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Contribution rules on IRA and 401(k) accounts differ a lot. Here’s a primer

How much you’re allowed to contribute to a retirement account each year varies widely depending on the type of account.
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: I recently changed jobs. Typically I max out my 401(k) contributions each year. I contributed $20,700 to my previous company’s plan before quitting. Eligibility for my new company’s 401(k) doesn’t kick in until after 12 months of continuous employment, so I won’t be able to access this benefit until 2023. Can I set up an IRA or Roth IRA to reach the $27,500 limit for people 50 and older? I am married, filing jointly and our combined income exceeds $214,000.

Answer: Please talk to your company about fixing this outmoded requirement, which is costing its workers enormously in lost matching funds and compounded returns. Most companies have much shorter waiting periods, and the most enlightened employers enroll workers immediately. It’s hard enough to save adequately for retirement without an arbitrary yearlong delay.

The limits for contributing to workplace plans are separate from those for IRAs and Roth IRAs. For 2022, the limits for 401(k)s are $20,500 for people under 50 and $27,500 for people 50 and older. The contribution limits for IRAs (regular or Roth) are $6,000 for people under 50 and $7,000 for people 50 and older.

Many people erroneously think they can’t contribute to an IRA if they have access to a workplace plan. You can, but the ability to deduct your contribution is affected.

If you had access to a workplace plan at any point during the year, your ability to deduct your contribution would phase out with modified adjusted gross income between $109,000 and $129,000 if you are married filing jointly, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. The phaseout is between $68,000 and $78,000 for single taxpayers.

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Normally when you can’t deduct an IRA contribution, you’re better off contributing to a Roth IRA. Contributions to a Roth aren’t deductible but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

However, the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $204,000 and $214,000 for married joint filers and between $129,000 and $144,000 for single filers.

If you can’t contribute directly to a Roth, you could consider what’s called a “back door” Roth contribution, in which you contribute to a regular IRA and then convert the money to a Roth. Although direct Roth contributions have income limits, Roth conversions do not. However, you are required to pay income taxes on a typical conversion, so this maneuver works best if you don’t already have a large pretax IRA.

Consumers already paying more for gas, groceries and everyday items should expect higher prices in other parts of their lives after the Fed rate increase.

Mortgage payoff or emergency savings?

Dear Liz: My husband was laid off recently, and he quickly took a new job with a 25% pay cut to continue insurance benefits and the same retirement program. We regularly pay $500 to $1,300 extra on our house payment. We cannot keep that up. However, with his severance package and vacation day payout, we now have more in our bank account than we owe on our mortgage. If we paid off the $80,000 mortgage now (house is valued at $600,000), we’d have an emergency fund of only $10,000, but we could replenish those savings slowly each month with no house payment. We have no other debts. How do we know when is the right time to pay off the mortgage?

Answer: Think about what would happen if you paid off the mortgage and your husband were to be laid off again or you suffered some other financial setback. The $10,000 left in your emergency fund could be depleted quickly. If you don’t have stocks or other assets you could sell, you might have to raid your retirement accounts or turn to high-cost loans.

This is why financial planners recommend having an emergency fund equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses if possible — and why using your savings to pay off a low-rate debt might not be the best use of your money.

If you’re determined to pay off your mortgage, consider setting up a home equity line of credit first. That will give you a relatively inexpensive source of credit in an emergency.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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