401(k) or Roth IRA for catching up on retirement savings?

401(k) contributions amount to $280,000 for couple in their early 40s, who want to boost retirement savings. Is a 401(k) the right answer? That's question No. 2 in this reader mailbag.

By , Guest blogger

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    A rural mailbox in Pittsboro, N.C., is pictured in this 2006 file photo. In this edition of the reader mailbag, Trent answers questions about 401(k) savings and other money issues.
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What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Where to keep emergency funds?
2. Catching up on retirement savings
3. Negative items on credit report
4. Head over heels
5. Helping a child in trouble
6. Preparing for career switch
7. Renting in retirement
8. Disability and ethics
9. Student loan concerns
10. Swimming pools

I picked up a nasty case of conjunctivitis from one of my infant son’s friends. As I type this, my eyes itch terribly and one of them feels like there’s some grit in it.

Thankfully, I have an abundance of cold, wet washcloths. Every once in a while, I’ll go sit in a chair and hold them over my eyes for a while and this soothes the itching and grittiness – for a little while, anyway.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Q1: Where to keep emergency funds?
We have six months expenses as an emergency fund. “High yield” savings accounts are at about 1% these days. Money market accounts seem to be .05%. Do you have a recommendation for a good type of account for an emergency fund?
- Tracy

High yield savings accounts really are the place to keep emergency funds, because they’re the only place available to most people that have the factors needed to hold an emergency fund.

First, it must be liquid. You have to be able to pull your cash out at any time. This eliminates things like CDs and real estate.

Second, it must not put the balance at risk. Quite often, you need the money most when the markets are down. This eliminates things like stocks.

When you keep peeling things away like that, you’re eventually left with high-yield savings accounts and money market accounts. Unfortunately, the rates on them are poor right now, but that’s not the point. You just need a place that’s liquid and your balance is not at risk.

Tracy also had a second question worth discussing.

Q2: Catching up on retirement savings
Also, we are in our early 40s. I have almost 200,000 in 401ks, but my partner has about 80,000. We plan over the next five years to save most of her income to try to catch up. Do you have any other advice for us on how to get her retirement savings on track?
- Tracy

Maxing out your 401(k) contributions is one path, which it sounds like you’re following.

Another way to do it – one that I’d suggest doing, actually – is to open a Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax money (which means it comes out of your take-home pay), but if you just leave it there until retirement, you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you’ve gained in that account.

Having some of your money in a Roth IRA and some in a 401(k) puts you in great shape with regards to taxes now and taxes later. Plus, you have the power to control your own investments if you use a Roth IRA (I invest through Vanguard in a Target Retirement fund).

Q3: Negative items on credit report
I pulled my credit report and found that there was one potentially ‘negative’ area – it looks like a credit card with Chase Bank was opened in 10/2005, and was closed at credit grantor’s request. The last report was Mar 2006, and it looks like there was marked a 60 days past due, with a ‘high balance’ of $125. This seems strange to me, only because I was living in Japan from 2004-2007, and was not in the US at this time to open an account with Chase.

Additionally, there are no charges listed, and it doesn’t look like this was used.

I’m wondering how this could have been opened in my name – I did not receive any credit card offers at my address in Japan. Should I dispute this? Does it matter?

I’m trying to build credit – I have 3 credit cards, with no late payments and I pay off the balance each month. I have never taken out a loan, however, so my only way to build credit is through credit cards.

I took the FICO score estimator and got a range of 720-770, which seems good, but it bothers me that a credit card went past due in my name when I was out of the country.
- Rachel

That seems rather unusual. Given that the card seems to have been used ethically, my first suspicion is that someone in your family opened the card for some reason, perhaps because their own credit was in a bad situation at the time.

It’s also possible that there was an error with the Social Security number at some point.

If the account is closed, I wouldn’t worry about it too much, although it is strange.

Q4: Head over heels
My boyfriend lives in Boston. I live in Los Angeles. We met on New Years weekend and since then one of us has flown to see the other almost every single weekend. This is getting really expensive, but a day doesn’t go by when I don’t really really want to see him. What should I do?
- Glenda

Do you have an easy opportunity to professionally transfer to Boston? Does he have an opportunity to professionally transfer to Los Angeles?

If either one of you has this option available, it’s worth considering. You may also want to consider job searching in Boston (and he can look for lobs in Los Angeles).

In short, if you’re single and unencumbered, this is the kind of thing that you should try to make work. This is one of those things that, if you don’t run with it, you’ll find yourself regretting it for the rest of your life. Don’t let it pass.

Q5: Helping a child in trouble
We have an employed 29 year old son who is beyond a spendthrift. He puts himself in situations that put us in jeopardy financially. I am looking for the pyscology articles of why he does what he does. Any suggestions. And yes he has had a substance abuse problem. Supposedly he is in rehab.
- Lionel

You don’t know if he’s in rehab or not, yet he has the ability to make financial moves that put you in jeopardy?

For starters, I would not allow him any access to any of your assets. If he has a credit card of yours, cancel it. If he has the ability to draw on your funds, deny him that ability.

For another, it sounds like he has an addictive personality, which can be incredibly financially dangerous. People with deeply addicitve personalities (of which I know a few) will spend every dime they have and every dime given to them by anyone and any dime that they have access to in order to chase their addictions.

The only solution to this is professional help, and a key part of that is their own desire to want that type of help. Until then, I would not allow him access to anything that could harm your financial position.

Q6: Preparing for career switch

After six years in the workforce, I will be going to law school in August and leaving behind a low-paying career. I have about $10,000 left in consolidated student loans, which I have been dutifully repaying since I graduated from college.

I have been preparing an expense budget for the next phase of my life and discovered that I will actually have more monthly income from my housing budget than I take home now. The end result is that I think I may be able to continue making my $117 a month student loan payment from my undergraduate studies without much pain. If I don’t, I can add that money to my budget for savings/IRA. What do you think I should do?
- Tammy

It depends on the interest rates of the loan.

From my perspective, continuing to make that $117 a month payment instead of putting the loan in forbearance is essentially a $117 monthly investment that returns the interest rate of your loan. If that interest rate is very high at all, it’s a very good investment to continue, especially if you can afford it.

Of course, I am assuming that you have at least some emergency fund already in place and don’t have any history of accumulating debt, but both of these seem to be true based on your comments.

Q7: Renting in retirement

I have a friend who plans on renting for the rest of her life as she doesn’t like the idea of being tied to one area (as the [slim] chance to move could occur if she lost her job) or having to do maintenance on a property.

Recently her parents have become concerned that she will still have to pay rent after retirement. They have offered to give her a sum of money to assist with the down payment. This is making her consider purchasing a home since “the market is great for buyers” and her mom and dad are giving her free money.

Since we both live in the same high priced real estate area, we have used the ‘NY Times Rent vs Buy calculator’ to determine that she can only afford a $160k house. Looking at what’s available in the area; this leaves her with 1 and 2 bedroom condos, which are suitable for her.

I did a little Google-ing about renting during retirement and came across nothing but retirees that sell their homes to move into an apartment. In this scenario, it seems one would be putting money into a home for ~30 years and then be able to sell to break even or make a profit. After selling the home, the cash on hand could be seen as liquidating a retirement account that money was added to over time but with much greater risk. Whereas with a rented property, money would be put into someone else’s account, never to be returned.

Why can I not figure out how renting is better than buying in this scenario? Is the free money really worth it?
- Brian

Renting versus buying isn’t the cut-and-dried case that many people seem to believe that it is. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. It heavily depends on the situation of the person involved.

In many locations, the cost to rent per month is substantially lower than the monthly mortgage payment, the utilities, and the maintenance costs. In many areas, the gap is substantial. In retirement, cash flow is often paramount, and if you’re spending less per month by renting rather than buying, it makes sense. This is particularly true if you’re diligent about saving at least some of that difference.

However, in her situation, with relatively low-cost condos available and a big cash boost in her back pocket, the balance shifts strongly toward buying.

Q8: Disability and ethics
The world is a mean-spirited place sometimes. I have gotten many comments saying that I do not deserve disability from taxpayer money and that I knew what I was getting into when getting legally married, so I should stop complaining and suck up the dramatic decrease in our finances. I obviously don’t agree! I think government policy is VERY wrong and people need to know about and understand what the government is doing to us.

During the boom years, I was very much looked down upon for not being able to rake in cash through working. Now that more people are hurting financially, I am despised as a leech on society. If I got a vote…I’d vote to NOT be disabled…so would Rhett. I’d love it if some money person like you would write about what it’s like to live on very little. How would a money expert spend their money if they were me? What would they eat? How would they cope with it all? What are our best options?
- Wendy

My feeling is that regardless of how you feel about a particular type of financial aid, if it’s already funded and available to you, you’re throwing money away by not taking it. That doesn’t mean you can’t be politically opposed to it, nor does it mean you’re politically in favor of it. You’re simply talking about the immediate financial position you’re in and how to maximize that position.

If I were you, I’d take advantage of all aid that I was eligible for, but I’d also try to work in whatever way I could.

Most importantly, don’t be ashamed of who you are and stop worrying so much about what other people say. The person you have to wake up with in the morning and go to bed with at night is you, not all the naysayers and critics. If you’re happy with the choices you’re making in your situation, then that’s enough.

Q9: Student loan concerns
In 2011, I decided that instead of doing a year-long resolution, I would instead do a smaller resolution for each month. I wanted to slowly build myself up into a better person all around, instead of trying to jump into a huge goal that would fail within a few days. Plus, I continue what I learned from one month into the next month, slowly adding up skills and benefits. For January my goal was to get my finances under control. I joined Mint.com, I started reading finance blogs (yours included!), and being more aware of how I spent my money. While it has been difficult, I have learned a lot, and my mindset about money has really changed.

However, one thing continues to plague me, and I have yet to figure out a good answer. I, like many others in my age bracket, have a fair amount of student loans. Thankfully I have no student loans from undergrad, these are strictly loans from my mental health counseling masters program. I have consolidated all my loans through the federal government into one big loan. Currently I owe $46,942.39. My monthly minimum payment is $118, but I usually try to pay $130. I am currently paying on the income contingent plan, as I needed to have the lowest monthly minimum payment to get by. My interest rate is 7.350%, and I have $1,056.19 lurking in outstanding interest that has yet to be added to the principal balance. Here is my problem: when I have outstanding interest, even if I pay over my monthly minimum, none of my payment goes towards the principal. So basically I am just throwing money at the interest, which feels like plugging holes one at a time in a sinking ship. However, I am living in Chicago and I make roughly $28,000, so I am not really able to pay much more than the $130 a month. However, I wonder if I should even bother paying over – since I am a mental health counselor, I believe I am eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/PSF.jsp). After 120 payments, my loan will be forgiven, as long as I continue to work in my field (which I am obviously planning on doing).

So, do I bother to really try and tackle this debt? Or do I just keep making minimum payments for 10 years and let it all get paid off at that point? How do I save the most money doing this?
- Kelly

Given your income level and the fact that you’re probably stuck making those minimum payments for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason not to try to take advantage of the loan forgiveness program.

I would get enrolled in the program as soon as possible, then focus on making those minimum payments like clockwork.

Yes, there’s a risk that you won’t be in this field in ten years. However, your current income is pretty much limiting you to minimum payments or something close to it, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that risk.

Q10: Swimming pools
What do you think of swimming pools? Do you think it’s worth it? Can you tell me some pros and cons? Interested in buying, however not sure it’s the right thing to do…
- Paul

With a major purchase like a swimming pool, I would encourage you not to get one unless it’s something you’re already doing. If you’re the type of person who goes to a public swimming pool very regularly to swim, then you’ll probably get value out of your own pool.

However, I’ve seen many people sink money into a pool that they think they might use, only to find that they rarely use it and are unhappy with the upkeep costs and the money they’ve sunk into it. My in-laws have a swimming pool that they do use during the summer a little, but I suspect if they had the chance to re-do things, they probably would not have purchased the pool.

Never sink a bunch of money into something you “might” use. If it’s not something you’re actively engaged with, I’d be very careful about laying out the cash.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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