Building a Solid Nest Egg: It's Location, Location, Location

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By Sharon Epperson | @sharon_epperson

Saving enough money for retirement is the first step toward building your nest egg, but just as important is where you invest that money.

When it comes to investing your retirement dollars, consider not only your asset allocation, but also asset location. Should put your money in a taxable or nontaxable account? Should you set up a traditional or Roth IRA?

Millions of Americans use IRAs to save for retirement. While the majority of retirement savers have traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs -- only available since 1998 -- have grown in popularity. New research shows savers contribute more readily to Roth IRAs than traditional IRAs, with more than 7 in 10 new Roth IRAs opened exclusively with contributions.

In contrast, traditional IRAs are largely created through rollovers from employer-sponsored retirement plans, according to new data from the Investment Company Institute.

Still many Americans may not understand the differences between traditional and Roth IRAs to determine which accounts may be best for them. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

Differences Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

Traditional IRAs offer the benefit of tax deferred growth since contributions are generally made with before-tax dollars and you don't pay taxes on that money until you take it out. Contributions are deductible, unless you are covered under an employer-retirement-plan and your income exceeds certain limits, but anyone can make a nondeductible IRA contribution. You're taxed at your ordinary income tax rate on the money when you take the money out. Distributions of nondeductible contributions are not taxable.

Roth IRAs are another terrific way to save and invest for retirement. But they work a bit differently. The benefit to a Roth is tax-free growth. You make after-tax contributions and earnings grow tax-free. Unlike regular IRAs, your contributions can be withdrawn tax free at any time. Earnings from a Roth account can also be withdrawn tax-free after age 59½, as long as you have held a Roth IRA for five years. You an also withdraw up to $10,000 for a first time home purchase before age 59½.

Income and Contribution Limits

Contributions to traditional and Roth IRAs are the same: $5,500 this year or $6,500 for those 50 or older.

Anyone under age 70½ with eligible compensation, such as wages, can contribute to a traditional IRA, but there are income limits if you are covered under an employer retirement plan and you want to take a tax deduction on your contributions. For married couples filing jointly, the income limits for deductible IRA contributions start at $96,000 (for a fully deductible IRA) and ends at $116,000 (for a partial deduction); for single filers it's $60,000 to $70,000. The closer you get to the end of the range, the lower the amount you are able to deduct.

"There is no age limit on Roth IRA contributions. You can contribute as long as you have eligible compensation, and your income does not exceed certain amounts," notes retirement expert Denise Appleby. The income limits for Roth IRAs are much higher, making them attractive to many higher income savers. Individuals filing as single and making less than $114,000 this year and married couples who make less than $181,000 and file taxes jointly are eligible to contribute the full amount to a Roth IRA. "The eligible contribution is reduced as the income gets closer to $129,000 for single filers and $191,000 for married-filing jointly. No contribution is allowed if income exceeds these amounts," Appleby said.

Why Contribute to a Roth IRA

If you're deciding between contributing to a deductible IRA and Roth IRA, there a several things to keep in mind.

Roth IRAs are a great location for the assets of many savers, particularly if you think you may need to tap into those funds at some point before retirement because you can withdraw contributions from a Roth IRA tax-free at any time.

But even if you plan to keep your money earmarked for retirement, there are several reasons why Roth IRAs make sense. If you think you'll be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, especially if you're a younger worker and have yet to reach your peak earning years, then a Roth IRA is better than a traditional IRA from a tax standpoint. Also, you don't have to take required minimum distributions from a Roth IRA at age 70½ like you do from a traditional IRA. A Roth IRA is also a great estate planning tool, since you can leave the account to your heirs and stretch out distributions tax free.

On the other hand, if you think your income tax bracket will be much lower when you retire than it is now, you may be better off taking the upfront tax deduction of a traditional IRA. If you think your income tax bracket will be the same when you retire, then it's almost a wash for income tax purposes. But again, with a Roth, you aren't subject to minimum distributions and if you leave a Roth behind when you die, your heirs can stretch out their own income free tax distributions.

10 Cities Your Financial Adviser Is Begging You Not To Retire To
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Building a Solid Nest Egg: It's Location, Location, Location
  • Cost of living -- 114.1
  • State tax burden -- 8.4 percent
  • Median house price -- $377,625, per
  • Climate -- 69/39 January, 105/75 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list
Scottsdale is a retirement mecca, with a reasonable cost of living, state and local taxes well below the national average, a great quality of life and plenty of amenities. But housing costs are nearly double the national average. Winters are warm, but summers are sizzling hot. Peak temperatures can reach close to 120 degrees -- after all, it's in the desert. The locals will dismiss it as "dry heat," but that kind of heat will still send your electric bill for air conditioning soaring, and can necessitate you buying new cars more frequently than you'd like.
  • Cost of living -- 130.0
  • State tax burden -- 9.3 percent
  • Median house price -- $417,600, per
  • Climate -- 74/64 January, 89/80 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list

Key West offers Caribbean weather in the U.S., an attribute that makes it a natural choice for retirees. And who could resist the Jimmy Buffett-Parrot Head thing, especially once you're living a life of leisure? 

You might be better off if you resist. The cost of living is 30 percent higher than the U.S. average, and housing costs at least twice as much. Travel is another issue. Key West is the most remote location in the continental U.S. The only road off the 6-square-mile island is the Overseas Highway, a 127.5-mile causeway that is largely one lane in each direction.

Hurricanes -- all too common in Florida -- are rare in Key West  -- though Wilma did hit it in 2005. But when they do impact the island, though, it's worth noting that the city has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, and there's no part of it that's more than 18 feet above sea level. So homeowners must pay several thousand dollars a year for hurricane insurance.

  • Cost of living -- 132.3
  • State tax burden -- 11.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $482,000
  • Climate -- 66/50 January, 77/67 August
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list
As big California cities go, San Diego is a bargain. But compared to the rest of the country, San Diego is certified high-cost. Yes, the weather is near perfect year-round. But the cost of living is one-third higher than the rest of the country, and house prices are nearly 2½ times the national average. Add in California's high state and local tax rates and the earthquake issue, and San Diego should be crossed off your list of potential retirement cities.
  • Cost of living -- 165.7
  • State tax burden -- 10.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $680,000
  • Climate -- 80/66 January, 88/75 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Second worst gridlock in U.S.
Can you imagine a more idyllic place to retire than Honolulu? Probably not. But as beautiful as it is, it shares many of the financial strains common to other cities on this list, plus a few more.

The overall cost of living is second only to New York City. After all, most of the goods people need have to be shipped across thousands of miles of ocean. The state tax burden is only slightly higher than the national average, but the median house price is triple the national average.

Finally, as far as cost of living is concerned, Honolulu has an unusual financial issue: travel expenses. Sooner or later, you'll want to get away from Hawaii. And there's no cheap way to escape from this paradise.
  • Cost of living -- 164.0
  • State tax burden -- 11.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $860,000
  • Climate -- 57/46 January, 70/55 September
  • Traffic congestion -- Third worst gridlock in U.S.
San Francisco frequently makes those "favorite cities in America" lists and for good reason. Situated on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay, it is one of the most scenic cities in the world. Mild weather year-round, world class cuisine, charming neighborhoods and an eclectic population make it one of the most desirable places to live anywhere in the world.

But it has the highest median house prices in the country, which should scare off retirees. Its cost of living trails only New York City and Honolulu. And like the rest of California, its state and local tax burden is second only to New York.

One other reason people might avoid living in San Francisco is that it's prone to earthquakes. While that's certainly a concern for personal safety, few people from non-earthquake prone areas realize how it increases your cost of living. Homeowners need to pay several thousand dollars per year for earthquake insurance.
  • Cost of living -- 140.1
  • State/district tax burden -- 4.0 percent on first $10,000 and up to 8.95 percent on income greater than $350,000 in D.C., 10.2 percent in Maryland, 9.3 percent in Virginia
  • Median house price -- $395,000
  • Climate -- 43/29 January, 88/71 July
  • Traffic congestion -- 10th worst gridlock in U.S.
Washington is centrally located, is filled with historic attractions and has some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country. It also has one of the highest effective local income tax rates in the country. The district taxes the first $10,000 of income at 4 percent, then 6 percent to $40,000, then 8.5 percent on all income over $40,000 (you can exempt up to $3,000 in retirement income).

Like other cities on this list, Washington sports a high cost of living and some of the highest housing prices in the country. The area also has its share of toll roads, and traffic is a recurring problem. This is especially troublesome during the holidays and summer months. Interstate 95 -- which bisects the metro area -- is the principal travel corridor between the Northeast and Florida. Making traffic matters worse: the near-permanent road construction projects.
  • Cost of living -- 136.4
  • State tax burden -- 11.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $456,000
  • Climate -- 68/48 January, 83/64 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Worst gridlock in U.S.
As recently as the 1970s, Los Angeles was widely viewed as the city that all America was looking to move to -- or at least to imitate. Perfect weather, endless beaches, palm tree-lined streets, plentiful housing, a powerhouse economy and the lure of rubbing elbows with a celebrity or two. Today, about the only things L.A. has going for it are near-perfect weather and In-N-Out Burger. The rest is mostly a faded memory. The city's success was, in fact, a key contributor to its decline: The near-doubling of the metro population since the 1970s has created East Coast levels of human congestion.

Property values are higher than New York's and nearly twice those of Chicago. The state and local tax burden in California is second only to New York, and the overall cost of living in L.A. is more than one-third higher than the national average. California's unfunded pension liabilities are nearly as high as those in Illinois, threatening serious tax increases that could squeeze retirees. Nagging quality of life issues include the worst traffic congestion in the nation and smog that could lead to higher medical costs.
  • Cost of living -- 132.5
  • State tax burden -- 10.4 percent
  • Median house price -- $370,000
  • Climate -- 36/22 January, 81/65 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Ninth worst gridlock in U.S.
Boston is the quaintest large city in America, sporting centuries-old but impeccably maintained architecture, neighborhoods and surrounding communities that just ooze with charm and close access to the beaches of Cape Cod and the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. If Boston were a less expensive place to live, it could well be an popular and smart retirement destination.

But it isn't. The high cost of living and high housing prices are the main reasons cited by former residents for leaving the state. The state tax burden is higher than the national average; the cost of living is about one-third higher than the national average; and house prices are nearly double the U.S. median. Translation: a large chunk of your retirement income would be spent just covering basic living expenses.
  • Cost of living -- 116.9
  • State tax burden - 10.2 percent
  • Median house price -- $247,000
  • Climate -- 32/18 January, 84/68 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Didn't make the Forbes list
Based on the numbers, Chicago wouldn't seem to be the retirement financial disaster that other cities on this list are. The state tax burden is only slightly higher than the national average; the cost of living is tolerably higher than the U.S. average; and house prices -- while higher than the nation in general -- are downright affordable compared to the coastal cities.

However, in addition to being a generally more expensive place to live than the nation at large, the area faces burgeoning problems just over the horizon. Illinois faces the highest unfunded pension obligations of any other state in the country, at around $100 billion. Chicago faces a nation-leading $20 billion unfunded pension liability. Such deficits scream out for higher taxes across the board. We can only speculate as to which taxes will be raised (or created).
  • Cost of living -- 216.7 Manhattan, 145.7 Nassau County
  • State tax burden -- 12.8 percent
  • Median house price -- $972,000 Manhattan, $440,000 Nassau County
  • Climate -- 38/27 January, 84/69 July
  • Traffic congestion -- Fifth worst gridlock in U.S.
The area has fantastic amenities -– theater, music, concerts, festivals, ethnic foods, diverse and quaint neighborhoods and close access to beaches and mountains. It also has probably the most comprehensive public transportation system in the U.S. But it breaks down spectacularly when it comes to the costs. The area has close to the highest cost of living in the country, which gets markedly worse the closer you are to Manhattan. House prices are out of sight, particularly in the more desirable communities and neighborhoods. New York State has the highest state and local tax burden in the country. New Jersey has the highest real estate tax burden in the country. And nearby Connecticut isn't much better.

Weather runs from winter-time deep freezes to protracted summer heat waves. The preponderance of bridges, tunnels and their tolls -- as well as antiquated roads running through quaint town centers -- makes congestion a constant problem, even on the weekends.
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