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Bill Schmick: Increase your tax-deferred contributions right now

Investor beneath market screens

The best time to invest is when the markets are going down, according to columnist Bill Schmick. And the government has just increased the allowable amount of tax-deferred retirement contributions — an opportunity too good not to take.

In 2022, Congress increased the amount an individual can contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) as well as a 401(k), 403(b), and most 457 plans. If you have not already, it is time to increase your contributions for 2023 to take advantage of this opportunity.

If you missed it, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced in October 2022 the largest-ever annual increase in 401(k) contributions. It boosted the maximum contribution limit by $2,000 to $22,500 for 2023. For those over 50, an additional "catch-up" contribution will rise by $1,000 to $7,500. As for the contribution limits for an individual IRA, an additional $50 in contributions to $6,500 from $6,000 last year was implemented. The catch-up amount, however, remains the same at $1,000.

The IRS also raises the income threshold for which tax deductions for IRA contributions will be phased out. For those who are not aware, at a certain level of income, you can still contribute to a tax-deferred account, but you don't get a tax deduction when you do. The new income bar will be set at $73,000 to $83,000 for individuals and single heads of households, and for married couples filing jointly, the new threshold will be $109,000 to $129,999 for married couples.

These are generous benefits, and they are occurring at just the right time. Unfortunately, many savers may be hesitant to take advantage of this gift. There is a tendency among those saving for retirement to reduce or postpone contributions to their retirement accounts when the equity markets are declining, or inflation is rising. Allianz Life, a Minneapolis-based insurance company, found in a recent survey that 54 percent of Americans reduced or stop contributions to their retirement savings.

On the surface, with trillions of dollars wiped out of retirement savings, I can understand this hesitation. Human nature is such that the first reaction in a down market to putting more money in the markets is not to. With the average retirement account down 20 percent in 2022, I often hear "Why put good money after bad in a market like this?"

The answer is that the best time to invest is when the markets are going down, not up. Furthermore, at least for those saving through a 401(k) or similar plan, contributions are made monthly and usually on autopilot. That means as the markets decline each month you contribute your cost basis on a particular fund or stock is going down — not up. That means you are getting a better price month after month on your investments and buying more shares at the same time.

"Yes," you may say, "but the total amount in my retirement plan is going down." That's true, but for how long?

Remember, this is money that you are saving for retirement. It is not money you will be spending next week or next year. Consider this: Since 1928, the benchmark S&P 500 Index has suffered through 21 bear markets, or, on average, one every 4.5 years. The typical bear market lasted 388 days or a little over one year. That means that every five years or so you get the opportunity to buy the market at a great price.

This year, you are getting a double whammy: the savvy saver is not only getting to buy at a great price, but Uncle Sam is allowing you even more tax-deductible money to spend in the form of increased contributions to your retirement plans across the board.

If the bears are correct, sometime in this first quarter, the stock market may plummet once again. If it does, I suspect markets will rebound and likely go higher from there.

Still not convinced then consider it this way; let's say you are in the market for a top-of-the-line, new car. Suddenly, your local dealership announces a sale on the auto you want at a 30 percent discount off the list price and offers you a credit on top of that, plus a guarantee that the car will appreciate over the next 15 years. would you buy it?

Hopefully, you have already increased your contributions for 2023. If you haven't, I suggest you call your back office and arrange to increase your monthly contributions right now. In the years to come, you will thank me for it.

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