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High-Income Earners May Have Trouble Saving For Retirement: Your Guide to Overcoming Some Surprising Roadblocks

Taxes Investing Planning

The IRS offers several tax-advantaged retirement savings options. Most of these options, however, offer some sort of income cap - making it harder for high earners to take advantage of these tax-saving strategies. But high earners face the same challenge as moderate- to low-income earning employees: sustain a similar lifestyle in retirement by maintaining financial independence. When high earners are limited in their options for saving for retirement, it can make reaching their goals for retirement more challenging.

Retirement Saving Strategies

Once you’re able to identify the roadblocks you may be facing, focus your attention on the retirement saving strategies that may work best for you and your family.

Strategy #1: Contribute to a 401(k)

If you aren’t doing so already, contributing to an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan is an effective place to start saving for retirement. You may defer up to $19,500 (or $26,000 if you’re 50 or older) of your pre-tax earnings toward your employer-sponsored 401(k) plan.1 Many employers will offer matching contributions as well, up to a certain percentage of your contributions. The total contribution limit for a 401(k) plan in 2021 is $58,000 (plus an additional $6,500 for those 50 and older) or 100 percent of an employee’s compensation, whichever is lower.1

The salary limit for deferring compensation is $280,000 for 2021. If you make more than this amount, this doesn’t mean you can’t contribute to your 401(k) plan. Employees can defer compensation to their 401(k) plan throughout the year, until their year-to-date earnings reach $280,000. Once that maximum is reached, employees can no longer defer earnings toward their 401(k) plan.1

As a high earner, your 401(k) will likely offer the highest contribution cap for tax-deferred retirement savings, making it an important cornerstone of your retirement saving strategy.

Strategy #2: Traditional IRA 

Roth IRAs allow retirees to make tax-free withdrawals in retirement, meaning they can be appealing for those saving for retirement. Unfortunately, it may not be an option for some high-earners. If your modified adjusted gross income is more than $140,000 as a single filer or $208,000 as a joint filer, you are not eligible to contribute after-tax dollars to a Roth IRA account. If you make between $125,000 and $140,000 as a single filer or $198,000 and $208,000 as a joint filer, you may be eligible to contribute a reduced amount.2

A traditional IRA, however, does not have an income limit, which makes it an available option for high earners. The only prerequisite is that you earn any income at all. It’s important to note, however, that you may be limited to how much of your IRA contribution you can deduct on your tax return.

How much you are able to deduct from your taxes will depend primarily on two things:3  

  • Your modified adjusted gross income
  • Whether or not you actively contribute to your employer-sponsored retirement plan (such as a 401(k))

Strategy #3: "Backdoor" Roth IRA

Building on the strategy above, those interested in tax-free withdrawals in retirement but aren't eligible to utilize a Roth IRA may benefit from a "backdoor" Roth IRA. As the name suggests, this strategy offers high-income earners a roundabout entrance into placing their after-tax dollars into a Roth IRA account.

To do this, you'll have to:

  1. Open and contribute to a traditional IRA account.
  2. Have an account administrator provide the paperwork and instructions for converting your traditional account into a Roth IRA.
  3. Prepare to pay taxes on the money in the account and any gains it may have incurred.

If this sounds like an option you may be interested in pursuing, we can offer more guidance and instruction regarding this process. It's important to pay attention to the tax implications of Roth conversions, particularly if you are only converting a portion of your tax-deferred balance, as they can be tricky to calculate.

If you’re earning six figures or more, it may be helpful to work with a financial advisor who can help you understand your savings options. Whatever strategy you choose, be sure to stay up-to-date on contribution limits and eligibility requirements. This can help you and your retirement savings avoid any surprise tax bills now or toward retirement.

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  1. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/401k-plans-deferrals-and-matching-when-compensation-exceeds-the-annual-limit#:~:text=The%20annual%20limits%20are%3A,401(a)(17))
  2. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/amount-of-roth-ira-contributions-that-you-can-make-for-2021
  3. https://www.irs.gov/publications/p590a

This content is developed from sources believed to be providing accurate information. It may not be used for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. Please consult legal or tax professionals for specific information regarding your individual situation. The opinions expressed and material provided are for general information, and should not be considered a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security.