Is Postponing Tax Really the Best Idea?

Let’s say you wanted to borrow $10,000. What questions would you ask and want to know the answers to before you borrowed the money? I can think of at least two key questions, and probably more.

  1. What is the interest rate? How much interest do you have to pay?
  2. What is the payment?

If the lender responded by saying we have enough money right now and don’t need any payments from you at this time, but there will come a time when we will need the money and when we know how much we will need we will be able to determine how much interest we have to charge to get the amount we need, would you cash that check? Absolutely not! Yet, this is exactly what we are doing with the government in qualified plans.

Let me give you another analogy: If you were a farmer, would you rather save tax on the purchase of your seed in the springtime, then pay tax on the sale of your harvest in the fall, or would you rather pay tax on the price of the seed, but sell your harvest without any tax on your gains? I would prefer to purchase the seed with after-tax dollars and later sell and enjoy my harvest, assuming my harvest represented a gain on a tax-free basis.


Yet we as Americans do exactly the opposite. We contribute thousands of dollars to traditional qualified retirement plans to give ourselves a tax break on the seed money. We enjoy tax-deferred growth, but then, during the harvest years of our lives, we’re subject to the payment of income tax on the sale of our harvest. The government is not saying that you do not owe the tax. They are saying you can pay the tax later, but they can’t tell you at what rate or what the payment will be.

At What Rate? What is the Payment?

These are both critically important questions. Without knowing the future tax rates, it is impossible for anyone to tell you how much money you will “save” by making a contribution today to a qualified plan. In fact, there is only one way that a qualified plan can “save” you taxes and that is if you take money out of the plan when you are in a lower tax bracket than you were in when you put the money in the plan. But you cannot know that today. However, if you retire in a higher tax bracket, the qualified plan will cost you money because you pay more taxes in the higher tax bracket.

Key Insight: At the time of withdrawal the IRS is not going to ask you what tax bracket you were in at the time of your contribution. Their only concern is what tax bracket you are in at the time of withdrawal.

Many Americans focus on the tax bracket they are in today. Not the tax bracket they will be in when they take the money out. What tax bracket will you be in? This question should be getting more attention than it is getting from most. To the surprise of many Americans, we are in the lowest tax rate environment, historically, that we’ve been in since the 1980s. Since the income tax was instituted in 1913, the only times tax rates have been lower were from 1913 – 1916, from 1924 – 1931, and from 1988 – 1993.

US Federal Marginal Tax Rates - 1913-2013

We just ended the 10th year of the 35% tax rate by raising the top tax rate to 39.6% on incomes over $450,000. During that time we had a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a Libyan conflict, and Congress didn’t raise taxes. Congress couldn’t raise taxes because of the housing and mortgage crisis and the stock market crash. So what did we do? We borrowed over $10 trillion to pay for it all. We put it on a credit card. We are also facing a Medicare and Social Security crisis that is only going to be strained further as 80 to 85 million Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) retire at a rate of 10,000 per day over the next 20 years.

Taking these events into consideration, is postponing tax really the best idea?

If you’re interested in learning more about strategies to reduce or eliminate the tax burden of qualified plans download our FREE report entitled “Is Your IRA/401(k) a Ticking Time Bomb?” We also encourage you to contact us to schedule a time to talk about your specific circumstances.

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