Tax-Free Savings Accounts and Other Places to Save Tax-Free

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Most savings accounts—and similar places to park your cash, such as money market funds—require that you pay taxes on the interest you earn. A few types of savings accounts and other financial instruments are exceptions to this rule and might be worth considering if you are seeking ways to reduce your tax bill and stretch your savings.

There are two ways that savings accounts can reduce your tax bill. Some accounts let you deposit pre-tax money, reducing your taxable income in the year you contribute. Other accounts allow the money you put in to earn interest tax-free, reducing your tax burden in the future.

Key Takeaways

  • In most cases, interest paid in savings accounts is taxed.
  • Certain tax-advantaged retirement accounts, education savings accounts, and other savings vehicles offer ways to cut taxes on your savings.
  • Some of these accounts let you contribute pre-tax money, while others let your money grow tax-free.

Tax-Advantaged Retirement Accounts

Whether you’re just starting your career or closing in on retirement, saving for retirement should be a high priority. Using certain types of accounts will lower your taxes, leaving you with more retirement savings.

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

There are several types of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) that help you save on taxes in different ways. The money you invest in a Roth IRA was taxed before you deposited it, and the interest will not be taxed when the money is withdrawn for retirement. Nor are you taxed on any of the interest paid into the account before it is withdrawn.

Traditional IRAs let you deduct the amount you contribute from your income, lowering your tax burden for that year. While your money is in the account, it grows tax-free; you pay no taxes on the interest it earns. However, when you take the money out, you’ll have to pay income tax at your current rate on both your deposits and the money they earned while in the account. SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs are both types of traditional IRAs.

401(k) Plans and Other Similar Savings Accounts

Employer-sponsored 401(k) plans let you defer part of your paycheck toward a retirement account. You aren’t taxed on any income you put into a 401(k), so you lower your total taxable earnings for the year for every dollar you contribute. In some cases, your employer may contribute to the account, making it even more advantageous.

Similar to 401(k)s, 403(b) plans are for public school employees and those who work for some tax-exempt organizations, while 457 plans are available to certain government and non-profit employees.

In all these accounts, earnings on your investments go untaxed until you withdraw your funds. Then, both contributions and earnings are taxed at your current income tax rate. In addition, since 2006, the 401(k) has had a Roth 401(k) option at employers that chose to offer one. As with a Roth IRA, you set aside post-tax income and do not get a deduction for your contribution. But the account grows tax-free, and there are no taxes on withdrawals. Employer matching funds, if any, are taxable upon withdrawal, as with a regular 401(k).

Flexible Spending Accounts and Health Savings Accounts

Flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs) are programs that help provide some tax relief while helping with healthcare expenses and, in the case of certain FSAs, childcare expenses, too. Although the names sound similar, there are some key differences.

FSAs:

  • Must be sponsored by an employer
  • Must be set up with a deposit amount that usually must be declared at the start of the year and cannot be changed
  • Do not roll over—if you don’t use the money, you lose it
  • Are available for both healthcare and childcare expenses
  • Don’t require that you have a high-deductible health insurance plan

HSAs:

  • Do not require an employer sponsor
  • Can be opened by anyone with a high-deductible health insurance plan
  • Can be rolled over year to year—you don’t lose your money if you don’t spend it
  • Can earn interest
  • Can only be spent on qualifying health-related expenses
  • Can serve as an extra source of retirement savings

Health savings accounts can be opened for those who have a high-deductible health plan. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), for 2021 and 2022, a high deductible health plan has a minimum annual deductible of $1,400 for self-only coverage or $2,800 for family coverage.

Also, under a high-deductible plan, annual out-of-pocket expenses do not exceed $7,000 for self-only coverage or $14,000 for family coverage for 2021, but for 2022, do not exceed $7,050 for self-only coverage or $14,100 for family coverage. Out-of-pocket expenses include deductibles and co-payments, but not monthly insurance premiums.

The annual contribution limit for a health savings account is $3,600 for 2021 for individuals and $7,200 for families. However, the 2022 contribution limit is $3,650 for individuals and $7,300 for families.

What FSAs and HSAs have in common is that you contribute to them before you pay income tax on your earnings—thus stretching the dollars you have to spend on healthcare. If you have one-time or recurring medical expenses or an upcoming procedure that is not fully covered by insurance, and you have a good estimate of what your medical (and childcare) needs for the next year will be, it is worth considering one of these accounts.

Limited purpose FSAs are special types of FSAs that you can have along with an HSA. They can be used for vision, dental, and medical expenses once you meet your insurance deductible.

Education Savings Accounts

College or other education costs are another significant expense and reason that people save money. Certain savings accounts can help by reducing the taxes you pay.

529 Accounts

A 529 plan now lets you save for both K-12 education and post-secondary education costs. (Previously, only post-secondary costs were allowed.) There are two main types: prepaid tuition plans, which let you pay now for future attendance at certain schools (locking in current tuition rates), and savings plans, which are invested and grow tax-free. Many states also offer tax benefits on the money you contribute.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

Similar to a 529, a Coverdell education savings account is a trust or custodial account that can be used to pay for elementary, secondary, or post-secondary education expenses. Distributions are tax-free when made for qualifying expenses, though any money remaining in the account when the beneficiary turns 30 must be distributed and is then taxed. By contrast, there is no age limit for the beneficiary of a 529 plan.

Municipal Bonds

Municipal bonds (or “munis”) are bonds sold by local governments to support public improvement projects. They generally have a fixed rate of return and a set length of time. There are short-term bonds, which mature in anywhere from one to three years, and long-term bonds, which don’t mature for more than a decade.

To encourage investment in local government projects, the interest earned on municipal bonds is free from federal taxes (some, but not all, municipal bonds are exempt from state and even local tax if you live in the state in which the bond was issued).

Munis pay relatively low-interest rates, but most are considered to be low-risk investments. These bonds are popular with people in high tax brackets because they help reduce their tax burden while still earning interest and with older adults because they are generally low-risk investments.

A bonus: Investing in your own city or town’s municipal bonds allows you to support projects in the community where you live. You receive improved public resources while earning tax-free interest on your savings.

One alternative to investing directly in a municipal bond is to choose a municipal bond fund. If you want to be exempt from state (and even local) taxes, you need to live in the state where the bond is issued.

Permanent Life Insurance

Perhaps a less-known way to accumulate tax-free growth and income is through the use of permanent life insurance policies that carry cash value, such as whole life or universal life. These policies have a death benefit component and a cash component that may be borrowed against—or drawn down—while the insured is alive.

This money grows each year at a modest rate via dividends, which may not be subject to taxation in many cases. If you withdraw money that you have contributed (the basis), you will not have to pay any taxes. Alternatively, you can borrow against your policy’s cash value tax-free and let the policy dividends cover the interest expenses.

What are examples of tax-advantaged retirement accounts that’ll help cut your tax bill?

Putting your money into individual retirement accounts and 401(k) plans will help you keep more money in your pocket. With a Roth 401(k), deposits are made with after-tax dollars, so they are withdrawn tax-free after retirement. Public school employees can deposit money into their 403(b) retirement plan, while 457 plans are available to certain government and non-profit employees.

What college savings accounts might help consumers pay fewer taxes in the long run?

Savings in a 529 or Coverdell education savings account are withdrawn tax-free if they’re used for qualified education expenses. The 529 was expanded to cover K-12 education in 2017 and apprenticeship programs in 2019. With a Coverdell, any money remaining in the account when the beneficiary turns 30 must be distributed and is then taxed.

The Bottom Line

Savings accounts are usually taxed on the interest they earn. So if you can invest in a tax-free account, you will be able to stretch your money even further. Although each type of tax-free instrument has its limitations, they are all tools that can help you reach your financial goals. 

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