Ramsey’s Step 4: Invest 15% for Retirement

Just to recap, in this (more occasional than I intended) series I am discussing Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps.  I’m skipping steps 1, 3, and 5 because there’s not much to say about them.  (They are, in order, $1,000 to start an Emergency Fund, 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings, and College funding B&O_stock for children.) I’m sure that if I looked carefully into these three I could find something to disagree with, but with so many other things to get myself upset about, I just don’t have the time.

I already did step 2.  The official title of Step 4 is “Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement.”  Plenty there to get my dander up. Why 15%? Why Roth?  And then there’s how Ramsey wants you to invest the money.  Oh my.  This may be a long post.

There’s nothing scientific about 15%.  As far as I can tell, it’s just a number Ramsey thinks sounds about right.  Ramsey does concede that a few percent higher or lower probably won’t kill you, but, at least in The Total Money Makeover, he doesn’t explain why 15% and not 10% or 20%.  (Total Money Makeover has a chapter on each step and so is, along with his website, my primary source for his advice for this series.)

I  am not going to suggest a different percentage.  I am going to suggest that a single fixed percentage for all people at all income levels, wealth levels, and stages of life is beyond absurd.  A young person just starting out might rationally save nothing, if they expected income to grow significantly in the future, and a 50 year old who has not saved much so far should probably save a lot more than 15% if they want to retire in comfort.  I write a lot about how one-size-fits-all advice is the Achilles’ heel of mass market gurus, but this is possibly the most extreme example.

I have also previously discussed why a Roth IRA is not for everybody.  Reading Ramsey’s book and searching his website, I haven’t found any concession to the idea that there are any circumstances that would make a traditional IRA a better idea. 

One of the problems with discussing advice intended as “baby steps” is that it is impossible to distinguish between inaccuracies due to simplification for a simple audience and inaccuracies due to the speaker not knowing what he is talking about.  I assume that Ramsey would prefer his conflicts with reality to be considered well-meaning conscious deceptions on his part, rather than evidence that he has a weak command of his material. 

Unfortunately, on several topics, IRAs included, I’m leaning heavily towards ignorance as an explanation.  The following is from a radio show Q&A on his website, discussing a Roth IRA vs. a traditional 401k, italics his:

Let’s say you’re 30 years old bringing home $40,000 a year.  If you put 15% of that into retirement, that’s $6,000 a year – $500 a month.  If you put $500 a month into good growth stock mutual funds that average 12% from 30-70 years old, then you would have almost $6 million.  Over 40 years, you’ve put in $240,000 and your return is $6 million.

If you do that in a 401K, that money is taxable.  The money went in before taxes, but the money is taxable as it comes out.  Your $240,000 that went in pre-tax is almost irrelevant in light of the $6 million that is going to be taxed.

But if you put money in a Roth IRA, it grows tax-free.  That means if you put the same amount into the Roth, you’ve got $6 million, none of which goes to Uncle Sam.  The Roth IRA is always superior to the 401K because of this.

That last italicized bit is just flat-out unequivocally wrong.  The tax savings you get from the up-front deductibility of traditional IRA (or 401k) contributions is exactly the same as the tax savings you get from the distributions of Roths not being taxed, assuming tax rates are constant.  If the tax rate is higher now than in retirement, a traditional will save more money.

Ramsey passes along information that is false to millions of listeners.  That’s bad enough, but what is worse is that I am just about convinced he doesn’t know it is false.

Further evidence that Ramsey just doesn’t know any better can be found in his advice about how to invest the money inside your Roth.  Not only does he advocate putting it all into stock mutual funds, which is foolish enough, he wants you to put it all into growth stock mutual funds.

The stocks in the stock market, and the mutual funds that invest in them, can be divided into two broad categories, growth and value.  A person who knew no better might guess that growth was a better long-term investment, because, well, growing is a good thing, isn’t it? As a matter of fact, as broad asset classes, growth and value perform roughly the same over long periods, although over short periods one can do a lot better than the other.  (Since 1994, when the indexes started, the Russell 1000 Value has slightly outperformed the Russell 1000 Growth, 6.49% vs. 4.79% annualized.  See Russell.com for more.)

What you get if you invest in only growth funds is not more growth in the size of your investments, but more volatility.  A balanced mix of growth and value makes more sense, as does, for the same reason, investing less than 100% of your money in stocks.

Ramsey further convinces me that his understanding of this material is paper-thin when he gets specific as to what types of growth funds to invest in.  He recommends 25% in “growth & income” funds.  A civilian could be excused for thinking that a fund called “growth & income” is a growth fund, but Ramsey ought to know that those are generally value funds. (I know it doesn’t make sense, but it’s true.  Go to a site where you can search funds by name, e.g. to Fidelity, search on Growth & Income, and look at the Morningstar categories if you don’t believe me.  Most are value funds, some are blend, and only one or two is classified as growth.)

And then there is Ramsey’s aversion to ETFs. “ETFs are baskets of single stocks that intend to operate like mutual funds; but they are not mutual funds.” I’m not a huge fan of ETFs either, but they are, in fact, mutual funds, and do a pretty decent job of acting like the open-end index type.

Of course, all this misinformation can be excused a little bit by the fact that Ramsey wants you to work with a stock broker, who presumably will know what he is doing.  (That’s actually quite a presumption, but for now let’s ignore it.)  Ramsey may be the last person left who explicitly recommends that you buy old-style class A load funds, which can carry a commission of as much as 5%.  That’s very nice for the broker, but not so much for you.

In fact, it’s so nice for the broker, and Ramsey is so sure that you should use one rather than do it yourself without fees, that a cynic (e.g. me) might begin to wonder what Ramsey’s relationship with the full-service brokerage community is.  That turns out to be a very interesting subject, but one that will have to wait for another post.  This one is long enough already.

[Read the other posts in this series: Step 6, and Step 7.]

35 Comments

  • By ObliviousInvestor, April 15, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

    “The tax savings you get from the up-front deductibility of traditional IRA (or 401k) contributions is exactly the same as the tax savings you get from the distributions of Roths not being taxed, assuming tax rates are constant.”

    That darned commutative property of multiplication gets people every time! :)

  • By Wm Tanksley, April 15, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    …what do you mean by saying that ETFs are “in fact” mutual funds? They’re not mutual funds by regulation, nor by implementation, nor by sales, nor by tax law… In what way ARE they mutual funds? Is this a typo? It seems that Ramsey’s actually saying something conventional and reasonable in this case.

    Oh, also, I wanted to point out one minor reason to consider Roths: a strategy called “tax diversification”. If you already have a huge 401(k), you’re making a big bet on being in a smaller tax bracket when you retire. If you’re not totally certain that’s going to be the case, it might be worthwhile to consider putting money into a Roth. (I do agree with all your points in your Roth article, but just wanted to add a bit of strategy you didn’t mention.)

    As for the rest… I largely agree. I think there’s some value in Ramsey’s approach; it’s definitely better than remaining in debt, and has the advantage that one can reasonably carbon-copy the advice for anyone up to their elbows in debt. Tailored advice is always better — but tailored advice costs money up front.

  • By Baker @ ManVsDebt, April 15, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Frank,

    You are removing the baby step from context of his overall plan for people. For example, he just suggests saving 15% in retirement before college, before paying off house, and before growing wealth. The last step is of course to grow wealth and give which would include more retirement after the other two steps.

    In addition, by following his plan completely one would nearly always end up in a higher tax bracket come retirement. This would lend itself to why Roth’s would trump other investment vehicles in regards to his plan.

    I have no idea about anything having to do with mutual funds, growth funds, or ETF’s so I can’t contribute to that part of you post.

    Interesting, as always!

  • By mljhouse, April 15, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    Does anyone worry that “dire economic” conditions 20 or 30 years from now may result in Roth distributions becoming taxable despite the current promise that they won’t be?

  • By SJ, April 15, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    Long posts are exciting!

    And Yay math! Oh geez our school system… (tho hypotheticals w/ tax brackets are always terrible) Also, doesn’t that ignore the amount you can hide away, tax-free/defereed?

    As for combining them, I thought the idea was using the 401k/etc. to lower your effective tax rate to pay a smaller amount on your Roth IRA. Each making the other better!

    Aren’t some ETF’s almost identical to MF’s in terms of composition?

    All Blanket Statements are fail… except for this one =D

  • By Kevin, April 15, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    I have actually ran the numbers (because I’m a nerd) and if I save 15% for retirement, I’d actually be over-saving, and it would cause me to need to go into debt to fund my living expenses. I figured out that around 8% was the optimal retirement savings for myself, which would allow me to retire comfortably, and have enough to live on. We don’t need to die with too much left over.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, April 15, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

    Wm Tanksley: I’m not sure that there is a definitive definition of a “mutual fund.” (To lawyers they are investment companies.) If you have in mind only open-end funds as your definition, then yes, ETFs are very different. I use the term in a broader sense, including, for example, closed-end funds. ETFs are somewhat different in regulation, sales, taxes, etc. than open-end funds, but this is no more of a contrast than with closed-end funds. I don’t think my definition of the term is out of the mainstream. See, for example, the Wikipedia entry on mutual funds, which lists ETFs as one of several sub-types.

    And of course there are lots of good reasons to consider Roths. There are also good reasons to consider traditional, something Ramsey denies.

    Baker: If a person started young, they might very well end up in a higher tax bracket when retired. But what about if they started in late middle age? Or if they’re about to retire in a year or two and the loss of income will drop them a bracket? Or a dozen other reasonable scenarios? Ramsey doesn’t even hint that there is a way that a traditional could make sense.

    mljhouse: That is an excellent point I was hoping somebody would make. The people advocating Roths because of a prediction of what the government will do with tax policy decades from now should consider that the rules could just as easily be changed against Roths as in their favor.

  • By Andrew Stevens, April 15, 2009 @ 9:54 pm

    Does anyone worry that “dire economic” conditions 20 or 30 years from now may result in Roth distributions becoming taxable despite the current promise that they won’t be?

    Possible, but doubtful politically. A more likely scenario would be that if marginal tax rates rise to, say, 50% from their current 35%, Congress may decide to pass on the new 15% to Roths. This would be bad, but it would affect both choices equally. I think it would be politically difficult to double-tax Roths in a seriously disadvantageous way. It would be unclear why Congress would or even could (politically), for example, suddenly make Roths subject to normal income taxes, even though they’d already been taxed without double-taxing traditionals as well. Especially when you consider that there are income maximums on Roths, so such a move would look like a specific targeting of the poor and middle-class without a similar penalty for the rich.

    I regard predictions that Congress will suddenly “forget” the rules of Roths and specifically stick it to people who opted for them to be a very implausible scenario.

  • By Four Pillars, April 15, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    I don’t understand why someone would save so much that their income and tax rate would be dramatically higher in retirement. I would think they should retire well before they reach that point.

  • By Trent McBride, April 15, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    Add to all of that, his assumption that this hypothetical IRA is going to grow at 12% a year. Really? You want to count on that?

    Any assumption above 7-8% is way too optimistic, and greatly (and likely falsely) increases the expected value of your retirement fund.

  • By Rob Bennett, April 16, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    I am going to suggest that a single fixed percentage for all people at all income levels, wealth levels, and stages of life is beyond absurd.

    Fantastic comment.

    Cookie-cutter advice is a big problem. All effective financial planning needs to be personalized. It’s your personal belief in a financial plan that makes it work. Take that out and it won’t fly for the majority who try it.

    The other thing is that cookie-cutter advice shuts down the thinking processes. Taking the easy way on the fundamentals leads to taking the easy (and wrong) way on all other sorts of questions.

    Cookie-cutter advice is easy to give and it often goes viral – it gets repeated over and over because it is so simplistic. It just doesn’t work.

    I rarely see this point being made. I am impressed to see it being made here so forcefully and so unapologetically.

    Rob

  • By Zac, April 16, 2009 @ 10:44 am

    Four Pillars:
    If you had say a government pension guaranteed by serving in the military for 20 years but not 19 years 364 days and you decided to save up enough money to have 70-80% of your salary in retirement, regardless of your pension (because you don’t know you might not work for them that long) then you could easily end up in a very different tax bracket if you put in 20 or 30 years. Add to this cost of living adjustments that come with such a pension. I’m sure there are other scenarios where the same could happen.

  • By the weakonomist, April 16, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    Cookie Cutter advice is in fact the best advice one can give. It gets people started.

    The problem is lazy ‘Mericans STOP with that advice. We live by the rule of thumb and don’t take ownership of fitting the advice to your situation.

    Of course all I’ve managed to do here is rephrase Frank’s advice to allude to having an opposite opinion when in fact the opinion is shared. Regardless, I like getting and giving simple advice because I know how to use it.

  • By Heather B, April 16, 2009 @ 11:09 am

    I agree with most of your criticisms here, and have been enjoying the dose of rationality you inject into the PF-blogosphere.

    However, in your long quote, Ramsey is pretty much ignoring the pre- vs. post-tax issue for contributions. Note, he says “if you put the same amount into the Roth” as into the 401(k). That is, if you would put in the same dollar amount, whether or not it’s been taxed yet, you’ll come out ahead with the Roth. This is something applicable to me, as I’d be maxing out whichever kind of IRA I had. Now, if you could put (your marginal tax bracket)% more into the Traditional to account for the taxes at the end, *then* I would agree they’d be equal for me.

  • By Four Pillars, April 16, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Zac – You are right – there are always going to be situations where someone does proper planning but things end up changing on them.

    However, I would still say that constant monitoring and review of your financial plan would at least reduce this effect.

    The military person in your example who ignores their pension for financial planning might be doing the right thing when they first join (maybe they only planned to join for a couple of years?). However after a while, say 10 years then they should at least entertain the possibility that they might make their pension and adjust accordingly. Once they hit the 20 year mark then of course they need to adjust.

  • By Heather B, April 16, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    To be precise, I’d want to be able to put [(1/(1-my marginal tax rate)) * the Roth contribution] into the Trad.

  • By Rob M, April 16, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    There’s nothing specifically magic about 15% other than, when that percentage is saved over 35+ years of working, the amount one has in retirement is generally plenty to live a good life in retirement with enough money to spare. Less that this amount, you could outlive your retirement, more than this, you will probably need to jack up the lifestyle in retirement.

    Any number that any advisor chooses could be labelled as too much or too little depending on one’s own time horizon, risk tolerance, and general financial outlook, so we have to at least pick a number from which to start.

    (Kevin: instead of saying “if I save 15% for retirement, I’d actually be over-saving, and it would cause me to need to go into debt to fund my living expenses…. I figured out that around 8% was the optimal” you should say “I am living beyond my means by 7%” to have the proper perspective…)

  • By ObliviousInvestor, April 16, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    Sometimes I want to award prizes for the comments on this blog. For example, Heather B wins “best mathematical distinction” this time.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, April 16, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    Heather B: My point in making the long quote was not that Ramsey botched the math within his example, but that it’s flawed reasoning leading up to the amazingly general statement that “the Roth IRA is always superior.” Note that the contribution limits for a 401k are generally much higher than an IRA, so your limit-bound situation doesn’t apply.

    Oblivious Mike: If anybody’s going to give prizes for best comment, it will be me. So far my favorite of this week is gbevis at the end of Bloggers and Mortgage Interest.

  • By Wm Tanksley, April 16, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    mljhouse: as you indicate, any tax-advantaged investment can become tax-disadvantaged at Congress’ whim. But consider this: which brings in more money NOW, converting all standards by law to Roth, or converting all Roths to standard?

    Clearly, forcing all people with standard IRAs to convert to Roth will produce a huge immediate income to the government, but the money would still only be taxed once, and nobody would be affected in a _definitely_ unjust way (Congress could declare a reduced tax rate to make it CLEARLY a better deal). Converting the other way would cause a huge immediate feeling of unfairness (possibly even double-taxation) and would produce revenue slowly and in the future.

    So really… Although it’s _possible_ that Roth owners might get the rug jerked out from under them, it’s extremely unlikely.

  • By ObliviousInvestor, April 16, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

    Haha, yes, that one was a good one.

  • By Mike Leone, April 27, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

    I’m wondering about this:

    “The tax savings you get from the up-front deductibility of traditional IRA (or 401k) contributions is exactly the same as the tax savings you get from the distributions of Roths not being taxed, assuming tax rates are constant. If the tax rate is higher now than in retirement, a traditional will save more money.”

    1. I would question “assuming tax rates are constant”, especially if the amount you retire on is (unfortunately) less than your annual income now, as is the case for a large number of retirees.
    2. Assuming the above (that your annual income in retirement is less than your annual income now), then a traditional IRA would almost always been more advantages. If I make $60K a year in salary now, and have 20 years to go until retirement, then I have to have some way to try and ensure that I get $60K a year in retirement (or more, as I may make more in future years).

    I’m new at this, and sure I’m making some misunderstandings. Can someone (gently) point out where I’m being bone-headed here? :-)

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, April 28, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    No bone-headedness here. I made the (unlikely) assumption of the constant tax rate only to say that the two flavors of IRA are about equal in their tax avoidance powers. See my post on choosing between the IRA types for more.

  • By amanda, April 30, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

    I’m afraid I don’t understand what you are saying about tax saving being the same for Roth vs Traditional IRA/401k. It makes sense that the tax benefits on the contribution amount would be similar, but what about the growth? The 5.8 million (in his example) would be taxable at distribution for an IRA, but not for a Roth. How can the tax writeoff of the 240k contribution even begin to compare to the tax savings on $5.8 million, even if you were in a much higher tax bracket at the time of contribution? Am I misunderstanding some aspect of the laws?

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, April 30, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    On the basis of pre-tax dollars in and post-tax dollars out, if the tax rate is the same then the types of IRAs are identical.

    Assume a 25% tax rate. $1000 pre-tax goes into a traditional, grows to $10,000 after many years, but is taxed on the way out, leaving you with $7,500. For the Roth, the same $1000 becomes a $250 tax payment and a $750 contribution to the IRA. After the same number of years, you have $7,500, but you can withdraw it tax free. If the tax rate going in was higher, then a traditional would be better. If it was lower, then a Roth will make you more money. More on this here.

  • By Ryan, March 1, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    I could be off, but just a thought…

    I believe Dave Ramsey’s advocation of Roth’s come from the basic human adoration of round numbers. For example, when somebody opens an IRA (of either kind) and they set up distributions, they’ll do so as (for example) $1000/month. Thus, in either a traditional or Roth IRA, you end the year with a $12,000 investment basis. So the Roth investor pays the taxes out of the money pool with which the traditional investor does what most people do with a large tax refund check, namely buy lattes and televisions. Thus, at retirement, a Roth investor has more money while a traditional investor has less money, and a lifetime of lattes and televisions.

  • By Christopher Johnson, April 24, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

    Has anyone given any thought to the implications of how taxes are actually paid/calculated? For example, someone that makes 100k, and is in a 25% tax bracket does NOT pay 25k in taxes because of the progressive system. They pay much less than 25K.

    If you put 1000 dollars into a traditional IRA or 401K(assuming you are eligible for for deductibility) you save taxes on 1000 dollars of your highest tax bracket.

    On the other hand, if that same 1000 dollars grew into 10000 dollars 30 years later, when you take out your first 10000 dollars for the year in retirement, you would actually pay almost no taxes even when taken out of a taxable account.

    Even Warren Buffet pays nothing on his first 10k of income each year.

    In many cases, I think this phenomenon strengthens the argument for traditional 401ks, and sometimes traditional IRAs (if you qualify for deductibility).

  • By Christopher Johnson, April 24, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    I was slightly incorrect, the bottom tax bracket applies to the first 8300 dollars, and is actually 10% (according to wikipedia).

    So even the super rich pay only 830 dollars in taxes on their first 8350 dollars of income.

    On the other hand, when you contribute money to your 401k, you reduce your top-line earnings, which saves you taxes out of your HIGHEST tax bracket.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tax_bracket explains what I mean.

  • By Paul Williams, May 25, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    You are actually correct about having a portion of income that is not taxed at all, Christopher Johnson.

    All taxpayers who are not dependents are able to claim a personal exemption and standard deduction. All income up to this amount is essentially in a 0% tax bracket.

    And this is why it may be advantageous to have both a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA/401(k)/or similar. You want to make sure you fill up that 0% tax bracket every year of your life for the maximum benefit. Mike at Oblivious Investor has at least one post, perhaps a few posts, that make this point quite well.

  • By John, May 20, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

    Don’t forget that at the margin when you decrease your taxable income you continue to receive child tax credits and interest deductions.

  • By Byron, May 26, 2013 @ 7:01 am

    Thank you for any other excellent post. The place else may just anybody get that kind
    of information in such a perfect manner of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such info.

  • By Panele S³oneczne, August 12, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    I think that this it’s a very interesting idea and I agree with you. This post has really rich my learning and experience, I’m glad. I found this site and I can share with you my observations and thoughts. If you have new solutions or ideas, please send me a message by email.

  • By Brian Goodsell, April 9, 2019 @ 11:42 pm

    Man you are good a picking and choosing what Dave says so that you can attack his guidelines. Dave tries his best to answer investment and tax questions but every time he’s asked he says he is not an expert in either and that the caller should contact a professional. And yes he does recommend his ELPs because they have been vetted by his team, they are all either working on or finished the baby steps and they have the heart of a teacher. They won’t tell you to do something you don’t understand and they won’t pressure you to just trust them and they make sure you understand what they’re doing with your money before you leave their office. Also he doesn’t have ELPs in every little town so really what he recommends is to find a pro with the heart of a teacher. And he definitely does not say to only invest in Roths. There’s a limit of $5500 per year that you can invest into Roths. If that doesn’t cover your 15% he tells you to invest in other things. A big one is traditional IRAs because of the back door Roth loophole where you invest in a traditional then roll it over to a Roth. You do pay taxes on the investment but it grows tax free. If you can start early enough and invest enough especially into Roths, the compound interest can turn a small amount of taxed income into a huge pile of tax free growth. If you retire and have all of your savings in 401k/traditional IRAs and most of mine is in Roths and we both have distributions of 100k a year, I would have more money per year for me and my family than you because I paid a little bit of tax before I invested it and you didn’t so you ate still paying income tax. Dave also talks about diversification. He 100% tells people that are debt free to take a 401k match if they can. He is also a big advocate for investing in real estate as part of a retirement plan. Dave has been doing this for 25 years, he’s been on the radio almost that long and written numerous books. You read one, and it seems like you skipped parts, or maybe you just leave certain details out so it fits into your “Dave is a dummy” rants better. But about 75% of what I’ve read that you’ve written is you misunderstanding, twisting words, leaving out key parts or just plain false. He’s helped over a million people get out of debt, every day on his show he gives away over $1000 in free classes and books, and not just his books, if he knows of a book to help someone in a certain situation he gives it to them. It’s getting to the point now, also, that people that started following his guides 20 years ago are calling in to say that not only have they been debt free for years buy now, because they followed his plan, maybe not exactly to the letter but close enough, that they have retired with over a million dollars in retirement investments. How many people are millionaires because they listed to you? Probably not one seems how you would rather borrow $300,000 to invest in junk bonds rather than pay off your house. My house is paid for and it’s worth double now than what I paid for it. But if I listened to you, you’d probably tell me to sell it, invest the money in something that’s tax deference and go rent a place. That’s horrible advice but it’s basically what you’ve said throughout this little “Dave’s wrong about everything” blog. Debt is dumb, cash is king!

  • By License Test, April 30, 2019 @ 6:32 am

    I got this web site from my buddy who informed me regarding
    this web page and now this time I am visiting this website
    and reading very informative posts here.

Other Links to this Post

  1. proxy solicitation materials — April 30, 2019 @ 3:17 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

WordPress Themes