    • REIT funds
  • Do not include:
    • Cash
    • Bond funds (until you are close to age 72)

Regular Investments

  • Do include:
    • Cash
    • Stock and bond funds in a pre-determined ratio
    • Tax-free bond funds
    • Any stocks held in individual companies for your entertainment (non-retirement) purposes
  • Do not include:
    • REIT funds
    • Certificates of deposit

The 4 buckets of retirement assets

The money that you use in retirement is going to primarily come from 4 sources or “buckets”: (1) defined benefit income, (2) deferred compensation, (3) Roth accounts, and (4) regular investments.

First, there is defined benefit income. This is a dependable amount of money that you get every month from a source such as Social Security, a pension, or an annuity. For most people, Social Security will not be enough to cover a retiree’s expenses. If you can get one, a pension is a great component of a balanced retirement asset portfolio but pensions are increasingly uncommon. Annuities have their place for some investors but for the majority of people, annuities are too expensive and too complicated to be worth it, particularly if you have a moderate to high income during your working years. Defined benefit income can serve as an important safety net in retirement so that even if there is a major recession, you still have enough income coming in each month to ride out that recession, without having to sell your stock or bond funds at a time when you can potentially take a substantial loss on those funds.

The second bucket is deferred compensation. This includes IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457s. This is money that you put away into an investment without paying income taxes on it while you are working. When you withdraw the money in retirement, you pay regular income tax on those withdrawals at whatever your income tax rate is during that year. Any interest and dividends generated from the investments in deferred compensation accounts just gets added to the value of the account so when you take that money out, you pay regular income tax on the withdrawal no matter whether the money in that withdrawal was derived from your original deposit into the account, interest earned on that investment, dividends earned from that investment, or the capital gain in value of that investment. At age 72, the IRS requires you to take a portion of money out of deferred compensation accounts each year; this is called “required minimum distributions”. If you have a lot of money in your deferred compensation accounts at age 72, those required minimum distribution can push you into a high tax bracket; this is why many advisors recommend drawing down from your deferred compensation accounts early in retirement, before age 72. For many people, deferred compensation accounts will be their main source of retirement income.

The third bucket is Roth accounts. The most common of these is the Roth IRA but some people can invest in a Roth 401(k) or Roth 403(b). This is money that you pay income tax on during the year that you earned and deposited the money into Roth account. That money then grows tax-free in the account with the addition of any interest or dividends from the investments. When you withdraw money from the Roth account, you do not pay any tax on it. Money in Roth accounts are not subject to required minimum distributions so you can leave money in these accounts beyond age 72. Regular Roth IRAs are only available to people with lower incomes; however, a “back-door Roth IRA” is available to anyone and is a great idea for most middle and high income people. The Roth 401(k) and Roth 403(b) are only advisable if you anticipate that you will be in a higher tax bracket in retirement than you are when you are working, which is uncommon except for young people early in their careers when their annual income is relatively low.

The fourth bucket is what I will call regular investments. This is money that you pay regular income tax the year that you earn it and then invest that money in stocks, bonds, etc. You can pay taxes on these investments in three different ways: interest, dividends, and capital gains. Interest income is taxed each year at your regular income tax rate. Dividends can be taxed two ways: “ordinary dividends” are subject to your regular income tax rate the year that you earned the dividends. On the other hand “qualified dividends” are taxed at your capital gains tax rate the year that you earned the dividends. A typical U.S. stock index fund will have approximately equal amounts of ordinary and qualified dividends each year. When you sell an investment, such as a stock, you pay capital gains tax on the amount that that investment has increased in value since you purchased it. For most people, the capital gains tax rate will be lower than their regular income tax rate. The current capital gains tax rates for people married filing jointly are 0% for annual income < $80,800, 15% for annual incomes $80,801 – $501,600, and 20% for annual incomes > $501,600. The IRS also has a 3.8% dividend surtax for anyone with more than $200,000 in annual investment income (this is uncommon). Note that interest, dividend, and capital gains taxes only apply to regular investments and do not apply to deferred compensation investments (which are taxed at your income tax rate) or Roth investments (which are not taxed at all).

The 4 types of retirement investments

Okay, this is a little oversimplified. In reality there are more than 4 types of investments but I am not going to include less common investments such as fine art, jewelry, wine collections, and digital currency as these are considerably less common in the typical retirement portfolio. The main 4 types of retirement investments most people have are (1) stocks, (2) bonds, (3) real estate, and (4) cash. Knowing which of these to put in each of your retirement buckets depends on how they are taxed and when you will want to use them.

The first type of investment is stocks. It is inadvisably risky for most people to buy stocks in individual companies. It is preferable to buy shares of mutual funds which are composed of stocks from many different companies, thus allowing you to spread out your risk. For American investors, stocks can be divided into U.S. stocks and foreign stocks – a diversified portfolio will have some of both. In the short-run, the value of stocks can swing widely, losing value some years and gaining value in others. However, in the long-run, stocks will outperform all other kinds of investment.

The second type of investment is bonds. Once again, most people don’t buy individual bonds but instead buy shares of bond mutual funds. Bonds can come from U.S. companies, the U.S. government, local governments, and state governments. Some government bonds are tax-free, meaning that you do not pay tax on the income from those bonds. However, tax-free bonds tend to pay the investor lower yields than taxable bonds. Bonds can also come from foreign companies and foreign governments. An advantage of bonds is that their value does not fluctuate from year to year as much as the value of stocks (in other words, bonds have less volatility than stocks). However, over the long-term, the return on bonds is less than the return on stocks.

The third type of investment is real estate. Most of us cannot easily go out an purchase a plot of land or a building as a retirement investment but we can invest in shares of real estate investment trusts (REITs). Functionally, these are similar to mutual funds and an REIT will own many different properties, such as apartment buildings, office buildings, warehouses, retail centers, etc. Like stock mutual funds, the value of REITs can fluctuate widely from year to year and will outperform bond funds in the long-term. However, REITs are subject to different economic forces than stocks, so the performance of REITs may not mirror the performance of the stock market in any given year.

The fourth type of investment is cash. These are investments that do not earn a very high return but are relatively safe and dependable; their value does not fluctuate much from year to year. Because the annual inflation rate will usually be higher than the annual return on cash investments, those cash investments will actually lose value over time; for this reason, you do not want to have too much of your retirement portfolio in cash. Included in this category are checking accounts, savings accounts, and money market accounts. Some people include certificates of deposit (CDs) in this category but I consider cash as money that you can take out with immediate notice; the problem with certificates of deposit is that those funds are locked up for the term of the CD and so you cannot access them on short notice without paying a penalty. Another disadvantage of certificates of deposit is that the yield on the CD is taxed as interest, in other words, at you regular income tax rate.

Putting the right investment type in the right asset bucket

So far, we’ve seen that there are 4 basic buckets of retirement assets and 4 basic types of retirement investments. The next step is to determine how much of each type of investment to put in each bucket of retirement assets. The decision will be based on how each investment is taxed in each bucket, how far in the future you plan on taking money out of the investment, and the short-term volatility of each type of investment.

Defined Benefit Income Bucket

For the most part, you are not going to have any say in how the money in your defined income bucket is invested. Social Security income will be determined by congress and pension payments will be determined by a central pension committee. You can have some limited control over annuity investment by purchasing different types of annuities.

Some advisors argue that an investor is better off not contributing to a pension and instead investing that money themselves. Although I agree that most investors can outperform their pension, the key advantage of having a pension as a component of a balanced retirement portfolio is that by having the guaranteed monthly income from the pension, you can afford to put a larger percentage of your other retirement investments in stocks than you otherwise would. In the long-run, those riskier stocks will result in higher overall returns.

Deferred Compensation Bucket

Most people will start to withdraw money from their deferred compensation accounts shortly after retirement. Therefore, the composition of your deferred compensation account will depend on the number of years until you retire. If you are younger, then the stock-to-bond ratio should be primarily U.S. and foreign stocks with relatively little bonds – you have plenty of time to weather out the year-to-year volatility of stocks. As you get closer to retirement, the proportion of bonds should increase and the proportion of stocks should decrease. The idea of the “target date” mutual fund is that you choose a fund that corresponds with your planned year of retirement and the fund automatically adjusts the ratio of stocks to bonds each year as you get closer to retirement. Target date funds are designed to meet the needs of the average person but the problem with target date funds is that we are not all average and the target date funds do not take into account an individual person’s unique circumstances that can affect the ideal stock:bond ratio for that individual’s retirement portfolio. The ideal ratio of stocks:bonds will depend on (1) your own willingness to accept risk inherent in stock market volatility, (2) whether or not you will have defined benefit income in retirement, and (3) how long you expect to live in retirement. One strategy is to look at the stock:bond ratios from investment companies such as Vanguard, Fidelity, or Blackrock and use those ratios as a starting point. If you are risk-adverse, then increase the percentage of bonds in your portfolio. If you will have a pension or if you anticipate living a long time in retirement, then increase the percentage of stocks in your portfolio. A small portion of the deferred compensation fund should be real estate, for example, 5-6% of the funds invested in an REIT.

Do NOT put a lot of cash in your deferred compensation accounts – you want investments that are going to grow in value over time in these accounts. Do NOT put tax-free bonds in your deferred compensation accounts – these bonds will not increase in value as much as taxable bonds and the annual interest generated by these bonds does not get taxed each year in the deferred compensation fund, anyway.

Roth Bucket

Ideally, you want Roth accounts to hold investments that are going to have the highest long-term increase in value. Therefore, your Roth accounts should be mostly composed of stocks, both U.S. and foreign. Because your Roth account is not subject to required minimum distributions at age 72, you will likely want to withdraw money from your Roth accounts at an older age than you start to tap into your deferred compensation accounts (in other words, you want to spend down your deferred compensation accounts before reaching age 72). As with your deferred compensation bucket, a small amount of the Roth accounts should be in REITs, say 5-6%.

Do NOT have cash investments in your Roth accounts – there is little to no tax advantage. Do NOT have bond funds in your Roth accounts (at least when you are younger) – since you will not start to take withdrawals from your Roth accounts for 5-10 years after you start to take withdrawals from your deferred income accounts, you can afford to have a higher percentage of stocks in your Roth bucket than in your deferred income bucket. As you get close to age 72 (or whatever age you anticipate starting to withdraw money from your Roth account), you can then begin to shift some of the Roth funds into bonds. Even more importantly, do NOT have tax-free bonds in your Roth accounts ever – the Roth accounts are already tax-free and tax-free bonds will have a lower annual return than regular taxable bonds.

Regular Investment Bucket

This is the bucket that you want your cash investments in. Everyone, regardless of age, should have enough money in cash to cover at least 3 and preferably 6 months of normal expenses. You or your spouse could lose your job, have an unexpected (and expensive) illness, or suffer a financially catastrophic loss such as a house fire.

For most middle and high income earners, it is better to maximize annual contributions to your 401(k), 403(b), 457, IRA, and/or Roth before investing money meant for retirement in regular investments. But if you have maximized your deferred compensation and Roth account contributions and you still have some money left over to invest for retirement, what you invest in? The decision will largely be based on taxes.

If you want tax-free bonds in your retirement portfolio, this is where you should put them – where you can benefit by not having to pay annual regular income tax on the annual yields that these bonds generate. As I stated in a previous post, most people should not invest retirement money in individual stocks – you are better off diversifying your stock holdings. However, if you do want to hold a few individual stocks for your own entertainment purposes, this is also where you should put them.

Most people should have a higher percentage of bonds in their regular investment bucket than in their deferred compensation bucket. There are two important reasons for this. First, if you need money for an unexpected expense before you retire, you are better off drawing that money from your regular investment bucket rather than your deferred income bucket since you will be charged an early withdrawal penalty from deferred income accounts. Therefore, you may need the money sooner than your planned retirement date so you want to have less investment volatility given your potentially shorter investment horizon. Second, since you want to have your Roth account composed mostly of stocks, you will need to have someplace else to put bonds in order to maintain your overall desired stock:bond ratio across all of your retirement buckets.

Do NOT put certificates of deposit meant for retirement saving in your regular investment bucket. You will pay regular income tax on the interest each year and your regular income rate will usually be higher during your working years than during your retirement years. Certificates of deposit are better used for non-retirement savings, for example, savings for a new car or down payment for a house.

Do NOT put REIT retirement investments in your regular investment bucket. Unlike a stock mutual fund that generates about half ordinary and half qualified dividends, REIT dividends are almost all ordinary dividends and thus taxed each year at your regular income tax rate. Because most people will have a lower income tax rate in retirement than when working, you will pay more tax on REIT dividends in a regular investment when you are working than you will on REIT dividends in a deferred compensation account when you withdraw in retirement.

Some financial advisors argue that dividend-generating stocks should be in your deferred compensation bucket and not in your regular investment bucket for the same reason. I do not have as strong of an opinion – the explanation is a bit complicated, so bear with me (if you feel like your head is ready to explode after reading this far, skip reading this paragraph). If a stock mutual fund is held in your regular investment bucket, you will be taxed each year at your regular income tax rate for the ordinary dividends and at your capital gains tax rate for the qualified dividends. On the other hand, if that same index stock fund is held in your deferred compensation bucket, you will not pay annual tax on the dividends each  year – those dividends just build up in the account until you make a withdrawal in retirement and then you will be taxed at your regular income tax rate on that withdrawal. Your income tax rate will likely be higher during your working years than in your retirement years so you might think that it would be better to have dividend-producing stocks in your deferred compensation account. However, your income tax rate in retirement will likely be higher than your capital gains tax rate when you are working. Therefore, in order to minimize taxes, you are better off having stocks that generate ordinary dividends in your deferred compensation bucket and having stocks that generate qualified dividends in your regular investment bucket. Since most index stock funds generate approximately equal amounts of ordinary dividends and qualified dividends, I believe that taxes on ordinary and qualified dividends balance out whether the index stock fund is held in your regular investment bucket or in your deferred compensation bucket. For that reason, I do not believe that dividend generation should be a factor in deciding whether a stock fund should be in your regular investment bucket or in your deferred compensation bucket.

Diversification is the key

Diversification is at the core of every healthy retirement portfolio. That means diversifying across all 4 of the buckets of retirement assets and across all 4 of the types of retirement investments. The optimal amount of each type of retirement investment you have in each bucket of retirement assets will depend on tax implications, your age, your risk tolerance, and whether or not you will have a pension.

August 9, 2021

Physician Retirement Planning

Why Everyone Should Have A Roth IRA

Traditional wisdom holds that you should only contribute to a Roth IRA if your income tax rate in retirement will be higher than your current income tax rate. I would argue that everyone should have a Roth IRA as part of a diversified retirement portfolio.

What is a Roth IRA?

With a Roth IRA, you pay income taxes on money you earn today and then put that money in the Roth IRA. That money then grows without you having to pay interest, dividend, or capital gains taxes each year. When you retire, you take that money out to spend in retirement and you do not pay any taxes on the withdrawals. If your taxable income in 2021 is less than $125,000 (filing single) or less than $198,000 (filing jointly), you can contribute money you earned directly to a Roth IRA after paying 2021 taxes on that income. If your taxable income is higher than those limits, you can still contribute to a Roth IRA but you cannot do it directly. Instead, you have to do a “conversion” where you first contribute to a traditional IRA and then convert the money in that traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. This is sometimes called a backdoor Roth IRA. There is a limit to the amount that you can contribute each year: $6,000 if you are under age 50 years old or $7,000 if you are over 50.

Roth IRAs have one additional advantage for retirees – there are no required minimum distributions. For traditional IRAs and other deferred compensations investments, when you reach age 72, you are required to withdraw a certain amount of money from your deferred compensation plan accounts. The percentage of the total of all of your deferred compensation plan accounts that you are required to withdraw will be based on your life expectancy. As an example, a 72-year-old retired married couple with $500,000 in their combined deferred compensation plan accounts would be required to withdraw 4.0% of the value of these accounts ($20,000) in 2021.  On the other hand, an 82-year-old married couple would be required to withdraw 4.3% ($21,500) in 2021. Roth IRAs are exempt from required minimum distributions so those funds can be left alone each year if desired. This can be an advantage if you: (1) want to leave money to your heirs, (2) are saving for a planned large expense in a future year, or (3) believe that you are going to live longer than the IRA life expectancy tables would predict.

The four retirement income buckets

OK, in reality there are a lot more than 4 sources of money that most retirees can draw from, but for most people, retirement income can be divided into four general categories:

  1. Fixed income. This includes annual Social Security benefits, pension income, and annuity income. This is a predictable amount that does not change from one year to the next (although it may increase slightly for annual cost-of-living adjustments). This income will be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.
  2. Deferred compensation. This includes a long list of retirement savings options including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457s, SEPs, RCPs, and 415(m)s. A traditional IRA can also be included in this group if you are able to contribute pre-tax income directly to the IRA – this is the case if you are not covered by another retirement plan at work. You can also contribute to a traditional IRA with pre-tax income if you are covered by another retirement plan at work and your income is < $66,000 (filing single) or < $105,000 (filing jointly). Deferred compensation grows tax-free, so you do not pay any taxes on interest, dividends, or capital gains. When you withdraw money in retirement, the withdrawals will be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.
  3. Post-tax investments. Although this can include everything from investment real estate properties to investment artwork, for most people, this will be stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. These are investments that you buy with your disposable income after you have paid income tax that year. Each year, you will pay taxes on interest and dividends from these investments (at your ordinary income tax rate that year) and when you sell these investments, you will pay taxes on the difference between the purchase price and the selling price (at your capital gains tax rate).
  4. Roth accounts. Although the most common of these is the Roth IRA, there are also Roth 401(k)s, Roth 403(b)s, and Roth 457s. All of these Roth accounts are similar in that you pay regular income tax on the money the year that you contribute to the account and then pay no taxes on the withdrawals.

Why you need a Roth IRA

There are two ways that a Roth IRA can save you money on taxes. First, if you have disposable income after paying this year’s income tax and you want to invest for retirement, you can either put it in a post-tax investment (for example, by buying shares of a mutual fund) or you can put it in a Roth IRA (either directly or by doing a Roth IRA conversion, depending on your taxable income). If you put it in a post-tax investment, then you are going to be taxed every year on the interest and dividends and then when you withdraw the money in retirement, you are going to be taxed on the capital gains – over the years, that will add up to a lot of taxes. On the other hand, if you put that same money in a Roth IRA, you will never pay any taxes on interest, dividends, or capital gains. Therefore, everyone should maximize contributions to a Roth IRA before putting money in a post-tax investment for retirement purposes.

The second way a Roth IRA can save you money on taxes is by taking advantage of periodic changes in federal income tax rates. As I described in a previous post, income tax brackets are one of the most misunderstood parts of the American tax system. What is important is your effective income tax rate and not your tax bracket. The effective income tax rate will vary widely depending on how the U.S. Congress sets taxes. It is a certainty that tax rates will change every few years, largely depending on which political party is in power. Having a Roth IRA allows you to maintain a consistent annual disposable income in retirement while weathering the ups and downs of income tax rates. To demonstrate this, let’s look at the effective tax rates in 2016 versus 2020.


In 2016, the effective federal income tax rate on an a taxable income of $250,000 was 21% or $53,500. In 2020, the same income of $250,000 was taxed at 16% or $40,000. In other words, you would have $13,500 more in disposable income after taxes in 2020 than you did in 2016. In fact, in 2020, you would have to have a disposable income of $430,000 to be taxed at 21% which was the effective tax rate on $250,000 in 2016. Similarly, if your taxable income was $160,000 in 2016, your federal income tax would be 17.5% ($28,000) but in 2020 your federal income tax would be 13% ($20,800), a $7,200 difference in disposable income.

In retirement, during years when the effective income tax rate goes up, you want to draw relatively more money from a Roth IRA and in years when the effective income tax rate goes down, you want to leave the Roth IRA alone and draw more money from your deferred income accounts. By using this strategy, you can maintain a constant disposable income while minimizing income taxes.

It is inevitable that federal income tax rates will go up in some years and down in others during a person’s retirement years. American taxpayers want low taxes but they also want federal services such as Social Security, Medicare, a strong military, investment in transportation & infrastructure, and perhaps in the future even national healthcare. Our political party system results in a see saw effect every few years with pressure to decrease taxes followed several years later by pressure to increase federal services. I would argue that for most people, it is impossible to predict whether their federal income tax rate will be higher or lower in any given year during retirement than it is during the years that they are working. The reality is that over the duration of their retirement years, it will likely be both. Having a Roth IRA allows you to take advantage of these inescapable swings in the effective income tax rate in order to maximize your disposable income.

April 18, 2021

Physician Retirement Planning

The Ways Physicians Retire

Recently, an older primary care physician in solo practice called me to ask if our hospital would buy his practice when he retires. I’ve seen a lot of physicians retire over the decades and there are several different ways that physicians do it. This post is all about the retirement paths that physicians can take.

First, I did not offer to purchase the physician’s practice. In the past, retiring physicians often sold their practice which meant selling their patient’s paper charts. But, nobody does that anymore. With the availability of electronic medical records, those paper charts are essentially valueless – the medical information is already on-line. There are situations when a physician will purchase office space and equipment from a retiring physician but since most physicians lease office space, this is also becoming quite rare. Also in the past, junior physicians would have to buy into a practice to become a senior partner with the proceeds often becoming severance pay to the senior physicians at retirement. This practice has also nearly disappeared with a industry wide move to hospital-based employment and large multispecialty practice group employment. As a consequence of these changes, physicians no longer have the option of cashing out at retirement. However, this has also opened the door for many other ways for physicians to retire.

Going Cold Turkey

Some physicians one day just stop practicing altogether. This can be a pretty abrupt change in lifestyle for a doctor who has been working 60 hours a week plus taking call. It is like driving your car all day at 70 miles an hour on the highway and then pulling off onto a 15 mile per hour side road. Many doctors who spent years dreaming of a life of nothing but golf or fishing find themselves suddenly unfulfilled and untethered from a time when their skills were valued and needed. This can result in a sudden identity crisis. Some physicians unexpectedly find that what they miss most when no longer in the hospital or the office is the human contact with other doctors, the other healthcare staff, and the patients. Loneliness and isolation can be unanticipated consequences of sudden and complete retirement. Nevertheless, making a complete break from medicine can avoid the day to day reminders of a past life when the physician was valued and needed as can occur when one  gradually slows down medical practice. For many physicians, going cold-turkey in retirement allows one’s legacy to be remembered for being the doctor that they were when they were still at their best rather than for being remembered for the doctor that they used to be.

The Fade Away

Another retirement option for physicians is to slowly cut back, making retirement a more gradual process. The hospitalist or emergency medicine physician can just take fewer and fewer shifts. The family physician can stop taking new patients and reduce the number of days in the office per week. This results in a much less abrupt lifestyle change than retiring cold turkey and allows the physician to remain socially engaged with patients and other healthcare workers. A downside of dialing back is that the physician can become less relevant than those other physicians who are working fulltime – the physician can feel tolerated but less valued than in the past. You are no longer asked to be on key committees or included in key decision-making. Also, the practice of medicine takes practice, just like it takes practice to be a high-performing athlete or musician. There is a risk of losing one’s skills as one becomes increasingly part-time.

Shedding Unwanted Career Baggage

Over time, every physician builds up career baggage. You are put on a committee that you never get off. You pick up an administrative task that never goes away. Toward the end of a doctor’s career, all of that baggage can really weigh you down. For some physicians, retirement means stopping doing these non-patient care duties that they may not really enjoy doing but continuing to see patients. But with continued patient care comes continued patient phone calls, electronic medical record “inbasket” management, paperwork, etc. that will still require daily physician involvement. Nevertheless, this form of retirement can allow the physician to continue to do what he or she really enjoys while shedding unwanted administrative tasks.

Move To The VA

Columbus, Ohio is one of the largest cities in the U.S. without a Veterans Administration hospital. However, we have a very large outpatient VA clinic. Many physicians in Columbus are drawn to the VA clinic in retirement. It is 9-5 Monday through Friday work with no weekends and no call. The patients appreciate you and there are no pressures from insurance companies. You get a set salary and if you are there for at least 5 years, you are eligible for benefits through the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). For physicians who have been in a financially-strapped solo practice and unable to save much for retirement, FERS can be very attractive. An active, unrestricted state medical license allows you to practice at a VA anywhere. It may still be full-time work but full-time at a VA clinic is usually less time than full-time in a private practice. In addition to the Veterans Administration health system, there are many other, similar employment jobs available for physicians who still want to practice medicine but want to get rid of some of the headaches of private practice.

Emeritus Status

For physicians in academic medicine, emeritus status can be a great option. You can continue to attend conferences and grand rounds. You often get free parking at the University and access to the library system. You can continue to do research, write papers, and teach. You may even get to have an office somewhere on campus. Typically, emeritus faculty have a considerably lower salary than regular faculty (or no salary at all) but also have the freedom to “just say no” to pretty much anything they don’t want to do. In many universities, emeritus status physicians can still see patients, but often for a time-limited number of years after retirement. Emeritus programs can be a win-win for both the physician and the university. The physician can remain engaged with teaching, research, mentoring, or clinical care in a part-time basis. The university gets an experienced faculty member to contribute the university’s mission at little or no cost.

Volunteer Medicine

For physicians who retire financially secure, volunteering can allow the physician to continue to utilize their skills for the benefit of society. An advantage of volunteering is that the physician can decide what to volunteer for, when to volunteer, and how much to volunteer. Locally, this can be at various free clinics or on health department boards. It can be on medical missions abroad or at a Red Cross blood center. However, just because you are not getting paid does not mean that you cannot be sued so be sure that you check into medical licensure requirements and the need for medical malpractice insurance.

Locum Tenens

As a locum tenens physician, you agree to provide temporary coverage of a practice for a defined amount of time. This often happens when a physician has to leave the practice for a period due to pregnancy, illness, military reserve requirements, etc. Sometimes it is because someone left the practice and that physician’s replacement will not finish residency for several more months. Or for whatever reason, there are more patients than doctors at a location. Locum tenens jobs often come with a per diem allowance for housing and food. They may also pay for your transportation to/from the practice location as well as your malpractice insurance. The downside is that the physician may have to apply for a medical license in a new state and travel may require absence from family and friends at home. It can also be difficult to get oriented to a new electronic medical record, practice model, and medication formulary. However, locum tenens is often a good option for the physician who wants to work for a few weeks or months a year and doesn’t mind having to travel to do it.


This is a pretty broad area and can include working as an advisor to businesses or governments, providing expert opinion to attorneys or insurance companies, surveying hospitals for accreditation organizations, and providing editing or reviewing services for media. The physician can utilize the knowledge and analytic skills that she or he has garnered over the years. It can provide at least a modest stream of income with part-time work and that work can often be done from one’s own home. Even a relatively small amount of consulting income can provide an opportunity for schedule C income tax deduction for expenses such as medical licenses and subscriptions.

Do Something Completely Different

Many physicians sent most of their career dreaming about how they would like to start a winery, or open a restaurant, or create a bed and breakfast. Physicians who have saved well during their medical careers may have a substantial sum saved up that can form the capital investment necessary to start their own business. But many of these ventures can end up being another full-time job with long hours and the pressures of employee management, sales, marketing, and accounting. The harsh realities of being a boutique entrepreneur can turn those dreams into a small business nightmare.

For some financially secure physicians, a carefully planned second career after medicine can provide a way to stay engaged with other people and work days that are free of the weighty demands of managing chronic disease, nights on call, and mountains of paperwork. But the old adage “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” can often hold true for physicians starting a second career.

Social Media

Currently, there are 689 million TicTok users, 600 million blogs (including this one!), 340 million Twitter users, and 1.75 million podcasts. Add in webcasts and YouTube accounts and the number of social media users exceeds 1 billion. Launching a social media site can be attractive to the retired physician because content can be recorded whenever there is some free time in the week with no worries about deadlines. And the material can be about anything from medicine to public policy to hobbies.

On average, physicians plan to retire about 5 years later than the average American, at age 68 versus age 63. There are several reasons for this later retirement age, perhaps most importantly that physicians have a long training period and most do not actually enter the medical workforce until after age 30, many years later than the typical American. The retirement choice that each physician makes will depend on one’s physical health and financial health as well as one’s individual wants and needs. But the possibilities can be endless…

March 28, 2021

Physician Finances Physician Retirement Planning

The 15 Commandments of Physician Financial Health

For physicians completing residency or fellowship, managing finances can be bewildering when that first paycheck as a practicing physician comes in. There was no class in personal finance in medical school. So, here is a short course on the basics of financial health: 15 rules to live by.

1. Have an emergency fund

This is the very first thing that a newly practicing physician (or anyone, for that matter) needs to do to ensure financial safety. No event in generations has made this more clear than the COVID-19 pandemic which brought unemployment rates higher than any time since the Great Depression.

But unemployment comes in cycles and it is certain that there will be 2-3 additional spikes in U.S. unemployment during your working career. Although physicians were relatively immune to the 2020 COVID-associated unemployment spike, it is common to suddenly find oneself out of a job if the hospital terminates the contract with your practice group, the hospital closes, or a hurricane destroys your hospital. Although physicians can usually find a new job somewhere, it can take several months to process a hospital application or obtain a medical license in a different state. You need a minimum of 3 months-worth of expenses and preferably 6 months-worth in a safe investment (checking account, savings account, or money market account).

2. Eliminate excessive debt

A newly trained physician has a lot of pent up consumption. The roommate that you graduated from college with 7-8 years ago drives a new BMW, vacations in the Turks and Caicos, and just joined a country club. Meanwhile, you’ve been driving a 15-year-old Chevy that was handed down from your aunt, your only vacation last year was to visit your in-laws in New Jersey, and fine dining involves a Domino’s pizza. You want to catch up and that first paycheck is going to be more than you made in the past 4 months of residency. You will be tempted to max out your credit cards in anticipation of that paycheck and you’ll be tempted to put that first paycheck towards a new house/car/vacation. There will come a time for expensive purchases but have patience and do not take on excess debt, especially early in your career. If you cannot pay off your credit cards every month, then you are buying too much stuff. Too high of a monthly mortgage payment or car loan will financially suffocate you for years to come.

3. Buy insurance judiciously

Everyone needs health insurance and most people need some other type of insurance. When you are first starting out in your career, you will have lots of people trying to sell you things, especially insurance policies. But be careful and only buy the insurance that you actually need:

  • Life insurance. This comes in 2 main types: term and whole life. When you buy life insurance, you are making a bet with the insurance company – you’re betting that you are going to die when you are young and the insurance company is betting that you are going to die when you are old. Term life insurance is relatively inexpensive and straight forward: you pay the insurance company a set amount each month and the insurance company pays your beneficiaries if you die while your policy is active. Whole life is a lot more complicated and considerably more expensive – it is the marriage between term life insurance and a savings account and that marriage cost you much more than the individual cost of the insurance plan and the savings plan individually. The insurance agent will try to sell you on whole life in order to put his or her children through college. My advice is that term life insurance is necessary when you have young children or a spouse who does not work – once you are close to retirement, you no longer really need it. Avoid whole life insurance.
  • Disability insurance. Every physician should have disability insurance until they retire. Unlike life insurance which is there to support your dependents if you die prematurely, disability insurance is there to support both you and your dependents if you become disabled. After you retire, you no longer need it.
  • Umbrella insurance. Once you become a practicing physician, you will have a big red bull’s eye on your back that every plaintiff attorney in the country can see. They know that you don’t bother to sue a person at fault who is broke, you sue the person who has money… and physicians have money. If you or a family member are involved in a motor vehicle accident with injuries or if a pedestrian falls and breaks their neck on your sidewalk, you need excess coverage. Buy a $1 million policy.
  • Annuities. These are the opposite of life insurance and can be considered as death insurance: You are placing a bet with the insurance company that you are going to live a long time and the insurance company is betting that you are going to die soon. However, this is really what a pension is – a way to insure that you still have an annual income if you live longer than you expected to. So, buying a simple annuity is a lot like purchasing a pension. The problem is that annuities can be extremely expensive and insurance companies often dress them up with all kinds of extra features that you don’t really need (and most people don’t understand). Insurance agents make a bunch of money on annuities, so they will push them very hard. They still might be worth it for people with a relatively lower income. For high-income physicians, avoid them – your regular investments will be substantial enough to buffer your retirement and will be much less expensive than an annuity.

4. Start saving for retirement early

The secret to building a sizable retirement fund is compound interest. It is true investment magic. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. stock market has averaged an annual 10.9% rate of return. So, lets assume that after expenses, you get a 10% annual return. If you invest $36,000 into your retirement fund today, how much will you have in 35 years when you retire?

Compound interest is the secret to turning $36,000 into $1,012,000 for your retirement. Therefore, the earlier you can start saving for investment, the less burdensome investing will be – even a small amount of investment early in one’s career can make a huge difference. But most people do not just contribute to their retirement account in 1 year, most people contribute something to their 401(k), 403(b), 457, IRA, or SEP every year. Once again, compound interest is magic:

5. Use 529 plans for your kid’s college savings

College is expensive and it keeps getting more expensive, faster than normal inflation. For most families, college will be the largest expense they will have after their house. One of the challenges is that unlike retirement, where you have 35 years for compound interest to create wealth, you only have 18 years from the birth of your child until that child has college expenses. Therefore, it is essential that you start saving as early as possible, preferably the year the child is born. There are a number of investment options to save for your child’s education but none are better than the 529 plans. Their advantage? The investment grows tax-free and then when you take the money out for educational expenses, you don’t have to pay any taxes on the withdrawals. Furthermore, you can usually deduct contributions from your state income tax – in Ohio, you can deduct up to $4,000 per year of contributions into each child’s 529 plan. No other college savings investment comes close to these tax advantages of the 529 plans.

When our first child was born in 1988, our goal was to have enough saved up to pay for 4 years of a public university in Ohio by the time that child was a senior in college. So, we put $5,000 into a college fund the year she was born and then had $100 automatically transferred from my checking account into the college fund each month. For our children born later, we increased the monthly transfer a bit to allow for inflation. By the time each of them was in college, their college funds had enough to pay for a public university.

But 1988 was 33 years ago and college will cost a lot more 18 years from now. So, to pay tuition, room, and board for a public university in Ohio in 18 years (estimated at $255,000), you would have to start with $15,000 initial investment and additionally save $250 per month. If your goal is for your child to go to a private university, for example, the University of Notre Dame, you’re going to need $764,000. That means that you’ll need to start off with $15,000 initial contribution and add $1,000 per month.

6. Don’t pay someone else to invest your money

Physicians finishing residency or fellowship are inundated with letters from financial advisors who want you to become their client. They will invite you to free financial planning seminars, they will take you out to nice dinners, they drive nice cars, and they have really nice offices. They make a living off of other people’s money. I will argue that physicians are smart enough to do their own investing, at least early in their careers and you are better off putting a little more money into your retirement account than into a financial advisor’s fees. But this is contingent on taking enough time to learn about investing and financial intelligence. 10 hours of homework can save you thousands of dollars in the long run.

7. Choose retirement investments strategically

Your choice of what type of retirement accounts to invest in today should be guided by what you believe your effective tax rate will be in retirement. In general, income tax rates will be lowest during residency and fellowship, will gradually increase over the course of a physician’s practice career, and then will fall again after retirement. The strategy is to pay income taxes at a time in your career when you have the lowest effective income tax rate. Therefore you need to know which taxes you pay in the distribution year (when you withdraw the money) versus the contribution year (when you earned the money).

When a physician is a resident or fellow (and thus having a relatively low income tax rate), a Roth IRA is the most tax-advantaged retirement investment. This can be as direct contribution to a Roth IRA if one’s income is below the Roth contribution threshold set by the IRS. Alternatively, it can be as a post-tax contribution to a traditional IRA that is then converted to a Roth IRA if one’s income exceeds the Roth contribution threshold (the “backdoor Roth”). The income tax-advantaged time to contribute pre-tax investments (403(b), 401(k), 457, and SEP) is during a physician’s practice years when their income tax rate is relatively high. During these earning years, the following is my recommendation for prioritizing retirement contributions:

  1. Matched 401(k) or matched 403(b). Never turn down free money and if your employer is going to match your contributions with free money, take it!
  2. 457. This type of retirement account is offered through government agencies/institutions. The advantage of the 457 over the 403(b) and 401(k) is that if you retire before age 59 1/2, you cannot take money out of the 403(b) or 401(k) but you can take money out of the 457.
  3. Non-matched 401(k) or 403(b). The 401(k) is offered by for-profit companies and the 403(b) is by non-profit companies.
  4. Simplified employee pension plan (SEP). Use this if you have self-employment income, for example, honoraria and expert witness income.
  5. “Backdoor” Roth IRA. Use this after you have maximized contributions to the above retirement options.
  6. Regular investments. You will pay regular income tax on the annual interest and dividends. You will pay capital gains tax when you sell stocks, bonds, or mutual funds on the accrued value of those investments (selling price minus purchase price). Most physicians will be in the same capital gains tax bracket when working and when retired (15%) So there is no tax advantage of selling these when working versus when retired.
  7. AVOID TRADITIONAL IRAs. Except during residency and fellowship, nearly all physicians will have a taxable income that will exceed the threshold set by the IRS for pre-tax contribution to a traditional IRA. Therefore, traditional IRA contributions will be post-tax contributions. The problem is that when you take money out of a traditional IRA in retirement, you will pay regular income tax and that tax rate will be higher than the capital gains rate that you would be paying if you had instead put that money in a regular investment.

8. Your first mutual fund should be a no-load index fund

Your most powerful tool in investing is the magic of compound interest. However, annual expenses of a mutual fund can erode those benefits of compound interest. For example, lets assume you invest $100,000 for 20 years with an 8% annual return. Fund A has an expense ratio of 0.21% and fund B has an expense ratio of 1.15%. At the end of those 20 years, the total cost of fund A will be $19,190 and the cost of fund B will be $96,260. That is a $77,070 difference! Index funds have annual expenses that average about one-eighth those of actively managed funds. In addition, if you have to pay a front-load (commission) when you purchase the mutual fund, then you not only pay the cost of that commission but you also lose all of the compound interest wealth that you could have obtained had that money stayed in your account. Some people would argue that it is acceptable to pay a commission or a higher annual expense for an actively managed mutual fund because the professional fund manager can pick stocks and bonds that are more likely to increase in value. The problem is that more often than not, this just is not true – index funds actually out-perform actively managed funds. The following graph shows the annual return over the past decade for U.S. index funds versus actively managed funds. The only area where actively managed funds out-performed index funds was in corporate bond funds. Data from the previous decade looked exactly the same.

9. Don’t buy individual stocks

If professional stock analysts who run actively managed mutual funds do not perform as well as the index, why would an amateur expect to pick stocks any better? In an analysis of the Russell 3000 index between 1983-2008, only 36% of individual stocks performed better than the Russell 3000. By purchasing an index fund, you are purchasing a small piece of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual stocks thus spreading out your risk. Only purchase individual stocks for entertainment purposes with money left over after you contribute to your investment accounts.

10. Timing the market doesn’t work

There is an old adage that “Time in the market beats timing the market”. If the professional mutual fund managers do not have a crystal ball to predict when the stock market is going to rise and fall, then neither do you. Lets say you invested $10,000 in a broad stock index fund in 1990. If you did not touch that money and left it alone, by 2020, you would have $172,730. However, if you were taking money in and out of your investment trying to optimally time the market and you happened to miss out on the 10 single best days in the stock market over that 30-year period, you would only have $86,203. No one can predict that the next day is going to be one of the best (or worst) days of the stock market. Day trading is for entertainment but not for investment. That being said, I do have one character flaw when it comes to investing: when the stock market falls by 5%, I invest a little in stock index funds; when it falls by 10%, I invest a bit more; and when it falls by 20%, I invest as much as I can afford.

11. If you don’t understand it, don’t buy it

This applies to any type of investment. If you don’t know what a company manufactures, don’t buy stock in that company. If you can’t figure out how an annuity works, don’t buy it. And if you have heard of Bitcoin but don’t really understand how it works or how it is made, don’t buy it.

12. Know your investment horizon

Over time, stocks outperform bonds. However, in the short-run, stock prices are much more labile than bond prices. So, if you anticipate that you will need money in 3 years, say for a down payment on a house, don’t put that money in stocks. Instead put that money in a less volatile investment such as a bond fund or a certificate of deposit. On the other hand, you are saving for your planned retirement in 30 years, your money should be primarily in stocks because you can ride-out the year-to-year volatility of the stock market over a 30-year time period in order to achieve the higher long-term yields.

13. Diversify

Just like diversifying your stock portfolio by buying an index fund provides greater financial stability than buying individual stocks, diversifying your entire investment portfolio creates greater investment stability. Early in your career, this means having a retirement portfolio that is composed mostly of stock index funds and then later in your career, increasing the percentage of bond and real estate funds. In an ideal world, a diversified retirement portfolio would include a pension, a 401(k)/403(b)/457, a Roth IRA, and individual investments.

14. Pay off student loans strategically

The average U.S. medical student graduates owing $200,000 for medical school and an additional $25,000 from undergraduate college. The monthly loan repayment is around $350/month during residency and then balloons up to around $2,000/month after residency. So how should a newly trained physician approach having a staggering $225,000 debt on the first day of their career? First and foremost, always pay off monthly loan payments on time – the penalties for late payment are severe. However, if you have money left over at the end of the year, should you try to pay off the student loan early or put the money into a pre-tax retirement investment? Although it is laudable to strive to be debt-free, it is better to be debt-smart. The first $2,500 of student loan interest is tax-deductible which has the net effect of reducing the net interest rate that you actually pay each year. If you do the math, you come out ahead if you put that extra money in a 401(k)/403(b)/457/SEP rather than try to pay off the loan early. The bottom line is don’t postpone retirement investment by trying to pay off the student loan too quickly.

15. You are your finances best friend and worst enemy

When it comes to investment, a little knowledge is dangerous but a lot of knowledge provides security. I’ve seen many smart physicians who spent thousands of hours training to care for the health of their patients but less than 2 hours training to care for their own financial health. I’ve seen physicians put all of their retirement investments in money market funds rather than stock funds because they were afraid of risk, even when retirement was 25 years in the future. I’ve seen physicians invest heavily in an individual stock based on a “tip” from a golf buddy, stock broker, or family member. I’ve seen world famous physicians having to live frugally in retirement because they couldn’t conceive of a day that they would not be practicing medicine during their careers and so they never saved for retirement. I’ve seen physicians sell off most of their investments in 2009 when the great recession hit and then do it again in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit because they thought that the end of the financial world was coming.

Investment, and particularly investment for retirement, is a marathon and not a series of sprints. Develop a plan for the long-term and then stick with that plan during short-term rises and falls in the marketplaces. It is OK to periodically re-balance your portfolio and to modify your investment plan as you get older and as your financial situation changes but those modifications should be based on long-term goals and not short-term fears. There is a difference between gambling and investments. Gambling is a series of short-term expenditures but you know that over the long-term, the house is always going to beat you. Investment is a series of short-term expenditures but you know that over the long-term, you are always going to come out ahead.

March 11, 2021