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A Lifesaver for Retirement: Playing Catch-Up with Your 401(k) or IRA

retirement taxes

A recent survey of baby boomers (ages 53 to 69) found that just 24% were confident they would have enough money to last throughout retirement. Forty-five percent had no retirement savings at all, and of those who did have savings, 42% had saved less than $100,000.1

Your own savings may be on more solid ground, but regardless of your current balance, it's smart to keep it growing. If you're 50 or older, you could benefit by making catch-up contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts. You might be surprised by how much your nest egg could grow late in your working career.

Contribution limits

The federal contribution limit in 2016 and 2017 for all IRAs combined is $5,500, plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those 50 and older, for a total of $6,500. An extra $1,000 might not seem like much, but it could make a big difference by the time you're ready to retire (see table). You have until the April 18, 2017, tax filing deadline to make IRA contributions for 2016. The sooner you contribute, the more time the funds will have to pursue potential growth.

The deferral limit in 2016 and 2017 for employer-sponsored retirement plans such as 401(k), 403(b), and most 457(b) plans is $18,000, plus a $6,000 catch-up contribution for workers 50 and older, for a total of $24,000. However, some employer-sponsored plans may have maximums that are lower than the federal contribution limit. Unlike the case with IRAs, contributions to employer-sponsored plans must be made by the end of the calendar year, so be sure to adjust your contributions early enough in the year to take full advantage of the catch-up opportunity.  Thus, the total that can generally be contributed amount – including catchup contributions – is $30,500.  Not only is this a significant amount to save, but this could result in significant tax savings – both short-term and long-term. 

The following table shows the amount that a 50-year-old might accrue by age 65 or 70, based on making maximum annual contributions (at current rates) to an IRA or a 401(k) plan:

Potential Savings a 50-Year-Old Could Accumulate
Without Catch-Up
With Catch-Up
IRA
By Age 65
$128,018
$151,294
By Age 70
$202,321
$239,106
401(k)
By Age 65
$418,697
$558,623
By Age 70
$662,141
$882,854

Example assumes a 6% average annual return. This hypothetical example of mathematical compounding is used for illustrative purposes only and does not represent any specific investment. It assumes contributions are made at end of the calendar year. Rates of return vary over time, particularly for long-term investments. Fees and expenses are not considered and would reduce the performance shown if they were included. Actual results will vary.

Special 403(b) and 457(b) plan rules

403(b) and 457(b) plans can (but aren't required to) provide their own special catch-up opportunities. The 403(b) special rule, available to participants with at least 15 years of service, may permit an additional $3,000 annual deferral for up to five years (certain additional limits apply). A participant can use this special rule and the age 50 catch-up rule in the same year. Therefore, a participant eligible for both could contribute up to $27,000 to his or her 403(b) plan account (the $18,000 regular deferral limit, plus the $3,000 special catch-up, plus the $6,000 age 50 catch-up).

The 457(b) plan special rule allows participants who have not deferred the maximum amount in prior years to contribute up to twice the normal deferral limit (that is, up to $36,000 in 2016 and 2017) in the three years prior to reaching the plan's normal retirement age. (However, these additional catch-up contributions can't exceed the total of the prior years' unused deferrals.) 457(b) participants who elect to use this special catch-up rule cannot also use the age 50 catch-up rule in the same year.

Don’t Forget About Health Savings Account Catch-Up

As we have written about in the past, the Health Savings Account can also effectively help you meet your standard of living in retirement.  HSAs also allow a catchup contribution, but you have to wait until age 55 for this catch-up (versus age 50 for the pure retirement vehicles). If you qualify to contribute to these accounts (see prior articles), you can contribute $3,400 plus the $1,000 contribution, totaling $4,400.  For a family HSA, a couple can contribute $6,750 plus the $1,000 catch-up contribution, totaling $7,750.  And, these types of accounts should especially be considered because they provide arguably the best tax attributes of any available vehicle.

It’s Not All About Cash Flow

Too often, individuals may decide not to make retirement contributions because they are concerned that their annual income less their annual expenses is insufficient to provide any wiggle room for such contributions. However, consider alternative sources of meeting these tax-advantaged savings opportunities.  If you have a taxable portfolio or a significant amount in cash that is more than enough for your emergency needs, consider redeploying these funds to retirement vehicles.  Or, if you are paying down “good debt” (e.g., mortgage) more rapidly than required, consider decreasing these payments to improve your annual cash flow which may allow you to contribute to the retirement vehicles.

Integrated Nature

As always, when reviewing your retirement savings be sure to integrate these contributions with your income tax planning, budgeting, and investment planning, among others.  Take a revisit (or initial visit?) of your retirement situation.  If there is a significant gap, this may encourage you to increase those contributions.

1"Boomer Expectations for Retirement 2016," Insured Retirement Institute.

Modified by Oasis Wealth Planning Advisors with initial preparation by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2016.