Hack your Roth for tax-free short-term savings (Re-thinking the Roth IRA – Part 2)

You may remember my admonitions that ‘retirement savings are for retirement!’, but today I’m going to show you how to use your Roth as a sort of savings ‘hybrid’: you can use the Roth as short-term savings vehicle AND get the benefits of tax-free interest for retirement.  Before we get any further into this, make sure you understand how the Roth IRA works.

You may have decided that investing in a Roth IRA isn’t the best move for your retirement (opting instead for a 401k perhaps.)  Contributing to a Roth may still be a smart move, even if you want to use the money sooner rather than at retirement.  (Anyone with earned income whose modified adjusted gross income is less than $105,000 can contribute to a Roth IRA, regardless of age or participation in other retirement plans, like a 401k.)  Before we delve into the details, I want to let you know that this is an ADVANCED (though not hard) technique.   Make sure you understand all the details before deciding to use it.  (Post a comment with any questions you have.)

Recall that a Roth IRA lets you contribute after-tax dollars to a variety of investments including index funds, individual stocks and bonds.  The benefit over a ‘normal’ taxable account is that the money then grows tax-deferred, meaning you don’t pay interest on reinvested dividends or interest.  Plus, if you take out the gains AFTER age 59 1/2, you don’t pay any taxes on those either!  The catch is that if you DO take out any gains before turning 59 1/2, you generally must pay a 10% penalty on top of regular income taxes.  BUT, because you’re contributing after-tax money already, you can pull out amounts up to the value of your contributions with NO penalties/taxes at any time you want!

For example, say you contributed $2,000 to a Roth IRA in 2007, then another $4,000 in 2008.  You can take out up to $6,000 with no penalties/taxes.  IF however, your account increased to $7000 in value due to appreciation, you can still only take out up to the $6,000.  The extra $1000 gain must remain in the account until you’re 59 1/2 to avoid penalties (with a few exceptions detailed here.)

Since your money accumulates tax-free, you earn a higher after-tax rate of return in a Roth than in a taxable account.  If you’re earning say, 6% interest on $5000 and you’re in the 25% tax bracket, your after-tax return is only 4.5%  ($225 per year) in a taxable account.  If you had that money in a Roth IRA instead, you’d earn the full 6% ($300), which equals 33% more money per year.  Over time, small differences in interest rates make a huge impact on your wealth due compounding interest as shown by the below graph.*

Roth IRA vs taxable account - real growth difference

After 5 years, your Roth IRA will have $400 (7.5%) more in it, in 10 years, about $900 (15%) more.  When we combine the two facts above, being able to take out contributions at any time plus tax-free growth, we get a great way to use the Roth IRA as BOTH a short-term savings vehicle AND a way to earn higher returns on that money.

First, open a Roth IRA account that is completely SEPARATE from any Roth IRA account you might have designated for retirement.  This is because you do NOT want you to think of any Roth money you set aside for short-term savings as retirement money.  This makes it easier to keep track of your contributions that you plan to take out.  I have two Roth IRA accounts at Vanguard, one for retirement (invested 100% in stock index funds) and one for short-term savings, like emergencies, invested 100% in a diversified bond index fund.  Here’s how it looks:

Roth IRA - 1 is for retirement (hands off!) and Roth IRA - 2 is for short-term savings

Next, use an Excel spreadsheet, like the one I developed here, to track your Roth IRA contributions.  Your spreadsheet should have at least two columns: one that shows the amount of money you either contributed or took out of ANY of your Roth IRA accounts and one that shows the date of the transaction.  To find past contributions, the financial institution where you have your Roth IRA should keep records of these transactions for a few years (or check all Form 5498’s that you might have received from your financial institution(s) over the years.)  Make sure you never take out more than you’ve contributed, or you’ll likely face taxes or penalties.

Next, fund your separate, non-retirement Roth IRA with money that you need in the short (or long) term.  If you’re saving for the short-term, like an emergency fund, choose a relatively safe investment like a bond or money market fund.  The beauty of using a Roth for an emergency fund is that you get the benefits of easily-accessible principle (your contributions) with the added bonus of tax-free growth that can be used for retirement.**

This is great because your emergency funds might be invested for a really long time, if you’re lucky enough to avoid costly emergencies.  In light of this, you’d like to maximize your gains by avoiding taxes while the money sits there.  You can use a similar strategy when saving for a down payment on your first home.  If (and ONLY if) you’ve had a Roth account open for at least 5 years, you can use up to $10,000 of Roth IRA gains towards a first-time home purchase tax- and penalty-free.  So in this special case, you can even use the earnings (plus all the contributions) from your Roth IRA.

(Remember, you must have opened a Roth IRA account and deposited money into it at least 5 years ago to use this exception.  There is a similar exception for qualified education expenses, except the earnings withdrawals are NOT tax-free, only 10% penalty-free.  However, there are better ways to save for education.)

As a final note, remember that the IRS doesn’t care which IRA accounts you deposit to or take money out of, all that matters is your total contributions & distributions from all your Roth IRA accounts combined.  (Even so, I strongly recommend keeping Roth accounts you intend to use for short-term events separate from retirement-designated Roths.)

Start using this strategy today by opening a Roth IRA online at a reputable mutual fund house like Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price.  With minimum initial deposits as low as $50 for T. Rowe Price, there’s no excuse for not starting a Roth.

* The graph is inflation-adjusted because we always want to talk about ‘real dollars’, aka purchasing power.  Another way of saying this is that we don’t really care about how many dollars we have, but how much stuff we can buy with them.  If we didn’t factor in inflation, we would actually understate how valuable the tax-savings from a Roth are.

** If you really want to optimize your investment performance, you could periodically (perhaps annually) move the gains on your non-retirement Roth into a Roth you’ve designated for retirement.  You would do this in order to move these gains (which shouldn’t be taken out until retirement) into a more volatile long-term investment, like a stock index fund, rather than having them sit in a stable, but lower expected return, short-term investment.


5 Responses to “Hack your Roth for tax-free short-term savings (Re-thinking the Roth IRA – Part 2)”

  1. Re-thinking the Roth IRA – Why the Roth IRA may NOT be the best retirement vehicle for you « Words of Ward: Ward's Guide to Personal Finance and Investing Says:

    […] me of follow-up comments via email. « Hack your Roth for tax-free short-term savings (Re-thinking the Roth IRA – Part 2) University of Washington’s Foster School of Business’s “State of the […]

  2. Top 5 places to put your money TODAY « Words of Ward: Ward's Guide to Personal Finance and Investing Says:

    […] this for an advanced way to juice your emergency fund interest rate while keeping your principal safe […]

  3. Greg U. Says:

    Ward you could have helped out your retirement by figuring out the Poincare conjecture!

    Greg Uratsu

  4. Houston hotel Says:

    fantastic post, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite
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  5. Paul Davidson Says:

    Great article. Thanks for the info, you made it easy to understand. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a Form 5498, I found a blank form here http://goo.gl/3gUOsQ. This site PDFfiller also has some tutorials how to fill it out and a few related tax forms that you might find useful.

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