Question: I'm a 52-year-old domestic worker who finds it difficult to set aside part of my salary in a savings account, but I'm definitely not counting on Social Security when I retire. Since I don't make enough to set aside $2,000 in an IRA account, do you think the next best thing is to invest in Series EE savings bonds for retirement?
Answer: I'm more optimistic than you are about the future of Social Security. I'm sure there will have to be changes in the program, but I also believe it will survive in some form reasonably close to what it is at present--at least for those like you who are approaching retirement.
Of course Social Security was never intended to be the principal source of retirement income, so you're wise to be making supplemental provisions.
But I think you misunderstand the IRA program. The $2,000 amount that figures so prominently in IRA advertising and news stories is a ceiling, not a minimum.
If you can only afford, say, $600 a year ($50 a month) for retirement savings, you're still better off in an IRA than with Series EE bonds. And many IRA accounts will accept small periodic investments--some as little as $25 each.
At your age, and considering that you're depending on these funds as your principal source of retirement income, I would stay away from any kind of speculative investment. But try one of the special IRA certificates offered by banks, saving and loan associations and credit unions.
Some of these accounts are offering a current return of 14 percent or more--almost double what you can get on a Series EE bond. And they're equally safe, insured in most cases by an agency of the federal government.
Q: I am employed by the federal government. My wife works for a charitable organization and is covered by a tax-sheltered annuity into which she deposits $4,000 a year. Am I prohibited from having an IRA because of my wife's participation in the TSA?
A: No. Even if you file a joint tax return, each spouse can qualify independently for his or her own IRA regardless of the other partner's circumstances. (The only exception is the spousal IRA, which requires that one spouse have no earned income.)
I'm glad you asked the question, because it provides another opportunity to correct an error that appeared in this column last fall. Contrary to what I said then, employes of charitable and educational organizations who participate in a tax-sheltered annuity are eligible for an IRA in addition to the TSA.
So if you are otherwise qualified, you can deposit up to $2,000 a year into an IRA based on your federal earnings; and your wife can also have her own IRA even though she is participating in a TSA at work.
Q: I know it is acceptable to the IRS to deduct expenses related to the production of income, like the cost of investment publications. However, when I called them for an opinion on deducting a personal computer with investment programming, they said no. Any suggestions?
A: The whole area of personal computers is new, and I haven't seen an official IRS position yet. Nor do I know of any Tax Court decisions on the subject (although that doesn't necessarily mean there haven't been any).
I think this question, like so many others in the tax arena, depends on the concept of "reasonableness" and the individual circumstances.
For instance, it would be difficult to justify a $2,000 computer expense to support a $10,000 investment portfolio with two or three trades a year.
But if you have a substantial portfolio and an active trading history I think you could make a good case for claiming the cost of the computer as an investment expense.
Of course, if you use the computer for other purposes--like maintaining a household budget, balancing your checkbook or shooting down invaders from the planet Qurk--you would have to allocate the costs proportionately, probably on the basis of relative time on the machine.
In short, if you have a large and active investment portfolio, I suggest you claim an appropriate share of the cost (including the total cost of the investment software). But be prepared to support the deduction with factual documentation--it is likely to be questioned by the IRS.