Stocks — Part VIII: The 401K, 403b, TSP, IRA & Roth Buckets

In Part IV we looked at some sample portfolios built from the three key Index Funds I favor, plus cash.  Those four are what we call investments.

But in our complex world we must next consider where to hold these investments.  That is, in which bucket should which investment go?  There are two types of buckets:

1.  Ordinary Buckets
2   Tax Advantaged Buckets

Now at this point I must apologize to my international readers.  This post is about to become very USA centric.   I am completely ignorant of the tax situation and/or possible tax advantaged buckets of other countries.  My guess is, that at least for western style democracies, there are many similarities and possibly you can extrapolate the information here into something relevant to where you live.  Or you might post a country specific question in the comments below.  The readership of jlcollinsnh has been growing quickly and there are a lot of savvy investors on board who may well be able to help.

Here in the USA the government taxes dividends, interest and capital gains.  But it has also created several Tax Advantaged Buckets to encourage retirement savings.  While well-intentioned, this has created a whole new level of complexity.  Volumes have been written about each of these and the strategies now associated with them.  Clearly, we haven’t the time or space to review it all.  But hopefully I can provide a simple explanation of each along with some considerations to ponder.

The Ordinary Bucket is, in a sense, no bucket at all.  This is where everything would go were there no taxes on investment returns.  We would just own what we own.  Easey peasy.  This is where we’ll want to put investments that are already “tax efficient.”

There are several variations of Tax Advantaged Buckets, and we’ll look at each.  These are the buckets in which we’ll want to place our less tax efficient investments.  In general this means investments that generate dividends and interest.

Let’s look at our four investments from Part IV:

Stocks.  VTSAX (Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund) pays around a 2% dividend and most of the gain we seek in in capital appreciation.  Ordinary Bucket.

Real Estate.  VGSLX  (Vanguard REIT Index Fund)  REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) invest in real estate and this is also a play for capital gains.  However REITS also tend to pay dividends, VGSLX in the range of 3-4%.  Tax Advantaged Bucket.

Bonds.  VBTLX (Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund)  Bonds are all about interest.  Tax Advantaged Bucket.

Cash is also all about interest but, more importantly, it is all about ready access for immediate needs.  Ordinary Bucket.

None of this is carved in stone.

There may be exceptions.  Proper allocation should trump bucket choice.  Your tax bracket, investment horizon and the like will color your personal decisions.  But the above should give you a basic framework for considering the options.

Before we look at the specifics of IRAs and 401Ks, this important note:

None of these eliminates your tax obligations.  They only defer them.

Fix this in your brain.  We are talking about when, not if, the tax due is paid.

You’ll pay tax anytime you withdraw your money and once you reach age 70 1/2 you’ll be faced with RMDs (required minimum distributions)

There are many, many variations of 401K and IRA accounts.  If you are self-employed or work for the government, for example, each has its own variation.  We’ll look at the three basic varieties here.  The rest are branches from these trees.

401K/403b.  These are buckets provided by your employer.  They select an investment company which then offers a selection of investments from which to choose.  Many employers will match your contribution up to a certain amount.  Both your and your employer’s contributions are tax deferred, reducing your tax bill for the year.  All earnings are also tax deferred.  The amount you can contribute is capped.  In general:

  • These are very good things. (but not as good as they once were. See Part VIII-b) I always maxed out my contributions.
  • Any employer match is an exceptionally good thing.  Free money.  Contribute at least enough to capture the full match.
  • Unless Vanguard happens to be the investment company your employer has chosen, you may not have access to Vanguard Funds.  That’s OK….
  • …Most 401k plans will have a least one Index Fund option.  Look for that.
  • When you leave your employer you can roll your 401k into an IRA preserving its tax advantage.  Some employers will also let you continue to hold your 401k in their plan.  I’ve always rolled mine.
  • Taxes are due when you withdraw your money.
  • Money withdrawn before 59 1/2 is subject to penalty.
  • After 70 1/2 money is subject to RMDs.

IRAs are buckets your hold on your own, separate from any employer.

– Deductible IRA.  Contributions you make are deductible from your income for tax purposes.  In general, you’ll want to use these if you are in a high tax bracket and are looking for a deduction to lower your immediate tax obligation.  Just like an 401K.

  • All earnings on your investments are tax deferred.
  • Taxes are due when you withdraw your money.
  • Money withdrawn before 59 1/2 is subject to penalty.
  • After 70 1/2 money is subject to RMDs.

– Non Deductible IRA.  Contributions you make are NOT deductible from your income for tax purposes.

  • All earnings on your investments are tax deferred.
  • Taxes are due on any dividends, interest or capital gains earned when you withdraw your money.
  • Taxes are not due on your original contributions.  Since these contributions were made with “after tax” money they have already been taxed.
  • Those last two points mean extra record keeping and complexity in figuring your tax due when the time comes.  A bad thing.
  • Money withdrawn before 59 1/2 is subject to penalty.
  • After 70 1/2 money is subject to RMDs.

– Roth IRA.  Contributions you make are NOT deducible from your income for tax purposes.

  • All earnings on your investments are tax-free.
  • All withdrawals after age 59 1/2 are tax-free.
  • You can withdraw your original contribution anytime, tax and penalty free.
  • There is no RMD.
  • It can be passed to your heirs tax-free and will continue to grow for them tax-free.

All of these have income restrictions for participation.  These change year-to-year, here’s a current table:

In short:

401k/401b = Immediate tax benefits & tax-free growth.  No income limit means the tax deduction for high income earners can be especially attractive.  But taxes are due when the money is withdrawn.

Deductible IRA = Immediate tax benefits & tax-free growth.   But taxes are due when the money is withdrawn.

Non-Deductible IRA = No immediate tax benefit, tax-free growth and added complexity.  Taxes due when the money is withdrawn.

Roth IRA = No immediate tax benefit, tax-free growth and no taxes due on withdrawal.   A better Non-Deductible IRA, if you will.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you might be thinking “Holy cow!  This Roth IRA is looking like one very sweet deal.  In fact it is even looking like it violates what jlcollinsnh told us to fix in our minds earlier: ‘None of these eliminates your tax obligations.  They only defer them.‘”  True enough, but as with many things in life there is a catch.

While the money you contribute to your Roth does indeed grow tax-free and remains tax-free on withdrawal, you have to contribute “after-tax” money. That is, money upon which you’ve already paid tax. This can be easy to overlook, but it is a very real consideration.

Look at it this way. Suppose you want to fund your IRA this year with $5000 and you are in the 20% tax bracket. To fund your deductible IRA all you need is $5000 because, since it is deductible, you don’t need any money to pay the taxes due on it. But with a Roth, you’d need $6000: $5000 to fund the IRA and $1000 to pay the 20% tax due on the $5000. That $1000 is now gone forever and so is all the money it could have earned for you over the years. Were you to fund your deductible IRA instead of your Roth, this $1000 could then be invested rather than going to paying taxes.

Of course, if you don’t invest that $1000, you will be better off with the Roth. In effect, with the Roth you are investing more after tax dollars.

Personally, I find it very emotionally satisfying to fund a Roth, pay the taxes now and be done with them. But it might not be the best financial strategy.

Further, because I’m the suspicious type, and the tax advantages of a Roth are so attractive, I start thinking about what might go wrong.  Especially since these are such long-term investments and the government can and does change the rules seemingly on a whim.  Two things occur to me:

1.  The government can simply change the rules and declare money in Roths taxable.  But since Roths are becoming so popular and are held by so many people this seems more and more politically unlikely.

2. The government can find an alternative way to tax the money.  Increasingly in the USA there is talk of establishing a national sales tax or added value tax.  While both may have merit, especially as a substitute for the income tax, these would effectively tax any Roth money as it was spent.  This seems more likely to me.

OK, you now are probably thinking: No Roth for me – deductible IRA, that’s the ticket. I’ll take the immediate tax savings and let more of my money compound over time for me.

Well, it is not quite so easy. So which is better? Pay the taxes today and invest in a Roth or take the deduction today with an IRA and worry about taxes later?

In part it depends upon your age, and many readers might well be far along the path of one or the other. But let’s say you are 30 years old and have 40 years until you reach 70 1/2 and face those RMDs (required minimum distributions). A lot can happen in 40 years. Personally I’d be inclined to take the tax benefit today and let that money work for me over the decades. Hopefully, that growth will be greater than the taxes then due. (For a more in depth look, see Addendum #1)

Let’s finish with the recommendation that, whenever possible, you roll your 401K/403b accounts into your personal IRA. Usually this is only possible when you leave your employer. As we’ve already seen, employer plans are all too frequently laden with excessive fees and your investment choices are limited. In your IRA you have far more control.

Personally, I’ve always been slightly paranoid about having my employers involved in my investments any longer than I had to. The moment I could roll my 401K into my own IRA, I did. Usually, this means once I left the job.

Next, lets talk a bit about withdrawal strategy.  Except for the Roth, all of these have RMDs (required minimum withdrawals) at age 70 1/2.  Basically this is the Feds saying “OK.  We’ve waited long enough.  Time to pay us our money!”  Fair enough.  But for those of us diligently building FI (financial independence) there is going to be a very large amount of money in these accounts.  Pulling it out in the required amounts on the government time schedule could easily push us into a higher tax bracket.

Assuming when you retire your tax bracket drops, you have a window of opportunity between that moment and age 70 1/2.  Let’s consider an example.

A married couple retires at 60 years old.

  • They have a 10 year window until 70 1/2 to reduce their 401k/IRA holdings.
  • The 15% tax bracket is good up to 69k.
  • Personal exemptions and the standard deduction are good for another 19k.
  • They have up to 88k in income before they get pushed into the 25% bracket.

If their income is below 88k they should seriously consider moving the difference out of their IRA and/or 401k and taking the 15% hit.  15% is a very low rate and worth locking in.  So, if they have 50k in taxable income they might withdraw another 38k.  They could put it in their Roth, their ordinary bucket investments or just spend it.

There is no one solution.  If your 401k/IRA amounts are low you can just leave them alone.  If they are very high pulling them out even at a 25% tax might make sense for you.  The key is to be aware of this looming required minimum withdrawal hit so you can take it on your own terms.

Let’s end with this, my basic hierarchy for deploying investment money:


  • Fund 401k type plans to the full match.
  • Fully fund a deductible IRA, rather than the Roth (but keep any Roth you have) unless you are paying little or no income tax. The reason is the money you don’t pay in taxes will compound for you over the decades.
  • Finish funding the 401K to the max.
  • Fund your taxable account with any money left.


One final note. We’ve touched a bit on tax laws in this post. While the numbers and information is current as of 2014, should you be reading this post a few years after publication, they are sure to have changed. The basic principles should hold up for some time, but be sure to look up the specific numbers that are applicable for the year in which you are reading.

Addendum #1

Here’s an excellent series of posts offering more detail on sorting thru the traditional v. Roth IRA question.

Addendum #2

If you are interested in how to identify the index funds from the list you plan offers, check out my conversation with Sid on Ask jlcollinsnh

Addendum #3– October 17, 2012:  Health Saving Accounts (HSAs)

Some readers may have access to HSAs.  These can be extraordinary useful retirement tools, in addition to providing funds to cover health care costs.  My pal, The Mad Fientist, has put together a terrific review on hacking your HSA:

If you are interested, here is my take on HSAs.

Addendum #4– March 10, 2013:

Here’s a great strategy for using IRAs and Roth IRAs at different stages of your life: Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA _ The Final Battle

Plus there is a really cool picture of two foxes.

Addendum #5:

In the comment section under Part IX of this series reader Prob 8 posted:

“If anyone doubts JLC’s claims regarding the impact of fees and commissions on your portfolio, please check out this video from PBS:
It’s called The Retirement Gamble. (You’ll have to paste that into the search box to find the video.) There are interviews with Jack Bogle and all you’ll need to know to realize fees and investment advisors are hurting your portfolio more than helping.”

I just finished watching it. Very powerful stuff and I highly recommend readers here check it out.

The math on how damaging even seemingly modest 2% fees really are is nothing short of breathtaking; and even I didn’t fully appreciate just how laden with fees 401k plans have become. Yikes!

Thanks Prob 8!!

Addendum #6: TSP Plans

Buried in the comments below is a conversation with reader Enceladus. It starts July 5th, 2013 if you want to scroll down to read the full exchange. But for my thinking on TSP Plans, here is the low-down:

Hi Enceladus…

TSPs are retirement plans for Federal employees, including military personal.  Think 401k for government employees. But better.

One of the cool things about writing this blog is how much I get to learn. Not having any personal experience with TSPs I did a little digging. Unlike the fee heavy cesspool too many 401k plans have become your TSP offers a nice, but not overwhelming, selection of low cost index funds. As you point out, only .027% last year.

Looking at the chart of ERs going back to 1999 the ER has ranged from a low of .015% in 2007 to a high of .102% in 2003. Seems the variation is due, to quote the site, to:
“The TSP expense ratio represents the amount that participants’ investment returns were reduced by TSP administrative expenses, net of forfeitures”

Still, even at the worst these are very low ERs. And they seem to be coming down in the last five years or so. Good deal.

Also a good deal is that the funds are index funds. The C-fund you mentioned for instance replicates the S&P 500 index. The S-fund is the small cap index. Own both in about a 75/25 balance and you’ve basically got VTSAX. The F-fund is a bond index.

To answer your question: Yep. These are a no-brainer. I’d max out my TSP right after the civilian 401k for the match. Then Roth.

As for your mix of stock v. bonds, at age 26 I’d go light on the bonds if at all. 10% maybe.

Looking at your total assets as a whole (which is the only way to figure asset allocations), I’d try for something like this:

10% in F-fund (bonds)
25% in S-fund (small cap)
65% in FUSVX/C-Fund

These are all low cost index funds and will serve you well over the decades.

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  1. Shilpan says

    Another gem article Jim. As you know, I am a big advocate of the national sales tax. As you’ve pointed out, Roth IRA investment will be taxed if that money is used for the purchase. But, the savings by avoiding double taxation on your earned income itself will be more than 23% to begin with. So, even if you pay taxes on Roth IRA — or for that matter any dollar spent on purchase — savings will offset national sales tax.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Your article awhile back on the sales tax is what made me think of it!

      Of course for us retired guys without earned income there is no offset with the change.

      Still, it is an idea well worth consideration. Any change in the tax code, however worthwhile, will always have a few that fair less well than before. But that’s no reason not to change.

  2. LtotheBmoney says

    I am so glad you wrote this, because I am wanting to move my Roth at USAA to Vangaurd. If I can invest more than $5k per year, should I transfer into a fund like the VTSAX as a Roth and open a seperate “regular bucket” index fund and throw as much money into this as possible? You, Dave Ramsey, and MMM rock!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      If I understand you correctly, yes. Here’s what I hear you saying:

      You want to be entirely invested in VTSAX.
      You have more than $5000 to invest each year.
      You plan to open a Roth bucket and put a VTSAX investment in it for $5000.
      You plan to open a second VTSAX fund investment in an Ordinary Bucket for every extra penny you can spare.

      That is exactly what I recommend for young people.

      So, do we rock in that order? 🙂

      • AB says

        I want to do the same thing as Bmoney, move my USAA Roth over to Vanguard. I was planning on using the Roth as my bond and REIT funds, and doing the $2,500 to both funds each year, then having the stocks fund in a taxable account. My question is this, I currently have my Roth invested in individual stocks. If I were to move the IRA over to Vanguard, will the stocks still be in it, or would I have to sell them with the USAA brokerage and then move just the cash over?

        • jlcollinsnh says

          Hi AB….

          You can move your Roth, and the individual stocks, directly to Vanguard. Then, if you prefer to have the money in the bond and REIT funds, you can simply sell the stocks and move the money into the funds.

          It is very important to be sure you do all this within the Roth bucket so you avoid tax and penalties.

          If you call Vanguard, they can walk you thru the process.

          good luck!

  3. Matt says

    Very timely article. I have slowly been moving towards investing and was struggling to understand what investments to make in what accounts. With something like the bond fund and the REIT, are you able to set up a Roth that consists of those two funds? Rookie question I know.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hey Matt….

      Welcome! No question is rookie. All questions are rookie. Zen for today. 😉

      The answer is: Yes.

      You would contact Vanguard (assuming that’s the company you’re going with), send them the money and provide instructions as to which funds.

      For instance, let say you are just starting a new Roth with the $5000 max you are allowed to contribute for 2012. You might put $2500 each in VBTLX and VGSLX.

      The EXACT way I would do this is to open a money market fund with the 5k. Once that is established you can easily move the money to the other funds right on the Vanguard website.

      You’ll find their phone number at any of the links I provided. They are very helpful and will be happy to walk you thru the process.

      If you are going to rollover an existing IRA definitely call them. They’ll make it a breeze.

      Tell ’em jlcollinsnh sent ya! They won’t have a clue who that is, but why not! 🙂

      • Passive Income Mavericks says

        Great article Jim!

        I also have several Vanguard funds and ETFs. In fact, I’ve 3 Portfolios and one of the portfolio (High-Dividend Investment Portfolio: HID1) primarily consists of Vanguard ETFs as elaborated in my blog.

        I would like to add that Vanguard have a minimum requirement of $3000 for any FUND, except for star fund ($1000), while, ETFs have no restrictions like that and can be bought just like any stock and have lower expenses as well.

        Keep up the good work!

        Best wishes,

  4. Patrick says

    It’s interesting to note that the only mathematical difference between a Roth and Traditional, deductible IRA is the tax rates, if you ignore the 70 1/2 required withdrawal. I can give a quick proof…

    For a starting amount, x, and an annual rate of return, i, the way to calculate the return after one year is x(1+r). (If you have $100 invested at 5%, at the end of a year, you’ll have 100(1.05) = 105.) To accumulate another year, tack another 1+r to the end, with the idea that r could vary year to year. Let R = (1+r1)(1+r2)…(1+rn), with each r being another year’s specific rate.

    If the tax rate is t, then, for a traditional IRA, your total due in taxes is: x*R*(1-t). In English, take the initial investment, multiply it by all of the annual rates of return, and take out taxes. For a simple example, take $100, invested for 2 years, with rates of return 10% and 3%, in the 15% tax bracket. 100(1.1)(1.03) = 113.3 – 15% = 96.31.

    For a Roth, the equation becomes x*(1-t)*R. Take the initial investment, take out taxes, and multiply it by all of the annual rates of return. Using the same numbers as above, 100 – 15% = 85 * (1.1)(1.03) = 96.31.

    Because multiplcation is commutative, these calculations are equal, provided t is equal. If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in the future, you would want a Roth, because then you would pay taxes now, in your lower tax bracket. If you expected to be in a lower tax bracket in the future, you would want a traditional, deductible IRA. So you can’t say which is better unless you can determine this…you’ll likely have less income in retirement, so your bracket might drop, but taxes are low now, and income tax increases might be a way for the feds to get a handle on the deficit.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Wow, Patrick….

      thank you!
      what a great, great addition to this post.

      Even if I did need my second cup of coffee to follow the math. 😉

      I took the liberty of highlighting in bold the conclusions in your last paragraph. and what you say also applies to a 401K v. Roth.

      Since, especially for a young person it is very difficult to predict future income and tax rates, I’d still lean toward the Roth. That’s how I’ve steered my 20-year-old. As someone looking looming Required Minimum Withdrawals I can tell you avoiding them with a Roth is a big advantage.

      In addition, as serious a challenge as the deficit is, increases in the income tax are politically unlikely. Except the Bush Tax Cuts which, if only due to gridlock, will in all likelihood be allowed to expire.

      More likely, I believe, will be some sort of National Sales or Value Added Tax. Along with inflation which is a great deficit reducing tool, although hard on the creditors.

      • Patrick says

        The math is definitely fun! 🙂 I agree that a young person should lean more toward the Roth since their income is likely low enough to put them in a low tax bracket, and then in the middle of their careers, switch over to a traditional/401(k). For an average-Joe traditional retirement, I imagine people won’t have trouble making their minimum withdrawals, because they’ll likely come close to exhausting the whole thing.

        For the early retirement folks, who save tons of money, it might still be worthwhile to max out the deductible savings early…if you do it like MMM, you’d have 150k/year of income before retirement, and about 35k/year after. It might still make sense to get that up-front deduction for maxing a 401(k) since there’s such a wide difference between the tax brackets. (After exemptions and the child tax credit, I don’t imagine he pays much taxes at all any more.) The big drawback is the required minimum withdrawals, but I wonder if they’d put you back up in that same high tax bracket you were in to begin with…

        There is one other plus of the Roth…the maximum contribution limit. In paying the taxes up front, they are not part of the contribution limit. So, given a limit of 5k, you can put as much as x(1-t)=5k into your Roth, but only x=5k into your traditional, and in the traditional, you’d have to pay taxes later. A contribution of 5k in a traditional IRA is roughly equivelant to one of 5,882 pre-tax into a Roth, but still comes under the 5k limit…I hope that makes sense… 🙂

        It’s an interesting conundrum, but at least it provides some useful talking points.

        • jlcollinsnh says

          more great points and again I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting a couple.

          The strategy in your first paragraph makes perfect sense. Roth v deductable IRA/401k contributions should idealy change with your income.

          and I love the point you make in the last. that’s been rattling around in my head but I couldn’t quite get it out. thanks!

    • Miles says

      Yes! I believe a simpler explanation is:

      A x B x C = A x C x B

      Let A be the amount you contribute, B the rate of return, and C the taxes you pay.

      A x B x C is a traditional IRA. A x C x B is a Roth IRA.

      Kudos too for your second point, which I think is one of the awesome aspects of the Roth: It allows you to invest more each year for retirement than a traditional IRA. I don’t understand why so few people call attention to this element.

  5. Danielle says

    Hi Jim, MMM reader here. First off, I’m enjoying your blog a lot – these stock posts have been immensely helpful. As for investing strategies for ER folks, it seems like a good game plan would to be to max some contributions to a traditional IRA or 401k to reduce tax burden in the short term and use that investment for “old man/lady money” (how ever much you calculated that you’d personally need), then have a Roth to tap into pre-59.5 retirement needs (withdrawing deposits without killing too much investing momentum) if necessary. Does that make sense to you?

    I plan on opening a Roth and also a regular investing portfolio at Vanguard to get in the game, however at the moment I only have funds to choose one (and I already have a 401k started). Given that I’m 26 and would like to retire in 10-15 years, which one would be better (or easier to get my feet wet with)?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks Danielle….

      …good to hear it’s helping and glad to have you here.

      I like your plan and, if you haven’t already, check out the link KC provided above. It’ll take you to an excellent MMM post on this exact subject.

      Since you are 26 and, I’m guessing, in a low tax bracket this is the order I’d suggest:

      401k up to full company match, if any.

      If you happen to be in a very high tax bracket:

      401k Max
      Deductible IRA

      • Austin says

        Hi Jim,

        New but avid reader. Had the same question as Danielle above, and am 25 myself. Only one follow up: Following the plan of:

        1) 401K up to full company match, if any (already doing this)
        2) Roth
        3) Regular

        is it accurate to say that the Roth should be backed by VBTLX and VGSLX, and only after putting $5K-worth into that IRA backed by bonds and REITS, move remaining money to VTSAX? Reason i ask is because that seems to follow your tax-advantage/non-tax advantaged bucket rubric, but is somewhat in violate of “VTSAX = primary building block” gospel. Please advise, thanks!

        • jlcollinsnh says

          Thanks Austin,

          and welcome. Great question!

          If you are going to hold VBTLX (bonds) and/or VGSLX (REITS), yer ideally both belong in a tax advantaged account like an IRA, ROTH or 401k. The reason is they throw off more divedents and interest that would be taxable otherwise than VTSAX (stocks).

          but the more important question is wether you should hold these at all. both belong in a portfolio to smooth the ride and:

          VBTLX is a hedge against deflation.
          VGSLX is a hedge against inflation.

          I hold both for these reasons, but I’m an old guy.

          Over time, VTSAX will very likely outperform both, but expect a wild ride along the way.

          If I were 25, (and oh how I wish it could be so!) I’d put everything in VTSAX and ride out the storms. 30-35 years from now I’d look to add the other two.

          Thinking back at all the investments I’ve tried over the past 36 years since I was your age, some blew up and some outperformed. But if I had ignored them all and simply bought VTSAX and added to it as I could, I’d have over twice the net worth I do today.

          Even if I’d done it with VBTLX and VGSLX in the mix I’d be far ahead.

          Just don’t lose your nerve in the dark times and there will be dark times.

  6. A says

    Hi jlcollinsnh —

    I’ve been struggling with determining where to put money (ordinary bucket vs tax advantaged bucket) for years, and I’m not much closer to settling the debate with myself this year than I was 5-10 years ago. Though this article illuminates things a bit more for me. Thank you.

    I’ve basically defaulted to satisfying my desire for instant (short term) gratification, i.e. reducing the tax burden I have today. So I max out contributions on the tax advantaged buckets — 401k and traditional IRA — and I plough the rest of my money into the ordinary bucket (mostly index funds, some individual stocks, and cash savings). At 35, single, renter, no kids, no debt, low expense lifestyle, and $70k per year salary, my after tax money gets allocated something like this: $21,500 to the tax advantaged 401k/IRA bucket, $26,000 to the ordinary bucket, and $15,000 in living expenses.

    I don’t know if deferring taxes on the $5000 I’m currently putting into the Traditional IRA and instead paying the taxes now and contributing to a Roth IRA would make much difference in the long run, but my aversion to paying the taxes now is motivating my to stay the course I’m on. But I welcome any compelling argument for me to reconsider, if you have any given my particular situation.


    • A says

      …guess it would be more accurate for me to say “my salary gets allocated something like this: $21,500 to the tax advantaged 401k/IRA bucket, $7300 to federal+state taxes, $26,000 to the ordinary bucket, and $15,000 in living expenses.”

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi A….

      Well first, major league kudos on the 67% savings rate! That alone should keep you golden.

      Here’s some thoughts:

      While I appreciate your aversion to paying taxes, at 70k you are already in a fairly low rate, even before the 21.5k deduction.

      With your savings rate, if you are planning to work anything like a full career (that is to 60+ years old) your retirement accounts will be HUGE. Pulling all that money out could easily put you in a higher bracket than today’s.

      Personally, I’d be inclined to begin a Roth.

      BTW, be sure to read Patrick’s comments below.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks for the link KC….

      …I hadn’t seen that one from MMM before. Great addition to this conversation and I like the 401k/Roth strategy for early penalty-free withdrawals. Hadn’t heard that one before.

  7. Josh says

    Great article and glad I found you by way of MMM. I’m fortunate enough to have the option of a Roth401K with vanguard and take full advantage of it, up to the match. Is this becoming more common? I know it was new for us last year and most people don’t know about the option or understand it. I’ve had to explain it to everyone I talk to. This article may help a bit. Thanks.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Josh…

      ….good to see you here!

      With Vanguard funds and a Roth 401k on offer sounds like your employer has it together!

      The Roth 401k is relatively new and for some reason has been slow to catch on. No surprise you’ve been having to explain it. 🙂

      The difference between it and a regular 401k is the same as the difference between a Roth and a deductible IRA as described above. And, of course, being a 401k the amount you can contribute is much higher than an IRA.

      In other words, a very good thing.

      Especially for anyone in an already low tax bracket and/or those of you planning an early retirement (your contributions, but not earnings, can be withdrawn tax and penalty free anytime as long as you’ve held the account 5+ years).

      Feel free to correct or add anything here Josh, and thanks for pointing it out!

  8. Carolina on My Mind says

    Hi, jlc — I’ve been learning from your blog for a few months, and I’m finally inspired to comment because this is exactly the question I’ve been struggling with for a while. I know how I want to allocate my investments, but I could never figure out what should be in my 401(k) and what should be in my after-tax accounts. Now, just like that, I have a strategy. So thank you!

    This whole series has been really, really helpful.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Carolina…

      thanks so much for letting me know.

      Actually, I added this post to the series almost as an after thought and yet it seems to have resonated with folks. Glad you found value in it!

  9. Christina says

    Great article- as always. I have really enjoyed reading your blog!

    I have a question for you, if you don’t mind indulging me for one moment. I am a novice at investing, but my husband and I do have a 401K and a Roth IRA. Our Roth is in several Fidelity Funds through our insurance company. The company charges $25 a year for the Roth, plus whatever fees Fidelity charge- which I am finding impossible to discern.

    I figured we have two options in regards to our Roth:

    1. Instead of having the Roth in several different Fidelity funds, moving them all to their Index Fund. If Fidelity is a low cost, low fee service I would like this option as it is simpler. Do you know much about Fidelity? (I have tried researching on their website, but find it difficult to get answers)

    2. Moving all of our Roth to a Vanguard Roth, where I know the fees are low.

    What would you suggest? Of course, I know you are simply giving suggestions and I am responsible for my own decisions. I think I know what your advice is, but I feel like I need a second opinion before I make such a critical decision.

    Thank you so much in advance! For a novice investor, it is wonderful to learn from somebody who has been so successful!

  10. vvroom says

    Another great way to lower your tax bracket is to live 330 days out of 12 months outside of USA to qualify for the foreign residence tax-deduction. As of 2011, that reduced my taxable income by $92K. Its adjusts up every year due to inflation.

    If you are expecting a big hike in your tax bracket from withdraws, live overseas. Then in the same tax year, max-out your withdraws to $88K + $92K. You will rake in $180K of income, but still at 88K tax bracket.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Vvroom…..

      Very interesting point you’re making here. Can you elaborate for us? My understanding is that:

      1. The US government taxes any and all of the income earned by it’s citizens no matter where in the world thy live and no matter where in the world they earn it. This, I gather, is a uniquely aggressive tax policy.

      2. To off set this, the first 92k earned outside the US in tax free.

      This is what you are saying:

      using my example above of 88k in income ceiling to stay in under the 15% tax bracket, living overseas at least 330 days would allow for adding an extra 92k to our income with no further tax due.

      This would be a great way to empty 401k and IRA accounts tax free.

      But, doesn’t that 92k taxable income reduction apply only to income earned outside the USA?

      Can you tell us more about your situation?


      • Vvroom says

        There’s actually two ways to qualify for this huge deductions

        1. Physical Presence Test. Accrue 330 days out of 12 months outside of US states and territories. These days do not have to be consecutive days.

        2. Bonifide Residence Test. Prove you are a permanent residence in your foreign country. I think you can come visit your family at the US more than 35 days in a year if you qualify.

        IRS.GOV has the forms with info.

        No, the income does not have to be foreign earned. All my income is domestic (US based employer). But physically, I was outside US for 330 days of 12 months.

        Bonifide Residence Test has the disadvantage of applying for residency at your new place and paying their tax (if any).

        To make physical presence test work, you can visit several countries using a tourist visa for 330 days. Then come back to the States and reap the rewards.

  11. Austin says

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks so much for the feedback. Always nice to know that with starting early comes simplicity in an approach.

    A follow-up: I absolutely love the comparison of dollars to employees, and am eager to put mine to work! That said, I’ve often been concerned with the prospect of putting a down payment on a home in the next 5-10 years (I’m 25 and rent, no student loan debt….yet). How do we marry the idea of “spend less than you earn, invest the rest, don’t accrue debt” with the potential of purchasing a home and needing liquid funds to do so?

    I’m sure there’s a simple, simple answer (government exception to withdrawing from 401K for first-time homebuyers?) so figured I’d pose the simple-minded question 🙂

    Thanks again

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Austin….

      The great thing about your dollar slaves is once you get them started they work tirelessly 24/7 for you. At 25 and no debt you’re at a wonderful starting place.

      Regarding a home, if you haven’t already, read:

      Most often owning a home is an expensive indulgence. Running the numbers will tell you if it makes financial sense.

      Of course, as with any indulgence, there are lots of reasons to want a home beyond just money.

      The whole point of having F-you money is to expand our lives as best suits up. But accumulating the money comes first.

      As with anything, I wouldn’t buy one, or anything else, unless I could easily afford it. In the case of a house that would mean at least 20% down and no more than 25% of my monthly income to service the mortgage, insurance, taxes, repairs and maintenance. If that sounds like a high bar, well, it is.

      Most people shouldn’t own a house. When you do, lots of people make money, but not you:

      The real estate brokers
      The banks
      The insurance companies
      The utilities
      The appliance companies
      The furniture companies
      The home improvement stores
      The garden stores
      The painters, carpenters, plumbers, roofers, exterminators, electricians,
      and more I’m not thinking of just now.

      Suddenly you are pulling your little dollar slaves off the job and sending them away to live with somebody else.

  12. jlcollinsnh says

    In the comments over here:

    JTH posted the following question:

    “Getting ready to retire (30 days). Corporate job. Pension and 401k. Do I take a lump sum on pension or take an annuity?”

    Since this post is a better fit, I’m taking the liberty of answering here. Hopefully more people with a similar concern will see it.

    So, JTH, Congratulations on your pending retirement!

    OK, let’s take a look.

    This is not a simple “do this not that” kinda question. What is best for you is a very personal decision. But with a few guideposts to consider you can walk yourself thru the process.

    First, take comfort in the fact there is really no “bad” decision you can make here.

    Unless you take the lump sum and put it on red in Vegas and up comes black. That would be very bad.

    So question #1 is how confident do you feel in your own investing abilities? If there is any chance at all that you’ll blow this money: No lump sum for you!

    This would also apply if you have any pending lawsuits or judgements against you.

    If you decide to take the pension/annuity you’ll find The insurance companies that operate these things are very good a figuring the odds. They can calculate within a whisker how long people with your profile, and that of your spouse, will live.

    You will notice that you have several further options if you take the pension/annuity. Payments just to you until you die. Payments until both you and your spouse die. Guaranteed payments for a certain number of years. Built in inflation protection. This list is endless.

    Inflation, in my view, is the biggest risk with pensions/annuities. If you are retiring at, say, 60 and think you might live to be 90, that’s thirty years. Even at modest inflation rates the buying power of that check will be very much lower then than now.

    But each item you select lowers your monthly check. Again, they are calculating the averages very precisely. So there is no one “right” answer.

    But those are only averages (which is what matters to them) and you are unique.

    So question #2 is: how long do you and your spouse expect to live?

    The longer you expect to live the better the pension/annuity option looks. And guessing at this will help you choose the benefits best suited to your personal profile.

    The shorter you expect to live the better a lump sum looks.

    Question #3 is: do you want to leave this money to your estate/heirs? If so: lump sum. Although one of the options you may be offered is a smaller monthly check with some money to be passed on.

    Consider, too, that you already have another annuity coming, and this one is inflation adjusted: Social Security. Many of the same considerations as above can steer you in selecting when to start drawing on it. Again, the actuaries have figured to the whisker what payouts to allow at what age. So there is no one “right” answer. But looking at your own situation you can figure what will likely work best for you.

    The nice thing about SS and pensions is that those checks just keep rolling in with no effort. As we all get older and less sharp, having that guaranteed income we can’t lose is a pretty attractive option.

    That said, I took my own small pension as a lump sum.

  13. klr says


    I stumbled onto your blog this week and have caught up with all your money posts. I would like to say that your guidance has probably saved me months of research and lots of frustration. Thank you for the great topics, but I am now trying to figure out my plan and my head is spinning.

    I’m 26 and have recently graduated from college, and decided to get my financial life in order. Luckily, I was able to find a great job and have no debt. I am working on saving up my emergency fund (roughly 24% of my income is going into it) and now focusing my efforts on investments.

    I was also lucky that my grandparents seeded an investment fund for all of the grandchildren when each was born. It has been managed by a financial advisor for years, and your posts have confirmed my thoughts that I can do better. It currently has around $35,000 in it in 12 different mutual funds.

    Next June, I will be eligible to enter my employer’s 403(b) plan and also a pension plan. I am able to put 3% of my income into the 403(b) plan and they match with 2.5%. It looks like I will be able to enroll in Vanguard’s total stock market index fund. There is also an optional traditional IRA plan that I can contribute up to the maximum allowed by the IRS. It seems that after learning more about all of this, the 5.5% of my yearly salary into my 403(b) is nowhere the maximum allowed by the IRS, which is a little discouraging.

    I don’t think I’m going to do the optional IRA account and instead do a Roth IRA on my own. What is your suggestion on getting rid of my financial manager and all the mutual funds and buying into VTSAX? I don’t fully understand the tax implications that are involved in that. Correct me if I’m wrong, but $5000 would go into the Roth and the rest into a traditional account. I think I know the answer, but do you think it is fine to have the investments in my 403(b), Roth IRA, and my regular account in VTSAX?

    Sorry for the long post, but any assistance would be greatly appreciated.


  14. Robert Mann says

    At the end of your article you mention taking a withdrawal from 401k/IRA and making a deposit into Roth. I didn’t think the withdrawals were considered earned income and therefore weren’t eligible for Roth contribution.

    I love the Roth!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Robert….

      What I’m referring to is a rollover from a regular IRA to a Roth.

      Deposits to an IRA or Roth IRA must indeed be from earned income. But once the money is in your IRA you can roll it into a Roth. Make sense?

      But remember, doing so is a taxable event.

      Hope that helps!

  15. Jason says

    Thanks for this. I’m just absorbing it all. I’m freshly 40, and only recently started looking into everything having to do with investing and retirement. I look forward to acting on some of these ideas. I’m transitioning out of my current job, so I’ll be looking to roll my 401k into something. Looks like a Roth will be the right option. I hadn’t heard about Vanguard prior to reading your posts, so I’ll probably roll my 401k (from Fidelity) into Vanguard.

    I like your indexing idea. I do wonder, however, if one might be prudent in risking some in low volatility stocks and ETFs. SPLV challenges major indices in total return, and individual stocks can offer higher dividends with less volatility than the overall market. Of course it requires more time and research if you’re seeking dividends…

    Anyway, I love what I’ve read, and I’ll keep reading. Hopefully, some of my enthusiasm will transfer to my wife, so we can get on with living happily ever after. I’ve been debt-free of my own accord without help prior to getting married last year. I very much want to return to that space.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Jason….

      Glad you are finding ideas and value here.

      Roths are are great option, but remember converting a 401k to a Roth is a taxable event.

      As you read further thru the blog you’ll learn in some detail why I favor only index funds. Picking stocks and ETFs is a whole other thing and , in my view, a loser’s game.

      Congratulations on your recent marriage! If your new bride hasn’t already seen the debt-free/F-you money light, hopefully you can show her the path.

      • Jason says

        Interesting. Thanks for the heads up on that.

        I’ll keep reading. Reading stuff like this keeps it in the forefront of my thoughts, it seems, and that’s a good place for FI to be.

  16. Mitchell says

    A friend of mine who has built up a nice reserve of F-U money recommended me to your blog, and I’ve been reading non-stop since. Has anyone told you that your voice sounds like Bruce Bochy, manager of the SF Giants?

    I am 25 years old, and self-employed. My job is picking up income-wise, and I am beginning to save some money every month (my mother taught me frugality and saving at a young age which has also helped-I’m debt free!). I just wanted to clarify a few things in terms of your recommendations for the path to wealth and financial independence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you were in my shoes you would…

    1. Build a cash savings account equal to six months of life expenditures (money market account)
    2. Once this is met (which I will be completing next month), contribute to an IRA, preferably of the ROTH variety, until you have maxed out the annual contribution (5k/yr). Put VTSMX in this ROTH bucket.
    3. Any additional savings I can muster should go into a general VTSMX investment account.

    Is that how you see it? And if so, what about a self employed ROTH 401K vs a standard Roth vs a general investment account (all via total stock market index investments)? Thanks a lot.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Mitchell…

      And congrats on a fine start! Your plan works for me.

      The only fine tuning I’d offer is perhaps a less aggressive emergency fund, depending on how secure you feel about your income stream. Since you say you are almost at the six month level, I’d go ahead and hold that. Next time the market tanks, you’ll have some extra cash to deploy. Then you can start rebuilding the E-fund again.

      Most important: Know in your heart the market will tank, and more than once in your decades long investing life. When it does, people will be panicking and screaming “sell!” How you react in those tough times will determine, more than anything, how wealthy you become. Don’t fall for the idea you can “dance in and out” Stay the course. Know the market always goes back up. Remember March 2009 and April 1, 2013. Add even more money if you can, maybe by cutting some spending to free up extra cash.

      Enjoy the journey!

      • Mitchell says

        Thanks Jim! So just to clarify, you are saying the next time that the market tanks (does that mean a few thousand point drop?) I should funnel a good chunk of my six month E-fund into VTSMX(VTSAX) as long as my income is still stable? And then I can replenish the E-Fund as the market begins to rise?

        Also, I do not understand the difference between a Roth 401K vs a Roth IRA and what would be better for someone in my situation (young and self-employed), can you please expound? I understand that these buckets provide tax savings that standard investments do not, so I should use them as much as possible. But I also do not want to have to wait until I am 60 to use the money in these funds.

        I know nothing of investing but have always been fascinated by it, and your simple strategy really makes sense to me. With the increasing pressures our species has been putting on our planet, I worry about our ability to continue in our current pattern of exponential population growth, reduced natural resources, and a compromised atmosphere. Something has to give, its just a matter of when. But like you say, if climate change begins to have apocalyptic affects and compromise our ability to survive on this planet, money will no longer be of any value anyways, so all of this is out the door and its time to collect seeds and return to our primordial ways. That being said, I’m hopeful that a massive global shift to renewable energies along with other shifts towards more sustainable lifestyles will not only stem the tide, but also provide a major boost to the market and our investments. If we are wrong, it won’t matter anyways. If we are right, I’d rather make the right decisions today.

        • jlcollinsnh says

          Hey Mitchell…

          1. Yep. You got it. Just remember nobody can tell what’s “low” or where the bottom will come. Just like nobody can say what’s “high” or where the top will be. That said, sometimes the market does go to extremes. The best way to recognize a low is when everybody hates stocks, like they did at the beginning of 2009. Conversely when all your friends are bragging about their latest score (everybody’s brilliant when the bull is running) time to worry. Joseph Kennedy is said to have seen the crash of ’29 coming when his shoe-shine boy started giving him stock tips.

          2. 401k are company plans that may or may not offer a Roth option. Roth IRA is one you do on your own. There are ways to get your money penalty free before 59.5, but the best option is to build assets in regular taxable accounts as well.

          3. I think we’ll muddle thru. If not, I’ll still have the peace and freedom FI provides until the end.

          • Leet says

            #2 in your response is where my confusion in this all sets in…

            “There are ways to get your money penalty free before 59.5, but the best option is to build assets in regular taxable accounts as well.”

            Can you elaborate on this a little further on what type of account and behavior this is…?

            I was thinking about opening and maxing a ROTH IRA (I like the idea if worse comes to worse I can withdraw contributions without penalty..) but my mind may change depending on the elaboration of you #2 point above.

          • jlcollinsnh says

            Hi Leet…

            If you are still working and paying income tax on your earnings, a deductible IRA is a better choice than a Roth.

            Every dollar you don’t pay in taxes can compound for you over the years. My pal, The Mad Fientist, has a great series in place illustrating this:

            Here is a post on strategies to handle withdrawals before 59.5:


          • Jeremy says

            “If you are still working and paying income tax on your earnings, a deductible IRA is a better choice than a Roth.”

            That only applies in the case that your employer doesn’t provide a 401k AND you make under a certain amount, right? So if I’m married filing joint and our AGI is above $116k AND we are participating in our company-sponsored 401ks, we cannot deduct any contributions to tIRAs. I made the mistake of thinking I could and went and recharacterized my Roth contributions to Traditional until I realized I couldn’t deduct anything when filing taxes recently 🙁

          • jlcollinsnh says


            That comment was only a general comparison to T-IRAs and Roths.

            For detail on when you qualify for either, see my detailed response to David below.

  17. Guest052237 says

    Loving everything I’m learning here! Something I’ve been struggling with the past few weeks…

    I have my 401k at work: 90% S&P index fund, 10% in a treasury index fund. Enough to get full employer match.

    Going to eliminate all student debt for me and my wife (3-5 years conservatively, hopefully be paid off before that).

    After that, I’m wondering what I go about putting in a traditional or Roth IRA vs. taxable account?? Would I just have the same investments from vanguard in both?

    Planning on retiring before 50 so will need money to get us through to tax-sheltered distributions.

    Thanks for your help!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Guest,

      and congrats on what sounds like a fine start.

      The answer is Yes, the same fund can serve your needs in both taxable and tax deferred accounts.

      For instance, we hold 50% of our assets in VTSAX but it is spread across four accounts: Roths for both me and my wife, in my wife’s traditional IRA and in our join taxable account.

      • guest052237 says

        Thanks for your help!

        Another question…would it make sense to have a target retirement date fund in the Roth since I won’t touch it until I’m 60 anyway, and go with VTSAX in my taxable account?

        Also, how was your trip? Or are you still on it?

        • jlcollinsnh says

          Yep, still in Prague but i can already report it’s been a fine time. Thanks for asking.

          TRFs are a great choice for a decades long Roth investment. But the costs are a bit higher and VTSAX will give you lower costs and likely a better ultimate result. But it will be a wilder ride.

          • guest052237 says

            Thanks again for your input!

            Enjoy the rest of your trip, Europe is quite amazing!

  18. David says

    Hi James,

    Thanks for the great article!

    I am presently making the maximum contribution to my company’s 401(k) plan ($17.5K) to take advantage of their 50% matching policy, but I would also like to make the maximum Roth IRA contribution ($5500) before the end of the year.

    I was hoping you might be able to share your thoughts on a couple of things:

    – Am I correct in understanding that putting the $5500 into a Roth IRA rather than a traditional IRA is greatly advantageous, as the former’s returns are only tax-deferred (and the principle is not even deductible) while the later is a purely post-tax investment?

    This also gives me some tax diversity since the 401(k) is a tax-deferred bucket. Is there any sane reason at all to contribute to a traditional IRA if you are over the income limit for getting a deduction on IRA contributions?

    – I am concerned that this year I may exceed the income limit for making a Roth IRA contribution ($127K), but I won’t know precisely what my AGI will be before the year is over (given that my salary can be variable depending on bonuses, stock-based compensation value, etc). What will happen if I make the full contribution, but my AGI ends up being too large?

    I have read about the back door Roth IRA method, where you open a regular IRA and immediately transfer the funds to a Roth, and was wondering if there’s any disadvantage to doing things that way, just in case (I don’t have a traditional IRA at the moment).


    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks David…

      glad you liked it!

      I think a closer reading of it will answer your first couple of questions, unless I’m not understanding them.

      If you exceed the income limit for a Roth, any excess contributions will have to be withdrawn along with any gains or income they generated. You will also owe tax and penalties on those gains and income. This is really no big deal, but it can be a bit of a PITA (pain in the ass) so it might be worth waiting until you are sure.

      “back door” Roths have the potential to be even bigger PITAs. Clever idea, but complex and with snags for the unwary. Here’s a good overview:

  19. enceladus says

    Hi Jim,

    I haven’t been able to find anything from you about Thrift Savings Plans on the blog… I was wondering if you could weigh in with your thoughts on TSPs and where to contribute in it.

    I’m a reservist in the military and I have the option of contributing to a no-match TSP. A big perk to the TSP plan is the .027% expense ratio, which is roughly 50% lower than that of VTSAX. I’m 26 and have many working years ahead of me. To me the C-Fund looks just like an index fund, but the targeted F-Funds also seems to be an intriguing option, as they adjust for acceptable risk over time.

    Currently I put 6% of my civilian salary (matched @ 50% by employer) into FUSVX, and max out my Roth IRA through Vanguard. After reading your recent 401(k) column, a TSP seems to have the benefits of an employer-sponsored plan and more (choice of traditional or Roth, tax-free Roth contributions when deployed(!), ability to roll money in/out from other plans), without most of the drawbacks.

    This seems to be a no-brainer to me (right?), but I can’t decide between the C- and F-Funds.


    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Enceladus…

      Welcome back.

      Your thinking seems spot on to me.

      As you already know TSPs are retirement plans for Federal employees, including military personal. Which is why you get to participate. Think 401k for government employees. But better.

      One of the cool things about writing this blog is how much I get to learn. Not having any personal experience with TSPs I did a little digging. Unlike the fee heavy cesspool too many 401k plans have become:

      your TSP offers a nice, but not overwhelming, selection of low cost index funds. As you point out, only .027% last year.

      Looking at the chart of ERs going back to 1999 the ER has ranged from a low of .015% in 2007 to a high of .102% in 2003. Seems the variation is due, to quote the site, to:
      “The TSP expense ratio represents the amount that participants’ investment returns were reduced by TSP administrative expenses, net of forfeitures”

      Still, even at the worst these are very low ERs. And they seem to be coming down in the last five years or so. Good deal.

      Also a good deal is that the funds are index funds. The C-fund you mentioned for instance replicates the S&P 500 index. The S-find is the small cap index. Own both in about a 75/25 balance and you’ve basically got VTSAX. The F-fund is a bond index.

      To answer your question: Yep. These are a no-brainer. I’d max out my TSP right after the civilian 401k for the match. Then Roth.

      As for your mix of stock v. bonds, at age 26 I’d go light on the bonds if at all. 10% maybe.

      Looking at your total assets as a whole (which is the only way to figure asset allocations), I’d try for something like this:

      10% in G-fund (bonds)
      25% in S-fund (small cap)
      65% in FUSVX/C-Fund

      These are all low cost index funds and will serve you well over the decades. You’re off to a fine start!

  20. Josh says

    I finally decided to stop researching and act. This past Monday I moved my Schwab Roth IRA and Traditional IRA over to Vanguard and instructed them to put both funds in VTSAX. I’ve read your blog, among many, and even Jack Bogle’s book.

    The two different IRA’s in my possession are the result of a Roth 401k plan I had with a previous employer. My contributions went into a Roth account, and their match went into a traditional account.

    My question is, should I leave both of these IRA’s separate, or eventually think about rolling the traditional IRA over to the Roth? I know there would be a tax hit, but I’m only 27 and figure that by the time I retire most of the value of both accounts will be interest, so it would be nice to not pay tax on the gains. Or if I leave both separated, should I just contribute to the Roth, or both? I know the limit is around $5500/yr, but does that apply to just one or the cummulative contributions to both?

    Thank You, and here’s a link describing my current goal of paying off my student loans:

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Josh….

      The answer to your question requires some consideration of your tax situation: How much you make, what tax bracket you are in and how much money is in the IRA that you would be moving to the Roth. That last because moving it will be a taxable event that could push you into a higher bracket.

      Roths are beautiful things, especially with the time yours will have to compound tax-free since you are only 27. Personally, I would move the regular IRA into the Roth.

      But I would try to do this consistant with remaining in the 15% tax bracket. This might well mean moving it a portion at a time over several years.

      In fact, this is exactly what I am personally doing with the goal of having as much as possible in the Roth before the government mandated withdrawals from my regular IRAs that begin when I turn 70.5.

  21. colin says


    I have a 401k through my employer via The Standard. They offer Vanguard options, but I don’t see your recommendation listed. The options are: Vanguard 500 Index Sig, Vanguard Extd Mkt Idx Sig, Vanguard Mid Cap Indx Sig, Vanguard Sm Cap Index Sig, Vanguard Wellington Adm, and Vanguard Windsor II Adm. Do you have any suggestions on these? Should I pursue a single fund or a mix?

    Thanks for the great articles

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Colin…

      If you want to most closely match VTSAX:

      80%: Vanguard 500 Index Sig
      20%: Vanguard Extd Mkt Idx Sig

      To keep things as simple as possible, 100% Vanguard 500 Index Sig would be fine too.

      The good news is your plan offers Vanguard index funds!

  22. Tony says

    You mentioned investing in the C, S, and G funds regarding TSP but what are your thoughts on the Lifecycle funds the TSP offers as well. I am currently 28 and have 60% going to the L 2050 Fund and 40% going to the L 2040 Fund.

  23. aretina Rittenhouse says

    I am also invested in TSP-age 36 and looking into retiring at 51 if not earlier (military + federal service =30 yrs service eligible for deferred retirement pension at 51).

    I’ve been following MMM and now this blog for a couple months and have been reviewing all my finances to see where I can better grow my money.

    I already moved my entire TSP balance (approx $64k) into C funds only. I also plan on opening a VTSAX in January.

    My expenses are roughly half my income and decreasing. I am debt and mortgage-free.

    In 2012 I opened a Roth IRA through my bank thinking it would balance my TSP should I be in a higher tax bracket in the future-(before I was obsessed with early retirement)- which was variable and earning less than 1 % most quarters. So this year I threw it all into a 5 year cd at 1.5% and planned on maxing out annually during that time.

    But given I have a low income to begin with ( $41000/yr gross) is there really any point in maxing out a Roth each year? Since I can’t touch it anyway until 59.5 yrs and I am hoping to be retired by then.

    The one upside I thought about the Roth IRA is after early retirement I will lose my health coverage (not that I need it- hubby and I both veterans) but will still want coverage for my kids and with the Roth I can make withdrawals for insurance premiums.

    Or should I take that $5500 per year and increase my TSP withholding instead. I contribute enough to get the employer match but TSP fees are only .027% (which I only checked after reading your “Should you Avoid your 401K).

    Or invest it all in VTSAX? Thanks!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Aretina…

      Congratulations on being debt free and your 50% savings rate.

      TSP funds, as discussed above are great and have exceptionally low fees. The C-fund replicates the S&P 500 index and as such is a great place for your long term retirement money. I suggest you contribute to the maximum allowed.

      Roths are also great investment “buckets” and you should fund yours to the max each year. After five years you can withdrawal your contributions without tax or penalty, although the earnings must remain until 59.5. Because this is also long-term investment money, VTSAX is perfect for your Roth.

      I would not have put your CD in the Roth. At 1.5% interest there is too little income to worry about protecting from taxes, especially in your tax bracket. Plus such rates make CDs a poor long-term investment these days. I would take the interest rate penalty and move this money to VTSAX.

      Cash should be held for short-term needs and a five year CD is not well suited for that. If you feel the need for cash better to hold it in a regular savings account, or shorter term CDs. On line banks like Ally offer better rates that traditional banks.

      Hope this helps!

  24. dude says

    Love your Stock Series, Jim. One thing I wanted to add with respect to the TSP’s advantages over many 401k’s is the G Fund itself. While it shouldn’t be the cornerstone of anyone’s portfolio, it is a unique fund only available to fed employees. The securities issued to that fund by the Treasury earn intermediate-term rates on short-term securities. Thus, on average, they have returned 1.78% more than regular 90-day T-bills. A nice feature for a 100% safe investment.

  25. David says

    Very basic question since I am new, but I am struggling to understand the point of a non deductible IRA is? My situation is I just started to max out my 401k and roth IRA every year. If I have additional income to invest, my best option would be to invest in the VTSAX in an ordinary bucket correct? This would mean I am investing already taxed income, do I pay tax on gains only when withdrawing or annually?
    What would be a situation someone would opt for a non deductible IRA?

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi David…

      ..and welcome.

      Actually yours is an excellent question.

      There are a couple of things to understand.

      First, there are limits each year as to the total amount you can invest in IRAs during the year. If you are younger than 50, each year your contributions are limited to $5500 across all IRAs. For those 50 and over the limit is $6500. These are the current limits and they could go up in coming years as they have in the past.,-Employee/Retirement-Topics-IRA-Contribution-Limits

      Second, there are income limits as to who can invest in deductible IRAs tied to whether you or your spouse have a retirement plan at work:,-Employee/2014–IRA-Contribution-and-Deduction-Limits—Effect-of-Modified-AGI-on-Deductible-Contributions-If-You-ARE-Covered-by-a-Retirement-Plan-at-Work

      Third, there are income limits as to who can contribute to a Roth IRA:

      This chart does a nice job of distinguishing between Deductible and Roth IRAs:

      So, a non-deductable IRA would come into play for those unable to invest in a Deductible and Roth. Like a Roth, contributions are not deductible and they are not taxed when withdrawn. (Although there could be a penalty before 59.5). They are not taxed because the contribution has been made with after tax money — it has laready been taxed.

      However, with a Roth the earnings are also tax free on withdrawal. The earnings on a non-deductable are taxed when withdrawn.

      So someone would only opt for a non-deductable when not eligible for a Roth or deductable. But it still allows the investment to grow tax free until withdrawal.

      If you are maxing out your 401k and your deductible and/or Roth, your next move would be in the ordinary bucket.

      When you invest in the ordinary bucket each year your fund will report on dividends and capital gains distributions. Both are taxable in the current year. Index funds like VTSAX tend not to have capital gains distributions which is one of the reasons they are considered tax efficient.

      When you sell shares it is also a taxable event, but this of course you control. If at a gain, you will owe the capital gains tax. If at a loss you can use that loss to offset other capital gains during the year. Once those are offset you can use up to $3000 of your loss to reduce your taxable income. If your loses still exceed that, you can carry them forward to use in future years.

      Hope this all makes sense and helps!

        • jlcollinsnh says


          SIMPLE IRAs are employer sponsored plans. As such they are part of the $18,000 (for 2015) limits on those. Along with 401k and 403b plans.

          The $5500 limit is for IRAs and Roth IRAs you hold personally.

  26. Jonathan says

    Hey Jim,

    Just wanted to tell you I’m so glad I came across your blog!!
    I’ve always found the stock market to be so interesting and wanted to become a broker but in the end I’m majoring in accounting. Turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done because I’m already working for a firm making about 25k a year (after taxes).
    Anyway, I’m 19 and just opened a roth and invested my first few paychecks – 3k (enough for VTSMX). I’m extremely lucky at the opportunity I’ve been given.
    I still live at home and only have my phone payment; saving about 90%. I’m currently working to get my AA, while it’s not easy being a FT student and maintaining a FT job, I know it’ll be worth it in the end.
    Can’t say how grateful I am at the plethora of information I’ve devoured on your site, One step closer to having my FU Money.

    Thanks – Jonathan

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hey Jonathan…

      Congratulations on what sounds like a splendid start. Would that I were as wise when I was 19!

      As you might well already know, once your VTSMX account hits 10k Vanguard will automatically roll it into the lower cost VTSAX for you.

      Finally, thanks for the kind words. You made my day!

  27. James says

    Hi Jim,

    I have two daughters, ages 7 & 4, and I am fortunate to have filled the buckets listed in this post. How do you feel about 529s? Where do they fit into the bucket equation?



    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome James…

      With my daughter just graduated from college, I haven’t thought about 529s in some time. Personally, I decided against using them as the restrictions seemed to out weight the benefits, at least with simplicity as one of my goals. Here are a few things to consider:

      1. You need to be careful which state plan you choose, and you are not limited to your own state. You are looking for a state that offers low fees and low-cost index funds among the investment choices.

      2. Your contributions are not tax-deductable, but the earnings do grow tax deferred.

      3. If you don’t use the money for the specified educational expenses when the time comes, those earnings are subject to a 10% penalty.

      4. Since the benefit is the tax-defered growth you need time for this to work. 10 years at least. So you are right to be thinking about these now.

      5. Because of the 10% penalty, you have to be pretty sure your kids are college bound. Although, if one goes and the other doesn’t, you can transfer the money to the one that does.

      6. There are some exceptions to the penalty, but they involve ugly things like death and disability. Scholarships covering the costs also waive the penalties, but I imagine that is a pain to confirm and deal with.

      7. If you are a high income earner and your kids are destined for expensive private schools, 529 plans allow you to put away pretty large sums. I believe the limit is 300k in most states. At least it used to be. Maybe more now…

      For more, here’s a pretty good Q&A from the IRS:

      Good luck and enjoy your daughters while they’re young. You’ll be attending their graduations just after the next time you blink. 🙂

  28. Dennis says

    This stock series has been immensely helpful to me! I’m 28 and looking to begin investing my hard earned money. As far as retirement planning goes, I’ve only been contributing to a 457 plan to match my employers contribution and there is a pension (annuities based on amount of service and age) that I am working towards. I’m currently in the 25% tax bracket and was trying to figure out whether to open a traditional or roth IRA with Vanguard. The Roth seems like a good option, but I’m wondering whether or not it would be more wise to open a traditional.

    I am becoming more encouraged by your posts to let my money work for me! I’m just not sure which bucket (tax advantaged or even an ordinary bucket)

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks Dennis…

      I’m glad to hear it.

      Personally I would seize every tax break I could get now to keep as much of my money earning and compounding for me over the decades as possible. Especially in the 25% bracket.

      Good luck!

  29. Sandeep says

    Hi Jim,

    Firstly, thank you for the your stock series. It has helped me a lot in understanding the basics of investing. My employer offers 401K through Schwab and unfortunately they don’t offer the low ratio Vanguard funds but they do have similar funds with expense ratio<0.5%. I am planning to re-allocate my portfolio based on your suggestions in the stock series. Additionally, they also offer to optionally open a PCRA account and do your own investing. I didn't find any info about PCRA accounts on your website and I was wondering about your thoughts on investing using PCRA?


    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Sandeep…

      If your 401k is offering a fund with expense ratio<0.5% it is very likely an S&P500 or Total Stock Market index fund. Both are what I would choose, with the Total being my preference.

      PCRA account is basically a brokerage account within your 401k. It is designed to let you buy more exotic stuff and trade more frequently. Since I don't hold with trading or exotic, I'd stay far, far away.

      • Sandeep says

        Thanks Jim for your insights. My 401k doesn’t offer Total Stock Market fund but has S&P 500 fund as you mentioned so I am going to change to that. Thanks again !!!

  30. Jeremy says

    Hey jlcollinsnh!

    Thanks for the wealth and breadth of information and knowledge you’re sharing on this site! It’s about to save me from making some quite horrible decisions. You see, I have a bunch of different investments [red flag already with “a bunch” being mentioned] and made most of the decisions to buy them based on poor research. This includes stocks and mutual funds. Luckily, I haven’t really lost anything, at least from what I can tell, but I sure could optimize things and be set straight.

    Anyway, I have this lump sum of money (around $185k now) that my wife and I have been saving up as a “home downpayment” – it wasn’t until recently that I thought about this more and realized how ridiculous it is that I’m not investing it outside of the muni money market it’s currently sitting in. We’ve saved this amount up over 4 years now and your other posts about home ownership have really dissuaded me from wanting to own my own place. I currently ‘co-own’ with my parents and am paying them ‘rent’ which is really my piece of equity back into the place. Anyway, back to the $185k – I’m curious as to how I should go about investing it. This is aside from maxing out our Roth IRAs, which we already have been doing. This, I consider, is our larger “ordinary” bucket. But with this much, is there a good way to invest without worrying about making our captial gains taxes too high? Or is this simply one of those unavoidable ‘pay the piper’ types of situations where to make money we have to spend [or in this case, be taxed] money?


    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Jeremy…

      Great to hear you’ve avoided those expensive mistakes. I sure wish this blog was around when I was making them. 😉

      OK, first, unless you are in a very low tax bracket I’d rather see you fund your deductible IRAs instead of the Roths. That money you don’t pay in taxes can then compound for you over the decades. With rare exception, you want to pay taxes later rather than sooner.

      Second, don’t invest your money unless you are sure you are planning to leave it there for the long-term.

      Third, when you invest in your Ordinary taxable bucket, there is no way to avoid capital gains taxes when you sell shares unless, of course, you are in the 15% tax bracket or less or you have a loss. But you’ll be holding this investment for decades. Plus if you have to pay capital gains taxes it means you have a capital gain. Nice problem to have as problems go. 🙂

      Fourth, capital gains taxes are pretty reasonable:

      –15% bracket or less, the tax on capital gains is 0%
      –25, 28, 33 or 35% bracket or less, the tax on captial gains is 15%
      –39.6% bracket the tax on captial gains is 20%

      Fifth, it sounds like you have a great housing deal with your folks. I’d hang on to that as long as they let you.

      Finally, since you are considering investing a lump sum, you might want to read this:


    • Jeremy says

      Thanks jlcollinsnh!

      My wife and I are contributing a fair amount to our 401ks but not maxing them out. We don’t have deductable IRAs as far as I know. Should I go ahead and open a traditional IRA for my wife and myself, and just start maxing it out every year? I think I had a traditional IRA that I rolled over to a Roth at some point long ago. This is all under the Fidelity umbrella too. We’re in the 28% bracket as well.

      As far as investing long term, I’m not so sure with this larger amount I have. I suppose I could divvy it up and invest some long-term but are there any “short-term” strategies to invest the majority of it (e.g. put it in a CD? Or just leave it in an interest-accruing bank account?)

      Yea, the housing situation is nice. Aside from a few things that are downers (like them talking about how they’re planning to split all the properties they own in thirds between my brothers and I) and some other stuff that can be a bit annoying, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

      • jlcollinsnh says

        Yep. I’d contribute to the deductible IRA rather than the Roth, especially in the 28% bracket. Your combined max contribution will be $11,000, saving you $3080 that can then compound over the decades. Do this each year and the end results will be breathtaking.

        If you are unsure as to if/when you might want to access part of that lump sum, by all means split it up. The part you are sure is going to be invested for decades, I’d put in VTSAX. The part you might want sometime in the next 5-10 years I’d invest more conservatively.

        CDs and savings accounts are paying close to zero interest and below inflation. They are losers for any but the shortest lengths of time. Think three years or less.

        Over that, I’d look at a portfolio with Betterment.

        You can customize your allocation to your expected time horizon and they even have cool software that lets you project where you’ll be. The shorter your time frame the more you’ll want in bonds.

        • Jeremy says

          Would you recommend converting [recharacterizing?] our Roth IRAs back to Traditional IRAs? Especially at the year’s end? The IRA contribution limit is inclusive of both Roth IRAs and Traditional, right? So if I were to open a new traditional, I wouldn’t be able to contribute much to it seeing as a majority of contributions are already in our Roth IRAs. Is there any benefit to holding both types each IRA?

          We have Fidelity, so I think FSTMX is Fidelity’s equivalent of VTSAX. I’m contemplating opening up a Vanguard account though, and potentially moving over to it. Not sure if this would be a good move or if I should keep everything with Fidelity since I’ve been with them for a long time now.

          • jlcollinsnh says

            Holding a Roth is certainly not a bad thing and, in fact, at some point you might want to consider converting to them as described here:

            To get the deduction for 2014 you might want to re-characterize any contributions you’ve made thus far. Contributions from previous years to your Roth I’d just let ride.

            I much prefer Vanguard and so would invest any new money there. I’d move money in IRAs too as this can be done without concern for tax consequences. For money in taxable accounts I’d have to look closely at capital gains tax implications. Since you are in the 28% bracket your cap gains tax would be 15%. I’d likely wait until I was in the 15% or lower bracket when the cap gain tax would be 0%.

            But this is me. Fidelity’s index funds are fine. But Ned Johnson of Fidelity led the effort to crush index funds when Bogle first launched them in 1976. For this reason I personally would never do business with them.

          • Jeremy says

            Thanks! So for starters, I ended up initiating a re-characterization of Roth IRA contributions from this past year to Traditional IRA.
            I then clarified some items with a rep at Fidelity and I apparently forgot that I was contributing to a Roth 401k at my previous employer. Currently, I’m contributing 8% to a Roth 401k and another 8% to a Traditional 401k at the current employer. As far as rolling the Roth 401k from my previous employer, it sounds like I should just roll that money and earnings into my existing Roth IRA? And the amount that they matched (which is only $1500 or so and pre-taxed) into the standard rollover IRA. Is the IRA contribution limit affected when you rollover funds into the accounts though?

            In the meantime, it kinda sounds like getting to the 15% tax bracket is a ‘golden ticket’ of sorts 🙂 Time to start donating to charity!

          • jlcollinsnh says

            You’ll want to roll all of your Roth 401k from your previous employer into your Roth IRA. A regular 401k would roll to a traditional IRA.

            The amount you roll from a 401k does not affect the amount of new money you can contribute each year.

            The 15% or less tax bracket is definitely where you want to be when you start selling appreciated shares from a taxable account. But remember, the gains from such sales are added to your income and can push you into higher brackets.

            As for donating, here’s how:

  31. Jeremy says

    So would you give the same parallel advice for 401k accounts as you would the IRAs? e.g. If I’m going to re-characterize the Roth IRA Contributions from this past year to Traditional IRA contributions, and start contributing only to the Traditional IRA, should I do the same for my 401k and only contribute to the Traditonal 401k (as opposed to half in the Traditional 401k and half in the Roth 401k)? Looks like I can’t recharacterize the Roth 401k but as of right now I have about $11k in it.

  32. Paula says

    Hi Jim,
    Thank you again for these series. I love reading them. This is my second time through. I can’t help but stopping at this 401k/403k section since I don’t think I’m being smart about the investments where my contributions are going. I’m maxing out my contribution although I have just started this in Feb-2014 so the amount is not a lot.
    My company offers MetLife and nope, there are no Vanguard options included!
    I have been trying to choose investments with low expense ratios and look for index fund options but it’s so hard to understand all these funds/investments offered.
    Currently, I’m investing in:
    – MSF MetLife Asset Allocation 40 Portfolio (Conservative Allocation). It basically invests in hold fixed income securities and large, small and mid cap securities (40% fixed income and 40% equity, 20% other). To me, that sounds a little too conservative. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I was looking at other options and have tried to summarize them for you below to see if you could offer a little guidance as to where (if I should) change my investments towards. Hope this info is enough and that you can respond to my comment when you have the time. I would really appreciate for sure!

    These are some of the portfolios I was looking at. they offered way more but I think these would be the most relevant.

    – American Funds Insurance Series-Global Small cap fund (Intl. Stocks): 40% US Stocks stocks /60% intl. stocks
    – Calvert VP SRI Balanced Portfolio (Moderate Allocation): 60% stocks/40% bonds or other fixed income investments
    – MIST American Funds Growth Allocation Portfolio (Large growth/US Stocks) 85%/15%
    – MSF MetLife Mid Cap Stock Index (Mid-cap blend of US Stocks): 95%/5%
    – MSF MetLife Stock Index Portfolio (Large Blend of US Stock) 97.5% stocks
    – MSF MetLife Asset Allocation 60 (Moderate Allocation) 60% equities/40% fixed income
    – MSF MetLife Asset Allocation 80 (Aggressive Allocation) 80% equities/20% fixed income securities

    Thank you again for your help and for writing these series in such a simple and understandable way!
    Take care,

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Paula…

      Well, MSF MetLife Asset Allocation 40 Portfolio is certainly very conservative. But I have no way of knowing if it is “too conservative.” I don’t know anything about YOU.

      That said, you’ve done an excellent job in describing the various funds and now, in doing so, you know what they hold. Next, give this post a close read:

      It should help you determine what allocation best fits your needs and temperament. From there it should be easy to choose.

      For instance, this one: MSF MetLife Stock Index Portfolio –

      “…seeks to track the performance of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Stock Price Index (“S&P 500 Index”)” So if you wanted an all stock allocation, this one looks like it most closely matches that.

      For a 60/40 allocation, you’d chose MSF MetLife Asset Allocation 60. and so on.

      Bear in mind, I don’t know anything about these funds other than the info you shared.

      Hope this helps!

      • Paula says

        Thanks for your advice, Jim. This really helps. Though i’m not sure i want to put all my 403b funds in stocks. i’ll probably do the 60/40 allocation.

        I do have 25k in VTSAX and a Roth IRA that i opened in 2014. i’m planning on making monthly transfers to my VTSAX (bet 1,000-1,500 per month) for the next 3 years. I am planning on retiring from working full time by then and be able to be more selective about the kind of work i want to do. My husband does not want this so he’ll work until retiring. We do not have any kids.

        I look forward to reading more posts! Keep up the good work!

  33. Brendan says


    Allocations: I want to be 80/20 stock:bond. I also want 20% of stock to be Int’l.

    Buckets: I will be maxing out 401k and personal/spousal “backdoor” Roth IRAs from Vanguard. I will also open a taxable brokerage acct this year (prob at Vanguard) for additional savings.

    If I am reading you correctly, the smart tax decision would be to hold my bonds in one of the tax-advantaged buckets and keep my VTSAX in taxable brokerage acct.

    The problem is my 401k options for bonds and Int’l stock carry relatively high fees (MFS International Value Fund at 1% and PIMCO total return at 0.85%). Obviously I’d like to buy Vanguard, but 401k doesn’t offer any Vanguard bond funds (although it does have VTSAX at 0.05%). I don’t have enough room in the IRA buckets to have 20% each of bonds and Int’l stocks held there.

    So I guess my question is, in your opinion, is it better to pay slightly higher fees in the 401k and get a managed bond fund or is it better to put them in my taxable bucket and have a less tax-efficient portfolio?

    (my current plan is to hold entire bond allocation in 401k PIMCO fund; VGTSX in IRAs; and VTSAX in taxable.)

  34. Ravis says

    Hi Jim,

    I was hoping to get your thoughts about my situation. My wife and I have maxed out our 401Ks and due to a company funded relocation last year, our AGI is too high to add money to our Roth IRAs for 2014. I don’t have a traditional IRA, so i’m going to add money to my existing Roth IRA via the “back door” method. My wife however already has a deductible-IRA, so we can’t do the “back door” method into her Roth without incurring some tax impact.

    Only option I see left for her is to add the $5500 into her deductible-IRA, but it will now become a mix of deductible and non-deductible money… as you mentioned above this means more complexity, but I don’t fully understand all of it.

    On one hand, I’d like to put away as much money as possible so at least something will earn tax-free.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to over complicate things.

    We have the $5500, so the question is… put it into her IRA (and deal with the complexity) or just keep it simple and add the $5500 to our taxable account?


    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Ravis…

      I’m not sure anyone understands it! 🙂

      Like you, this question leaves me torn. Complexity v. tax advantage.

      As it happens, my personal IRA is a combination of deductible and non-deductible money. Theoretically this is been tracked and accounted for. That’s important as I should not have to pay any tax on the portion that was non-deductible money when it is being withdrawn.

      But I’ve yet to begin withdrawals and yet to see how this will work in action. I can’t shake the feeling I’m going to be stuck paying tax on all of it.

      If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t have made those non-deductible contributions. The peace of mind would be worth the lost tax advantage to me.

      Of course, if all goes well I will be glad I did. But even then, I’d trade not to have had this worry.

      So that’s my take, but you might want to ask around a bit further. I suggest posing your question here:

      MF really knows his IRA stuff.

      Good luck!

      • Ravis says

        Thanks Jim… I was sort of leaning that way, I just posted over on MF’s site, so we’ll see what his thoughts are.

        I’ve been checking out his site and was thinking about posting the question to him as well, since he does seem to deal a lot with different tax impacts, etc.

  35. Kristin Brito says

    Hi! I have been reading your stock series articles and they are great! Our family has been on the ‘downsizing our life/upping our savings’ course for a few years now and I am starting to take a harder look at investing. We invested in a Roth about 10 years ago when we knew next to nothing about investing. Right now we are only getting about a 6.5% growth on the Roth and I was wondering, is it possible to (and forgive me if i am not using the proper terms, I am still new to this!) move our existing Roth accounts to another ‘company’? Hope this question makes sense, and thanks for writing all these great articles!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks Kristin!

      Absolutely! You can move move your Roth to any provider you prefer and you can then invest in any fund they offer.

      The easiest way to do this is to call the provider you want to move to and ask them to walk you thru the process. They’ll be happy to help.

  36. John says

    Hello! I like your articles, Mr. Collins. I was wondering what you think would happen to 401k’s, Roth IRA’s, and those other retirement plans if, in the future, the government decides to eliminate the capital gains tax? It seems like anything already invested in a Roth-type plan after that would lose all its benefits… at least until capital gains taxes were brought back.


    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks, John!

      Remember that these tax-advantaged programs provide shelter for interest and dividends, as well as capital gains. So there would still be an advantage to holding them, although less so.

      Certainly holding Roths, in which you trade paying tax now to be free of it in the future, would turn out to have been a mistake.

      Imagine how wonderfully simply investing and taxes would be if interest, dividends and capital gains were tax free. All these complex and cumbersome plans could be done away with.

      But with both political parties complaining about income inequality, taxes on savings and investments are more likely to go up than to go away. 😉

  37. Nicholas says

    Hi Jim,
    First I want to say thanks for you website and I really appreciate all your effort helping laypeople such as myself! If you don’t mind but I’d like to ask for some advice.

    My wife and I would like to get our retirement plans in order and are trying to figure out the best strategy. We’re currently in the 15% federal tax bracket, but it appears we will likely be pushed up to the 25% bracket once she receives her masters degree in two years.

    1) My wife currently has about $3,000 in a 401k left from her previous employer that we need to transfer into an IRA.
    Is my thinking correct that it’s best to transfer that into a traditional IRA to allow those pre-tax dollars to continue to work for us over the next 2-3 decades instead of a roth IRA?

    2) My wife’s current employer doesn’t contribute anything to her 403b account. After reading that retirement plans offered by employers typically have higher fees/commissions anyway, we haven’t dug to see what investments they even offer. Is it true that we would be prohibited from opening a traditional IRA through Vanguard and just having her automatically contribute to that instead each pay period?

    3) After setting aside a 6 month emergency fund we have about $50,000 currently in savings that we’d like to invest.
    Since we have already been taxed on this money, wouldn’t it only make sense to begin transferring this into a roth IRA instead of a traditional IRA? Would there be ANY benefit of transferring this to a traditional IRA, if that’s an option?

    4) I believe the current IRA contribution limit is $5,500 per year; Do you think the wisest move in the meantime would be to leave our remaining savings in a regular savings account or should we place it in VTSAX via a regular taxable account?

    5) We also have two young children with about $2,500 in savings for each of them (we plan to add to this over time). Since roth IRA contributions can be withdrawn without penalty, do you think putting their savings into a roth would be wise, or should we just stick with a regular taxable type account ( in VTI or VTSMX of course 😉 )?

    Thanks again for all of your help and any additional advice you can provide.

    – Nicholas

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Welcome Nicholas…

      Happy to help if I can.

      1. Yes, you mostly likely want to roll it into a traditional IRA. If you roll it into the Roth, you’ll have to pay taxes on it as ordinary income. The reason is your 401k was funded with pre-tax money and a Roth is funded with post-tax money.

      If you are willing to pay the tax now, the Roth would provide tax free growth and withdrawals in the future. But every dollar you pay in tax is not only a dollar lost forever, it is a dollar no longer able to work for you.

      2. If you have a 403(b) there are income restrictions regarding the deductibility of your IRA contributions. But you can have both. If you are under age 50, the contribution limit for the 403(b) is $18,000 and for the IRA $5500. If you can, I’d fully fund both. 50+ = $26,000 and $6500

      Here’s an IRS chart showing this for 2014:,-Employee/2014-IRA-Contribution-and-Deduction-Limits-Effect-of-Modified-AGI-on-Deductible-Contributions-If-You-ARE-Covered-by-a-Retirement-Plan-at-Work

      They don’t have a chart up yet for 2015 but this year the tax deduction on a traditional IRA contribution is phased out if you have a 403(b) and your modified adjusted gross income is between $61,000 and $71,000 for individuals and $98,000 to $118,000 for couples.

      3. You cannot simply transfer your 50k to an IRA or Roth IRA. The $5500 annual limit applies and that is for all IRAs. In choosing between the Traditional and Roth, I’d chose the Traditional for the deduction. Note my comment in #1.

      4. Yep. $5500 is the yearly IRA limit. If you want to invest the rest of your savings it will have to be in a regular account without tax advantages. If you are investing for the long-term and comfortable with the volatility of the stock market, VTSAX is my choice. But please fully read this Stock Series before making the move.

      5. Funding a Roth for your kids is a great idea, but it can only be done if they have earned income. For instance, if they have a part-time job and earn $3000, they can fund a Roth up to $3000. It doesn’t have to be THEIR $3000, you can put up the money. But they must have the earned income. If they earned $10,000 they could only fund it with $5500. Each, of course.

      Hope this helps!

  38. Kev says

    Like all the others, I really appreciate your Stock Series and posts. They are pretty clear and simple and add understanding to financial issues.

    My wife and I make a little under $90K gross, with nothing but standard deductions (no house write-off, etc) so we are in the 15% bracket. I don’t think that will change in the next couple years. I am a federal worker, and recently I was promoted to where I can currently contribute 19% (plus the 5% match) of my salary to my TSP account. The 5% automatically goes to a traditional account, as does 7% of my elective contributions. The other 12% of my contributions are going to the Roth TSP account. (I hold C, S, and a little G). The total 24% on an annualized basis is higher than the annual TSP limit (thinking ahead to next year) so I know I will have to do something else in 2016.

    My question is whether I should be putting all my contributions in the Roth or Traditional TSP or leave it balanced. I have ran some numbers and it doesn’t seem that putting it all in traditional would generate that much more annually in tax reductions (which if it did I would further save). I thought a balanced approach (part traditional, part Roth) might be good in retirement while also saving some now in taxes. What are your thoughts? I have looked through your posts and comments, but not sure I see a clear answer to this.

    I also am considering taking advantage of the HSA offering we have. Right now I have traditional insurance, but can see the advantages you have mentioned in other posts. Because my contribution rate to TSP will come down a little next year, I plan to fully fund the HSA first, then do my TSP. Sound right?

    Finally, we do have some money in savings. My thought is to open/fully fund a Roth IRA for my wife, and maybe doing the same for me. Neither of us have IRAs now. Since we have already paid taxes on this money and it is just sitting in a MMSA, the Roth seems the right choice. Is that correct?

    Your series is great and simple at the same time! Thanks for all you have done. And thanks for recommending others like GCC and MF, I really enjoy them as well and all of you are continually opening my mind to new ideas for getting the most out of my earnings, and keeping it too!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Kev…

      If you give the post above another close read you’ll see I address the deductible v. Roth issue in some detail toward the end, although I use the 25% bracket in my example.

      But, even in the 15% bracket the principle is the same. With a Roth you must first pay taxes on your income and then invest after tax money.

      At the 15% bracket, that is $150 for every $1000. Not only is that $150 gone forever, so is all the money it could have earned during the years.

      Further, this money paid in taxes is no longer available to fully fund your tax advantaged accounts and HSA. Fully funding them should be the goal.

      I have my daughter in a Roth, but that’s because with her very low Peace Corp pay she has zero Federal tax liability. Once she makes enough to pay Federal taxes I’ll suggest she move to a T-IRA and take the deduction.

      As for which first, HSA or IRA, I’ve never looked into that and so hesitate to offer a suggestion. But here is my take on HSAs:

  39. Jeff says

    Hi Uncle Jim (may I call you that?)

    Just finished my 3rd listen/readthrough of the series, thank you so much! I had a few hundred grand saved in cash until I pulled the trigger on Vanguard (.15%) and Fidelity (.75%) lifecycle funds a few years ago, but now wish to sell those off in favor of VTSAX and VBTLX instead.

    Can I roll investments in my taxable account to fund my HSA and Trad IRA tax free and therefore selling off $3350 (HSA) + $5,500 (IRA) of my Fidelity target date 2045 $9k per year? Or do they need to be sold and converted into cash before funding said HSA and Trad IRA?

    Everything is now in Fidelity (though 2/3 of the assets are Vanguard target date 2045) I’m looking at Betterment or just plain Vanguard for our taxable investments after we pay off the house (purchased 2014, looking to pay off in 2018 thanks to a very frugal wife)



    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Jeff…

      I’m not entirely sure I follow what you are asking, but…

      You can certainly fund your HSA and/or IRA with money from your taxable account and there is no tax impact in doing so.

      And if you wish to move your HSA and/or IRA from Fidelity funds to Vanguard funds, you simply transfer them directly. The old ones will be sold and the money used to buy the new ones. As long as you do this HSA to HSA and IRA to IRA without taking position of the money directly, it is completely tax free.

  40. Mike says

    Thank you. I have found this and other posts on your site very informative.
    I was wondering what your (or other’s) thoughts might be on a tradeoff I face. I currently have my fixed income investments in my tax advantaged accounts. As a result, both my roth IRA and workplace 401K hold either a low cost target date fund or a low cost target risk fund (Vanguard’s 60-40 fund). My taxable accounts are all equity funds, mostly VTSAX. My original thinking was that this provides the most tax efficient way to hold the mix of stocks and bonds I would like to hold and seems more or less consistent with the thinking of this post.
    However, while many years away, when I enter the drawdown phase, I would think I would want to draw from the funds that hold bonds first (as they would be more stable) but at the same time draw from the taxable account (to allow for as much tax free growth as possible to continue). Meeting both of these objectives does not seem possible with my current bucket allocation. Should I reconsider my bucket allocations? Or am I missing something? Thanks!

  41. Twaing says

    Hello again Jim,

    I’ve set aside my cash, I’ve maxed out my IRA at $5,500 and I’ve maxed out my 403b at $18,000 and now I have some leftover cash and what I fear is a stupid question about “Fund your taxable account with any money left”. What counts as a taxable account? Would this be a brokerage account that I set up with Vanguard to buy into VTSAX with the extra money I have? Or is it something else?

    Thank you,

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Twaing…

      a taxable account is any account without a tax-advantaged feature like those with IRAs and 401Ks. I highly encourage you to fund one once your tax-advantaged accounts are fully funded.

      We hold VTSAX in ours directly thru Vanguard.

  42. Nice Joy says

    TSP offers a great low ER. Good deal while you are working and investing.
    But TSP has terrible withdrawal options after retirement.
    1, Can’t take out ROTH part of the balance by itself. If you are taking 10000 out and you only have 10% in Roth, then 1000 will be from Roth and 9000 will be from Traditional.
    The withdrawal options are.
    1, You can make one full withdrawal [ roll over to Vanguard]
    2, you can take fixed monthly payment [the monthly payment can only be changed once a year]
    3, You can receive monthly payments based on life expectancy. But you cant change these options as you need. You have a one-time-only opportunity to switch from payments based on your life expectancy to installments in an amount that you specify
    4 Annuities [ if you read this blog you are less likely choose this option]

    You can’t do traditional to Roth rollover from the time you retire to age 70 1/2.
    Once you choose a withdrawal option, you cant change much. And you are stuck with that plan.
    I would roll over TSP to Vanguard with VTSAX and VBTLX keeping the ER very similar. This is the only way you can take control over your hard earned money.
    In your book, you recommend keeping the money in TSP after retirement. Wondering if you still consider sticking with TSP as you value freedom so much.

  43. Lauren says

    I sincerely apologize if the answer to this is obvious, but I’m new at investing and wanted to check. My company offers both Traditional and Roth 401k options. Is one preferable over the other? If I contributed to a Roth 401k, would I be restricted to rolling it into a Roth IRA if I left? Thank you!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Lauren…

      The later part of the post above has a discussion of exactly this question. Mostly, it is a function of how important the tax deduction is to you and this depends on your tax bracket.

      My basic rule of thumb is that at 10% or less, the Roth makes sense.
      At 25% or higher, the deduction becomes very attractive.
      In the middle, at 15%, it is a toss.

      Yes, you would want to role your Roth 401K into a Roth IRA. Once you own a Roth you don’t want to give it up.

  44. Elizabeth says

    Hi – thank you for your helpful posts and book!

    My husband and I are not eligible for a deductible IRA or Roth. The company I work for is relatively small and only just started offering 401K plans – the problem is that there are no index funds available and the lowest ER fees are 1.36 (and they go up to 1.73). There is no match option, but my employer will put in 3% automatically when I enroll. Would you recommend maxing out this 401K plan first and then doing a non-deductible IRA with Vanguard? Or, is it worth using the 401K to catch the employer additions and then putting the rest of my retirement savings amount into a non-deductible to take advantage of lower fees (even though it’s not tax deductible). Or, would the backdoor Roth option make sense instead? I’m nervous about the extra (not so simple sounding) paperwork involved with that option…

    Thanks for your help!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hi Elizabeth…

      Tough call.

      Sounds like you are in a high tax bracket.

      Personally, I would probably fund the 401K at least to the match, and maybe to the max depending on the tax savings.

      Regular, non-tax advantaged accounts are a great option as well. You can go directly to Vanguard and choose exactly what you want rather than what a plan offers.

      As for the backdoor Roth, my pal MF is a better source than I:

  45. Nevo says

    I would like to comment on the linked Addendum #1. There is a calculation there that is just plain wrong, and sort of irks me that people can’t do basic calculations…

    On page 6, they claim:

    > In this example we’re using the same married couple we used above making $53,000with one child, which puts them in the 15% tax bracket. We’re assuming they could contribute the maximum $11,000 per year allowed for a married couple to a Traditional IRA. With a Roth they would have to pay taxes on that $11,000, so their annual contribution is only $9,350 ($11,000 * (1 -0.15)).

    I am sorry, but this is blatantly false, and harmful for anyone who takes their example analysis to heart.

    RothIRA lets anyone contribute 6000 dollars (formerly 5500) of after tax dollars. In the example, the couple would contribute the full 11,000. They would not get taxed after putting 11,000 dollars in their Roth. Their full 11,000 would grow untaxed, just as with the traditional IRA, however they will pay [Marginal Tax Bracket] X 11,000 initially rather than after retiring.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Actually, I think you mis-understand what they are saying.

      If they have 53k in income and take 11k for the Roth, there is no tax deduction. That means they have to pay the 15% tax on the 11k first and then there is $9350 left to go into the Roth.

      Of course, they could put the full 11k into the Roth and then pay the $1650 tax out of the remaining 43k of income. But this now means they have to take $12,650 (11k +1650) out of their 53k to make the Roth happen.

  46. Miles says

    I’m a brand-new reader catching up on older posts and thoroughly enjoying them. Please forgive me for entering the conversation with a correction — and double apologies if someone else has already pointed it out.

    You write that, if we assume 20% taxes, a $5000 contribution to a Roth IRA will cost $6000 (i.e., $5000 plus another 20% of $5000). That’s a little low, because we’re not being taxed on the $5000; we’re being taxed on a higher number that *leaves* us $5000 to invest:

    $5000 is 80% of ______ .

    The simplest way to calculate the total is to divide $5000 by .8 (i.e., 80%), which gives you $6250. And you can check it:

    20% taxes on $6250 = $1250, which leaves $5000. If you started with $6000 and paid 20% taxes, you’d have only $4800 for the Roth IRA.

    I’m going to switch next year from a regular 401k to a Roth 401k, and one of the most attractive elements for me is the ability to save a higher amount each year for retirement. Other posters have commented on it, but especially with the higher maxes of a 401k, the difference really becomes pronounced (and doubly so for folks like me who are over 50). If you’re maxing out the Roth 401k with the $6K catch-up allowance, that’s $25,000 this year, and by paying taxes up front (I know you know this), when it comes time to withdraw the money, you get the full $25K x its appreciation. But with a regular 401k at, say, a 30% rate (federal + state), you’re getting only $17.5K x its appreciation. That’s a huge difference.

    Also cool is the fact that distributions from the Roth won’t affect your taxable income. So unlike RMDs from a traditional IRA or 401k, which force you to take income that may push you into a higher tax bracket, the Roth isn’t taxable income. You can take out $100k for a world cruise and still be in a low tax bracket. Very cool!

    • Terry says

      I agree 100%
      Strictly from a tax on your IRA/ROTH IRA, the only difference appears to be your working tax bracket vs your withdrawal (or conversion) tax bracket. The ROTH potentially wins on reducing/eliminating the widow’s tax trap, reducing the size of your medicare payments, and reducing the percentage of your social security you’ll have to pay taxes on. In addition, the ROTH gives you some protection against any future tax increases (Do you really think taxes are not going to increase at some point beyond the 2019 rates?).
      I discovered your site three days ago, and have read about 20 of your blogs so far – Your latest book arrives from Amazon today! Thanks for the great info!

  47. Keith says

    Hi Jim,

    You may have heard this already, but I wanted to share with you and other readers that a recent (mandatory for new service members as of 1/1/2019) change to the US Military Retirement System is that the services now have matching contributions to a TSP, starting at a minimum of 1% plus a 1-1 match up to 5%, so if you as a service member aren’t contributing your 5% you are effectively leaving money on the table. So now you get some retirement benefit even if you don’t serve a full 20. Long overdue if you ask me.

  48. Dani says

    Hi There,

    Great info.

    I have a quick question. I was scrolling through the comments, and I coulnt find one that specifically answered my question.

    My current employer doesn’t match at all 🙁 they instead have a stock program where you can purchase them at 15% off price.

    My question is, currently i am not contributing to my 401K since i dont have any employer matching contributions, but instead i am in the ESPP program contributing up to 10%. I was planning during the trading windows to sell my stock for at least 15% profit and add it to my roth IRA which is being managed by someone ( next taks/ question is to transfer to my independent account(vanguard) – Do you know if there is a fee/ tax repercussion when switching from a broker to my own Roth IRA account? I think there shouldn’t be if I do full roll over?

    thank you again.
    I am a little late to the game but here we come

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