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I'm at the point in my financial life we're I'm ready to start investing for retirement in earnest, and I'm planning to invest 15% of my income into retirement accounts, but I hear a lot of stories about people who get in trouble, and can't access their money without taking big penalties. How do I balance the risk of having so much of my wealth tied up and put out of reach?

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Congratulations on deciding to save for retirement. Since you cite Dave Ramsey as the source of your 15% number, what does he have to say about where to invest the money?

If you want to have instantaneous penalty-free access to your retirement money, all you need to do is set up one or more ordinary accounts that you think of as your retirement money. Just be careful not to put the money into CDs since Federal law requires a penalty of three months interest if you cash in the CD before its maturity date (penalty!) or put the money into those pesky mutual funds that charge a redemption fee (penalty!) if you take the money out within x months of investing it where x can be anywhere from 3 to 24 or more.

In Federal tax law (and in most state tax laws as well) a retirement account has special privileges accorded to it in that the interest, dividends, capital gains, etc earned on the money in your retirement account are not taxed in the year earned (as they would be in a non-retirement account), but the tax is either deferred till you withdraw money from the account (Traditional IRAs, 401ks etc) or is waived completely (Roth IRAs, Roth 401ks etc). In return for this special treatment, penalties are imposed (in addition to tax) if you withdraw money from your retirement account before age 59.5 which presumably is on the distant horizon for you. (There are some exceptions (including first-time home buying and extraordinary medical expenses) to this rule that I won't bother going into). But

You are not required to invest your retirement money into such a specially privileged retirement account. It is perfectly legal to keep your retirement money in an ordinary savings account if you wish, and pay taxes on the interest each year. You can invest your retirement money into municipal bonds whose interest is free of Federal tax (and usually free of state tax as well if the municipality is located in your state of residence) if you like. You can keep your retirement money in a sock under your mattress if you like, or buy a collectible item (e.g. a painting) with it (this is not permitted in an IRA), etc.

In short, if you are concerned about the penalties imposed by retirement accounts on early withdrawals, forgo the benefits of these accounts and put your retirement money elsewhere where there is no penalty for instant access. If you use a money management program such as Mint or Quicken, all you need to do is name one or more accounts or a portfolio as MyRetirementMoney and voila, it is done. But those accounts/portfolios don't have to be retirement accounts in the sense of tax law; they can be anything at all.

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    You quote something about municipal bonds. Municipal bonds are tax-free, which is indeed nice, but for some of your money it may make more sense to invest in assets that will earn better returns and just pay the taxes. Municipal bonds carry non-zero risk, including interest rate risk and the risk that your municipality will go bankrupt trying to pay off decades' worth of underfunded pension obligations (which may also coincide with a property tax hike for a double-whammy). A full discussion of the appropriateness of this investment is outside the scope of this question, however :)
    – user296
    May 3 '12 at 19:53
  • @fennec I didn't bother discussing the risks in municipal bonds or the smaller returns because the OP seemed all het up more about having his "wealth out of reach" than anything else. May 3 '12 at 20:25
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A couple of things you can do to structure your accounts include:

  • having an independent emergency fund (around $20k or six months' expenses) in savings accounts and other highly liquid instruments, so you don't need to dip into the retirement funds to begin with
  • putting some portion of the money in a Roth IRA, which will permit penalty-free pre-retirement withdrawals not in excess of the principal invested
    • having at least some of those assets (the ones you'd access first in an emergency) in low-risk instruments like short-term high-credit-quality bond funds (which earn less return but are less likely to crash in value during a financial crisis or inflation event).
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I am going through this right now. We recently moved and learned the lesson of needing a good bit of wealth in easily accessible accounts. In our case for a down payment on a new house. So we have decided to increase our emergency fund to $50,000.00 minimum. Then throwing the rest in retirement accounts seems like a safe bet.

So my rule of thumb is think of how much a 20% down payment would be on a new house if you needed to move. That way you can avoid pmi while also avoiding penalties for withdrawing from your retirement accounts.

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  • Just bought a house, but this seems like a good idea, thanks!
    – C. Ross
    May 3 '12 at 15:20
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    +1 - This. I believe the idea of an emergency fund is exactly about mitigating the risk of having everything in long term investments. The size of one's emergency fund should reflect their tolerance to the risk.
    – MrChrister
    May 3 '12 at 15:31
  • First home buyers can withdraw money from retirement accounts without penalty, IIRC
    – littleadv
    May 3 '12 at 17:46
  • @littleadv - Lot's of limitations on this. Max $10,000, IRA only, IIRC. (Of course you can always take out your original contribution to a Roth IRA)
    – psr
    May 3 '12 at 22:41
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It's all about access to capital:

  • You can borrow against 401ks up to an extent.

  • You can borrow against CDs outside of tax sheltered retirement plans.

  • You can't borrow against an IRA, although there is a situation with a very small time frame that would still be state sanctioned with no tax penalties. I wouldn't recommend it.

  • Annuities come with penalties.

I've looked at many possibilities of accessing retirement capital without penalty, and 401k's offer that ability, but its also good to just have savings accounts and investments that are not tax-deferred.

Borrowing against 401k

pros: http://www.ehow.com/how_2075551_borrow-money-from-401k.html

cons: http://www.investopedia.com/articles/retirement/06/eightreasons401k.asp#axzz29TtJPoXO

Outside of your general expenses and play money, money you put toward - say... - a house should be non-tax deferred. Because if you like borrowing, you can always borrow against the house, or any property. The root of the problem is liquidity and access to capital, understanding those fundamental concepts will answer most questions. "Am I liquid? Yes/No" "Can I be liquid without losing money? Yes/No"

As usual, more is more, adjust your priorities accordingly.

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  • Thanks for the answer. I formatted it a bit. Can you expand on what you said about accessing 401k's about penalty, and do you think there's a good guideline for what amount or % of capital to keep non-tax deferred?
    – C. Ross
    Oct 16 '12 at 12:14
  • borrowing against 401k - pros: ehow.com/how_2075551_borrow-money-from-401k.html cons: investopedia.com/articles/retirement/06/… . Outside of your general expenses and play money, money you put toward - say... - a house should be non-tax deferred. Because if you like borrowing, you can always borrow against the house, or any property. The root of the problem is liquidity and access to capital, understanding those fundamental concepts will answer most questions. "Am I liquid? Yes/No" "Can I be liquid without losing money? Yes/No"
    – CQM
    Oct 16 '12 at 16:47
  • can you edit that into the answer?
    – C. Ross
    Oct 16 '12 at 17:06

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