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Retirement account restrictions

Lesson in Course: Finance at work (advanced, 5min)

Retirement accounts have some great benefits, but are there strings attached?

Eureka!

What it's about: Retirement accounts are excellent for long-term investing; however, they have rules that we need to keep in mind.

Why it's important: Breaking these rules leads to tax penalties.

Key takeaway: Balancing our short and long-term goals prevents us from contributing money that we'll need before retirement and having to pay tax penalties.

Too much of a good thing

The IRS sets contribution limits each year, making slight increases annually for cost-of-living adjustments. In typical "when you're old enough" fashion, the IRS increases the limits for folks over a certain age to make additional "catch-up" contributions.

There are two limits for employer-sponsored plans, like a 401(k) or 403(b). One is the maximum amount that we can contribute from our salary. The other is a limit on the combined amount by our employer and us if our employer matches contributions. The amount we can put into our IRA is much lower than what's allowed for retirement accounts through our employer. That said, they are independent of one another, so contributions to our 401(k) wouldn't count toward the limit on our IRA.

IRS contribution limits

We can find the contribution limits each year by going to the IRS website:

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-contributions 

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-contributions
 

When it’s time to cash out

Outside of a few exceptions, the cash in these accounts is only accessible during our retirement years. Taking money out before retirement (before 59.5 years old) will result in paying a tax penalty of 10% in addition to any ordinary income tax we owe.

Taking distributions early results in penalties

After we've turned 59.5 years old, the money in the account is available to be withdrawn without penalty. We'll have to pay income taxes when we take money out of Traditional retirement accounts since we put money in pre-tax. However, our income tax rate in retirement might be lower than it is today. Withdrawals from Roth accounts in retirement are tax-free since we paid income tax before putting the money into the account.

Pre-tax contributions?

Let's say we withdraw $20,000 a year from a Traditional 401(k). We'll pay taxes as if we earned $20,000 in income since our money went into the account before our employer took income taxes out of our paycheck.

Nothing lasts forever

Traditional retirement accounts don't allow us to keep money in there indefinitely. 

Minimum distributions a required and so are taxes

The IRS eventually forces us to withdraw money through required minimum distributions when we turn 70.5 years old.

What is Required minimum distribution?

When we turn 70.5 years old, the IRS expects us to start taking at least a minimum amount of money from our retirement accounts every year, depending on how old we are and how much is in the account.

We can easily determine our required minimum distribution by spreading the total account value amount over our life expectancy.

Example required minimum distribution

Let's say we're 70 with an account amount with $500,000 in it. If we check the IRS website, it says our distribution period is 27.4. So we divide $500,000 by 27.4, and our required minimum distribution would be about $18,250.

Required minimum distribution details

The IRS provides more information on its website, including this worksheet for calculating them ourselves.

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-required-minimum-distributions-rmds 

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-required-minimum-distributions-rmds

Actionable ideas

These limitations are in place so that people don't abuse the benefits of retirement accounts; however, these restrictions usually don't get in the way of reaching retirement goals.

The biggest problem you want to avoid is putting money into a retirement account that you'll need to take out early. Remember, this results in paying a tax penalty. Preventing this requires balancing your short-term and long-term needs. One way to do this is by contributing smaller amounts throughout the year, then maxing out with extra cash at the end of the year.

 

Supplementary materials

Exceptions to early distributions

The IRS provides a list of when we can take money out without paying the penalty:

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-tax-on-early-distributions 

https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-tax-on-early-distributions

Glossary

What is Required minimum distribution?

When we turn 70.5 years old, the IRS expects us to start taking at least a minimum amount of money from our retirement accounts every year, depending on how old we are and how much is in the account.