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Got Cash? What to Do with Extra Money

I received a great email from Magen L., who says:

I no longer have any retirement savings because I cashed it all out to pay my debt. We also sold our home and moved into an apartment just as the pandemic was hitting. With the sale of our house, the fact that my husband is working overtime, and the stimulus money, we've saved nearly $10,000 and should have more by the end of the year. My primary question is, what should we do with it?

Right now, I have our extra money in a low-interest bank savings [account], and I'm considering moving it to a high-yield savings [account] as our emergency fund. Is that a good idea? For additional money we save, I intend to use it as a down payment on a new house. However, should I be investing in Roth IRAs instead? What is the best option?

Another question comes from Bianca G., who says:

I have zero credit card debt, but I have a car loan and a student loan. I will be receiving a large amount of money sometime next year. If my fiancé and I want to buy a home, is it better to pay off my car first and then my student loan, or should I just pay down a big portion of my student loan?

Thanks Megan and Bianca for your questions. I'll answer them and give you a three-step plan to prioritize your extra money and make your finances more secure. No matter if you're a good saver or you get a cash windfall from a tax refund, an inheritance, or the sale of a home, extra money should never be squandered.

What to do with extra cash

Maybe you're like Magen and have extra cash that could be working harder for you, but you're not sure what to do with it. You may even be paralyzed and do nothing because you have a deep-seated fear of making a big mistake with your cash.

In some cases, having your money sit idle is precisely the right financial move. But it depends on whether or not you've accomplished three fundamental financial goals, which we'll cover.

To know the right way to manage extra cash, you need to step back and take a holistic view of your entire financial life.

To know the right way to manage extra cash, you need to step back and take a holistic view of your entire financial life. Consider what you're doing right and where you're vulnerable.

Try using a three-pronged approach that I call the PIP plan, which stands for:

  1. Prepare for the unexpected
  2. Invest for the future
  3. Pay off high-interest debt

Let's examine each one to understand how to use the PIP (prepare, invest, and pay off) approach for your situation.

How to prepare for the unexpected

The first fundamental goal you should have is to prepare for the unexpected. As you know, life is full of surprises. Some of them bring happiness, but there's an infinite number of devastating events that could hurt you financially.

In an instant, you could get fired from your job, experience a natural disaster, get a severe illness, or lose a spouse. If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we have to be as mentally, physically, and financially prepared as possible for what may be around the corner. 

While no amount of money can reverse a tragedy, having safety nets can protect your finances. That makes coping with a tragedy easier.

Getting equipped for the unexpected is an ongoing challenge. Your approach should change over time because it depends on your income, debt, number of dependents, and breadwinners in a family.

While no amount of money can reverse a tragedy, having safety nets—such as an emergency fund and various types of insurance—can protect your finances. That makes coping with a tragedy easier.

Everyone should accumulate an emergency fund equal to at least three to six months' worth of their living expenses. For instance, if you spend $3,000 a month on essentials—such as housing, utilities, food, and debt payments—make a goal to keep at least $9,000 in an FDIC-insured bank savings account.

While keeping that much in savings may sound boring, the goal for an emergency fund is safety, not growth. The idea is to have immediate access to your cash when you need it. That's why I don't recommend investing your emergency money unless you have more than a six-month reserve.

The goal for an emergency fund is safety, not growth.

If you don't have enough saved, aim to bridge the gap over a reasonable period. For instance, you could save one half of your target over two years or one third over three years. You can put your goal on autopilot by creating an automatic monthly transfer from your checking into your savings account.

Megan mentioned using high-yield savings, which can be a good option because it pays a bit more interest for large balances. However, the higher rate typically comes with limitations, such as applying only to a threshold balance, so be sure to understand the account terms.

Insurance protects your finances

Another critical aspect of preparing for the unexpected is having enough of the right kinds of insurance. Here are some policies you may need:

  • Auto insurance if you drive your own or someone else's vehicle
  • Homeowners insurance, which is typically required when you have a mortgage
  • Renters insurance if you rent a home or apartment
  • Health insurance, which pays a portion of your medical bills
  • Disability insurance replaces a percentage of income if you get sick or injured and can no longer work
  • Life insurance if you have dependents or debt co-signers who would suffer financial hardship if you died

RELATED: How to Create Foolproof Safety Nets

How to invest for your future

Once you get as prepared as possible for the unexpected by building an emergency fund and getting the right kinds of insurance, the next goal I mentioned is investing for retirement. That’s the “I” in PIP, right behind prepare for the unexpected.

Investments can go down in value—you should never invest money you can’t live without.

While many people use the terms saving and investing interchangeably, they’re not the same. Let’s clarify the difference between investing and saving so you can think strategically about them:

Saving is for the money you expect to spend within the next few years and don’t want to risk losing it. In other words, you save money that you want to keep 100% safe because you know you’ll need it or because you could need it. While it won’t earn much interest, you’ll be able to tap it in an instant.

Investing is for the money you expect to spend in the future, such as in five or more years. Purchasing an investment means you’re exposing money to some amount of risk to make it grow. Investments can go down in value; therefore, you should never invest money you can’t live without.

In general, I recommend that you invest through a qualified retirement account, such as a workplace plan or an IRA, which come with tax benefits to boost your growth. My recommendation is to contribute no less than 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income for retirement.

Magen mentioned Roth IRAs, and it may be a good option for her to rebuild her retirement savings. For 2020, you can contribute up to $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re over age 50, to a traditional or a Roth IRA. You typically must have income to qualify for an IRA. However, if you’re married and file taxes jointly, a non-working spouse can max out an IRA based on household income.

For workplace retirement plans, such as a 401(k), you can contribute up to $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re over 50 for 2020. Some employers match a certain percent of contributions, which turbocharges your account. That’s why it’s wise to invest enough to max out any free retirement matching at work. If your employer kicks in matching funds, you can exceed the annual contribution limits that I mentioned.

RELATED: A 5-Point Checklist for How to Invest Money Wisely

How to pay off high-interest debt

Once you're working on the first two parts of my PIP plan by preparing for the unexpected and investing for the future, you're in a perfect position also to pay off high-interest debt, the final "P."

Always tackle your high-interest debts before any other debts because they cost you the most. They usually include credit cards, car loans, personal loans, and payday loans with double-digit interest rates. Remember that when you pay off a credit card that charges 18%, that's just like earning 18% on an investment after taxes—pretty impressive!

Remember that when you pay off a credit card that charges 18%, that's just like earning 18% on an investment after taxes—pretty impressive!

Typical low-interest loans include student loans, mortgages, and home equity lines of credit. These types of debt also come with tax breaks for some of the interest you pay, making them cost even less. So, don't even think about paying them down before implementing your PIP plan.

Getting back to Bianca's situation, she didn't mention having emergency savings or regularly investing for retirement. I recommend using her upcoming cash windfall to set these up before paying off a low-rate student loan.

Let's say Bianca sets aside enough for her emergency fund, purchases any missing insurance, and still has cash left over. She could use some or all of it to pay down her auto loan. Since the auto loan probably has a higher interest rate than her student loan and doesn't come with any tax advantages, it's wise to pay it down first. 

Once you've put your PIP plan into motion, you can work on other goals, such as saving for a house, vacation, college, or any other dream you have. 

Questions to ask when you have extra money

Here are five questions to ask yourself when you have a cash windfall or accumulate savings and aren’t sure what to do with it.

1. Do I have emergency savings?

Having some emergency money is critical for a healthy financial life because no one can predict the future. You might have a considerable unexpected expense or lose income.  

Without emergency money to fall back on, you're living on the edge, financially speaking. So never turn down the opportunity to build a cash reserve before spending money on anything else.

2. Do I contribute to a retirement account at work?

Getting a windfall could be the ticket to getting started with a retirement plan or increasing contributions. It's wise to invest at least 10% to 15% of your gross income for retirement.

Investing in a workplace retirement plan is an excellent way to set aside small amounts of money regularly. You'll build wealth for the future, cut your taxes, and maybe even get some employer matching.

3. Do I have an IRA?

Don't have a job with a retirement plan? Not a problem. If you (or a spouse when you file taxes jointly) have some amount of earned income, you can contribute to a traditional or a Roth IRA. Even if you contribute to a retirement plan at work, you can still max out an IRA in the same year—which is a great way to use a cash windfall.

4. Do I have high-interest debt?

If you have expensive debt, such as credit cards or payday loans, paying them down is the next best way to spend extra money. Take the opportunity to use a windfall to get rid of high-interest debt and stay out of debt in the future. 

5. Do I have other financial goals?

After you’ve built up your emergency fund, have money flowing into tax-advantaged retirement accounts, and are whittling down high-interest debt, start thinking about other financial goals. Do you want to buy a house? Go to graduate school? Send your kids to college?

How to manage a cash windfall

Review your financial situation at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track.

When it comes to managing extra money, always consider the big picture of your financial life and choose strategies that follow my PIP plan in order: prepare for the unexpected, invest for the future, and pay off high-interest debt.

Review your situation at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track. As your life changes, you may need more or less emergency money or insurance coverage.

When your income increases, take the opportunity to bump up your retirement contribution—even increasing it one percent per year can make a huge difference.

And here's another important quick and dirty tip: when you make more money, don't let your cost of living increase as well. If you earn more but maintain or even decrease your expenses, you'll be able to reach your financial goals faster.

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How Much You Should Have In Your 401(k)

According to a retirement study released by Stanford University, only about 50% of American workers have access to a 401(k) or equivalent employer-sponsored retirement plan. And many who have a retirement account, aren’t making sufficient contributions to meet their targeted retirement goals. Retirement savings is a life venture where the stronger you start — and […]

The post How Much You Should Have In Your 401(k) appeared first on Good Financial Cents®.

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5 Options for Your Retirement Account When Leaving a Job

One of the most common retirement questions I receive is what to do with a retirement account when leaving a job. Knowing your options for managing a retirement plan with an old employer is essential because most people change jobs many times throughout their careers. And millions of Americans remain out of work during the pandemic.

When you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave.

Fortunately, when you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave. It doesn't matter if you quit, get fired, or get laid off, the same rules apply. 

This post will cover five options for managing your retirement account when your employment ends. You'll learn the rules for handling a retirement plan at an old job and the best move to create a secure financial future.

Why should you use a retirement account?

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise because they come with terrific tax advantages. They defer or eliminate the tax on your contributions and investment earnings, which may allow you to accumulate a bigger balance than with a taxable brokerage account.

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise. If you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll!

So, if you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll! Contribute as much as you can, even if it's just a small amount. Make a goal to increase your contribution rate each year until you're putting away at least 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income.

FREE RESOURCE: Retirement Account Comparison Chart (PDF)—a handy one-page download to see the retirement account rules at a glance.

What is a retirement account rollover?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you leave a job with a 401(k) or a 403(b) you can't continue getting tax breaks. Doing a rollover allows you to withdraw funds from a retirement plan with an old employer and transfer them to another eligible retirement account.

When you roll over a workplace retirement account, you don't lose your contributions or investment earnings. And if you're vested, you don't lose any money that your employer may have put into your account as matching funds.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process. If you miss this deadline and are younger than age 59½, the transaction becomes an early withdrawal. That means it is subject to income tax, plus an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty.

If you're a regular Money Girl podcast listener or reader, you know that I don't recommend taking early withdrawals from retirement accounts. Paying income tax and a penalty is expensive and reduces your nest egg.

If you complete a traditional rollover within the allowable 60-day window, you maintain all the funds' tax-deferred status until you make withdrawals in the future. And with a Roth rollover, you retain the tax-free status of your funds.

What are your retirement account options when leaving a job?

Once you're no longer employed by a company that sponsors your retirement plan, there are four options for managing the account. 

1. Cash out your account

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option. As I mentioned, taking an early withdrawal means you must pay income tax and a 10% penalty. 

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option.

Let's say you have a $100,000 account balance that you cash out. If your average rate for federal and state income taxes is 30%, and you have an additional 10% penalty, you lose 40%. Cracking open your $100,000 nest egg could mean only having $60,000 left, depending on how much you earn.

Note that if your retirement plan has a low balance, such as $1,000 or less, the custodian may automatically cash you out. If so, they're required to withhold 20% for taxes (although you may owe more), file Form 1099-R to document the distribution, and pay you the balance. 

2. Maintain your existing account

Most retirement plans allow you to keep money in the account after you're no longer employed if you maintain a minimum balance, such as more than $5,000. If you don't have the minimum, but you have more than the cash-out threshold, the custodian typically has the authority to deposit your money into an IRA in your name.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions because you're not an employee. However, your funds can continue to grow there. You can manage them any way you like by selling or buying investments from a set menu of options.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions.

Leaving money in an old retirement plan is certainly better than cashing out and paying taxes and a penalty, but it doesn't give you as much flexibility as you you would get with the next two options I'm going to talk about.

I only recommend leaving money in an old employer's retirement plan if you're happy with the investment choices and the fund and account fees are low. Just make sure that the plan doesn't charge you higher fees once you're no longer an active employee.

Another reason you might want to leave retirement money in an old employer's plan is if you're unemployed or have a job that doesn't offer a retirement account. I'll cover some special legal protections you'll get in just a moment.

3. Rollover to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA)

Another option for your old workplace retirement plan is to roll it into an existing or new traditional IRA. If you have a Roth 401(k) or 403(b), you can roll it over into a Roth IRA. The deadline to complete an IRA rollover is 60 days.

Your earnings in a traditional IRA would continue to grow tax-deferred, just like in your old workplace plan. And earnings grow tax-free in a Roth IRA, like a Roth account at work. 

Here are a couple of advantages to moving a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Getting more control. You choose the financial institution and the investments for your IRA.  
  • Having more flexibility. With an IRA, there are more ways to tap your funds before age 59½ and avoid an early withdrawal penalty than with a workplace account. That rule applies to several exceptions, including using withdrawals for medical bills, college expenses, and buying or building your first home.

Here are some downsides to rolling over a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Having fewer legal protections. Depending on your home state, assets in an IRA may not be protected from creditors.  
  • Being ineligible for a Roth IRA. When you're a high earner, you may not be allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA. However, you can still manage the account and have tax-free investment earnings.

If you want more control over your investment choices, think you'll need to make withdrawals before retirement, are self-employed, or don't have a job with a retirement plan to roll your account into, having an IRA is a great option.

4. Rollover to a new workplace plan

If you land a new job with a retirement plan, it may allow a rollover from your old plan once you're eligible to participate. While the IRS allows rollovers into most retirement accounts, employer plans aren't required to accept incoming rollovers. So be sure to check with your new plan administrator about what's possible. 

Once you initiate a transfer from one workplace plan to another, you must complete it within 60 days to avoid taxes and a penalty.

Here are some advantages of doing a workplace-to-workplace rollover:

  • More convenience. Having all your retirement savings in one place may make it easier to manage and track.  
  • Taking early withdrawals. Retirees can begin taking penalty-free withdrawals from workplace plans as early as age 55.  
  • Avoiding Roth income limits. Unlike a Roth IRA, there are no income restrictions for participating in a Roth workplace retirement account.  
  • Getting more legal protections. Workplace retirement plans are covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a federal regulation. It doesn't allow creditors (except the federal government) to touch your account balance.

Some downsides to transferring money from one workplace plan to another include:

  • Having less flexibility. You can't take money out of a 401(k) or a 403(b) until you leave the company or qualify for an allowable hardship. It doesn't come with as many withdrawal exceptions compared to an IRA. 
  • Getting less control. You may have fewer investment choices or higher fees than an IRA, depending on the brokerage firm. 

5. Rollover to an account for the self-employed

If you left a job to become self-employed, having an IRA is a great option. However, there are other types of retirement accounts that you might consider, such as a solo 401(k) or a SEP-IRA, based on whether you have employees and on your business income. 

Read 4 Ways to Start a Retirement Account as a Self-Employed Freelancer or 5 Retirement Options When You're Self-Employed for more information. 

When is a Roth rollover allowed?

For a rollover to be tax-free, you must use a like account. For example, if you have a traditional 403(b), you must rollover to another traditional retirement account at work or to a traditional IRA.

If you move traditional, pre-tax funds into a post-tax, Roth account, you must pay income tax on any amount that wasn't previously taxed. That could leave you with a massive tax liability. If you want a Roth, a better move would be to open a Roth account at your new job or to start a Roth IRA (if your income doesn't make you ineligible to contribute). 

Where should you move an old retirement account?

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want. Other considerations include the quality of your old plan, your income, and whether you have a new job with a retirement plan that accepts rollovers.

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want.

The goal is to position your retirement money where you can keep it safe and allow it to grow using low-cost, diversified investment options. If you have questions about doing a rollover, get advice from your retirement plan custodian. They can walk you through the process to make sure you choose the best investments and don't break the rollover rules.

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How to Save for Retirement Without Your Employer’s Help

Saving for retirement is easy to put off, but delaying ultimately can make your life harder. Even if your work does not provide any retirement savings plan, you can still make it happen. It may seem frustrating to watch your friends add up their matching 401(k) contributions, but you do not have to be any… Read More

The post How to Save for Retirement Without Your Employer’s Help appeared first on Credit.com.

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What’s the Difference Between 401(k) and 403(b) Retirement Plans?

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What Is a Backdoor Roth IRA?

Jana S. asked this question recently about Roth IRAs:

I just listened to your podcast about what to do if you overcontribute to a tax-advantaged account, especially when you earn too much to qualify for a Roth IRA. I’m interested in how to do a backdoor Roth. What are the rules that apply for transferring funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth?

If you’re a regular Money Girl reader or podcast listener, you’ve heard me discuss the fantastic tax benefits of a Roth IRA. The problem is, as Jana mentioned, the door to a Roth IRA gets slammed in your face if you make too much money.

But sometimes when you can’t get in the front door, the backdoor is wide open! In this episode, I'll explain a strategy known as the backdoor Roth or Roth conversion. We’ll cover how high earners can have a Roth IRA without breaking the rules.

What is a Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is a retirement account for individuals that’s never taxed after you make contributions. Instead of getting an upfront tax deduction (like you do with deductible contributions to a traditional IRA), you can withdraw Roth IRA contributions and earnings entirely tax-free as long as you’ve had it for at least five years and reach age 59.5.

You can make IRA contributions as long as you have earned income and no matter your age, although you can’t contribute more to an IRA than you earn. To contribute the maximum for 2021, which is $6,000 or $7,000 for those over age 50, you must make at least that much.

For 2021, single taxpayers must have an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less to make a full Roth IRA contribution.

But, as I mentioned, not everyone qualifies for a Roth IRA. For 2021, single taxpayers must have an adjusted gross income of $125,000 or less to make a full contribution. And married couples who file joint taxes must earn $198,000 or less. If your income exceeds these annual limits, you can keep an existing Roth IRA, but you can’t make new contributions.

Note that if you have a Roth at work, such as a Roth 401(k) or 403(b), there are no income limits to qualify. Unlike a Roth IRA, you can max out these accounts every year no matter how much you earn.

RELATED: Can Minors and Seniors Have a Roth IRA?

What is a backdoor Roth IRA?

A backdoor Roth isn’t a type of retirement account, it’s a method for high earners to fund a Roth IRA even when they don’t qualify for regular contributions. If your income is below the annual Roth IRA threshold, you don’t need a backdoor Roth because you can make regular "front door" contributions.

In addition to tax-deductible contributions, you can also make nondeductible, taxable contributions to a traditional IRA. Interestingly, the IRS allows you to convert nondeductible IRA contributions to a Roth IRA, which is the “backdoor” concept. It's a clever and legitimate way to move money into a Roth IRA, even if you earn too much to qualify for one.

A backdoor Roth isn’t a type of retirement account—it’s a method for high earners to fund a Roth IRA even when they don’t qualify for regular contributions.

To create a backdoor Roth IRA, you must make a nondeductible (taxable) contribution to a traditional IRA and file IRS Form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs. Then you roll over those funds into a Roth IRA. You won't owe taxes, except on any investment growth in the account earned between the time of your traditional IRA contribution and the Roth conversion. If it was a short period, your earnings and resulting tax should be small. Once your funds are in a Roth IRA, the earnings can grow and be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

As I mentioned, there’s no income limit for traditional IRA contributions. So, converting nondeductible contributions from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA allows anyone, regardless of income, to fund a Roth IRA.

Problems with doing a backdoor Roth IRA

Though sneaking into a backdoor Roth IRA sounds great, it doesn’t always work as planned.

If you already have pre-tax money in a traditional IRA, tax must be prorated over all your IRAs.

The IRS requires you to lump all your IRAs together when you make a distribution and doesn’t allow you to cherry-pick one account to convert. So, if you already have pre-tax money in a traditional IRA, tax must be prorated over all your IRAs.

For example, let’s say you have $5,000 in a nondeductible IRA that you want to convert into a Roth IRA, and you also have $15,000 in a deductible IRA. Since you have a total of $20,000 in IRAs, the $5,000 nondeductible portion is 25% ($5,000 / $20,000 = 0.25 or 25%) and the taxable portion is 75% ($15,000 / $20,000 = 0.75 or 75%).

You must pay the same ratio of tax on the conversion. In other words, 75% of $5,000, or $3,750, would be subject to tax. It’s up to you to weigh the upfront tax liability against the future benefits of getting tax-free withdrawals from a Roth IRA.

However, if you don’t have any pre-tax IRA funds, you could convert the full $5,000 from a nondeductible IRA into a Roth IRA with no tax due. Yes, this gets complicated. Just remember that if you have a substantial amount of pre-tax funds in a traditional IRA, doing a backdoor Roth IRA doesn’t help you avoid additional tax. Unfortunately, you can’t convert just nondeductible funds and forget about your pre-tax amounts.

Workaround for doing a backdoor Roth IRA

If you really want to do a backdoor Roth IRA, and you have a retirement plan at work, you can use it as a workaround solution. You could remove your pre-tax IRA money from the equation by rolling it over into your 401(k) or 403(b). That would leave you with just nondeductible, after-tax IRA money to convert to a Roth. 

High earners who fund a backdoor Roth IRA still won't qualify to make new contributions to the account, but the converted funds grow tax-free, which could save a bundle.

This strategy only works if your workplace plan allows incoming IRA rollovers. Plus, make sure you're happy with the plan's investment choices and fees because you don't have as much control over a 401(k) as you do with an IRA. If you're self-employed, you could set up a solo 401(k) that allows roll-ins and move your pre-tax IRA money into it.  

Remember that high earners who fund a backdoor Roth IRA still won't qualify to make new contributions to the account. However, the converted funds grow tax-free, which could save a bundle in taxes. Additionally, Roth IRAs don't have required minimum distributions (RMDs), which means you can keep them indefinitely.

Doing a backdoor Roth can be worthwhile if you can afford to pay a potentially significant tax bill on your converted balance.

Consider that your converted funds count as income for tax purposes, which could move you into a higher tax bracket for that year. Plus, it's a transaction that you can't undo if you change your mind later on. So be sure to speak to a tax or financial advisor about the pros and cons of a backdoor Roth before crossing the threshold.