The Importance of Non-Retirement Savings

by Marc Smith

Saving is a critical part of any financial plan. Spending less than you make and putting away the difference for the future is the first step to financial freedom. Since we know saving is necessary, the question becomes what is the best way to save? Everyone’s situation is slightly different and you have to decide what is most appropriate for you, but I’m going to give you some less-conventional thoughts about saving in non-retirement accounts.

Building a cash savings and making sure you get any company match in a 401-k is important, but today I want to write about the value of saving in taxable investment accounts. I think there are two key benefits to after-tax investments.

  1. Liquidity – In a taxable brokerage account, you have access to the funds any time you need them. If you want to buy a house, need to pay a medical bill or simply like knowing you have access to funds if a need arises, money in a taxable account can provide flexibility and peace of mind. 401k and Traditional IRAs have tax consequences and steep penalties for withdrawals before you turn 59 ½. Some will argue that not having access to the funds will keep you from using the money frivolously before you need it. That is something to consider, but there is something to be said for access to cash and personal discipline.
  2. No Future Tax Liability – Since you pay taxes on the money put into a taxable investment account and pay capital gains/dividend taxes annually, the money in a taxable account is 100% yours. You can withdraw money whenever you need, as much as you need and not generate taxable income. With a 401k or a Traditional IRA, every withdrawal creates taxable income, taxed at your marginal rate. That could be 25% or higher. For example, if you have $200k in a 401k plan, at a 25% marginal tax rate, you have a $50k future tax liability, so you really only have $150k.

I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t take advantage of the benefits of tax-deferred accounts. If you are eligible for a Roth IRA, that is a great savings vehicle as well because you get the benefits of tax-deferred growth, don’t pay taxes on withdrawals and can always withdraw your contributions without penalty. I’m suggesting after-tax investments should also be an integral part of your retirement savings plan.

The conventional wisdom says to maximize savings in tax-deferred investment accounts. I think there is value in that advice. Financial companies that provide 401k plans and IRAs benefit tremendously if you don’t have access to your funds. They are essentially guaranteed years of fee-income once you make a deposit, so their recommendation to focus your savings plan in those types of accounts might not always be in your best interest. You have to find the right balance for you personally, but hopefully I’ve helped you think about some of the benefits of after-tax investment savings.