In this article, I am going to show you how prioritizing investments can help you reach financial independence and retire early (FIRE). Following this investment order will also help you pay fewer taxes and get you to FIRE faster.
When I started learning about financial independence, I first learned all about the different investment and account options.
Once I understood how to invest by reading books like The Simple Path To Wealth, The Little Book Of Common Sense Investing, and The Bogleheads Guide, I shifted my focus to optimizing my investment order to minimize tax.
There were no books on this topic and especially not for the FIRE community.
Prioritizing investments allows you to minimize taxes and maximize gains. This boosts your progress towards financial independence!
What Order Should I Fund My Retirement Accounts?
- 401k Match
- Traditional or Roth IRA
- Health Savings Plan (HSA)
- Max 401k/403b & 457 Plan
- Taxable Account
I will now go further into why prioritizing investments in this order makes the most sense for us in the FIRE community. I will also provide pro-tips to take maximum advantage!
Priority #1: 401k Company Match
The best way to start is to fund your 401k up to the employer match. For example, if your employer matches 5% of your contributions then AT THE VERY LEAST, you should contribute 5% of your income.
This is because the company match is equivalent to a 100% return (Pro-Tip) and many people refer to it as free money. I like to say it’s part of your compensation package and you’ve earned that match. If you don’t take advantage, it’s as if you are giving yourself a pay cut.
Contributing to your 401k is also tax-deductible, so you’ll be putting more money to work by giving less of it to Uncle Sam.
Even if you have limited investment options or higher fees, you should be taking advantage of the company match. The 100% return of a company match will likely outweigh the poor investment options.
The company match is equivalent to a 100% return on your investment!
Priority #2: Traditional Or Roth IRA
After you’ve contributed up to your companies 401k match, then the next best investment is to max out your Traditional or Roth IRA. This has all to do with the ability to choose where to invest, instead of being limited by your company 401k options.
By selecting your investment options you can diversify and choose options with really low fees. This will keep more money in your account to compound even further.
The choice of whether you use a Traditional or Roth IRA will depend on your income. As of 2020, a Traditional IRA is no longer tax-deductible when your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) exceeds $75,000 for single or head of household status. The AGI limit for married filing jointly is $124,000.
Let’s say you are married filing jointly and estimate an adjusted gross income (AGI) between you and your spouse of $110,000 for the year. Your smartest investment would be to fund a Roth IRA since a Traditional IRA will not give you an additional tax advantage.
At least the Roth IRA will grow tax-free and be tax-free once it’s time to withdraw funds.
You can estimate your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) at the beginning of the year OR simply wait until the end of the year and decide which account you want to fully fund based on your AGI.
Priority #3: Health Savings Plan (HSA)
If you are lucky enough to qualify for an HSA you should be taking advantage of this gift from the government. All you need to qualify for an HSA is to be enrolled in a high deductible health plan. A Health Savings Plan (HSA) gives you a triple tax benefit!
According to Investopedia:
An HSA’s triple tax advantage, which is similar to that of a traditional 401(k) plan or IRA, makes it a top-notch way to save for retirement.
Your money goes in tax-free, grows tax-free, and you withdraw from it tax-free! (if used on qualified medical expenses)
When you turn 65, if you haven’t used all the funds in your HSA, the account turns into another Traditional IRA. You can take the money out for any reason and there is no penalty, but you will have to pay tax on these withdrawals. Either way, you are winning.
For us in the FIRE community, an HSA plan is a huge benefit. Early retirement might leave us less health insurance coverage than desired.
To maximize your HSA you can pay for health expenses out of pocket (saving your digital receipts) and let your money grow in the account. Then once you retire you can withdrawal all those expenses after you’ve benefited from the investment gains over the years.
In 2020, the contribution limits for an HSA are $3,550 for Single and $7,100 for Family plans.
If you don’t qualify for an HSA you can skip this step of prioritizing investments. However, the next step has an account that might be even better than the HSA.
Set up payroll deduction contributions to your HSA. This will save you an additional 7.65% on taxes since your contributions are taken out before the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) calculation.
Priority #4: Max 401k/403b & 457b Plan
The next step is to finish maxing out your 401k or 403b retirement account up to the contribution limit of $19,500 for 2020. You may also qualify for an additional retirement account called the 457b plan.
If you are struggling to decide if you should max out your 401k/403b or 457b, don’t stress because you can max out both.
I strongly recommend using this 457b plan in combination with your 401k or 403b to defer up to $39,000 a year! (That’s $19,500 for each account)
This step can make the biggest difference in shortening your FIRE journey.
The 10% early withdrawal penalty does NOT apply to 457b plans. This makes this account especially attractive to us in the FIRE community. You can fund the account now and withdraw funds as you please once you quit your job. The only caveat is withdrawals are taxable.
Priority #5: Taxable Account
Any remaining funds can be invested into a taxable account. This is the last priority because you do not get a tax advantage when using taxable accounts. The tax drag from using a taxable account instead of tax-advantaged accounts like a 401k can be significant, especially over decades.
This is due to the upfront tax break that tax-advantaged accounts give you, meaning more money gets to work for you right away.
However, investing in a taxable account at this point is not at all a bad option because you’ve already taken advantage of the accounts above.
Benefits Of Taxable Account:
- No Contribution Limit
- Access Money Penalty-Free At Any Time
- Tax Gain Harvesting
- More Investment Choices
Use tax gain harvesting to retire early and pay NO tax on your capital gains.
Investing For Financial Independence
Lastly, here is a great summary illustration to make it easy to remember and share:
By prioritizing your investments in this order you can potentially defer $52,000! (Not including company match or catch-up contributions) That money gets to work right away allowing it to grow faster with compounding interest.
By following this investing order, you will achieve FIRE years earlier than expected. I’ve personally shortened my FIRE journey by prioritizing investments in this tax-efficient way.
If you have any questions you can also reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to help you prioritize your investments for FIRE.
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This information is my opinion and is for information purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.