Do Roth and 401(k) Pre-Tax Holders Really Spend Differently?

An interesting—and somewhat counterintuitive—report came out last week, one that cast doubt on the “common wisdom” regarding Roth versus traditional pre-tax savings.

The assumption underlying the research[i] was that those who had not yet paid taxes on their savings (the traditional pre-tax savings) would be hesitant to tap into those savings and trigger taxes, certainly more so that individuals that had already paid those taxes. Instead, the research suggested that the opposite occurred; that individuals who had saved on a pre-tax basis actually withdrew more/sooner—but with a twist. 

This they hailed as good news. They noted that the research suggests investing in a CT (current-taxed, or Roth) plan could help ease concerns about outliving funds—because they spend at a lower rate (though they saw this as a negative for those who saved on a deferred tax (DT) basis).  They even managed to find a silver lining in the “cloud” of faster spending by the pre-tax crowd because those individuals appeared to be trying to adjust for the effect of taxes (with the caveat “despite our findings that they do not appear to adjust sufficiently, if at all”). And they saw as a positive this report’s contribution to the “accounting literature exploring the effectiveness and consequences of incentivizing behaviors through tax policy, by highlighting how past decisions motivated by taxes (e.g., retirement plan type) may continue to affect one’s quality of life long into the future.”

A few words of caution would seem to be in order, however. This wasn’t based on the patterns of actual people spending their actual money in the real world. Rather, and to their credit, they constructed a laboratory environment of sorts; they selected a group of volunteers, gave them certain criteria—basically a role they would “play” in the experiment—and set out a spending scenario. They then had them read about various spending choices—and, well—recorded how the individuals chose.

As for their conclusions, when you probe into the results more carefully, what you see is that even though those who had pre-tax accounts ostensibly feel the “pain” of taxes due on their retirement withdrawals—and that appeared to restrict their spending—it seemed to be offset by another reality. That, for reasons not understood/explained, those same individuals appeared to relish the expected benefits of consumption more than Roth holders. Said another way, their “reservations”— the cognizance of taxes—didn’t seem to constrain their spending because they were (more) enamored of the benefits of spending. Indeed, the researchers commented that those with “equivalent nominal balances” actually spent at the same rate.

I’ll just comment that it’s an interesting premise—and that the test environment created struck me as detailed and complex to map out, establish and execute. That said, I would be hesitant to draw any substantive conclusions on actual human behavior from this analysis. To me, all it seemed to “prove” is that people selected for an experiment tend to spend to the perceived “limits” of their hypothetical account, regardless of taxation. It didn’t strike me that Roth holders spent less (as many headlines covering the report suggested), but rather that pre-tax holders spent the same, even though they were going to have to deal with a tax bill at some point (hypothetically, of course).

And that, to me, isn’t a positive thing for Roths so much as it is a cautionary note for pre-tax savers—who may have forgotten that tax deferral is just that.


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