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3 Ways a Roth 401(k) Can Boost Retirement Savings

Penelope Wang

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In the 11 years since Roth 401(k)s were first launched, these accounts have become a standard option in most plans—nearly eight out of 10 of employers now offer a Roth 401(k), according to a soon-to-be released survey by Alight Solutions, a benefits consulting firm.

Yet so far workers have largely ignored their Roth accounts. Only 13 percent use a Roth 401(k) in plans where one is offered, up only slightly from 12 percent in the previous year, Alight data show.

That’s a missed opportunity. Roth 401(k)s offer one of the best options for building a tax-free stash of savings.

1. Your Savings Will Be Worth More in Retirement

When you make a contribution to a pretax 401(k) account, your taxable income is lowered by the amount you put away. That gives you an immediate tax break, and your money grows tax-deferred. But when you eventually make withdrawals, you will pay taxes on the amounts you take out, which will reduce your retirement income.  

By contrast, you put away after-tax dollars in a Roth 401(k), so the growth and withdrawals are tax-free. That means you have the full balance of the account available to spend in retirement.

“It’s harder to fully fund a Roth account, since you have to pay taxes first, but there’s a bigger reward at the end,” says William Bernstein, an investment adviser and author of  “The Four Pillars of Investing.”

2. You Are Likely to Save More

“The switch to a Roth is tied to getting more serious about saving,” says Rob Austin, director of research at Alight Solutions. Workers who contributed to a Roth 401(k) saved 9.7 percent of pay on average, which is 2 percentage points more than the average 401(k) saver, the Alight survey found.

Alight also analyzed the data from 25,000 employees who switched to a Roth from a pretax account in 2016. Two-thirds of those in this group raised their contribution rate from 8.2 percent of pay to 10.6 percent.

The survey did not ask workers why they increased their contributions. But the decision to move to a Roth may have spurred employees to improve their overall retirement plan, including hiking their savings rate, Austin says.  

3. You Benefit From Tax Diversification

For many savers, using a Roth seems dicey. You’re giving up a tax break today for future tax-free withdrawals, but you don’t know whether you’ll come out ahead because you can’t predict your tax bracket in retirement.

But there’s a simple workaround: Split your 401(k) contributions between your Roth and pretax accounts. “By holding both pretax and after-tax savings you have the advantage of tax diversification,” says Mike Piper, a CPA who runs ObliviousInvestor.com. “That way, you are hedging your bets if you guess wrong about your future tax rate.”

The amounts you put in your pretax and Roth accounts should be geared to your financial goals and overall portfolio. If you’re just starting out, you might consider funneling the bulk of your savings into a Roth, because you are more likely to end up in a higher tax bracket than you are now, Piper says. You will still have tax diversification, because employer matches are made with pretax dollars.

Midcareer investors might stash 60 percent of their 401(k) savings in a pretax account and the rest in a Roth. Because you will give up some of your pretax money to taxes, your retirement portfolio will be more or less evenly divided, in spending terms, between pre- and after-tax savings.

At retirement, you can roll over your Roth 401(k) into a Roth IRA, which means those funds are no longer counted in determining how much you must take starting at age 70½. Those distributions might otherwise push you into a higher tax bracket, and it leaves you more flexibility in retirement.

And the ability to tap tax-free savings can also help retirees avoid triggering taxes on other benefits, such as Social Security income or healthcare subsidies for those not yet receiving Medicare, Piper says.

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