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Plan ahead to optimize your tax strategy in retirement

Planning a tax-efficient withdrawal strategy for retirement, including Social Security, Roth IRAs and required minimum distributions (RMDs), can reduce your tax burden.
15 minute read
January 20, 2022
Social Security
When to take Social Security

When thinking about your future retirement, you have several factors to consider. It's important to understand the different types of income you'll have—Social Security or pension, retirement accounts, and other assets—the tax rules that apply to each one, and how these income streams will work together. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) or other factors may cause your tax bracket to change during retirement, and you want to avoid sudden tax shocks. Making a plan for tax efficiency, including when and how to draw on your various assets in retirement, can have a big impact on how much you'll owe the IRS from year to year.  

In this article we'll talk about:

  • 3 key decisions most retirees need to make.
  • The advantage of having diverse account types, or strategic asset location.
  • "Tax smoothing" versus paying zero taxes in a year.

Most investors have 3 categories that make up the foundation of their retirement savings: 1) Social Security or a pension plan, which you can think of as “nonportfolio” income; 2) a portfolio of taxable nonretirement assets; and 3) retirement-specific assets with tax advantages. As we'll discuss, you may choose to move these to a different type of account if it works in your favor.

“These are the 3 levers available to the average American retiree," says Vanguard Senior Research Specialist Hank Lobel, " and probably the 3 most crucial things you'll need to consider from a tax standpoint.”

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Let's look at 3 decisions that can influence how much tax you'll pay over the years.

1. Timing your Social Security benefits. Deciding when to start taking Social Security benefits depends on your personal and family circumstances. You can start drawing your retirement benefit at age 62 and get about 70% of your full benefit. You can wait until full retirement age* to receive 100% of your benefit. Or you can choose to defer for a few more years and add 8% to your benefit each year, up to age 70. (Note: This only applies to your earned income benefit—if you're collecting survivor or dependent benefits, those won't increase after you reach full retirement age.)

Among the questions you'll want to ask yourself: 

  • Do you have other sources of income to draw upon in retirement? 
  • Do you have a spousal benefit to consider?
  • Are there health issues that may impact your timing?
  • Do you plan to keep working in retirement?

The good news is that no matter how much you earn, 15% of your Social Security benefits are tax-exempt. Retirees with moderate or higher incomes will likely pay federal taxes on some portion of their benefits. And 13 states currently impose a state income tax on Social Security benefits.** 

Social Security benefits get favorable tax treatment compared to retirement income from other sources, like traditional 401(k)s or traditional IRAs, where your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. (The exception here is the Roth IRA, where contributions are made with after-tax dollars but withdrawals are tax-free.) You'll want to factor this in when considering whether or how long to delay claiming Social Security benefits. If you can draw down from tax-deferred assets like a traditional 401(k) or traditional IRA before you start collecting Social Security, this can help you balance out current and future taxes.  

Keep in mind that Social Security is a government-backed, cost-of-living-adjusted income that will last as long as you live. Can you afford to spend from other accounts while you let your benefit grow?  

You can estimate your retirement benefits, and how changes in timing might impact them, on the Social Security Administration website.

2. Considering your asset location.  If your income today is higher than what you expect it to be in retirement, it's a good idea use tax-advantaged accounts like traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts. These allow you to take a tax deduction each year you contribute and defer those taxes until retirement. Roth IRAs and Roth accounts within employer plans offer a different tax advantage, in that you pay taxes on contributions today so you can enjoy tax-free withdrawals in the future (provided you follow a few basic rules).   

If you're invested in traditional tax-deferred accounts and retire at a much lower tax bracket, this works out to your advantage. But if you end up in the same or a higher tax bracket in retirement, you've simply delayed your tax bill—and possibly increased it, should tax levels increase in the future. And if all your savings are in tax-deferred investments, you're stuck with that bill as a retiree. 

That's why Lobel stresses the importance of what's known as asset location when working with his clients.  “It's important to diversify from a tax standpoint almost as much as it is from an asset standpoint,” he explains. When you have assets invested in diverse locations, or account types, with different tax rules that apply, you have greater flexibility in drawing your retirement income—and more control over how much tax you'll pay from year to year. 

It’s important to diversify from a tax standpoint almost as much as it is from an asset standpoint.

Converting assets to a Roth IRA can help diversify your income streams in retirement—while reducing future RMD amounts. And if you're nearing retirement, converting some of your existing assets may be a better move than contributing new money into a Roth IRA. When you convert to a Roth, you'll owe ordinary income tax on the pre-tax assets you roll over, so you'll want to make sure you have money available (outside of your retirement accounts) to cover that amount. Given the tax implications, consider how much "ceiling" you have to increase your taxable income and still stay within your current bracket, or a bracket that's affordable for you. You may decide to convert only a portion of the traditional IRA to start with and convert the rest over the next few years.

You should also be aware of 2 "tax traps" conversions can trigger:

  • Taxes on Social Security benefits: When you covert to a Roth IRA, you'll pay taxes on the event itself—but be aware that the additional income from the conversion could also subject a higher percentage of your Social Security benefits to taxes. If you're already past the income thresholds and are paying tax on 85% of your benefit, this isn't an issue.
  • Medicare IRMAA surcharges: If you're on Medicare, or planning to start within 2 years, going even $1 over the income threshold could mean hundreds of dollars in additional premiums, through their "income-related monthly adjustment amount" (IRMAA). This is assessed annually, so it's not permanent.  

Bottom line: Converting assets to a Roth IRA can be a great tool for balancing out your tax burden over the years. Just be mindful of how much is the right amount for you to convert. If you're too aggressive, you might end up incurring higher taxes now, when you could have cut your lifetime tax bill substantially by following a long-term plan.

3. Planning your withdrawal strategy, including RMDs. Deciding which of your accounts to tap into, and in what order, means putting all these pieces together, while also factoring in your RMDs. These are the amounts you're required to withdraw from certain tax-advantaged accounts, including all employer-sponsored retirement plans and traditional IRAs, starting when you reach age 73***.

The IRS has worksheets to help you calculate your amounts, but the key thing to know is that your RMDs will increase if you maintain high balances in tax-deferred accounts. That's something to consider before you reach RMD age, Lobel advises, when you'll have more ways to optimize your tax approach.  

By spreading out your withdrawals and choosing to pull money from both taxable and non-taxable sources before you’re required to start taking RMDs, you can reduce your taxable income each year. If you can remain in the 12% bracket as opposed to 22% tax bracket for a few years, it could potentially save you thousands of dollars.

For example, an investor who saved money in a pre-tax account, such as a 401(k) plan, may have also invested in taxable assets that offer tax-advantaged income such as qualified dividends (or in some cases tax-exempt municipal bond interest). Withdrawals from the 401(k) account are taxed as ordinary income, but qualified dividends (like long-term capital gains) are taxed at lower rates. If they also have a Roth IRA, they can take tax-free distributions from that account as long as they followed the rules.

With a diverse menu of options, this investor can afford to be “tax nimble” when drawing their retirement income—keeping an eye on their taxable income level from year to year and adjusting their withdrawal strategy as needed.        

Tax smoothing as a strategy

Lobel warns against becoming focused only on lowering your taxes, as you might miss potential opportunities to create greater value. Your overriding goal may be to reduce taxes as much as possible, but you also want to think about consistency: staying in a manageable bracket to avoid sudden tax shocks. As he puts it: "Think about smoothing your tax exposure over time—not just getting it to zero in the current year." 

Let's say you've chosen to sell certain assets from your taxable portfolio that had no appreciation, so in your first few years of retirement you owe zero taxes. That may seem like a win, but in choosing the zero-tax path you've missed the opportunity to convert a portion of your taxable account into a Roth IRA at extremely low tax rates.

"It means down the road you could be left with assets that are subject to higher rates, and you could be paying 22 or 24 percent on some of those distributions, when there may be an opportunity to pay 12 percent forever," Lobel explains. Even if the conversion creates some taxable income for you that year, it would likely be at the lower rates of 10% or 12%, while also providing you with tax-free income in the future.   

That's why thinking a few steps ahead can pay off. As an investor, there are plenty of factors beyond your control. Think of taxes in retirement as one area where you can potentially drive down your costs and thereby help to increase your nest egg—giving you greater financial security and flexibility when you want it most.

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*Full retirement age is the age at which you're eligible to claim your full Social Security retirement benefit. It varies depending on what year you were born. Learn more at:

**Starting in 2022, West Virginia residents can exclude Social Security benefits for state income tax purposes.

***Due to changes to federal law that took effect on January 1, 2023, the age at which you must begin taking RMDs differs depending on when you were born. If you reached age 72 on or before December 31, 2022, you were already required to take your RMD and must continue satisfying that requirement.  However, if you had not yet reached age 72 by December 31, 2022, you must take your first RMD from your traditional IRA by April 1 of the year after you reached age 73.

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

Neither Vanguard nor its financial advisors provide tax and/or legal advice. This information is general and educational in nature and should not be considered tax and/or legal advice. Any tax-related information discussed herein is based on tax laws, regulations, judicial opinions and other guidance that are complex and subject to change. Additional tax rules not discussed herein may also be applicable to your situation. Vanguard makes no warrants with regard to such information or the results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax positions taken in reliance on, such information. We recommend you consult a tax and/or legal advisor about your individual situation. 

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