Paul Meloan – Vested Interest

I know that most young people don’t make very much money.  I also know that it’s hard to be a college student, at least financially.  Costs are up.  Aid is down.  Loans are expensive. I get it.  Seriously, I get it.

Having acknowledged all of that, I want to remind the young people about the biggest financial opportunity that is available to them.  It takes full advantage of the two greatest assets young people enjoy: time, and tax-free growth.

It’s called the Roth IRA.  You have probably heard of it.  But in case that term is not familiar to you, permit me a moment to outline the basic features of a Roth IRA.

Let me warn you up front: this might hurt.  I am not being facetious.  I know that if you don’t make much money, or don’t have a job at all right now, this is going to require sacrifice.  If you don’t have a job (say you are a full-time college student), you will need to get one.  If you are living on the money you are making, you will need to find a way to earn some more, or to spend less.  What I am convinced of is that the effort on your part will be completely and totally worth it.

You may contribute money each year, up to $5,500 or your earned income, whichever is less.  This is important: you have to EARN the money either through a job or from self-employment.  Investment income doesn’t count.  Gifts are not income. You put the money into a retirement account (the Roth IRA, named after a former Delaware senator) where it is invested in the usual assets: stocks, mutual funds, bonds, etc.  Then you leave it alone.

You put another $5,500 in next year, and the year after.  Lather, rinse, repeat. You do this until one of two things happens: either you reach retirement age or you make too much money to be able to make a contribution.  That limit is presently $114,000 per year if you’re single, and $181,000 per year if you’re married.   You have to be doing pretty well before you get shut out. Once you reach age 59 and 1/2, any withdrawals from the Roth IRA are TAX FREE.  (Yes, I know there are nitpicky exceptions, but I’m going to ignore them right now to emphasize the larger truth).  If you want all the glorious details, I suggest you curl up with a recent copy of IRS Publication 590.   Don’t wait for the movie to come out.

How much money are we talking here?  An 18 year old who contributes $5,500 per year for every year through age 30 (13 years) and then leaves the money alone until age 70 will have $3.9 million in his account. If he contributes through age 35, that number grows to just over $4.6 million.

All of that assumes an annualized return of 9%.  That is below the CRSP database annualized return of 9.9% for all US stocks from 1926 through 2013.

Yes, I know that inflation will mean those dollars will be worth less.  That’s why you have to put the money in stocks and leave it alone for decades: stocks are the one asset that has been proven to beat inflation over long periods of time.

Time is on your side, young people.  Use it!

Paul Meloan is the co-founder and co-managing member of Aegis Wealth Management, LLC, in Bethesda, Maryland USA. Before Aegis Paul was a practicing attorney as well as working in the tax practice of Ernst & Young, LLP.

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