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Mike's Perspective

Know the Enemy

By Mike Lynch, CFP ®

Taxes may be the price we pay for civilization, as Oliver Wendell Holmes noted. Paying taxes may also make us feel proud, even patriotic, as we are contributing to a society that has supported the success that makes our ability to pay taxes possible. But, as the late television star Arthur Godfrey said, "I could be just as proud for half the money"

When it comes to investing, it’s best to adopt Godfrey’s view. Taxes can be one of the great obstacles to financial success. And it’s even worse for us in Connecticut, as our high cost of living and high property, gas, and sales taxes require us to earn more income, and therefore pay more taxes at potentially higher rates, than people who live elsewhere. So, when it comes to our investing, every dollar we can save in taxes is a dollar we can grow for future support.

Fortunately, most of us can invest tax smart to fund most of our life goals.

Governments potentially levy income taxes at three points in the wealth accumulation process: when we earn money, when that money grows in an investment, and when we sell the investment. The more of these points where taxes can be avoided, the more money that will be accumulated.

The first place to start for the retirement goals is the employer sponsored retirement plan, usually a 401(k) for private businesses, a 403(b) for schools, hospitals and non-profits, and a 457 for municipal and state employees. Every dollar contributed to these accounts reduces a person’s taxable income by a dollar and the money grows tax deferred until retirement, at which point income taxes will be due on withdrawals according to current law. For a Connecticut resident in the 25 percent federal tax bracket, $10,000 contributed to a 401(k) saves an immediate $2,500 in federal taxes and other roughly $550 to $600 in state taxes.

This means that it costs $6,950 to save $10,000, and then that $10,000 grows tax deferred. Assuming an 8 percent rate of return and a 25 percent tax bracket and a 20-year time horizon, this is a difference of $457,619 in the tax deferred account compared to $318,045 if taxes were paid all along the way. (This is a hypothetical figure and is not indicative of any particular investment or product. As with any market investment there are risks involved, and results cannot be guaranteed. Actual returns could likely be higher or lower than this figure.) The drawback to this account is the bill comes due eventually. When the money is withdrawn, and it must start to get withdrawn in one’s early 70s, ordinary income taxes will be due on every dollar. This can make people very cranky.

Roth IRAs are backwards 401(k) s. Contributions are made with after tax dollars. Under current law, however, they grow tax deferred and, if accessed properly, the gains will be tax free as well. Roth IRAs make an excellent complement to employer sponsored plans, and, for younger or people with modest incomes they are very attractive substitutes. They are limited by income, but back door strategies exist that allow even high earners to get money in Roth IRAs. In addition, many companies offer a Roth 401k option that is not income limited by the IRS.

Municipal bonds and deferred annuities may provide investors with opportunities to shield investment gains from taxes. Annuities allow any potential gains to accumulate tax deferred. For retirees living on modest incomes, transferring balances held in taxable CDs, for which the depositor is insured by FDIC, to fixed annuities, guaranteed by the financial strength of the issuing insurance company, can sometimes reduce income. Municipal bonds are an example of a tax advantage investment which may be suitable for some people. For Connecticut residents, bonds issued by the state of Connecticut are exempt from state and federal taxes. For a person in the 25 percent federal tax bracket, a 2 percent municipal bond is the equivalent of a 2.9 percent taxable investment. The higher one’s income tax rate, the more valuable the income tax savings on the municipal bond.

The mother of all income tax dodges is the health savings account (HSA). A person or a family must have a qualified health plan to use it and these are increasingly popular. Money contributed to an HSA avoids all taxes on the way in—even payroll taxes. Investment gains are tax free. If the money is ultimately spent on health care on the way out—an item on everyone’s budget, especially as we age—it’s not taxed again. If available, people should consider maxing this out and letting the money sit for years and enjoy compounding until it’s needed in retirement. Think of it as a tax-free IRA for health care expenses.

As with all financial strategies, investment products, and services, none of these strategies is right for everyone. In most cases, a combination will be optimal. After all, we all have an interest in paying less taxes. Unless, of course, someone wants less money in retirement.

This article was prepared by Mike Lynch CFP® is a financial planner with the Barnum Financial Group in Shelton CT and is not intended as legal, tax, accounting or financial advice. Michael is a registered representative of and offers securities, investment advisory and financial planning services through MML Investors Services, LLC. Member SIPC. 6 Corporate Drive, Shelton, CT 06484, Tel: 203-513-6000. He can be reached at mlynch@barnumfg.com or (203) 513-6032. The opinions provided above are not necessarily those of MML Investors Services, LLC. The opinions provided are for general information purposes only.

CRN202006-232145