It’s tax season in the U.S. right now! Even though that deadline has just been pushed back to May 17, taxes are on everybody’s mind, so this is a good time to write about the topic in the context of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Until now, I haven’t written all that much about taxes and the main reasons are:
While I do have a combined 6 letters behind my name (Ph.D. & CFA), I’m missing the three letters “CPA” to write anything truly authoritative about the topic.
My primary focus is on getting the Safe Withdrawal Rate right. It’s the first issue everyone should worry about. I did some case studies years ago for early retirees and some of them could actually raise their SWR to more than 5% if they do their accounting for future cash flows right. That’s 25% better than the naïve 4% Rule. If you start with a tax plan that’s already somewhat OK and close to optimal, I doubt that you can squeeze out another 25% in after-tax withdrawals through a truly “optimal” tax plan. Hence my approach: get your SWR right and factor in the tax optimization plan afterward to make sure you squeeze maybe another percent or two in the after-tax numbers! (And likewise, if you have a 60-year horizon and not much in the way of supplemental cash flows and you’re looking at a 3.25%, maybe a 3.5% withdrawal rate, you’re not going to “tax-hack” yourself to a 4% withdrawal rate either!)
Taxes are very personal and it’s difficult to give any generalized advice. As much as I would like to create a spreadsheet like the Google Sheet to simulate safe withdrawal rates (See Part 28 for the details) where you plug in your numbers and the sheet spits out a detailed plan, it’s not so trivial. Very likely, the tax analysis would have to be more custom-tailored! And just to be sure, my Google SWR simulation sheet isn’t trivial either! 🙂
But of course, even if you first do your SWR analysis in before-tax terms, you will want to know how much of a haircut you need to apply to calculate your after-tax retirement budget. Some retirees can indeed make over $110,000 a year and don’t owe any federal tax as I showed in my post in 2019 (“How much can we earn in retirement without paying federal income taxes?“). And in the same post, I showed that to get to a 5% average tax you’ll likely need a $150k annual retirement budget. So, it’s a fair assumption that most of us in the FIRE community will likely get away paying less than 5% of our retirement budget in federal taxes. Add another 0-5% or so for most state tax formulas, and you will likely stay below 10% effective/average tax rate.
But I get the message: because we can’t completely ignore taxes, I wrote today’s post to talk about the general ideas and principles in retirement tax planning. In at least one additional future post (maybe two, maybe three) I will also do a few case studies to see the general principles in action. At that point, I will also include the Excel Sheet I use to perform the tax planning analysis because a lot of readers asked for that tool when I published the Case Studies 3+ years ago! And as I warned before: it’s not as simple as just putting your parameters and Excel automatically spits out your plan. It involves a bit more human input and analysis, stay tuned!
But before we even get to the messy parts, let’s take a look at some general principles…
In last week’s post, I showed that if you have access to an Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP) offering the full 15% maximum discount you can justify prioritizing the ESPP over an index fund investment in a taxable account, despite the higher risk. But I didn’t answer another important question: would you want to prioritize your ESPP even over retirement savings accounts?
If your company match is 50% or even 100%, well, then you get a quick guaranteed 50% or 100% return, much higher than any ESPP discount you can expect. The retirement plan with such a high matching percentage easily mops the floor with that puny 15% ESPP discount. But what about the 401(k) contributions after the match? Should we forego those and invest in the ESPP instead? Is the ESPP better than a Roth IRA?
Well, it all depends on your personal situation, specifically, your tax and benefit parameters. So, that’s the question for today: How do we determine priorities across the different savings vehicles? Under what conditions would we forego the 401(k) contributions beyond the company match and invest in the ESPP instead?
One question I’ve gotten from readers a few times over the years is whether the participation in a so-called Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) is worthwhile.
A little bit of background: some corporations offer their employees to buy stocks of their company at a discount of up to 15%. There are some strings attached, though. For example, there are often minimum holding periods, anywhere between a few months and up to two years. The discount is also taxed as ordinary income, though the subsequent capital gains may qualify for treatment as long-term gains.
If you can liquidate the stocks right away and pocket the discount, then participating is likely a no-brainer. Take the money out of the ESPP and invest it in a low-cost index fund. It’s a nice boost to your contributions in your taxable account after you’ve maxed out all your other tax-advantaged options. 15% adjusted by your marginal income tax rate – federal and state. That would still be more than 10% for most people! Pretty sweet!
But what should you do if there’s a minimum holding period? During that time, part of your portfolio is now concentrated in one single corporation. The opposite of diversification. So, it’s a tradeoff: You get the discount but you also take on additional risk. Is it still worthwhile? This is an inherently quantitative question. Without putting hard numbers behind this we can talk about this until the cows come home. The only way to answer this question is through a quantitative exercise. And it turns out, the numbers look like it’s indeed worthwhile to participate in an ESPP, especially if you can get the full 15% discount, the maximum allowed under federal law.
Despite the postponement of the deadline this year, April is still tax season for us! Oh, how much I dread this part of the year! And it’s not even the paperwork! If I could do twice the paperwork to cut my taxes in half, I’d gladly do so. So, certainly, for me, the problem is not the filing of my taxes! The discomfort of tax season is 100% due to paying income taxes. Sure, we moved to Washington State to eliminate the state income tax – a big plus compared to California – but that still leaves that pesky federal tax. Last year, we still ended up in the 22% federal tax bracket for ordinary income and 15% for long-term capital gains and qualified dividends. I still don’t the final, final tally yet but it looks like our total federal tax bill will be about $23,000. That hurts! And it hurts more having to pay taxes for the blockbuster year 2019, right around the time the market is melting down this year!
So we developed the ultimate tax hack! Move to a location without any(!!!) income taxes! At all! That location is Monaco, a tiny sovereign nation on the Mediterranean coast surrounded by Southern France. It has no income tax, no capital gains tax and no property tax, how awesome is that?
We did a reconnaissance visit to the Cote d’Azur last year, including Monaco, and we absolutely fell in love with the place! I mean, where else in the world can you watch a Formula One race looking out of your apartment window?
It’s sunny and warm year-round and the food and wine are outstanding.