Why I’m Making Pre-Tax 401(k) Contributions

Last week, I wrote about how I’m investing in our company’s new 401(k) plan. That wasn’t the only decision I had to make though. Another choice was between making traditional pre-tax versus Roth contributions. Here are three reasons why I chose the former:

I expect my tax rate to be lower in retirement. The choice is basically between paying taxes now versus later. I’m currently in the 28% federal income tax bracket and the 6.65% NY state income tax bracket for a total marginal tax rate of 34.65%.

When I retire, my tax brackets are likely to be lower and I may end up living in a state with a lower state tax rate or even no state income tax at all. This is partly because I’ll need less income in retirement (especially since I won’t be saving for retirement anymore) and also because some of my retirement income will be coming from a tax-free Roth IRA. If I do end up being fortunate enough to retire in a higher tax bracket, I won’t mind paying the higher tax rate on my 401(k) as much since those additional dollars will be less valuable to me at that point.

I’d rather invest the tax savings outside my 401(k). With the pre-tax contributions, I get that 34.65% that would normally go to Uncle Sam if I made after-tax Roth contributions. I can then invest those tax savings in practically anything I want. Yes, I’ll have to pay taxes on the investment earnings, but I estimate that my higher expected returns in those outside investments will outweigh the taxes.

I can convert to a Roth later. One thing I love is keeping my options open. When I eventually leave the company, I can convert my 401(k) into a Roth IRA. (I’ll have to pay taxes on anything I convert so hopefully my tax bracket will be lower in at least that year.) However, if I choose the Roth option, there’s no way to go back and recover the benefit of lower taxable income.

Does this mean everyone should make pre-tax contributions? Absolutely not. If you expect your tax rate will be higher in retirement or if you’re maxing out your contributions and want to shield as much of it from taxes as possible, the Roth option would probably make more sense. As always, the best choice depends on your particular situation. Just remember that either choice is better than not contributing at all (or delaying due to analysis paralysis).

 

 

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