Is the Backdoor Roth one of those moves that every high-income earner should be making? Or is it a marginally beneficial play that you can take or leave as an investor?
I made an argument that suggested the latter, showing that the marginal benefits of doing the backdoor Roth paled compared to other smart money plays like taking advantage of travel rewards.
However, when I later ran the numbers over many decades, I was able to show that the additive and compounded effects of making the effort time and time again could lead to a substantial benefit that was anything but marginal.
I concluded that, like many things optimizers tend to do, the backdoor Roth ought to be done if there are no major obstacles, but that it’s certainly not a requirement to be financially successful.
What is the backdoor, Roth? I’ve written about it in detail in this step-by-step guide. Essentially, it’s a two-step process to make annual Roth IRA contributions for people who earn “too much” money to be able to make direct contributions to a Roth IRA.
In this post, the FI Physician David Graham will go first, singing the backdoor Roth’s praises while running some numbers under a realistic scenario he set up.
Justin Harvey, the husband of an anesthesia resident and financial advisor with Quantifi Planning, steps on the brakes and shows us how the backdoor Roth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Backdoor Roth Point / Counterpoint: A Must-Do or Meh?
A 30-year old couple has two children and earns $400,000 a year. They will FIRE at 50 with a goal of a 3.5% withdrawal rate from their assets. They have a 36% saving rate on a gross salary, a 50% saving rate after tax.
They max out a single 401(k) with a 5% match and can either invest $6,000 x 2 = $12,000 a year in a backdoor Roth or leave that amount in a brokerage account. Let’s see what their net worth is doing when they FIRE and again at age 60, a full 30 years (though they only fund the backdoor Roths the first 20).
Inflation is 2% a year. Salary will grow by the same amount. Healthcare inflation is 5% and will start at $10,000 a year when they FIRE. Stocks return 7% (2% dividends) and bonds 3.5%. Pre-retirement expenses are currently $13,333 a month and $10,000 (before inflation) when they FIRE.
Point: In Support of Backdoor Roth IRAs
Why are backdoor Roth contributions good for the high-income earner? One word—math.
Sure, they won’t rock your world, but any chance at tax diversification is a good thing. That is tax-deferred growth now and tax-freedom later.
What are the advantages of having money grow tax-deferred? Many. I’ll discuss those later.
But the main advantage of Roth accounts and tax diversification is the ability to control your retirement income. Tax-freedom!
Advantages of INCOME CONTROL in Retirement
If you can control how much income you have in retirement, you can control the taxes you pay. That is, you choose when and how much taxes you owe. Of course, this is limited by sources of income.
For instance, you will pay taxes on annuity payments (including social security) and other sources of ordinary income. You will pay (at least) long-term capital gain taxes on sales from your brokerage account. But from your Roth—no taxes!
What does this control give you?
- No tax drag
- No Required Minimum Distributions from Roth IRAs
- Ability to control your provisional income for Social Security taxation (though I will grant you that a high-income earner should assume that they will pay maximum taxes on their social security).
- Get ACA healthcare premium tax credits before age 65 by keeping income low with Roth withdrawals.
- Fight off IRMAA. Surcharges on your Medicare B and D plans (that is, taxation of the wealthy) are a cliff penalty resulting from your adjusted gross income from 2 years prior.
- Control your capital gains tax rate. Why not do some capital gain harvesting at zero or 15% rather than at 18.8 or 23.8%?
- Tax diversification is always good to have. Who knows what future tax rates will be or what legislative risk the future holds?
- Roth money is the best money to leave your heirs. If the stretch (inherited) IRA is killed by congress via the SECURE Act, this becomes even more important.
- Finally, even a little tax diversification may help you fend off salesmen pitching variable annuities or cash value life insurance for “tax avoidance.”
Let’s look more closely at the case at hand and see what we can learn about another backdoor Roth IRAs’ advantages.
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Results for the Case
As you can see above, they start young with very few assets but given the amazing savings rate quite quickly build up sizeable assets.
For the first 20 years, they invest fully in a brokerage account (green) or do $12,000 yearly in a backdoor Roth IRA (blue). You can see the blue sliver just on the top after about 20 years.
It’s a sliver; however, it is real money!
The Roth plan ends up with more than $212,000 more in assets than without doing the Roth. If we divide that by 30 years, that is an extra $7000 A YEAR return. Sure, they have $6M in assets, but if I saw $7000 laying on the sidewalk, I’d bend over and pick it up!
Why do they have this extra money? Tax-deferral avoids tax drag!
Tax Avoidance with Roth IRAs
Here you can see their tax liability. Starting over $100k in taxes a year, there is a bump up in 2026 when the Tax Cut and Jobs Act is due to expire. You see, they peek out almost at $250k in taxes before early retirement (yikes). Taxes at retirement are purely capital gains as they are selling from their brokerage account to pay bills.
As a quick aside, FIRE leads to an amazing Tax Planning Window with the ability to do all sorts of amazing tax tricks. Here, they are just doing some capital gain harvesting.
Back to the figure. You can see the backdoor Roth plan in the dark green, and if you squint, you can see the light green where they are paying additional taxes every year without the backdoor Roths.
In the end, over 30 years, they pay more than $112k in taxes (or $3,746 a year) by not funding backdoor Roths. Here you go, uncle! Take my money.
When you pay $250k a year in taxes, an extra $3k or 4k doesn’t seem like much, but again, I’ll pay less in taxes whenever I get the chance.
So, why do they pay less in taxes every year? Tax Drag.
Understanding Tax Drag
When you contribute your after-tax money to a backdoor Roth, you will never pay taxes on it again. Including when it is growing! You avoid tax drag.
That $6 or 12k you take out of your brokerage account and deposit into your Roth now grows tax-free.
In a brokerage account, even passive index funds pay about 2% dividends a year. On qualified dividends, you pay yearly capital gains rate taxes.
What about bonds and REITS? There you pay an ordinary income.
Other tax-inefficient funds (such as active funds, small-cap value funds, target-date funds, etc.) also have tax drag in the brokerage account with a mixture of ordinary and capital gains taxes.
Asset location is beyond the scope of our discussion today, though I will grant you folks who usually invest most aggressively (and tax-inefficiently) in their Roth accounts. The above example is with an 80/20 stocks/bonds portfolio, so your tax drag could be more or less depending on your asset location.
Above, you can see in 2030, 2040, and 2050 what your account totals are for the Backdoor plan and the Brokerage plan.
Note that after a decade of backdoor Roth contributions, you have $10k extra to show for your work, which is almost a 0.5% increase in your total amount.
After twenty years (and the end of backdoor Roth funding), you have an extra $72k and 1.3% more for your efforts!
As you are living off your brokerage account at that point, the percentage increase in account value doesn’t increase in the next decade (there is less tax drag since you don’t have salary kicking up your ordinary income). Still, your Roth IRA total continues to grow. After 30 years (and 20 years of backdoor Roth contributions), you have over $1M in your Roth IRA and $212k more money than without backdoor Roth contributions.
Sign me up!
What is Your Hourly Rate for doing Backdoor Roths?
So, in conclusion, backdoor Roths offers a high-income earner a chance at some tax diversification and more money in the end.
How much do you save? Not very much in year one. I bet you save about $60 the first year in tax payments. Not too shabby; after all, backdoor Roths are not that complicated and likely will take you less than an hour to figure out how to accomplish.
You may have to teach your CPA what an 8606 is and how to report backdoor Roths to the IRS as I did, but that was honestly pretty fun to teach my tax guy about taxes. But not worth 60 bucks…
However, as we saw above, your 20 or 30 hours of work before retirement pays more than $3,700 an hour in avoided taxes. Does your day job pay that well?
While backdoor Roth contributions won’t rock your world, they save you money, you pay less in taxes, and you are 1% more efficient.
FIRE means you strive to be 1% better in everything you do (if you value it, that is). I value tax diversity, paying less in taxes, and having more money to leave behind as an important part of my FIRE plan. I hope you do, too.
[PoF: The slivers of extra money from doing the backdoor Roth don’t look like much, and the gains are relatively small on a percentage basis. However, when looking simply at dollar amounts over a long investing timeframe, the monetary reward can be substantial.
Let’s see what Justin Harvey has to say. I do have to give him credit for taking the more difficult side in this point/counterpoint. It’s tough to argue against “free money,” but he does a good job.]
Counterpoint: The Backdoor Roth is Overrated
There are many reasons that the positive impact of the Back Door Roth IRA contribution may be overstated.
I will present the Back Door Roth IRA contribution (henceforth called BDR) as a potential option if it’s easy/convenient for you to do (read: if you have an advisor and a good CPA who can execute it for you at no marginal cost to you in terms of time or money).
But if you have pretax IRAs, if you are doing the paperwork yourself, or if your CPA makes a mistake (there are many ways to go wrong, as WCI has pointed out), then you can quickly more than offset the modest benefits here.
Furthermore, there are a handful of qualitative and difficult-to-put-a-dollar-figure-on reasons that I think the BDR benefit is overestimated. In the context of a high-savings-rate physician’s finances, it’s my opinion that the BDR’s real-world benefits are situationally dependent at best, and in many cases, effectively nonexistent.
Note: I’m going to ignore the impact of taxable account tax drag for now since that’s dependent on too many variables and is covered above (and was previously estimated at $30-50/yr on this blog).
Here are five reasons that the BDR is overrated but which can’t be captured in a straight-line financial projection:
A physician with a high savings rate will necessarily have a large sum invested in taxable assets each year. Buying into assets afresh in a taxable account will create “tax lots” where the basis is equal to current market prices.
If you need to liquidate some assets in this account, it allows for both 1.) selectively selling the highest-basis assets to maintain tax efficiency and 2.) tax loss harvesting to offset any gains. If I spend ten years investing $10k/mo in a taxable investment account, I can cherry-pick the highest basis assets to sell, choosing the high-water-mark at any time in the last ten years.
Unless the market is literally at all-time highs across any purchased asset class in my moment of need (which we must admit is a pretty desirable worst-case scenario), there will likely be some assets accessible with smaller negative tax impacts on the taxable account. It’s also nice to know that if I need to access these assets before age 59.5, I won’t be subject to tax + penalty on gains, as I would be with a Roth IRA.
Spending Floor In Retirement
Since investors who will have an interest in BDR’s are high earners who will likely have plenty of future assets to meet their needs, they may not ever spend much of their Roth or taxable assets after age 70.5, since they will have RMDs, social security, and other incomes which must also be taxed in most of the retirement years.
A physician with $3mm in qualified assets and two social security incomes could have +$170k/yr of income from RMDs and SS alone (i.e., ~$110k/yr RMD + $40k/yr for earning spouse + $20k/yr for non-earning spouse).
This floor grows meaningfully over time to an RMD of ~190k/yr at age 80 and Social Security benefits which grow with the cost of living adjustments. For Roth assets to be relevant, you would need to:
- Be older than age 59.5
- Spend more than this floor in retirement, and
- Have no taxable assets accessible at little tax impact.
There are some for whom this would be true, but many for whom it would not. Note: charitable expenditures don’t count toward total spend since you can gift your most appreciated in-kind assets from a taxable account without negative tax consequences.
Roth IRAs and Estate Taxes
Per the above, it’s unlikely to matter much after age 70 whether or not you have Roth assets. It generally happens after age 70 because you die, so we should consider Roth vs. Taxable benefits at death.
A taxable account and a Roth IRA are equally taxable from a “death tax” standpoint in a person’s estate (i.e., neither can avoid estate/inheritance tax). To be clear, I’m not talking about the federal estate tax in this instance since (as of now) it only impacts estates >$11.4mm.
However, state death taxes will vary (fourteen states + DC have an estate tax, and six have an inheritance tax, per the Tax Foundation. Don’t die in NJ or MD, they have both!), and they have much lower thresholds and greater taxability.
A Roth IRA will still be subject to estate/inheritance taxes, just like a taxable account, since both accounts are included as part of the taxable estate. A better estate tax reduction strategy would be to get money out of your estate before death by using an irrevocable trust and/or gifting assets directly up to the tax-free gifting threshold ($15,000 per year as of 2019).
Roth IRAs and Avoiding Probate
It’s true that one of the benefits of Roth IRAs is that these assets avoid probate (i.e., the beneficiaries receive the assets upon death rather than waiting for probate courts to divide up the assets). Keeping money out of probate is a good way to love your loved ones after you die since it will save time, cost, and headache in settling your estate.
Taxable assets in a regular taxable account would generally be subject to probate. However, a good estate planning attorney would advise on an estate to minimize probate headaches, including putting most taxable investment assets into a revocable trust. A less flexible but free option would be using a TOD account.
With the revocable trust strategy, assets are still functionally available for whatever the grantor (the person who creates the trust) needs, but then assets will be outside probate upon the grantor’s death.
Inheriting a Roth IRA vs. Taxable Assets
Receiving a Roth IRA from an estate isn’t markedly better than receiving taxable assets outright since both are subject to the same taxes per the above.
Additionally, taxable assets are not subject to the RMD rules that a Roth would be (this doesn’t add cost, but it does add some administrative burden), and taxable assets receive a “step-up” in basis at death.
This means that any gains during the decedent’s life are erased and are not taxable once assets pass to heirs. So if you inherit a taxable account from your grandfather who purchased $3k of AAPL in 1980 and he bequeathed it to you in a taxable account at a final value of $300,000, you could immediately sell all these shares and pay zero taxes on the gains and have no RMD obligations.
Whether or not you receive assets in a taxable account or Roth IRA is irrelevant for tax savings at the time of receipt.
At the end of the day, I’m not anti-BDR because it certainly might help from a tax diversification standpoint. If you offered me $1mm in a Roth IRA or $1mm in a taxable account, I’d take it in the Roth eleven times out of ten.
I find those busy physicians have such limited time and many other important financial considerations that really do move the needle that their attention is generally better focused on higher-impact items.
[PoF: A big thank you to David Graham, MD, and Justin Harvey, CFP®, ChFC®, RICP® for sharing their thoughts. I think both guest authors made valid points on this surprisingly controversial topic, giving us ample food for thought.]
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Are you a backdoor Roth enthusiast? Or do you think of it as an optional maneuver that might give you marginal gains? Have you done the backdoor Roth before?
19 thoughts on “The Backdoor Roth Point / Counterpoint: A Must-Do or Meh?”
Is there an advantage to do a BDR if you can do a Mega-BDR with your employer 401k?
Yes! It is not one or the other – you can do both. So whatever advantages cause you to do mega-BDR also apply to “regular” BDR.
I(n my opinion Roth conversion of any type is like buying premium free life long insurance. If you own traditional pretax accounts you own them with the government and the government (not you) calls the tune as to when and how much gets liquidated. The same is true of post tax accounts though the tax regimen is different. ANYONE that makes more than 100K/yr married filing jointly is considered rich by the government and the tax code above 100K/yr MFJ is designed to soak the rich, PERIOD despite all the “fair share” rhetoric. Every dollar you can have free of government control is a dollar you control.
One thing not mentioned in the analysis is the relative value of various accounts. In my reckoning the value goes TIRA<brokerage<CASH<ROTH. TIRA is heavily progressively taxed and how much is taxed per year is under government control. It's taxed under a doubly progressive regimen, first the RMD is progressive and subject to change and second the ordinary income generated is progressively taxed and subject to change. These taxes are forced and you have no leeway in terms of timing their payment. It happens every year PERIOD. Brokerage has flexibility, since the taxes are lower and not as progressive and not forced. You can choose if and how much to withdraw with only minimal government interference. Cash most of the time has very low government interference mostly inflation based. Roth is like a piece of gold. You get to risk your assets without government tax interference. In retirement the spend down is to annuitant a small TIRA fill from a brokerage, spend cash when the market is down, and never spend the Roth keeping it for insurance till you are old. If you keep the Roth for insurance it continues to grow SORR and tax free every year you don't tap it. That is it's excessive value, the relief from tax burden and SORR burden, and that is what you pay for with conversion. Imagine what happens to your nest egg and tax bill if the government decides to raise RMD by a single percentage point across the board. You would be forced to liquidate more each year, and once liquidated pay even more in taxes on the ordinary income. I don't want that sword hanging over my retirement.
NJ no longer is a double-trouble state. They phased out the estate tax in 2018 https://www.state.nj.us/treasury/taxation/njestatetax.shtml
This is a follow up of a comment I previously done on the same topic: BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN YOU DO THIS REGARDING THE PAPERWORK. From 2012 to 217 we did back door roth, trusting our CPA regarding the quality of the job, after all the standard advice is: get help from a professional in sticky situations. Every year we paid $ 720 in others taxes, I didn’t know exactly what It means( $4320 in the six year period). One day in 2018 I received a note from IRS saying I owe around five grands. $5 000 is a lot of money for me, so I finally decided to dig in the issue. The whole thing happens because our CPA failed to create the form 8606, so every year the IRS thinking was that was a contribution to a traditional IRA. We have to sent an amendment for the last three years and the CP 2000 was cleared( no $5000 en penalty), but the $4320 were gone. So my advice: if you are not 100% sure What you are doing just go for the old taxable account. The way I did cost money, two nights of headache to my wife and myself to present the data to our accountant,additional fee for “his job” of preparing the admendment. Of course we fired the accountant.
Thank you for sharing this cautionary tale once again.
If done right, it’s worth doing. If done wrong, the cost can greatly exceed the potential marginal gain.
It’s stories like yours that keep me from wholeheartedly recommending the strategy to all who are willing and able.
Ugh. Sure, some people can’t do it, but for most it’s so easy it’s a no brainer. More money for you, heirs, and charity. No need to invest tax efficiently. No fancy trusts needed. Solid asset protection in most states. My wife and I will EACH eventually have 7 figure tax-free, stretchable, asset protected accounts from 5 minutes of work every January. The choice is yours. This isn’t something that should be debated. Go debate Roth conversions or taking SS early. All that needs to be done about Roth IRAs is to spread the word.
Thanks for commenting WCI. I might point out that Roths are not ideal for charity if you can otherwise give pre-tax money rather than paying the taxes yourself! And I hope Roths are still stretchable, but who knows with the SECURE Act. Still, nice to leave behind to your heirs as they can leave it tax-deferred for 5 or 10 years and then take it as a lump sum.
I’ll admit I’m not doing a backdoor Roth with my Wife. She has a IRA rolled over from a pension buy out. Her 401k doesn’t have great options for investing — but it does have after-tax contributions and in-service distributions so party on with the mega Roth!
Fair point, I agree tax-deferred accounts should be left to charity preferentially, but let’s honest, it’s a small percentage of our colleagues who are already investing for charity and anyone doing a Backdoor Roth should be maxing out a much larger tax-deferred account anyway they can use for that.
This is, without a doubt, one of the many items that make up the “summation of marginal gains” that lead to long term success. To say the BDR benefit is overstated is just fuel to the fire of laziness, complacency or disinterest that keeps many/most people, even Physicians, from reaching FIRE or even non-FIRE comfortable retirement.
Agree! FIRE is all about doing everything 1% better and letting the small gains compound over time!
It is not a super meaningful impact but doesn’t the Roth IRA have better asset protections then a traditional brokerage account?
Also there is political risk. Who knows LTCG taxes will increase in the future. Who knows if Roth accounts will get taxed. I think the former is more likely but I am just a physician not a soothsayer. Good to play both sides.
Also the above mentioned motivational tool to save more is a very interesting point.
Lordosis — you are correct that usually ~ $1M in IRAs are protected, though check your State specific Laws (find a good link here )
Gotta love political risk. Do what is right for now and hope they grandfather in existing accounts!
I agree with the premise of this article. The BDR is a nice little savings and tax optimization gimmick if you can do it. I have been doing it since 2011, originally on the recommendation of an advisor.
The biggest victory is to get someone who is not saving and investing outside employer retirement accounts to add the BDR to their retirement savings strategy. If you have someone who is already saving $100k or more per year in taxable accounts, in addition to filling up the retirement buckets, the benefits of the BDR are more modest.
BagabondMD — thanks for commenting! I’m impressed an advisor brought it to your attention way back in 2011 when they dropped the income limit on conversions!
I agree that the backdoor Roth is a nice trick to increase saving for retirement. A nice 6k or 12k carrot for an early career high income earner!
Vagabond! Sorry V and B are pretty close together…
Dude, no worries, I have been called a lot worse. 😉
What an excellent post having a Point/Counterpart debate by two well versed authors.
I did the Roth backdoor conversion on my own. It was not that time consuming and not that challenging and I thought well worth the little time and effort it took.
The main challenge was to avoid the pro rata rule and get my other account that I had rolled into my employer 401k. Again a fairly easy step that I accomplished on my own with the help of the brokerage account in question.
The money that I did do a backdoor on had already all the taxes paid on it (it was a non-deductible contribution to my TIRA) and instead of having all the future gains taxable if I had left it there, now it can grow tax free. Certainly a huge win in my books.
It took me awhile to do it (by the time I actually first understood the process and learned how to do it (thanks POF) I had a little over $80k to do a backdoor with.
XRAYVSN — Better late than never! I agree that PoF and WCI have opened new doors for all of us with the backdoor Roth!