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Which Dollars to Spend First Every Year in Retirement

There’s a common refrain in retirement planning that you want to spend from tax-deferred accounts when your marginal tax rate is low (as is often the case in years after you retire but before Social Security and RMDs kick in). It’s true that it’s better to spend from tax-deferred accounts than from Roth accounts when your tax rate is low. But there are other dollars that you want to spend first every year.

Let’s consider an example. Imagine that, in a given month, you’re trying to decide from which account to draw your next $1,000 of spending. And let’s also imagine that, so far this year, your taxable income has not yet fully offset your standard deduction and credits for the year. In other words, you currently have a marginal tax rate of 0%.

The obvious approach — let’s call it Option A — is to take the $1,000 out of your traditional IRA. Option A sounds pretty good, because this would be a tax-deferred distribution that’s completely tax-free. That sounds like as a good a time as any to spend from a traditional IRA, right?

Probably not. Because there’s likely an Option B: spend $1,000 from your regular taxable checking account, and do a $1,000 Roth conversion.

In each case:

  • You have spent $1,000,
  • You have removed $1,000 from your traditional IRA, and
  • You have incurred no tax bill.

But with Option A the remaining $1,000 is in your taxable checking account, whereas with Option B the remaining $1,000 is now in a Roth IRA. In almost every case, you’d rather have $1,000 in a Roth IRA than in a taxable account, because further earnings in the Roth will generally be tax-free.

The point here is that, if you have taxable-account assets that you can spend without generating any tax cost, it makes sense to spend those assets before spending retirement account assets. And if, when following such a plan, you have low-tax-rate space in a given year that you wouldn’t otherwise be using up, you can fill that space with Roth conversions.

In other words, every year before spending any dollars from retirement accounts (other than RMDs), you first want to spend from:

  • Earned income (i.e., wages, self-employment income),
  • Social Security income,
  • Pension/annuity income,
  • Interest and dividends from holdings in taxable accounts (note that this includes taxable and tax-exempt interest, as well as qualified and nonqualified dividends),
  • RMDs from tax-deferred accounts, and
  • Assets in taxable accounts that have basis at least equal to the current market value.

Again, the key thing that everything on that list has in common is that there’s no further tax-cost associated with spending these dollars. You have likely had to pay taxes on these dollars, but you don’t have to pay any more tax a result of spending these dollars.

Also, to be clear, this is not a discussion of how much to spend each year. For some people, it does not make sense to spend all of those dollars every year (so some dollars will get reinvested). And for other people, the intended total level of spending exceeds the categories above, so it then becomes a question of whether to spend from tax-deferred accounts, spend from Roth accounts, or liquidate taxable assets for which there would be a tax cost.

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