Review: The Retirement Savings Time Bomb… And How to Defuse It

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or related book of interest.

slottFor a long time, I avoided reading this book. The title seemed unnecessarily fear-mongering and apocalyptic to me and that’s a subgenre of personal finance books that I really have no interest in. Personal finance has such a profound power to improve people’s lives and give them hope that selling the ideas with a big spoonful of fear and paranoia is something I have no interest in.

However, the author, Ed Slott, has a point. Rather than focusing on a fear of the unknown, which is what many personal finance books do, this one focuses on a known concern. If you have a bunch of money stored away in your 401(k), it’s simply a fact that the government is going to take some of that in taxes. If you haven’t thought about that and planned for that, then, yes, retiring can be something of a time bomb.

Once I got past the overly dramatic title and actually read the book, I realized that there were a lot of good points in it. The entire focus of The Retirement Savings Time Bomb… And How to Defuse It is minimizing the tax impact on your retirement savings without giving up returns along the way. This way, you don’t have to worry about tax guesswork in your retirement planning, especially when taxes are very easy to miscalculate.

What does Slott suggest? The book boils down to a five point plan that focuses on the biggest objectives that people mention with their retirement money: protecting it from taxation, using it for emergencies without tax penalties, and passing on as much as possible to descendents. Let’s dig in.

The Crime of the Century
There are lots of horror stories of people attempting to make major moves and withdrawals, only to see them backfire in their face. Slott relates several of them here. The rule of thumb I learned from them is simple: if you’re going to make a move involving a large sum of cash, consult a tax attorney first. Most of these stories seemed to revolve around people simply making moves with a lot of money on their own because they seemed straightforward, then realized they hadn’t thought about the tax consequences of them.

What’s Your Risk IQ?
Here, Slott runs through some of the “mis-steps” that people make in their retirement planning that often creates a tax burden: putting most of their money into a 401(k), for instance, or not specifying an appropriate plan as to who actually is the beneficiary of the money once you pass on.

Roll Over, Stay Put, or Withdraw?
Whenever people leave a job where they have a retirement savings plan in place, they often have three choices: roll it over into an IRA, stay put in that plan, or withdraw it now. Each choice has benefits and drawbacks, but those benefits and drawbacks often shift based on changing tax rules. The best solution if you have a significant amount of money, from my perspective, is to consult a fee-based financial planner to make sure you’re not making a big tax mistake. Remember, all you’re trying to do is to maximize the amount of money you retain in your pocket from your savings.

Step #1: Time It Smartly
The focus here is the required beginning date (the date by which you must start taking money out of your retirement savings accounts) and the required minimum distribution (the minimum amount you must withdraw each year). Usually, the best method for minimizing your taxes on that money is to start withdrawing as close to the required beginning date as you can without going over and withdrawing just the minimum amount.

Step #2: Insure It
You should always back up your retirement plan with a healthy term life insurance policy. This way, if you pass away before you’ve spent your money, your family isn’t required to make a sudden decision to withdraw your retirement money in order to survive – a withdrawal that would cause a big, panful tax penalty.

Step #3: Stretch It
You should take the minimum distribution you can along the way, leaving as much as possible in the account. This way, the remaining amount has much more of a chance to grow and benefit from the power of compound interest, meaning it could last throughout your life and the life of your children, too.

Step #4: Roth It
A Roth IRA is a very strong place to put your money each year as the normal (appropriately timed) withdrawals from it have no tax penalty whatsoever for you. If you are eligible (if you earn under $100K a year, you likely are), a Roth IRA should be part of your retirement planning, according to Slott. I can say that I have one that’s fully funded and it makes me feel a lot more secure about retirement.

Step #5: Avoid the Death Tax Trap
In the end, though, it’s about your plans. Do you want to leave something long-lasting for your children and other descendents (or maybe for charities and causes that you leave your money to)? Or do you only care about covering for your spouse if you pass away? In each case, you should set up beneficiaries quite differently, and Slott walks through each of those options. For us, the biggest concern is to ensure that our partner is fine if one of us passes on later in life, so we’re planning for that outcome. Of course, a lot of these rules only apply if you have a reasonably large estate – for small estates, it’s much more straightforward.

What to Do When S[tuff] Happens
This chapter mostly covers a lot of the current loopholes for using your retirement money in certain situations (disability and so on) and how to handle mistakes you’ve made in your past with converting IRAs and the like. Most of this material is fairly complex – the average person would be well-served by consulting a fee-based financial planner if they’re in such a situation.

Is The Retirement Savings Time Bomb… And How to Defuse It Worth Reading?
If you focus on the core principles talked about in the book – save plenty, get life insurance, use a Roth IRA – you’re going to have a leg up in retirement. Those ideas are valuable parts of protecting your retirement savings from the taxman, regardless of whether you want that money for you or for your descendents.

The trickier part is the specifics. Right on the cover, it says “Revised and updated for the new tax rules” – and that’s the problem. You should never, ever bet on a specific minor rule or loophole to get you through your retirement, because such individual loopholes open up and close all of the time. Much of the content of this book is based on those individual loopholes.

Thus, the specifics of this book are bound to become dated quickly, and the more general advice is stuff that can be found in other very solid investment books that focus on more timeless advice.

That’s not to say there isn’t a role for this book. If you are thinking about retirement concerns in the short term, such as making withdrawals and the like, this can be a valuable read. It’s also a great primer on the things you’re going to need to think about as retirement nears.

I just wouldn’t bank a whole lot of money on the specific rules cited here, simply because such small tax law issues change so often. I’d read this book and know the scoop, but I’d talk to a fee-based financial planner who can assess your situation before making a move.