Prioritizing investments

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Flag of the United States.svg.png This article contains details specific to United States (US) investors. It does not apply to non-US investors.

Investors are faced with a variety of choices on where to invest their money (e.g., a taxable account, a 401(k), or an IRA). Knowing which accounts to invest in first will maximize return with a minimum of taxes. Prioritizing investments guides investors on the appropriate order of placing their investments into these accounts.

Investors should take care that any investment priority decision is aligned with their Investment Policy Statement.

Funding priority

Here is a general account funding priority that often works well for many people[1][2][3] (not all points will apply to everyone). Refer to Figure 1.

Figure 1. Prioritizing Investments
Prioritizing investments.svg
  1. Establish an emergency fund to your satisfaction. If you have many other high financial priorities (like paying off high-interest debt), start with a smaller emergency fund, and grow it later over time, as those other priorities are satisfied.
  2. Contribute to an employer retirement plan (e.g. 401(k) or 403b) enough to get the full employer match (the match is like free money, your best possible investment).
  3. Pay off high-interest debt (a guaranteed high return, the next best thing to free money).
  4. Contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA) if a high deductible health plan is appropriate for your needs (you can think of HSA contributions as also getting a match, from the IRS).[note 1]
  5. Contribute the maximum to an IRA, traditional or Roth (or backdoor Roth technique), depending on eligibility[note 2] and personal circumstances. (See below for situations where you may prefer to swap steps 5 and 6.)
  6. Contribute the remainder of the maximum employee contribution to the work-based plan.
  7. If your plan supports it, employ the mega-backdoor Roth strategy.[note 3]
  8. Pay off medium-interest debt (eg. student loans, car loans, personal loans), especially if the interest is not tax-deductible.
  9. Invest inside a taxable account.
  10. Pay off low-interest debt (eg. most mortgages, some car loans).

It is important to realize that these steps are not cast in stone. The above list should be considered with some flexibility for an investor's needs and personal preferences.

Choosing between an employer retirement plan and an IRA

If the company plan offers good, low-cost funds, it may be preferable to contribute to the company plan before contributing to an IRA; see: Comparison between IRAs and employer plans.

Also, an investor's marginal tax rate may influence the decision: those subject to higher marginal tax rates should consider higher contributions to a tax-deferred plan (e.g. traditional 401(k) or IRA) rather than a post-tax plan (e.g. Roth 401(k) or IRA); see Traditional versus Roth for more guidance.

If you prefer traditional to Roth, and traditional contributions to the employer's plan are needed to reduce your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) for traditional IRA purposes enough to allow a full or partial IRA deduction (see IRA Deduction Limits), consider swapping steps 5 and 6.

Rationale for funding priority

Table 1 describes the rationale for investing in the order previously described.

Table 1. Rationale for Funding Priority
Step Funding Priority Approx. After-Tax Return
1 Start building an emergency fund N/A
Have enough cash on hand to cover unplanned expenses. While the exact amount depends on your risk tolerance, a common rule of thumb is to start with one month of expenses, and as you satisfy other financial priorities, grow it over time to around 3-12 months of expenses. (See: Emergency fund.)
2 Contribute to a work-based retirement plan (eg. 401(k) or 403(b)) enough to get the full employer match 50-100% immediately
Not getting an employer match is like letting your employer keep part of your salary.
3 Pay off high-interest debt 8-30%
Typically these include credit cards and other unsecured loans. Paying off a high-interest debt is a guaranteed high return on your investment, the next best thing to free money.
4 Contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA) if a high deductible health plan is right for your needs 8-10%

HSAs offer tax-free contributions, growth, and withdrawals when used for qualified medical expenses. You can view HSA contributions as being matched by the IRS.[4] If you are in a 25% tax bracket, it costs you $750 to put $1000 in your HSA, and once it is there, it won't be taxed at all as long as you spend it for medical care, so this is as good as $1000 in a Roth IRA.[4]

After age 65, the HSA can also be used for non-medical expenses, with such withdrawals taxed at your regular tax rate. So if you are unlucky and are too healthy after 65, the HSA is still as good as a pre-tax retirement account.[4] Unlike pre-tax retirement accounts, HSA contributions made through an employer are also payroll tax-deductible.

Use of an HSA requires participation in an IRS qualified high deductible health plan (HDHP) at work. Look at your particular health care needs to decide if you may be better off with a traditional health care plan or an HDHP plus HSA. If the latter, then using the HSA as an investment account can be advantageous.

5/6/7 Contribute to available retirement accounts (eg. IRA, 401(k), 403(b), 457(b)) without a match 8%
Retirement accounts offer either an immediate tax deduction and tax-deferred growth (traditional) or life-long tax-free growth (Roth), plus asset protection and estate planning benefits. These accounts have annual contribution limits which are lost if not used.

Investors may have to choose among IRA vs. employer plan and/or traditional vs. Roth accounts and should consult those articles for more details.

Deductible IRA contributions are subject to income limits, but the income limit for contributing to a Roth IRA may be circumvented by the Backdoor Roth process. Employer plans may also offer mega-backdoor Roth contributions, but these should be made only after normal contributions.

8 Pay off medium-interest debt 3-8%
Typically these include student loans, car loans, personal loans, and Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOCs). The choice to pay off debt or invest is based mostly on the expected after-tax rate of return. When the returns are similar, secondary factors sway the decision; see: Paying down loans versus investing.
9 Invest in a taxable account 0.5-7%
As you consider all these steps, keep in mind that your asset allocation (ratio of stocks to bonds), which sets your portfolio's level of acceptable risk, is the single most influential decision you can make on your portfolio's performance. Your chosen asset allocation (% stocks / % bonds) may direct you to skip some of these steps.
10 Pay off low-interest debt 1.5-3%
Typically these include mortgages and other secured debt. Paying off low-interest debt on good terms should be a lower priority than most other funding options, but a higher priority than investing in low-return investments with no tax advantages.

401(k) plans with high cost funds

Many company plans contain high-cost funds which make them unattractive. If you have such a plan, look for one or two index funds or a bond fund that can be used. If your company offers matching funds up to a certain contribution level, it's always wise to use the company plan. If there is no match, the power of tax-deferred compounding and automatic contributions still favors using the plan with limited contributions.

Also, if you leave your current employer you will most likely be able to rollover the assets in your poor-quality company plan to either a better company plan, or to an IRA.

See also

Notes

  1. If you are in a 25% tax bracket, it costs you $750 to put $1000 in your HSA, and once it is there, it won't be taxed at all as along as you spend it for medical care.[4] This means the deductible also gets discounted by your tax rate: this should be taken into account when comparing deductibles with non-HSA plans. Note that health plans with a Flexible Spending Arrangement (FSA) also offer tax deductions; however, the FSA is a use-it-or-lose-it plan, with balances normally zeroed out at the end of every year.
  2. Investors should verify eligibility before making traditional IRA contributions: in particular, check the tax-deduction limit. For Roth IRAs, the backdoor Roth is a technique for making contributions when your income exceeds the eligibility limit. It is complicated in nature and may not be for everyone. Read the Cautions section of the article before proceeding and ask in the forum if you are unsure.
  3. This technique is only available through select employer plans; it is complicated in nature and may not be for everyone. Read the Mega-backdoor Roth article to determine if your plan supports it, and ask in the forum if you are unsure.

References

  1. "Investment order". Mr. Money Mustache Forum. December 8, 2016.
  2. "What order should I fund my investing accounts in?". White Coat Investor. May 5, 2017.
  3. "401(k), Roth IRA, then Back at 401(k)". The Finance Buff. October 22, 2006.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Bogleheads® forum post: Prioritizing investments- HSA goes where?, grabiner. February 16, 2014

External links