Hi, Hank.

It's a very fine point, but I didn't say I "don't like" them, just that I'm

"not a fan". They're OK and they can provide motivation for someone who

would not have the persistent willpower to save. And if the employer

matches some or all of your contributions, then that is a clear bonus to

you. But the tax deferral can be an illusory savings.

Why illusory? Because of simple arithmetic that we learned in grade school.

When we are dealing with subtraction and division, the SEQUENCE of the

calculations makes a major difference. (4 - 3 gives a much different answer

than 3 -4; ditto 4 / 3 versus 3 / 4) But with addition and multiplication,

the order doesn't matter. (4 + 3 equals 3 + 4; 4 * 3 equals 3 * 4) When we

mix the operations, we have to observe the order to see what results to

expect.

To work out detailed examples would take much more time than I'm willing to

spend on this today. But for a quickie: What's the difference between:

$2,000 (per year) * 20 (years of contributions) = $40,000; minus 25%

(assumed tax rate) leaves $30,000; versus

$2,000 - 25% (pay-as-you-earn tax) = $1,500 * 20 (years) = $30,000?

This obviously leaves out three key factors: (1) investment income over 20

years; (2) inflation over 20 years; and (3) varying tax rates.

1. Obviously, $2,000 will earn more than $1,500 (if invested similarly),

and 20 years of compounding of those earnings will produce a larger result.

(At 6% APY, $73,571 vs. $55,178) But the larger fund is taxable when

received; the smaller one is not; after 25% tax on the larger amount, the

net result will be equal to the smaller one.

2. Inflation matters - but it applies whether the tax is paid now or paid

later. Its result can be calculated by simply adjusting the APY by the

inflation rate. The numbers will change, but the ratio will stay the same -

and the two final numbers will be equal.

3. Tax rates? That's the big unknown, and it can make a major difference

in the final results! But how do you predict tax rates 20 years from now,

and year by year over that 20 years? I can't do it, and I doubt that you

can. My quickie example assumes that the tax rate remains steady, and that

is probably not likely. Not only can Congress change the rates, but life

circumstances can change them, too.

The popular press - and most people - don't understand our progressive tax

rates and the effects that they have on all of us. Most people don't even

understand tax brackets on their own income! They think that someone in the

25% bracket will always pay that rate on additional income or save that rate

on deductions. But, as the very name "bracket" implies, that rate applies

ONLY to income within an upper and lower limit. If a 25% taxpayer gets a

$1,000 bonus, he probably will pay $250 on it. But if he gets a $100,000

bonus (or lottery winning), his tax will probably be more. If he is already

at the top of the 25% bracket ($123,700 TAXABLE income - that's AFTER

deductions and exemptions! And I'm looking at the 2006 rates for joint

returns:

http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i1040gi.pdf), then the bonus gets

taxed at 28% on the first $64,750 ($18,130) and 33% on the top $35,250

($11,633) for a total of $29,763, or nearly 30%, not the 25% that he might

have been using in his planning. On the other hand, a $1,000 deduction

would save him $250, all right, but a $100,000 deduction would probably save

him only $18,109, the tax on the bottom $100,000, most of which fits into

less-than-25% brackets, for an effective rate of about 18%.

MANY other factors can affect the actual tax rates that must be assumed to

make meaningful calculations. The essential factors to keep in mind is that

more income causes the tax rates to increase, while less income (or more

deductions) causes rates to decline, but the increases and decreases are NOT

LINEAR! They go UP faster than they go DOWN. As we just illustrated, a

$100,000 bonus could cost 30%, while an equal loss would save only 18%, both

for someone who is "in the 25% bracket".

For many taxpayers, 401(k)/IRA/SEP, etc., are great. But I'm not a fan,

I've never used Quicken to account for one, and I know very little about

them. So I really should keep my nose out of discussions of them.

RC

--

R. C. White, CPA

San Marcos, TX

(Retired. No longer licensed to practice public accounting.)

(e-mail address removed)

Microsoft Windows MVP

(Currently running Vista Ultimate x64)