Keep Bonds Out Of Your Roth IRA

October 8th, 2022
28

There’s a significant debate in the financial community about where investors should put their bonds.

Some people keep it simple and purchase their desired asset allocation in each of their accounts, including their taxable account, 401(k), HSA, 529, etc.

However, because of the preferential tax treatment of certain investment accounts, some people think that you could gain an advantage by having different asset allocations in different accounts.

For example, let’s say that you wanted to hold an 80% stock / 20% bond portfolio and you have a $50,000 taxable account and a $50,000 401(k). You could hold $40,000 in stocks and $10,000 in bonds in each account, or you could choose to hold $50,000 in stocks in one account and $30,000 stocks / $20,000 bonds in the other account.

Bonds in taxable or bonds in retirement accounts?

Those who argue for holding bonds in tax-protected accounts argue that bonds are less tax-efficient than stocks, so they should be held in tax-protected retirement accounts.

Others (such as the White Coat Investor in this post) argue forcefully that you should hold bonds in taxable, because you want to maximize the tax benefits of your retirement investment accounts by maximizing the return of the assets in those accounts. This means holding lots of stocks in those retirement accounts.

I strongly believe that no matter where you fall in this debate, you should not hold bonds in your Roth IRA. In order to hold zero bonds in your Roth IRA, you should adjust your allocation in your 401(k), taxable, and other accounts accordingly.

401(k)s Get Taxed, While Roth IRAs Do Not

Let’s take the option of putting bonds in a taxable account aside for a moment. Let’s say that you had to put bonds in a retirement account, and you could put the bonds in either your 401(k) or your Roth IRA.

Would you put the bonds in the 401(k), the Roth IRA, or some in both?

Whether you put your bonds in your 401(k) or in your Roth IRA, the total value of the two accounts (401(k) + Roth IRA) at the time of retirement will be the same. This is because capital gains taxes are not levied on either account.

However, withdrawals from the Roth IRA will not be taxed, while 401(k) withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. In fact, you are required to begin withdrawing from your 401(k) beginning at age 70.5 (required minimum distributions).

Knowing that the total value of your 401(k) and Roth IRA at the time of retirement will be the same regardless of how you allocate your asset classes between the two accounts, would you want to have more of that money in the Roth IRA or the 401(k)?

The Roth IRA, of course. You would want as much money in the account with tax-free withdrawals (Roth IRA) and as little money in the account that will tax withdrawals as ordinary income (401(k)).

As a result, your goal should be to put asset classes with high expected returns, such as stocks, into the Roth IRA. This will maximize the Roth IRA’s value (which will not get taxed at retirement), relative to the value of the 401(k).

On the other hand, you should put asset classes with low expected returns, such as bonds, into the 401(k). This minimizes the 401(k)’s value (which will be taxed upon withdrawal as ordinary income), relative to the value of the Roth IRA.

Conclusion

You can put bonds in taxable. My preference would be to put bonds in a 401(k). But I would not recommend putting bonds in a Roth IRA. Investments in a Roth IRA should be reserved for asset classes with high expected returns (i.e. stocks) or investments that are very tax-inefficient (i.e. real estate).

What do you think? What is the asset allocation of your Roth IRA? Do you think bonds should go in a taxable, 401(k), or Roth IRA account?

28 COMMENTS

  1. As someone who just switched his Roth IRA from stocks to bonds, I am now going to go back and switch it again. I was doing it for ease of asset allocation but now see the error in my thinking. Thanks.

    What about keeping REITs in a Roth?

    • DDD,
      REITs should be in a tax-advantaged account since they are very tax-inefficient.
      When you say switched Roth IRA from stocks to bonds, were you changing your asset allocation too? or just where they were held e.g. traditional 401K?
      I don’t think WSP mentioned Roth 401K, but I’m assuming he wouldn’t put bonds there either? I do have bonds in all of my accounts. I will have to think this through more to see if I want to change anything. Bonds produce a lot of interest income and it has been good for me to have that shielded. That is ordinary income whereas stock capital gains are at a lower rate and index total stock funds can be tax efficient.

    • REITs are relatively tax-inefficient, and it would make sense to keep these in a retirement account over taxable. As per traditional 401(k) vs. Roth, my preference would be to put them in a 401(k) account (they have lower expected returns than stocks), but not all 401(k)s offer real estate / REIT options.

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  3. I have four accounts currently holding retirement funds: HSA, Roth 401K, Roth IRA, and taxable brokerage. Which of the accounts would you hold the total bond fund in for the 3 fund portfolio?

  4. Huh. I’ve always thought we held bonds in our account to help offset large losses when stocks take a nose-dive. Doesn’t it make sense to preserve some value in your Roth by holding some bonds in that case scenario? By eliminating all bonds, aren’t we exposing our Roth to more risk/loss and thus more likely to have a lower balance by eliminating bonds, not a higher balance?

  5. What if you are, say, 5 years out from early retirement and intend to withdraw contributions from the Roth IRA account for living expenses for the first 5 years until the Traditional -> Roth ladder kicks takes full effect? In this case it seems as if one might want a less risky Roth, and thus some bonds. Some might say that you should not draw on the Roth and should instead have funds in a taxable account, but that’s not my situation. I have the opportunity to be maxing out a Roth 403b every year, as well as the Roth IRA, and there is not much left over for a taxable account. So that’s where the bulk of my funds are Roth. Does it make sense to have some bonds in the Roth, and some bonds in my traditional account? Should the accounts be equally allocated across asset classes? Or perhaps skewed to de-risk the account that you will need first?

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