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:
- Tax-free bond funds
- Do include:
- Stock funds
- REIT funds
- Do not include:
- Bond funds (until you are close to age 72)
- Do include:
- 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.
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