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

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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.

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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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4 Things to Help You Plan for The Worst

4 Things to Help You Plan For the Worst

Today we are going to talk about 4 things everybody should do to help you plan for the worst. These steps will make it easier for the people you care about the most.

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4 Things to Help Plan for The WOrst

Today, we are talking about 4 things that everybody needs to do to help plan for the worst. “The worst” means your death or becoming incapacitated. These steps will help your loved ones move forward more efficiently.

Some of this involves legal documents, and we are not attorneys. We cannot offer you legal advice. We are sharing some of our experiences to make it easier for people to handle these situations.

1. Name Beneficiaries

The first item is naming beneficiaries. Certain types of accounts do not have to go through the probate process. IRAs, retirement plans, life insurance policies, and annuities all have beneficiary designations. When you die, those assets go directly to your beneficiaries.

It is important to name those beneficiaries and keep those designations up to date. This helps avoid future problems. If you do not name beneficiaries, these assets then go to your estate. This involves the probate process. This mistake can result in extra costs, and potentially some extra income tax costs.

2. Durable Power of Attorney

The second thing everyone needs to have is a durable power of attorney. This is a legal document prepared by a lawyer.

A durable power of attorney allows you to name someone to make decisions on your behalf. This goes into effect when you become incapacitated.

A durable power of attorney allows the person you name to make “business decisions” on your behalf. For example, it will allow them to

  • pay your bills
  • buy or sell investments
  • sign checks
  • sign your tax return

Not having a durable power of attorney can create difficulties. Your loved ones will have to go to court and have a guardian appointed for you. This takes time and money at a stressful and inconvenient time.

3. Will

The third item everyone needs to have is a will. A will is a legal document prepared by an attorney.

Having a will allows for an orderly distribution of what you own to go according to your wishes. If you die without a will, your state’s intestate rules apply to your assets. This can add confusion, hassles, and red tape to the process.

4. Health Care Directives

The fourth item everyone needs is healthcare directives. This is a healthcare power of attorney and a living will. The healthcare power of attorney appoints someone to make healthcare decisions for you. If you need surgery and cannot sign the form, your appointee can sign the medical orders for you.

The living will deals with end-of-life decisions. It allows you to specify what means you want used to keep you alive. It allows someone to make that decision for you.

What About a Trust?

A trust can be a useful tool, but it may not be beneficial for everybody. Even if you have a trust, you still need to take care of these four items.

A trust is something you should discuss with an attorney to see if it makes sense for you. There are extra costs involved, and sometimes the cost does not add value.

If you are not sure who to talk to about these legal documents, please contact us. We can provide referrals to local attorneys who specialize in estate planning.

Talk to a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional


4 Things to Help Plan for the Worst

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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Ask a CFP® Pro: Do I Need Medicare Supplement Insurance?

Ask a CFP® Pro: Do I Need Medicare Supplement Insurance?

Today on our show, we offer a simple, low-cost estate planning tip to help you avoid probate.  We talk about the current bear market, and share some expert predictions.  And we answer three questions.  The big one: do I need Medicare supplement insurance?

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Episode Transcript: Do I Need Medicare Supplement Insurance?

Estate Planning Tip: Transfer On Death Provisions

One of the things we’re going to talk about today is a basic estate planning tip. Oftentimes people ask us what happens to their accounts when they die. A lot of times, they’re trying to avoid the probate process. The probate process can be somewhat inefficient. So let’s talk today about it. Let’s talk about what happens when an account owner dies? What happens to their account.

Standard Individual Accounts

If a person has an individual account.  What happens when they die? we have to open an estate account. In order to do that, we will need:

  • A tax ID number for the Estate (normally the attorney applies for it)
  • A copy of the owner’s death certificate,
  • And a court-certified letter of testamentary. Sometime this is called a court appointment, which names the executor of the estate.

When we do that the original account is frozen. We can’t do any transactions in that account, and we can’t send out any money.

Once we get all the paperwork together, the assets transfer into the estate account. 

How long does it take to transfer an estate account to the beneficiaries?

That’s completely up to the executor. We need a letter signed by them to distribute those assets from the estate account. It can be pretty quick. They can also leave it there for an extended period of time. It’s completely up to them and how quickly they want to get that settled.

Some take as few as 30 days. Some take six months or more.

Transfer on Death Provisions

One thing you can do to improve the efficiency of this process is to use a transfer on death registration. What do we need to do to create a TOD account? And, what happens when we have a TOD provision on the account? What happens when the original owner passes away?

The form that the original owner would need to sign is actually called a non-probate TOD agreement. That form names beneficiaries for that individual account. And it specifies how they want the assets in that individual account to be divided.

We need

  • the name of the beneficiary,
  • the social security number and date of birth.
  • We also need the percentage of the assets that will go to each of them.

When the owner passes, the account is frozen. Individual accounts are opened for each beneficiary. We need a copy of the death certificate and a form called a transfer on death affidavit. Each beneficiary signs this form. This allows them to accept the assets from the decedent’s account.

Once we get the forms, the assets can transfer in two to three days.

It’s a lot more efficient than having an estate account. Plus, you don’t have to go through a lot of the probate stuff. It’s not going to completely avoid probate, there still may be some loose ends. But, it’s going to be a whole lot more efficient.

Once those accounts are open, each beneficiary has the option to do whatever they wish. They can liquidate it. They can continue the relationship with our firm. Or they can transfer it to another firm. It’s a much faster and more efficient way to get assets from the original owner to their heirs.

Joint Accounts

Can you add TOD provisions to a joint account?

On a joint account, when the first owner dies all the assets immediately go to the surviving owner. When the second owner dies, you would do it the same as if it was an individual account,

Typically, it goes to the surviving spouse (most of the time). In those cases, the TOD provision on a joint account comes into play if there’s a simultaneous death. Once the account goes to the survivor, they have to do the TOD paperwork all over again.

IRA’s, Retirement Plans, and Insurance Contracts

These provisions don’t apply to IRAs or retirement plans. IRAs and retirement plans have their own beneficiary designations. They are non-probate assets. It also doesn’t apply to insurance contracts like annuities or life insurance. Those also are non-probate assets that have beneficiary designations. It only applies to individual and joint accounts.

Still need a will…

This does not replace the need to have a will or a trust. You should involve your estate planning attorney (if you have one). They may have other ideas that are better suited for you.

This is a simple and easy way for you to do some basic estate planning. And it costs nothing.


The account owner must sign the TOD application. Powers of attorney cannot sign this form. Even if the power of attorney document says that the agent can name beneficiaries, we require a signature from the account owner.

Let's Talk Stocks...

Medicare Supplement insurance - Bear market

It’s been crazy.

Every time I speak to someone, they say that they can’t believe that the stock market keeps going up like it has. Here’s where we are in the current bear market.

We had a 35% drop in the first quarter. Since then, we’ve seen stock prices increase by about 44%. Year to date, prices are at a breakeven point. We started the year with the S&P 500 at 3,230. On price basis, the S&P 500 is breakeven for the year.

Prices have to go up another 5.5% percent to set a new high. The high point is 3,386. We still have a little bit to go to completely erase the bear.

Given the amount of bad news we’ve had, the increase doesn’t make sense. There is still a lot of potential bad news out there too. It doesn’t seem possible that we’ve erased that big of a drop this fast.

The virus isn’t going away either. Many states are trying to avoid another shutdown. I know we have mask requirements now in Ohio and West Virginia. I saw where Kentucky closed bars and limited restaurant capacity to 25%. States are trying to avoid shutting down, but there are some potential ugly things out there. You can make the case for why this market is going to correct again, but you can also find some rays of sunshine.

Expert Predictions

Medicare Supplement Insurance

It’s interesting to see what some of the experts think. Bloomberg released a recent survey of their equity market experts. They asked 17 analysts for their forecast for the year end value of the S&P 500. The average of the 17 predictions for the year end value is 3100. That’s about a 4% drop from current levels. On average, they think that stocks are a bit ahead of themselves and we’re due for a reset.

Five of these people have predicted that the S&P index will fall below 3000, which would be a 7%% drop from current levels. The lowest prediction is 2,750. That is a significant drop. The highest prediction was 3,500, which would be a new all-time high. That would be about a 7% increase from where we are right now.

How good are these predictions? We’ve talked about this in the past. Crystal balls aren’t always in working order. We really don’t know how accurate these forecasts will be.

If someone were to press me on it, I predict 3,150. I also believe we’ve gone a little bit too far, and we’ll see a small pullback.

Insurance Medicare Supplement
Medicare Supplement Insurance Do I Need

Question 1: Do I Need to Keep My Medicare Supplement Insurance?

If a person has Medicare A and B, plus prescription insurance, what is the benefit of Medicare supplementinsurance? Ours runs around $500 a month and there is no way we come close to that in paid claim benefits. I’m not a healthcare guru. But it seems to me there could be better ways to invest my $6,000 a year.

What does Medicare Cover?

To answer this question, we need to dig into what Medicare covers. Traditional Medicare has two parts. Part A is hospitalization. This covers hospital stays, skilled nursing home visits and hospice care.

Part B covers medical expenses. This includes doctor visits, surgeries and procedures. It also covers preventative care, durable medical equipment, clinical trials, and ambulance services.

Part A

Medicare doesn’t pay 100% of your expenses. Part A, has a $1,408 deductible for your first 60 days in a hospital. That is per benefit period.

A new benefit period starts if you haven’t been in the hospital for 60 days. Here’s an example. If you went into the hospital today, and you were there five days, you’d pay $1408. If you go back to the hospital later this year, say November. You would start a new benefit period. That means you have to pay another $1,408 deductible.

Days 61 through 90 cost you $352 per day, this is your out of pocket cost. And if you’re in a hospital more than 90 days, days 91 plus can cost you up to $704 per day. That’s your risk on the hospitalization side.

Part B

Part B is your medical expenses and is your doctor visits. So you have a $198 deductible. And then Medicare pays 80% of the Medicare approved amount. You pay the other 20% and any of the excess non-approved amounts.

Let’s say you have a joint replacement, and your total bill is $50,000. You pay the first $200. And then you pay 20% of the remaining bill. That’s $10,000! That’s your risk exposure in this case.

What do Medicare Supplements cover?

Medicare supplement insurance policies cover these out of pocket expenses. Most of them cover the Part A deductible. And they cover the Part A coinsurance—which are the costs beyond day 60. They also pay the Part B coinsurance.

Some Medicare supplement insurance policies will pay the Part B deductible. In our experience, you usually pay more in premium than the Part B deductible. We usually don’t recommend policies that cover the Part B deductible. Many will also cover the Part B excess charges. If a doctor bills $1,000 for a procedure and Medicare only approves $800, many of those plans will cover that extra $200. They cover some other things as well.

Is it worth it?

Is $6,000 per year worth it? When you’re healthy, and you don’t have claims, it doesn’t seem like it. But remember, you may not be in good health in the future, and you could have a claim at any time. Your risk exposure to not have that coverage is significant.

In many respects, this is like your homeowner’s policy or your car insurance. You pay premiums for years. If you never have a claim, you start to wonder, “Why do I do this?” But one car accident and you have a $3,500 repair. Suddenly, you’re glad you have that car insurance.

Medicare Supplement Insurance is the same thing. You could use that $6,000 a year to make money. But what would the net cost be if something major happened? And as you get older, you have an increased possibility of that happening.

You have to make that decision on your own. But in many respects, we find that the Medicare Supplement insurance premiums can be worth it.

Insurance Medicare Supplement
Supplement Medicare

Question 2: What is Your Opinion of Gold and Silver as an Investment Option?

With all the advertising promoting gold and silver as a safer investment. What is your opinion of that, and what is your advice to someone weighing that as an option?

Safer? Really?

Safer is an interesting way to put that. I’m not sure I would call gold and silver “safer.”

Gold and silver are fear assets. When things around us are going poorly, precious metals tend to do a lot better.

Right now, we are in a pandemic. We have a situation where the government is spending a lot of money to help people. They’re printing the money. And there’s some questions about whether they can sustain this long-term.

When a country does this, they’re trying to create some type of inflation. If we have hyperinflation—like Venezuela, they’re the most recent high profile case. In Venezuela, inflation has been some 3,000%. They’ve printed all this money. A loaf of bread costs $200. The price of gold also goes much higher.

When you look at what’s happening in America right now, some believe gold might be a really good asset. We keep pumping out trillions of dollars of stimulus money. The Fed continues to buy assets, and the money’s coming out of thin air. There’s a good reason to think gold could go much higher.

Consider all the alternatives

You have to consider a couple of other things as well. What other investments can you use? Stocks are one choice. we’re big believers in stocks. Equities have a lot of volatility. As we’ve talked about, we could see the stock market fall more in the coming months. Gold and silver may do a better job of holding their value over the next few months.

Bonds don’t look attractive right now. Yields are extremely low. And the only way bonds can generate any significant gains is if yields go even lower. Gold and silver may do a better job of holding their value than bonds right now.

Current prices matter

The other thing you need to consider are current prices. Gold recently set all-time highs. So you’re buying an asset at its highest price—ever. You are buying now and hoping it goes higher. Much of the gain from Gold has already happened.

If the US economy continues to rebound, gold prices could fall. Silver isn’t near an all time high. It has some room to run, but there are similar concerns.

Volatility in Gold and Silver

Medicare Supplement Insurance Gold Silver Stocks

Remember, gold and silver have a lot of volatility. All three investments have times when they perform extremely well. And, all three have times when they deliver gut wrenching drops.

Gold and silver can do well when stocks don’t. But the opposite can also be true. You have to be careful when you’re buying any type of asset when prices are at all-time highs. A lot of the gains have already happened.

There was an interesting stat from that chart. From 2007 through June of this year, stocks and gold have a very similar average annual return. I would have thought that stocks would have performed better. But the recent events had a significant impact on these numbers.

Question 3: Is the Media Moving the Market?

Is the market today being influenced by the media, especially the liberal left agenda?

This is an interesting question. When you’re in an election year, politics tends to dominate the headlines.

Both sides are trying to make themselves look good, and make the other side look bad. So both sides are pushing their agenda. It depends on which channel you turn to on a given night. as to which one you’ll hear.

You can argue the market has improved because the conservative agenda has shined. You can also make a case that the market has improved because of the liberal agenda. I’m not sure either argument is valid.

It depends on your perspective. You can create a reason for the moves in your own mind. You might believe the stock market is pricing in a Joe Biden victory in November. You can argue the stock market has benefited more from policies put forth by republicans.

When stocks go up, there are more buyers than sellers. When stocks go down, there are more sellers than buyers.

A lot of what we’ve seen to this point from the government has had a lot of bipartisan support. A lot of it has been driven by actions of the Federal Reserve—who is supposed to be politically neutral. You can’t really say that one party’s agenda is responsible for what is happening in the market.

Constant themes in the stock market…

As we get closer to the election, politics will play a bigger role in the day to day volatility. But you have to remember something with stocks: companies still find ways to make money. When we’re investing in stocks, we are buying those future profits. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge, Businesses will find a way to make money and grow their earnings.

The other thing to remember is volatility.  It’s always part of the stock market, no matter who’s in charge. We will always see stock prices have wild swings up and down.

In the big picture, the reasons why the market does what it does really don’t matter that much. Over time, stocks go up. It’s what they do. Politics don’t matter as much as some people want to believe.

What’s moving the market?

So my answer to the question. Nobody’s agenda is affecting the stock market. Stocks have gone up for these three reasons:

  • Anticipation of economic recovery
  • Optimism for a vaccine coming to market quickly
  • Earnings news hasn’t been as bad as anticipated

That’s why the stock market has gone up. In my opinion, it has nothing to do with right vs left or conservative vs liberal.

Medciare Insurance Supplement
Medicare Supplement
Medicare Supplement Insurance


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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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