If you lose money in the market, there is always a chance you can get it back in time. Lose money to taxes and it's gone forever.
So say IRA and tax guru Ed Slott and other experts who've been thinking about ways to shelter as much of our collective $4.5 trillion Individual Retirement Account savings as possible from what may be higher taxes ahead. You can't cut a $1 trillion-plus federal budget deficit in half without squeezing somewhere, the mavens reason. And despite promises to the contrary, you can't count on just the other guy getting squeezed.
But you can minimize the damage. A whole bunch of recent tax changes make it a lot easier to convert traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs, but just in 2009 and 2010. The costs of converting are low now too, thanks, if that's the word, to the way the markets have whacked many of our retirement savings.
Here's how it works. IRAs give you two choices. You can put $5,000 ($6,000 if you are 50 or older) into a traditional IRA and deduct that contribution if you are willing to pay income taxes on the money when you pull it out. Or you can forget about the deduction for now, put the money in a Roth and pay no taxes when you withdraw it.
You also can convert your traditional IRA to a Roth, though you will pay taxes on what's in the account when you make the switch. It's not much consolation if your retirement savings have taken a 25 percent or greater hit, but markets like these really trim the tax bite if you convert.
There is even one-time break for taxpayers switching soon, say contributors Michael Slemmer and Ben Norquist to the FPA Journal. Taxpayers who convert in 2010 can delay recognizing part of their additional taxable income until 2011 and 2012.
There are a slew of details to wade through to see if converting makes sense for you specifically. Your friendly tax professional or financial advisor will be glad to help you sort things through. They want the work too.