If your income is too high, you can’t contribute directly to a Roth individual retirement account, but you can get one in a backdoor way. Step 1: Open a traditional IRA (in your case, it’s nondeductible). Step 2: Convert it to a Roth IRA. Is it worth it? “It’s a no-brainer if you have the cash to do it,” says Kevin Huston, an enrolled agent in Asheville, N.C. who has clients both young and old doing it to shore up their retirement savings. “It especially makes sense for people who are younger because they have all these years of tax-free growth,” he says.
Basically, you get an extra $5,000 (or $6,000 if you’re 50 or older) each year that grows in the Roth IRA income-tax free. That’s $10,000 (or $12,000) a year for a married couple. Repeat each year, and you can amass a nice retirement kitty. The audience for backdoor Roths is a niche, appealing to those earning too much to contribute to Roths directly but not so much that the extra tax savings doesn’t seem worth the effort. Vanguard says that “backdoor Roth” contributions represented about 2 percent of traditional IRA contributions in 2010. That’s the year that income restrictions were lifted, and anyone—regardless of income—could convert a traditional IRA to a Roth, leading to a boomlet of Roth conversions.
Why go through the hoops of getting money into a Roth IRA? They are an amazing deal, especially for folks looking long-term and expecting higher tax rates in the future. With a Roth IRA you don’t ever have to take money out, and when you do start taking money out, it’s all income-tax-free, including the earnings. By contrast, with a traditional IRA, earnings grow tax-deferred, you have to start taking required mandatory distributions the year after you turn 70.5, and distributions count as income. A Roth can help keep your tax bite down in retirement. (Ideally you want a mix of taxable, tax-deferred and tax-free accounts to draw from in retirement.)
A Roth IRA also has other benefits. Medicare premiums are based on income, so by keeping your income down, you’ll pay a lower premium. And if you leave a Roth account to a child, he or she will have to take money out each year, but there will be no income tax hit. (Inheriting a $100,000 Roth IRA is a whole lot better than inheriting a $100,000 traditional IRA; the higher your beneficiary’s tax bracket, the bigger the savings).
Here’s how the strategy is helping a couple in their 40s build their nest egg. The wife’s in marketing with a pharmaceutical company, and the husband is a stay-at-home dad. First, she’s maxing out on her company pre-tax 401(k) plan contributions—putting away the full $17,000 for 2012—her employer doesn’t offer a Roth 401(k) option. The couple told their tax advisor Huston they want to save more, but they can’t contribute to Roth IRAs directly because her income is nearly $200,000 a year. (Once your modified adjusted gross income is $183,000 for a couple filing jointly or $125,000 for singles, no Roth IRA contributions are allowed).