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I retired at 50, went back to work at 53, and then a medical issue left me jobless: ‘There’s no such thing as a safe amount of money’

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I had always said I was going to retire when I was 50. I had worked and saved since I was 16. Retiring without Medicare and Social Security is a scary thing. I wound up retiring then going back to work. At 53, I took a part-time job with a decent salary for the hours but I was sooooo bored. And then life rang my bell. 

I had major medical problems. So major that when I was able to return to work they let me go because they didn’t think I could keep up with the workflow. They were probably right. Nobody else felt comfortable enough with my health issues to hire me. I applied for disability but was denied. I appealed and got my rejection to the appeal while I was in ICU. I appealed again and I was denied because they didn’t think anything changed from my original application.

I am assuming you can imagine what my savings is now. I took early retirement, with the penalty, because I needed income. $4,000 a month wouldn’t have put a dent in my prescriptions.

Everybody needs to know there’s no such thing as a safe amount of money set aside for retirement. Life happens and in the blink of an eye your whole life and everything you worked for can be gone. 

See: I’m 68, my husband is terminally ill, and his $3 million estate will go to his son. I want to spend the rest of my days traveling – will I have enough money?

Dear reader, 

I normally only feature letters with questions for this column, but your note was just so important for other readers that I had to respond — and let others see what you’ve shared. 

I’m so very sorry that you experienced this. Wanting to retire early isn’t inherently wrong — so many people wish to do it, especially after decades of working. But without the proper planning, it could lead to despair, especially if an emergency occurs.

“Retiring early is a dream for many people,” said Landon Tan, a certified financial planner. “But those years of not working diminish your chance of a successful retirement more than almost any other metric we toggle when making financial plans.” 

Retiring early means there are more years you need to be able to financially cover, and that requires money — a lot of it. When planning to retire early, those extra years need to be considered — at the forefront of retirement, but also in the back end if you live longer than anticipated. 

“Today’s retirees are expecting their accumulated assets to work for them for 10-20 years longer than before,” said Glenn Downing, a certified financial planner and founder of CameronDowning. “Centenarians are no longer uncommon. For that to happen successfully, there needs to be more assets — simple as that.” Anyone should prepare to live longer than expected so their money does not outlast them, which can feel daunting. 

Those missing years may also affect your Social Security benefits, which so many elderly Americans rely on for most of their retirement income. People retiring early should have a clear picture of what to expect from Social Security in the future, and how their plans may impact those expectations.  

Leaving the workforce also means possibly losing out on participating in a group health plan, and I think we can say with certainty the pandemic has shown just how crucial health insurance can be in dire times. 

You’re absolutely right: Retiring before Medicare is scary. Healthcare is expensive even without an emergency. Not everyone considers this expense when they’re dreaming about calling it quits in their 50s, but if they don’t have proper insurance lined up when they retire they could be blowing through their retirement budget quickly — or putting themselves in a very dangerous situation. Those years can feel long when Medicare eligibility only begins at age 65 for most Americans. And it also doesn’t take into consideration long-term care, which is an entirely other expense. Think nursing homes, home health aides and necessary medical equipment for daily activities.  

Don’t miss: Retiring early this year? Look through Affordable Care Act plans now before the deadline Saturday

Knowing how much is enough to have saved for retirement is very difficult. There is no such thing as one “safe” number before you retire, but there are a few guidelines one can follow to find security in old age. 

Part of that equation comes down to personal circumstance: how much you typically spent in your pre-retirement life, how much you anticipate spending in retirement, various financial factors like taxes and cost of housing and utilities, and so on. And as you have experienced — and considerately reminding others — major unexpected emergencies can absolutely derail any sort of financial security. 

Another factor is what is available to you in your older years. I’ll get to that in a moment in hopes it may help you or others in similar situations. 

Retirees tend to focus on short-term changes, which can cause them to be unprepared for what the future holds, a recent survey found. Many retirees just deal with these emergencies as they come, according to research from the Society of Actuaries. The organization found more than seven in 10 retirees have thought about how their lives will change in the following decades, but only 27% feel financially prepared for it. 

More than half of the retirees in the survey said they could not afford more than $25,000 for an unexpected emergency without jeopardizing their retirement security. More than half of Black respondents and Latino respondents said they couldn’t afford to spend $10,000 for a financial shock. 

“The world can change around you really quickly, and you need to be prepared for the change and to deal with change,” said Anna Rappaport, a member of the Society of Actuaries Research Institute’s Aging and Retirement Program. Americans didn’t often plan for the shocks life could bring before the pandemic, and that hasn’t necessarily changed since, she said.  “The shocks were there before and the landscape just changed a little.” 

Check out MarketWatch’s column “Retirement Hacks” for actionable pieces of advice for your own retirement savings journey 

But you’re not alone. Many people have fallen into hard times before and during retirement, pandemic or no pandemic. You may already be exhausting all avenues, but this one retiree shared the steps he took when he lost his job at 58. He searched for another job for 18 months before taking one with a 40% pay cut, and had to live a lot leaner until he officially retired at age 64. That lifestyle included taking in a roommate, buying some household items at the dollar store and extreme meal planning. Here’s what he says about his retirement now

If your medical condition allows, could you take on some part-time work, or find some ways to make money while working from home? Or could you possibly downsize where you live or take in a roommate? 

I know you didn’t ask for any suggestions and I’m sure you’re already doing as much as you can to live comfortably, but there are plenty of resources you might want to consider if you haven’t already. 

Have you explored any government benefits, such as assistance in costs for housing, heating or groceries? There are many federal and state programs available for seniors with needs for financial assistance — not just Supplemental Security Insurance and Medicaid, though of course those are the most prominently known. 

AARP created a list of resources, broken up by state, and has its own services, such as helping people get back to work in their 50s and beyond. GoFundMe also has a list for financial assistance for older Americans. It includes options for housing, food, medicine and getting back into the workforce. States, and sometimes even individual cities, have departments and offices dedicated to aging issues, which you may want to try calling as well. There is help out there, even if it may not feel easy to find.  

I wish you the best. 

Readers: Do you have suggestions for this reader? Add them in the comments below.

Have a question about your own retirement savings? Email us at HelpMeRetire@marketwatch.com

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American Weed Stocks Are Cheap. They’re About to Get a Sales Bump.

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However bad the year has been for most stocks, it has been especially harsh for state-licensed cannabis sellers.

In just the past month, the


AdvisorShares Pure US Cannabis


exchange-traded fund (ticker: MSOS), which tracks America’s multistate operators—or MSOs—fell 25%, while the


S&P 500


dropped 7%.

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How Do Mega Backdoor Roths Work?

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A mega backdoor Roth is a unique 401(k) rollover strategy that’s designed for people whose incomes would ordinarily keep them from saving in a Roth Individual Retirement Account. The advantage of using a Roth IRA to save for retirement is being able to make tax-free qualified withdrawals. But not everyone can contribute to these accounts; higher-income earners are excluded. That’s where the mega backdoor Roth comes into play. If you have a 401(k) you’d like to roll over, you could use this strategy to enjoy the tax benefits of a Roth IRA without having income be an obstacle.

Make sure you’re taking advantage of every opportunity to maximize your retirement assets by working with a financial advisor.

Roth Account Basics

Before diving into the specifics of a mega backdoor Roth, there are a few things to know about Roth accounts, including Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.

First, these accounts are both funded with after-tax dollars. That means when you make qualified withdrawals later, you won’t pay income tax on the money since you already paid it upfront. This is the key characteristic of Roth accounts and what makes them so appealing to investors who anticipate being in a higher tax bracket at retirement.

Next, your ability to contribute to a Roth 401(k) is not restricted by your income. But it is for a Roth IRA. For the 2021 tax year, you must be within these modified adjusted gross income limits to make a full Roth IRA contribution:

  • Single filers: MAGI of $125,000 or less

  • Married filing jointly: MAGI of $198,000 or less

  • Head of household: MAGI of $125,000 or less

You can make partial contributions above those income limits. But your ability to contribute phases out completely once your MAGI hits $140,000 (if you file single or head of household) or $208,000 if you’re married and file a joint return. For 2021, the full contribution allowed is $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up contribution for savers aged 50 and older.

Finally, Roth 401(k) accounts are subject to required minimum distribution rules just like traditional 401(k) accounts. This rule requires you to begin taking money from your 401(k) starting at age 72. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, is not subject to RMD rules.

What Is a Backdoor Roth?

A backdoor Roth offers a work-around for people whose incomes are above the limits set by the IRS. When you execute a backdoor Roth, you roll money over from a traditional IRA to a Roth account. This way, you won’t have to pay taxes on your retirement savings in the Roth IRA when it’s time to make withdrawals. And you’re not subject to required minimum distribution rules either.

But there is a catch. You have to pay income tax on the money you roll over to a Roth account. So while you could save money on taxes in retirement, you’re not escaping the tax liability of a traditional IRA altogether.

How a Mega Backdoor Roth Works

A mega backdoor Roth is a backdoor Roth that’s designed specifically for people who have a 401(k) plan at work. This type of backdoor Roth allows you to contribute up to $38,500 to a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k) in 2021. This is in addition to the regular annual contribution limits the IRS allows for these types of accounts. To execute a mega backdoor Roth, two conditions have to be met. Your 401(k) plan needs to allow the following:

You can ask your plan administrator whether your 401(k) meets these criteria. And if your plan doesn’t allow for in-service withdrawals or distributions, you could still attempt a mega backdoor Roth if you plan to leave your job in the near future.

If your plan meets the criteria, then you can take the next steps to execute a mega backdoor Roth. This is typically a two-step process that involves maxing out after-tax 401(k) contributions, then withdrawing the after-tax portion of your account to a Roth IRA.

Again, whether you can follow through on the second step depends on whether your plan allows in-service withdrawals. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to wait until you separate from your employer to roll over any after-tax money in your 401(k) into a Roth IRA.

You also need to watch out for the pro rata rule. This IRS rule says you can’t only withdraw pre- or post-tax contributions from a traditional 401(k). So if you’re completing a mega backdoor Roth, you couldn’t just withdraw post-tax contributions if your account holds both pre- and post-tax funds. In that case, you may have to roll over the entire balance to a Roth IRA.

Benefits of a Mega Backdoor Roth

There are three key benefits associated with executing a mega backdoor Roth. First, you can contribute significantly more to a Roth IRA upfront this way. For 2021, the contribution limit is $38,500 on top of the regular annual contribution limit and any catch-up contribution limits that may apply.

You’ll need to know the maximum amount you’re allowed to contribute to the after-tax portion of your 401(k). So for 2021, the IRS allows a maximum contribution of $58,000 or $64,500 if you’re 50 or older. You’d subtract your 401(k) contributions and anything your employer adds in matching contributions to figure out how much you could add to the after-tax portion.

Next, you can enjoy tax-free withdrawals in retirement. This is a benefit you may otherwise not being able to get if your income is too high to contribute to a Roth IRA. By reducing your tax liability in retirement, you can help your investment dollars go further. And you may have a larger legacy of wealth to pass on to future generations.

Finally, a mega backdoor Roth IRA would allow you to sidestep required minimum distribution rules. This means that you could retain control over when you choose to take distributions from a Roth IRA.

So who is a mega backdoor Roth right for? You may consider this move if you:

  • Have an eligible 401(k) plan at work

  • Have maxed out traditional 401(k) contributions

  • Are not eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA because of your income

  • Have additional money that you want to invest for retirement

  • Want to leverage the higher Roth IRA contribution limits allowed by a mega backdoor rollover

Talking to your financial advisor can help you decide if a mega backdoor Roth makes sense. And your 401(k) plan administrator should be able to tell you if it’s possible, based on your plan’s guidelines.

Mega Backdoor Roth Alternatives

If you can’t execute a mega backdoor Roth because your plan doesn’t allow it, there are other ways to increase your retirement savings. For example, you could try a regular backdoor Roth instead. This might be something to consider if you still want to enjoy the tax benefits of a Roth IRA but your plan doesn’t fit the criteria for a mega rollover. You could also elect to make Roth 401(k) contributions to your retirement plan at work. This way, you still get the benefit of contributing after-tax dollars and making tax-free withdrawals. You’d be subject to the regular contribution limits and you’d still have to take the required minimum distribution. But that may outweigh the value of tax savings in retirement.

Investing in a Health Savings Account (HSA) is another option. While these accounts are not specifically designed for retirement, they can yield multiple tax benefits. Contributions are tax-deductible and grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals are tax-free when used for eligible healthcare expenses. And at 65, you can take money out of an HSA for any reason without a tax penalty. You’ll just owe ordinary income tax on any withdrawals that are not used for healthcare expenses.

Finally, you could open a taxable brokerage account to invest. This doesn’t necessarily save you money on taxes since you’ll owe capital gains tax when you sell investments at a profit. But it could help you to diversify your investments and there are no limits on how much you can invest in a brokerage account annually.

Bottom Line

A mega backdoor Roth strategy could work well for higher-income earners who want to take advantage of Roth account benefits. There are certain rules that need to be followed to make it work, however, so you may want to talk to your plan administrator or a tax professional before going ahead. Keep in mind also that even if you can’t complete a mega backdoor Roth rollover, you still have other options for growing retirement savings.

Tips for Retirement Planning

  • If you’re saving for retirement in a 401(k) or IRA, pay attention to the fees you’re paying. For instance, check the expense ratios for each fund you’re invested in to understand how much you pay to own that fund on an annual basis. You can then compare that to the fund’s performance to determine whether the fees are justified. Also, consider any administrative fees you might be paying and how those affect your net returns.

  • Consider talking to your financial advisor about a mega backdoor Roth and whether it could be right for you. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. You can get your personalized recommendations in minutes just by answering a few simple questions. If you’re ready, get started now.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/designer491

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Alibaba Is Tumbling. Chinese Tech Stocks Have a New Headache.

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Chinese tech stocks were tumbling on Monday as two of the embattled sector’s leading players faced fresh fines from market regulators over disclosure rules.

China’s State Administration for Market Regulation announced Sunday a wave of penalties for improperly reporting past deals, in breach of competition law.


Alibaba


(ticker: BABA) and


Tencent


(0700.H.K.) were among the companies fined as a result.

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