How much can we earn in retirement without paying federal income taxes?

Update 11/22/2019: After I published a shorter version of this piece on MarketWatch and the story was picked up by YahooFinance as well I got a lot more readers! Thanks and welcome to my blog! Make sure you subscribe to be notified of future blog posts! Both on Yahoo and MarketWatch I saw the expected assortment of hate comments. They fall into two categories, see below plus my response:

  • “I’m a CPA and this doesn’t make any sense!” My response: You’re either not a CPA at all or you’re a really bad & incompetent one. The standard deduction and the 0% bracket for capital gains are all very well-known in the financial/tax planner community. The same goes for the taxability worksheet for Social Security.
  • “How unfair that you retired already and don’t pay taxes while I’m working so hard and pay a lot of taxes!” My response: I hear ya! I’ve paid a ton of taxes throughout my work life. A seven-figure sum, more than most people pay over their entire lifetime. Keep that in mind if you complain about the unfairness of the U.S. federal tax system!

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The question “how much can we earn without paying federal income taxes” is relatively easy to answer for most people. The standard deduction for a married couple is $24,400 in 2019 (if both are under 65 years old) and the top of the no-tax bracket for capital gains is $78,750. So, we can make a total of $103,150 per year, provided that our ordinary income stays below the standard deduction and the rest (2nd bracket + any leftover from the std. deduction) comes from long-term capital gains and/or qualified dividends. With our daughter, we also qualify for the child tax credit ($2,000 p.a.), so we could actually generate another $13,333 per year in dividends or capital gains, taxed at a 15% so that the tax liability of $2,000 exactly offsets the tax credit for a zero federal tax bill.

Once people file for Social Security benefits, though, things become a bit more complicated. That’s due to the convoluted formula used to determine how much of your Social Security is counted as taxable income, see last week’s blog post! So, calculating and plotting the tax-free income limits is a tad more complicated. Oh, and talking about tax planning in retirement: as promised, I will also go through an update on the Roth Conversion strategy for the Becky and Stephen case study from two weeks ago.

Let’s get started…

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Taxation of Social Security: The Tax Torpedo & Roth Conversion Tightrope

I was always working under the assumption that once we claim Social Security, 85% of our benefits will be counted as ordinary income on our federal tax return. That may also be a good assumption for a lot of retirees, especially if their overall income in retirement – pensions, capital gains, dividends, distributions from retirement accounts, Social Security, etc. – is high enough. Then, indeed, exactly 85% of your benefits will be taxed. This 85% figure is also the absolute maximum you’ll ever have to include in your federal taxable income. So, as a conservative estimate, it’s fine to use this 85% figure for our retirement cash flow and tax planning.

But in practice, the calculation is a lot more complicated. In fact, that share is calculated through a pretty convoluted formula that takes into account not just your Social Security benefits but also other income, even some ostensibly tax-free income like Municipal bond interest. In the chart below, the x-axis is for the annual Social Security benefits for a married couple filing a joint return (0-$80k), and each line corresponds to a level of all the other income (e.g., pensions, annuities, interest, capital gains, dividends, etc.) also going from $0 to $80,000 in $1,000 steps, so there are exactly 81 lines going from blue via yellow to red. When I plotted this function it looks like the folks at the IRS created a piece of art; that portion in the upper left looks almost like a Bifurcation diagram or Mandelbrot fractal!

SocSecTaxes Chart01
The share of Social Security subject to Federal Income taxes (Married filing Jointly). x-axis=Social Security benefits and each line is for a different level of other taxable income (e.g., pensions, annuities, interest, capital gains, dividends, etc.). There are 81 “other income” lines corresponding to income levels from $0 to $80,000 in steps of $1,000.

In any case, for retirement planning, doing a more thorough analysis of our tax on Social Security rather than using the lazy rough estimates has at least four advantages:

  1. The 85% estimate is likely way too conservative so you may over-prepare for retirement and over-accumulate assets. Why not enjoy your money now? Case in point, the Becky and Stephen case study last week; I was way too cautious with the tax assumptions in retirement and underestimated the sustainable, historical fail-safe retirement budget by about $2,500 per year!
  2. The exact calculation of taxes on Social Security benefits has implications on your Roth conversion strategy: There’s no need to be aggressive with your Roth conversions if only a tiny fraction of Social Security is taxable and you have not much other income to fill up your federal Standard Deduction!
  3. But for others, the convoluted formula also has a different, not-so-nice side effect. For some retirees, 401k or Traditional IRA distributions might be taxed at a higher rate than you might think. It’s called the retirement “Tax Torpedo,” more details on that below. So, if you don’t do enough Roth conversions and then later distribute money from a 401k you might face a higher tax burden than expected!
  4. Even some of the ostensibly tax-free income (municipal bond interest or dividends/long-term capital gains in the first two federal tax brackets) may not be so tax-free after all. Because that income is included in the Social Security tax computation, you might face backdoor taxation of seemingly tax-free income. How sneaky!!! It might be optimal to do some tax gain harvesting prior to claiming Social Security!

So, in any case, I will go through some detailed calculations here today, and also link to an easy-to-use Google Sheet I created for you if you want to calculate your own retirement tax estimates. Let’s take a look…

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Stuck With a High-Expense-Ratio Fund? Here’s a Google Sheet to Weigh the Pros and Cons of Dumping that “Stinker” in Your Portfolio!

This is a question that’s been on my mind for a while, partially out of curiosity and also because it’s been raised by readers a few times: Suppose you didn’t get the “memo” on passive investing early enough in your life and you now have some high-expense-ratio funds in our portfolio. So, is it too late to switch to a low-cost fund now? Maybe you’re lucky and your funds are actively-managed and they actually beat the broad index reliably. Good for you, but more often than not people are unhappy with the performance of their high-fee funds and like to switch to a low-fee, passively-managed index mutual fund at Fidelity, Schwab or Vanguard. Or move to one of the many index ETFs. Fees will be in the low single-digit basis points, around 0% to 0.015% for some of the Fidelity index funds and around 0.035% for the “Admiral Shares” Vanguard funds. Of course, if this is a fund in a tax-advantaged account where you can just switch between funds without any tax consequences you should just do so if you have that option. But the story gets a lot more complicated in a taxable account! We now have to weigh the pros and cons of switching to a low-cost fund:

Pro: You get rid of that “stinker” mutual fund and replace it with a low-fee, or even zero-fee index fund and eliminate the drag from the high expense ratio. We could be talking about a 0.5% difference in fees and maybe as much as 1.0 or 1.5%. And that’s every year! This can accumulate to a very large pile of cash over time!

Cons: You may have to realize capital gains today. There is a tax inefficiency from having to realize capital gains before you actually need the money in retirement. And this inefficiency takes two forms:

1) for most of you, there’s a good chance that marginal tax rates will be lower in the future, especially in retirement. Your high income right now might put you into a high marginal tax bracket (both Federal and State), while in retirement you might face much lower (or potentially zero) marginal rates. It’s best to defer capital gains until then!

2) even if your future projected tax rate is the same, there’s a potential inefficiency due to realizing capital gains twice; once today when switching to the new fund and once in the future when liquidating that fund in retirement, thus compounding the drag from taxes. It’s best to defer capital gains and pay taxes only once in retirement.

So, depending on how much in built-in capital gains you have right now, how much you can lower your expense ratio and what your current and projected future tax rates are, it may be optimal or suboptimal to dump that high-expense fund. In other words, it is the choice between two evils: The one evil is the drag from the high expense ratio and the other is the drag from tax inefficiency. Which one outweighs the other? Hard to tell, unless you put some numbers in a spreadsheet and do a proper “horse race.” And that’s what we do here today. Let’s take a look…

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Where are they now? A Case Study Update with “Captain Ron”

From 2017 until early 2018 I ran a series of ten case studies for readers who volunteered to open their books and serve a real-world safe withdrawal rate guineapigs. The second case study in July 2017 was for Captain Ron (not his real name) who was planning to FIRE and enjoy early retirement with his wife on a sailboat! That title picture you see up there, that’s their actual boat! Sounds like a great adventure, not just the financial aspects but also the lifestyle changes are daunting! So, how did that all go? Captain Ron just sent me an update on how life has been, so Ron, please take over the wheel…

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We retired in September 2017 as planned and are really enjoying life. Financially things are great and we have adjusted to the sailing life, but that first year of cruising was a surprisingly difficult transition. More on that later.

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Good and bad reasons to invest in individual stocks rather than index funds

Hi everybody! I’m back from a two-week blogging hiatus! Things got busy at the office right before I left and we also had to prepare for our road trip and ERN Family World Tour, currently in beautiful New Mexico and moving on to Texas soon! I was amazed at how little work I got done while traveling! Early retirement is a lot more work than I thought!

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In Pecos National Historical Park, New Mexico.

In any case, today’s topic has been on my mind for a while: What would be reasons to hold individual stocks? Not all but the majority of folks in the FIRE community apparently favor just plain passive index investing and I have been an index investor myself for the longest time. But occasionally we should definitely question our assumptions. Especially those that sound like the good old “We’ve always done it this way!” And one “excuse” to look into this topic is the ChooseFI podcast featuring Brian Feroldi a few weeks ago. Brian talked about his adventures as a stock picker! I thought it was a great episode, though, of course, I didn’t agree with everything. But it got me thinking about what would be good reasons and what would be not so good reasons for me to abandon my index-only approach. Let’s look at my favorite eight…

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Here’s an idea for a new ETF

Actually, not one ETF, but two! Or more! How can there be a need for a new ETF? Aren’t there enough already? Earlier this year, Motley Fool argued there are too many ETFs (1,929 at that time, probably over 2,000 by now) and they are covering pretty much every thinkable (and unthinkable) benchmark. Soon we might have more ETFs than publicly traded equities in the U.S., how crazy is that??? Why would I propose a new ETF that doesn’t already exist?

Here’s some background. I’m an index investor at heart and I like tax optimization. For so many years now, I’ve held equity index ETFs and Mutual Funds in both taxable accounts and tax-deferred accounts (both retirement and deferred compensation at work). It’s so painful to see the dividend payments in the taxable accounts getting taxed every year. Sure, it’s only about 1.9% dividend yield in the S&P500 right now but for us, that’s taxed at 15% federal, 10+% state (California!) and 3.8% Obamacare tax, for a total of almost 30% marginal tax! Isn’t there a better way? Sure! Simply put the taxable equity allocation into stocks that pay zero (or close to zero) dividends and keep the high-dividend stocks in the tax-deferred account where they can compound in peace and be taxed only once upon withdrawal rather than every year along the way! So, the two ETFs that I wish existed would exactly replicate the S&P500 if held in equal shares. But individually they’d have non-index weights and one would hold the equities with the lowest dividend yield and the other with the high-yield equities!

Notice that most folks already do this tax optimization across asset classes: Hold the tax-inefficient asset classes (bonds, REITs, etc.) in tax-deferred accounts and equities in taxable accounts. So, why not do this within the equity asset class as well for additional tax efficiency? How much extra after-tax return would we get out of this? Let’s look at the numbers…

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A dog, a homework and a reader question about Robo Advisors

There is a first time for everything. A first time in about two years! I didn’t get today’s designated blog post up and running in time! The dog ate my homework! Well not literally but only figuratively. Things are busy at work and last weekend we had to move (again). After a month and half of couch-surfing with friends and relatives and some vacation time in between, we finally moved into a slightly more permanent place, an AirBnB in Oakland. Hopefully, our last place in the Bay Area before I finish my job in mid-June. Right as we settled in at the new place and I wanted to get working on my blog post my laptop gave up its ghost! The new one I wanted was not available at Costco and needs to be shipped. ETA TBA! What to do now? Well, I could just skip this week’s post, right? I figure once we go on our long trip to Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand in the second half of 2018 I will likely reduce the blog post frequency to 1-2 per month anyway. Vacations are a lot of work! But as long as we’re here I’ll try to keep up with the weekly posts on Wednesdays.

So, what about today’s post? Simply repurpose something I had already done! I receive a lot of emails with personal finance questions from readers. I can’t answer them all because I don’t have an army of Macedonian content writers working for me! But a few weeks ago I got an interesting question via email that I couldn’t help but answer! It’s about Robo advisors! And why two Robo advisors are worse than one! That’s something I have to share on the blog as well! Let’s take a look…

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Ten Lessons From Ten Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Studies

Last week, we published the Tenth Safe Withdrawal Rate Study! Amazing how time flies! I did about one case study every three weeks for the last 6 months! And I could even include another one if I were to count the one I did for the ChooseFI podcast back in 2017. In fact, the ChooseFI appearance (Episode 23R and Episode 26R) started the idea because our first volunteer reached out to me after he heard me on the podcast. Since then I’ve published 10 posts, worth almost 30,000 words that generated tons of clicks, feedback and encouragement:

  • “John Smith”: Seven-figure net worth, but not quite ready for FIRE yet. Big ERN would recommend a few more years in the workforce!
  • “Captain Ron”: Early retirement on a sailboat. How much can they withdraw from their $3m portfolio to stay afloat (pun intended) in retirement?
  • “Rene”: No need to worry about the recent layoff: You are more than ready for early retirement!
  • “Mrs. Greece”: More than ready to retire due to large portfolio size and moderate living expenses, especially if the husband keeps working!
  • “Mrs. Wish I Could Surf”: Alternative investments (real estate hard money loans). Keep the mortgage or pay it off? Either way, more than ready to retire!
  • “Mr. Corporate”: Geographic Arbitrage by moving to a low-cost European country. Roth Conversions and zero tax liability!
  • “Ms. Almost FI”: Your name is a misnomer. You are ready to retire now even when self-funding substantial long-term care expenses in the future!
  • “Mr. Corporate Refugee”: How to deal with a large portion of the net worth tied up in a house in a high-cost-of-living area?
  • “Mrs. Wanderlust”: Substantial supplemental cash flows due to buying an RV and then selling it later.
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Shirts”: Ready to retire this year, but should Mr. Shirts work for another nine months for some additional big payday?

But, alas, all good things have to come to an end! I have decided to take a break from the case studies, at least for now. I might revive the series again later but for next few weeks and months, I will pursue other topics! Thanks to all volunteers who submitted their data. And thanks to all other folks who didn’t get their case studies published. I’m not even sure I properly responded to everyone whose request was denied. I think I may have some inquiries from October last year that I haven’t responded to. If you submitted a request for a case study and haven’t heard from me back, sorry, I’m just a bit disorganized!

Sooooo, ten case studies: what have I learned from them? Plenty, because that’s the topic for today’s post…

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Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf”

Welcome to a new Case Study! This time, Mrs. “Wish I Could Surf” (not her real name) volunteered to open the doors to her finances. And every case study brings up something new to learn for yours truly. Today’s challenge: How would “alternative” investments factor into the Safe Withdrawal Rate exercise? Peer Street, Hard Money Lenders, Lendingclub, Prosper, etc. have gained a lot of popularity, especially in the FIRE crowd. When calculating safe withdrawal rates, I have only worked with stock/bond/cash portfolios because they are the asset classes with returns going back 100+ years. Doing the SWR exercise for a portfolio of Peer Street loans will require some “hacking” in my Safe Withdrawal Rate Google Sheet!

Further challenges come from the fact that Mrs. and Mr. Surf keep their finances separate (similar situation as in the Case Study for Rene) and Mr. Surf will still be working for a number of years, so we have to make some assumptions on how to assign the tax burden between Mr. and Mrs. Surf. Lots of work to do! So let’s get started and look at Mrs. Surf’s finances…

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Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mrs. Greece”

Welcome back to our case study series! To see the previous installments, please check out the first three parts:

Mrs. Greece, not her real name, not even her country of origin, contacted me a while back and wanted me to take a look at her financial situation. Here’s Mrs. Greece’s background… Continue reading “Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mrs. Greece””