I’m Retiring Soon—What Do I Do with My 401(k)?
As you may have realized, when you reach retirement age, you can pack up all your pictures and favorite fountain pens and desk knick-knacks, but you can’t just toss your 401(k) in a cardboard box, kick open the door, and journey off to new, work-free horizons.
You have to decide what to do with the hard-earned money you’ve saved at your employer, a decision that should be thought out carefully, so you can avoid mistakes that may hack away at your retirement livelihood.
To get you thinking in the right direction, I’d like to outline all of your options for what to do with your 401(k). Some are much better than others for most people, so I think it will be beneficial to run you through the four common choices retirees make and the potential strengths and weaknesses of each.
- Do Nothing
That’s right, you could take the path of least resistance and just leave it with your employer. And, surprisingly, there are viable reasons for doing so. For a small one, a 401(k) usually has good protection from creditors. But here’s the big one: keeping your money in a 401(k) will allow you to withdraw without penalty at age 55. Other options are not so friendly to early takers, socking you with penalties if you withdraw before 59 and a half. So, if you are retiring before 59 and a half, this is an important point to consider.
However, aside from that, there aren’t too many reasons you’d want to keep your 401(k) with your employer. It limits your investment options. Oftentimes, you can’t get good, individualized management help. And, if you’ve had a string of employers and left a pot of money with each, you’ve probably got a trail of 401(k) accounts following behind you, making your money difficult to manage. Scattered money leads to a scattered brain.
In other words, sticking with your employer is not your worst option, but it may be not your best.
- Take a Lump Sum Distribution—Cash It Out!
To fling us all the way over to the dark side, this is the worst option. In fact, this choice can cause you to loose a third of your 401(k) value in one foul swoop. How? I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do one of life’s two certainties.
No, not death…but taxes.
When you cash it all out at once, that money becomes part of your income for the year. This will often make you soar into higher tax brackets, and—next thing you know—Uncle Sam can snag tens of thousands of dollars from your hard earned money.
To take an example, let’s say your yearly income (as a couple filing jointly) is in the 15% bracket ($18,651 to 75,900 in 2017). If you take out a 401(k) with, let’s say, $200,000 in it, this will catapult you up 3 tax brackets to 33%! That’s $66,000 gone, in just one transaction.
To put it bluntly, this 401(k) strategy should only be used in emergencies. Even if you want to buy a big-ticket item like a car or a boat or a house, only cash out what you need and, if possible, cash it out in chunks to rein in the tax hikes.
- Transfer It to a Roth IRA
A Roth IRA is a phenomenal option for 20-somethings wanting to save money for their retirement. However, for the soon-to-be retiree, it usually isn’t. Why? Well, you run into the same tax problem that you do with the second option. Remember the 33% hit?
You see, unlike with a traditional IRA, with a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on your money up front. Then, you can withdraw the money tax-free later on. Therefore, the only time it makes sense to convert to a Roth IRA is if you know you will be in a higher tax bracket in the future, when you take it out. For retirees, this is rarely the case.
Perhaps a Roth IRA would be a good option if you knew you didn’t need the money, planned to let it grow tax-free until you die and pass it on to your kids. But I’m speaking in extreme rarities now. Most retirees are counting on their 401(k) to live.
- Transfer It to a Traditional IRA.
The last option is the most popular, and for good reason, too. As far as taxes go, you can transfer it electronically, avoiding all taxes up front. Then you can pay the taxes as you withdraw it, in a reasonable bracket for your income.
And, it also wins on many other fronts, fronts that the decision to leave it at your employer doesn’t.
For one, you are free to choose from the world of investment options. Like a talent scout seeks out the best players for his team, you can seek out the best performing investments to develop a killer portfolio that is both diversified and matched to your unique risk tolerance.
For another, you can consolidate any and all retirement accounts in one, so it is easier to manage.
And finally, you can get personalized help. The kind of help that isn’t from a representative to a crowd of employees or from a recording on your phone telling you to “press one to hear more options.” When you rollover your 401(k) to a traditional IRA, you have the option to sit down face-to-face with a professional, certified financial planner and develop that aforementioned killer portfolio together.
Now, it’s important to note that there is a fee involved with working with a financial planner, which is usually 1-2% of the assets he or she manages. Whether or not the fees are higher than the fees you currently pay at your employer is a toss up, so that is something to consider.
The point is, the decision of what to do with your 401(k) is an important and complicated one. Making the wrong choice can lead to major losses or lost opportunities. That is why we offer a 401(k) planning workshop to help you sort through it all and come to decision you can be confident about. Click here to discover more about our 401(k) workshop as well as our other workshop offerings.