How to Maximize Your Retirement Accounts in 2016

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Contributing to a retirement account qualifies you for tax breaks and employer contributions, both of which will grow your nest egg faster. Here's how to take full advantage of the 401(k) and individual retirement account perks you're eligible for in 2016.

Max out your 401(k). Workers can contribute up to $18,000 to their 401(k) plans in 2016. To completely max out this account, you will need to save $1,500 per month or $750 per twice monthly paycheck. A worker in the 25 percent tax bracket who tucks the full amount into a 401(k) plan will save $4,500 on his federal income tax bill. Retirement savers in the 35 percent tax bracket will save $6,300 on the same contribution. Income tax won't be due on this money until it is withdrawn from the account. And if you drop into a lower tax bracket in retirement, you will pay that lower rate on the distributions. If you withdraw that $18,000 while in the 15 percent tax bracket, you will only ultimately pay $2,700 on that contribution.

Make catch-up contributions. Workers age 50 and older can contribute an additional $6,000 to a 401(k) plan in 2016, for a total contribution of $24,000. "If you will turn 50 this year, that's an additional $6,000, and it's all deferred income from taxes," says Helga Cuthbert, a certified financial planner for Cuthbert Financial Guidance in Decatur, Georgia. Hitting this 401(k) limit requires saving $2,000 per month. Saving this much will reduce your tax bill by $6,000 if you are in the 25 percent tax bracket and $8,400 if you pay a 35 percent federal income tax rate.

Get an employer match. If you can't save enough to take full advantage of the 401(k) tax deduction, at least aim to save enough to claim any matching funds your employer offers. If your company provides a 401(k) match up to 6 percent of pay, remember to set up withholding for that amount. This means saving $200 per month if you are earning $50,000 and $500 monthly if your salary is $100,000. Some companies automatically enroll employees in the plan at 3 percent of pay, and you will need to take action to adjust your withholding if you want to take full advantage of the match. "If you get a raise next year, I would increase your savings rate now so your take home pay is the same as it was before the raise, and instead put that money in your company retirement plan," says Francine Duke, a certified financial planner for Aqua Financial Planning in Chicago. "You won't even notice the difference."

Take full advantage of IRAs. In addition to saving in a 401(k), you can defer income tax on another $5,500 that you contribute to an IRA in 2016. Workers age 50 and older are eligible to contribute an extra $1,000 for a total of $6,500. Maxing out an IRA requires saving $458 per month if you are 49 or younger and $542 per month for those 50 and older. If you have a 401(k) account at work, you won't be able to claim the full tax deduction for an IRA contribution if your modified adjusted gross income is between $61,000 and $71,000 ($98,000 to $118,000 for married couples), or any deduction if your income tops these amounts. If you are married to someone with a retirement account, the tax deduction for IRA contributions is phased out for couples earning between $184,000 and $194,000 in 2016.

Consider a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs have the same contribution limits as traditional IRAs, but the tax treatment is different. There's no tax deduction for Roth IRA contributions, but the investment earnings in the account aren't taxed and withdrawals after age 59 1/2 are tax-free. "You can just let that Roth IRA grow in value tax-free and use it as a source to take out money later in life," says Chris Falvello, a certified financial planner for Navigate Financial Advisors in Ocean View, Delaware. "You get the money back tax-free." Roth IRA eligibility phases out for taxpayers whose adjusted gross income is between $117,000 and $132,000 ($184,000 to $194,000 for married couples).

Claim the saver's credit. If you save in a retirement account and your adjusted gross income is less than $30,750 for individuals, $46,125 for heads of household and $61,500 for married couples, you might be eligible to claim the saver's credit. Contributions of up to $2,000 ($4,000 for couples) could earn you a tax credit worth between 10 and 50 percent of your retirement account deposit.
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