Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k: A Deep Dive

Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k: A Deep Dive

Pre-tax 401k or Roth 401k, which is better? This is a question we received from a listener. We dig into what goes behind your decision and nerd out the math. 

Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k: A Deep Dive

Can Spouses Start Social Secuirty Benefits at Different Times

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The Question: Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k: Which is Better?

We received a question from Alicia. She writes, “I’m a 30-year-old single filer starting a new job. I will be making approximately $140,000 per year, including a $20,000 per year variable bonus. This puts me in the 24% marginal tax bracket. I need to complete 401k options. Which account type do you think will be most beneficial for me in the long run?”

What Goes Into Your Decision?

Here are the big factors that impact your decision:

Retirement Income

Most people use their 401k to create retirement income. Distributions from pre-tax contributions are 100% taxable. This means any of the growth and the contributions that you made, are taxed as ordinary income. Roth contributions are not taxed, and the growth on those Roth contributions is not taxed.

Required Minimum Distributions

At age 72, you must take a minimum amount from your pre-tax 401k contributions each year. (This also includes your employer match.) Even if you do not need the income, you still must take them or face severe penalties.

The Roth 401k does not have required minimum distributions. Nothing forces you to take a certain amount each year. You simply take the amount you need for living expenses.

Hidden Tax Costs

Social Security

If you are using a pre-tax 401k, it will impact the taxation of your Social Security benefits. Once you reach a certain income level, 85% of your Social Security benefits get taxed. When you use the Roth 401k, those distributions do not count towards those income limits. The income from your Roth 401(k) will not increase the taxes on your Social Security benefits.


Medicare Part B premiums are subject to Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amounts (IRMAA). Distributions from your pre-tax 401k can make your out-of-pocket Part B premiums higher. Income from a Roth account will not raise the cost of your Medicare Part B premiums.

Estate Planning

Alicia’s heirs will have to withdraw funds from her pre-tax 401k over 10 years. They will pay income taxes on the full amount they inherit. If she leaves behind a Roth 401k, they will also have to withdraw funds from the account over 10 years. But, they will not have to pay taxes on those distributions.

Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k: Math

Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k

Current Tax Benefits

Here are the income tax effects of the pre-tax and Roth 401k contributions.

Pre-Tax 401k or Roth 401k

She will save $208,974 in income taxes by using the pre-tax 401k over 35 years of working. This is a significant savings.

Projecting The Accumulation Amount

Over a 35-year working career, a 10% salary deferral projects to total contributions of $696,000. The growth of those deferrals over the same timeframe is significant. Using a 7% average annual return, we estimate her account will grow to $2.4 million.

If she uses the Roth 401k, every penny is tax free. If she uses the pre-tax option, it is all taxable.

Generating Income

What happens when she starts taking income from retirement? We assume she will take $100,000 gross income with an effective tax rate of 20%. In the initial stages of her retirement, she has $80,000 of net income. If she uses a pre-tax 401k, she pays $20,000 per year in total taxes.

At age 72 required minimum distributions begin. She must withdraw money from the account whether she needs it for living expenses or not. The percentage you take out increases each year, too.

If she lives to be age 90, she will pay over $760,000 of total income tax. This is a lot more than what she would have saved over the course of her working years.

Here is how the Roth 401k changes things. She takes $80,000 per year for the first few years. This is the net same net income. We projected the same net distributions from the Roth account. There are zero taxes paid over that timeframe.

Impact on Accumulation Values

This also can impact the accumulation value. To get the same net income, you must withdraw less from the Roth 401k. The balance has a better ability to grow. The difference at age 90 between the Roth 401k and Pre-Tax 401k in our example is $1.5 million.

Changing the Math—Investing the Tax Savings

What is Alicia going to do with the tax savings? Will she be disciplined and save it in something like a backdoor Roth IRA? Or will she spend it on her living expenses. Investing her tax savings can change the math.

If Alicia was to invest her tax savings, she’s going to have nearly $600,000 more for retirement. Using the “backdoor Roth” means the future income will be tax free. Because she is using the pre-tax 401k, she will have to pay taxes on the income from this portion of her assets.

Retirement Income

If she takes the same net income as the other example, this is what happens. She uses the Roth account to generate income in the first six years. This means she has no tax liability for the income.

At age 72, required minimum distributions from the pre-tax account enter the picture. This means that she must start taking a large sum of money from the pre-tax 401k. Over the course of her retirement, we project she will pay over $788,000 in total income taxes.

This uses current tax rates. If tax rates increase, her tax bill will be much higher.

Accumulation Values

How does it impact the long-term accumulation values? We projected the Roth 401k to grow to about $4.5 Million. Using the pre-tax 401k and backdoor Roth IRA, we estimate an additional $500,000 more at age 90.

Accumulation Values

If she’s disciplined enough to save the tax savings, you can argue for using the pre-tax 401k and backdoor Roth IRA. Otherwise, the Roth 401k works better over the long run.

The effect of compounding over decades is huge. And the tax-free amount that compounds in those accounts is a significant benefit.


If you have questions about how this could affect you, talk to a Certified Financial Planner Pro.

Talk to a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional


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About the Author

Neal Watson is a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional and a Financial Advisor with Fleming Watson Financial Advisors.    He specializes in helping hard working, middle class families plan for retirement.

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Taxing Social Security

Taxing Social Security

Today we talk about taxing Social Security. We will discuss:

  • the factors that go into determining whether your Social Security income is taxable or not
  • give you some examples, and
  • tell you about a few potential surprises that you may encounter.

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Taxing Other Types Of Retirement Income

Last week we discussed how other types of common retirement income are taxed. Click Here to watch that episode.

Today, we focus on taxing Social Security benefits. For some people, your Social Security may be taxable. Here is how we can determine if your benefits will be taxed.

Provisional Income

It starts with your provisional income. To determine if your Social Security is taxable, you’ll need to compute this. It includes:

  • half of your Social Security
  • dividends
  • interest, both taxable and non taxable
  • earnings
  • pension income
  • IRA distributions, and
  • other income

If your provisional income is less than

  • $32,000, for a couple
  • $25,000 for a single person,

your Social Security benefits are not taxed.

But if your provisional income is between

  • $32,000- $44,000 for a couple
  • $25,000- $34,000, for a single filer,

50% of your Social Security income is taxed.

And if your provisional income is over

  • $44,000 for a couple
  • $32,000 for a single person

85% of your Social Security benefits is taxed.


John and Carol

John receives about $27,600 in Social Security benefits and Carol receives $21,600. That totals $49,200. Half of their benefit is $24,600. They receive $2,000 a month from John’s IRA, for a total of $24,000. Total, they earn $5,000 per year in dividends and another $1,500 in interest.

Their provisional income is $55,100. This means 85% of their Social Security benefits are taxable.

taxing Social Security


Mary was recently widowed. She receives $21,600 in Social Security, half of which is $10,800. She takes a required minimum distribution from her IRA which was $8,300. Her provisional income in this case is $19,100. This is below the $25,000 threshold, so her Social Security benefits are not taxed.

taxing Social Security


Carl is single. He receives $2,000 per month from Social Security, $24,000 total. Half of that is $12,000. He also gets about $2,000 in dividends and $1,000 in interest. The rest of Karl’s income comes from a Roth IRA. He takes $50,000 from his Roth account. His provisional income is $15,000.  His Social Security benefits will not be taxed.

The Roth IRA distributions do not add to his provisional income.This is an additional benefit of using a Roth IRA in your retirement planning. Distributions from the Roth are not taxed. They also won’t make your Social Security benefits taxable.

taxing Social Security

Potential Surprises

Change in Marital Status

The first surprise is a sudden change in your marital status. If you find yourself suddenly single, you may owe more in taxes. The income limits for single people are lower than those for married couples. A sudden change in marital status may lead to more of your social security benefits being taxed.

Change in Income

A sudden increase in your income can also have a hidden surprise. This normally happens when you reach the age for required minimum distributions. At age 72, you have to start taking money from your IRA account. This will add to your provisional income. The distribution may cause your Social Security income to be taxed

Talk to a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional

There are a lot of factors that affect your taxes in your retirement, and you can manage some of them. Talk to a financial planner to learn more.


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About the Author

Neal Watson is a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional and a Financial Advisor with Fleming Watson Financial Advisors.    He specializes in helping hard working, middle class families plan for retirement.

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Obstacles To Your Retirement

Obstacles To Your Retirement

What are the biggest obstacles to retiring when you want to? Whether you are two years from retirement or 20 years, we all face similar obstacles. Today, we discuss the three biggest obstacles to your retirement.

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Obstacle 1: Health Insurance

Many people would like to retire at 62 or younger. But there is a big problem. Health insurance at that age can be very expensive. Depending on where you live, premiums for health insurance can cost between $1,200 and $1,800 per month, per person. That means $2,400 to $3,600 for a couple. You can also expect those premiums to increase a significant amount each year.

The coverage may also not be as good as what you currently have. Many policies have high deductibles and limited options for providers and hospitals. You also may not have prescription coverage.

What can you do to overcome this obstacle?

Delay Retirement

The most obvious answer is to wait until 65 to retire. At that point, you are eligible for Medicare, which is a lot less expensive.

Dedicated Savings

If delaying retirement is not an option, maybe you want to consider saving more. Consider creating a dedicated account designed to cover your health insurance premiums. If you already have a health savings account, that may be a way to help. But you want to be careful using your HSA. You cannot use your HSA to pay for health insurance premiums if you deduct or claim a tax credit for those costs on your return.

Take More Income from Savings

The other thing you can do is to take more income from savings early in retirement. Doing this can add risk to your nest egg. If your investments struggle, a higher withdrawal rate could create problems.

Obstacles to Your Retirement
Obstacles to Your Retirement

Obstacle 2: Mortgage Debt

The second major obstacle is mortgage debt. It tends to be one of the larger items in your budget. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, people between the ages of 65 and 75 spend on average $21,000 per year on housing costs. More people are retiring with mortgages than they did 10 years ago. A mortgage can be a significant part of that annual total. How can you overcome this?

Prioritize Paying Off Your Mortgage

If you have a few years until you retire, make paying off your mortgage a higher priority. Saving is important , but eliminating this debt will improve your retirement cash flow.

Many people earn more on their savings than what they pay in interest. But the impact of compounding returns over five or ten years isn’t as significant. Paying off the mortgage can have more long-term value to you when thinking about your retirement.

Refinance Your Loan

You may want to consider refinancing your house, especially right now. Mortgage rates in 2020 are as low as they have ever been. Refinancing can reduce your interest rate and spread the payments over more years. This can reduce your payments. It is not ideal, but it’s better than putting too much strain on your nest egg.


Consider downsizing. Sell your house and use the equity to buy something smaller where you may not have the debt. You may not need all that space anyhow. Downsizing could also lower your insurance premiums and property taxes.

Obstacle 3: Inadequate Savings

Most people will struggle to retire on their terms because they did not save enough. How can you overcome this?

Save More

If you have a few years before you want to retire, make saving a higher priority. Re-examine what expenses are critical to enjoying life and cut those that are not.

Pursue Growth

Be more growth oriented. Pursuing higher returns can help you accumulate more. This works better if you have a longer timeframe. Remember, there could be some rough periods where things could be very difficult.

Delay Retirement

The third thing you can do is delay your retirement date. Waiting to retire gives you more time to save. It also reduces the discounts to Social Security or pensions.

Consider Working Part-Time

You can also consider other ways to supplement your income such as part-time lower stress work.

Simplify Your Life

Consider simplifying and minimizing your lifestyle. You may have to scale back on some things and reduce expenses to make retirement work.

Your retirement decision is about balancing risks. Increasing the income from your savings increases the risk of running out of money. But, waiting to retire means you have less time to enjoy your golden years.

There are no one-size-fits-all rules. You need to make the right decision for you and your family. And you need to make the best decision you can with all the information available. If you would like help going through the numbers, talk to a financial planner.

Talk To a Financial Planner

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About the Author

Neal Watson is a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional and a Financial Advisor with Fleming Watson Financial Advisors.    He specializes in helping hard working, middle class families plan for retirement.

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Offered Early Retirement? Start Here.

Offered Early Retirement? Start Here

A listener was offered early retirement.  There is a lot to consider before making your decision to retire—even if you weren’t offered an incentive.  If you’re thinking about retiring soon, and don’t know where to begin, start here.

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Offered early Retirement start here

This week we have a question from David. He writes, “I’ll be 62 in the spring. My employer has offered early retirement. How do I know if I can make it work?

This is an excellent question. Let’s cover some of the basics.

Know Your Numbers!

This means your income and your expenses.

Your Savings

How much have you saved? And how much income can your nest egg provide? This is an important thing to determine. The more you withdraw from your nest egg, the greater the risk of running out of money during your lifetime.

You want to get as much as you can without putting too much stress on that account.


Are you going to get a pension? If so, how much will it be? Should you consider a lump sum payout if it is available? This is an important decision to make. For some people taking the monthly payments makes the most sense. For others, taking a lump sum is a better choice. You will want to work through the numbers and determine what is right for you.

Social Security

You need to make a decision about your Social Security. You are eligible to start your Social Security at 62. But that comes with big discounts. Can you wait to take your Social Security until age 65 or your normal retirement age? Waiting to start your benefits reduces the discount. This can result in thousands of dollars of additional benefits over your lifetime. But it does not always make sense to wait. Sometimes it makes sense to start it at 62 if you need to. Please look at this decision very carefully.

Early Retirement Incentive Payment

If you are getting an incentive to retire, how will that impact your cash flow? Does the payment mean you will not have to take income from your 401k? Does it provide enough income so you can delay your Social Security?

If you can use that money to pay your expenses, you can reduce stress on your savings or improve your Social Security benefits.


Knowing your expenses is very important. Look at what you are spending now and how it will change when you retire. Certain things in your budget are going away. You are not going to be driving to work every day. You won’t be buying clothes for work and you may spend less on meals, too.

Some expenses might increase. You may play golf more often. You may have other hobbies that cost money. That means you might be spending more on some things.

If things are tight, is there anything that you can cut from your budget? Are there lower priority expenses that you can drop to help make things work for a few years.

Spending is a major component of your long-term financial success. In fact, overspending can be one of the biggest reasons people run out of money.


Do you have a lot of debt? Loan payments can be a significant expense, especially car payments and mortgage payments. Can you can use your early incentive payment to eliminate some of those debts? That could have a big impact on your cash flow. You need to work through the numbers to see if this is worth considering.

You may want to consider refinancing your mortgage. This isn’t an ideal strategy. The ideal situation would be to be debt free when you retire. Refinancing your mortgage could lower your monthly payment and help your budget.

Early Retirement Offer Start Here
early retirement offer start here

The Big Issue: Health Insurance

Because you are only 62, one of the biggest things that you will face is buying health insurance. Recently, we have heard quotes for coverage between $2,000 and $3,500 a month. This is a very significant expense. You can expect the premiums to increase each year until you are eligible for Medicare.

Most of those policies are going to have big deductibles, and the coverage may not be ideal. You may also have to change doctors, and you may not be able to go to your preferred hospital.

The health insurance marketplace in our area is very difficult right now. But, if you can figure this out, you have a real chance to make early retirement work.

Your Spouse

Is your spouse going to retire or continue working? If they are going to keep working, how will they adjust to you being home all day when they have to get up and go to work? Maybe they are retiring too, and you both will have to adjust to both of you being home all day.

Practical and Objective Advice

You want to make the right decision for your family.  Consider talking to a fiduciary financial advisor to help you work through the numbers.
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About the Author

Neal Watson is a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional and a Financial Advisor with Fleming Watson Financial Advisors.    He specializes in helping hard working, middle class families plan for retirement.

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Should I Start Social Security at 62?

Should I Start My Social Security At 62?

This question is from Lloyd. He asks, “I’m planning to retire in the spring when I turn 62. Should I start taking my Social Security or should I wait?”

This is a big decision. The only decision we have when we’re looking at social security is when to file for our benefits.

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start social security at 62

The impact of retiring early

The year you were born determines your normal retirement age. When you start Social Security before your normal retirement age, your benefits are reduced. If you’re married, the spousal benefit is also discounted. It also means a lower survivor benefit. The dollar amount of your cost of living adjustments will also be smaller. The percentage will be the same, but the dollar amount of the increase will be smaller.

A lot of people still signed up for social security early.

  • 31% of men and 27% of women sign up for their social security benefits at age 62
  • 6% applied at age 63
  • 7% filed at age 64
  • 10% applied for social security at age 65
  • 33% filed for their benefits at normal retirement age
  • 6% waited until age 70 to maximize their benefits

A little more than half of the recipients file for their benefits early.

A look at some numbers

You can do a lot of calculations to help determine when to start your benefits. Delaying your retirement can lead to thousands of dollars of additional benefits over your lifetime. But, you must live long enough to make it work. Generally speaking, you have to live until you are in your early 80s.

Here is how this can impact Lloyd. Let’s say his full retirement benefit is $2,300 per month. If he starts Social Security at 62, his benefit shrinks to $1,640.

At his full retirement age, his wife’s spousal benefit, if he’s married, would be half of the $2,300 or $1,150. At age 62, the spousal benefit will be, at most, $820. The combined benefits are nearly $1,000 less each month.

If Lloyd waits to start his Social Security, his discount isn’t as big.

  • By waiting a full year to apply for benefits, his amount grows by 7%
  • If he waits two full years, his benefit grows by over 14%
  • Should he wait until age 65, three years later, his benefit grows by 24%

A big decision

Should Lloyd take his Social Security benefits at 62?

It depends. Is he healthy? Is he married? Can he afford to retire without taking his benefits and not to put too much stress on his savings? There are a lot of factors, and it’s hard to say yes or no.

Here is what we typically see. People start their social security when they retire—regardless of their age. Most of the time, it’s because they need the money. The ones who retire and delay their Social Security have been good savers and have low expenses.

You need to consider your entire situation. You can’t make the decision about Social Security in a vacuum. There are many other factors involved in this process.

If you are unsure what to do, talk to a financial advisor before you make a costly mistake.

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About the Author

Neal Watson is a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional and a Financial Advisor with Fleming Watson Financial Advisors.    He specializes in helping hard working, middle class families plan for retirement.

Our Most Recent Videos And Posts