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Taxes on Social Security: 2 ways to save

Key takeaways

  • You may end up paying taxes on your Social Security benefits, depending on your household income.
  • One key to reducing your tax burden in retirement is to reduce your taxable income, and there are strategies available to do that.
  • If you can delay receiving your Social Security benefits and qualify for a partial Roth conversion, you may be able reduce the amount of taxes you pay in retirement.

You work at your job, you pay taxes, then when you retire, you get Social Security benefits tax-free, right?

Wrong. Up to 85% of the Social Security benefits you get each year could be subject to tax, depending on your household income.

What’s more, 100% of your withdrawals from traditional IRAs and traditional 401(k)s will likely be considered taxable income.

There are ways to keep more of your retirement income—but first, it helps to understand how retirement income is taxed.

Taxes on retirement income

In retirement, different kinds of income are taxed differently:

  • Most interest on bank deposit accounts (such as CDs or checking and savings accounts) is taxed at the same federal income tax rate as the money you receive from paid work.
  • Distributions from traditional 401(k)s and IRAs are typically subject to the tax rates associated with your current marginal tax bracket.
  • Dividends paid or gains from the sale of stocks are taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on how long you've held the stock, your taxable income, and your tax filing status.
  • Other income—such as qualified withdrawals from a Roth IRA, a Roth 401(k), or a health savings account (HSA)—are not subject to federal income taxation and do not factor into how your Social Security benefit is taxed.1

When the total income calculated under the combined income formula for Social Security is more than the threshold ($34,000 for singles and $44,000 for couples), up to 85 cents of every Social Security income dollar can be taxed. (Not to worry: Your Social Security benefits can’t be taxed more than 85%.)

So as you work with financial and tax professionals, consider the following 2 strategies. (Note that if your and your spouse’s combined annual retirement income is more than $100,000, you will likely need additional tax planning.)

1. Converting savings into a Roth IRA

"One strategy to reduce the taxes you pay on your Social Security income involves converting traditional 401(k) or IRA savings into a Roth IRA," says Shailendra Kumar, director at Fidelity's Financial Solutions.

Not everyone can contribute to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) because of IRS-imposed income limits, but you still may be able to benefit from a Roth IRA's tax-free growth potential and tax-free withdrawals by converting existing money from a traditional IRA or a workplace retirement savings account into a Roth IRA. This process of converting some of your IRA or 401(k) into a Roth IRA is known as a partial Roth conversion.

"You can choose to convert as much or as little as you want of your eligible traditional IRAs. This flexibility enables you to manage the tax cost of your conversion," adds Kumar. "A Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) can help you save on taxes in retirement. Not only are withdrawals potentially tax-free,2 they won't impact the taxation of your Social Security benefit. This is an important aspect of a Roth account that most people are not aware of.”

Remember: The amount you convert is generally considered taxable income, so you may want to consider converting only the amount that could bring you to the top of your current federal income tax bracket. You also may want to consider basing your conversion amount on the tax liability you may incur, so you can pay your taxes with cash from a nonretirement account. Consult a tax professional for help.

Tip: To learn more about Roth conversions, read Viewpoints on Answers to Roth conversion questions

2. Delaying your Social Security benefit claim

"The other strategy,” says Kumar, “involves postponing when you first take Social Security. Both approaches can help shave dollars off your tax bill in retirement every year—it just takes a little forward planning."

Consider a hypothetical couple named Natalie and Juan: For every year they delay taking Social Security past their full retirement age (FRA), they get up to an 8% increase in their annual benefit.

A hypothetical couple claiming Social Security at age 65 vs. age 70

Natalie and Juan Retired at age 65; claimed Social Security at age 65 Retired at age 65; delayed Social Security claim until age 70*
IRA withdrawals $50,777 $38,820
Annual Social Security benefit $24,000 $34,000
Percentage of Social Security income that is taxable 85% 47%
Taxes paid on IRA withdrawals and Social Security benefit $4,777 $2,820
Net "Retirement income paycheck" $70,000 $70,000
Net tax savings $1,957
For illustrative purposes only. Figures are in today's dollars and are based on 2023 tax brackets, with the couple claiming a standard deduction of $27,700. State taxes are not included in any calculations.
*Example assumes that the hypothetical couple has sufficient financial means to pay for living expenses from age 65 to 70 while they wait to claim Social Security.

In general, many people would benefit from waiting to age 70 to take Social Security. Others may need the income sooner and may lack the resources necessary to meet expenses during the delay period, or they may not live long enough to reap the rewards of delaying their claim.

Natalie and Juan’s strategy is to reduce the amount they withdraw from their taxable IRAs over time and make up the difference in income by waiting until age 70 to claim Social Security. This has a big payoff for them because by delaying claiming Social Security until age 70, the percentage of their Social Security income that gets taxed is cut from 85% to 47.2%.

It gets better: While Natalie and Juan’s retirement paycheck of $70,000 remains the same, they pay approximately 41% less in taxes and withdraw smaller amounts from their respective IRAs each year.

Natalie and Juan should also look for ways to mitigate their tax liability between ages 65 and 70 while they delay Social Security and supplement their income with other sources. Withdrawing solely from taxable IRAs over this time period could result in relatively higher tax bills, potentially offsetting some the tax savings they expect to get at ages 70 and beyond.

Bottom line: Social Security income becomes even more valuable for retirees when they realize that it is taxed less in retirement versus other forms of retirement income. Consider how long you may live, your financial capacity to defer benefits, and the positive impact the claiming decision may have on taxes you'll pay throughout your retirement.

Tip: To learn more about timing and Social Security, read Viewpoints on Should you take Social Security at 62?

Planning ahead

As you develop short- and long-term retirement income strategies, remember:

  • In general, the more money coming from your traditional pre-tax IRA, 401(k), or 403(b) to fund spending in retirement, the more tax you’ll likely pay.
  • Conversely, in general, the greater the overall percentage of your retirement income coming from your Social Security income, the less tax you’ll likely pay over time.

"As the only inflation-protected source of lifetime income for many people, your Social Security benefit is of great value,” says Kumar. “Understanding the favorable tax treatment of your Social Security over time is an important element in your overall financial planning and retirement security."

Tip: As you approach retirement, think about increasing your contributions to these preretirement savings vehicles such as Roth IRAs. These accounts are federally tax-advantaged and can help reduce your combined taxable income. This approach makes it possible to help reduce the taxes you pay on your Social Security benefit because you will likely have to withdraw less from traditional taxable IRAs to fund your retirement.

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1. Roth IRA distributions must meet the 5-year aging requirement to be tax-free and HSA withdrawals are only tax-free when used to pay for qualified health expenses. 2. A distribution from a Roth IRA is federal tax-free and penalty-free, provided the 5-year aging requirement has been satisfied and one of the following conditions is met: age 59½, disability, qualified first-time home purchase, or death.

For a distribution to be considered qualified, the 5-year aging requirement has to be satisfied, and you must be age 59½ or older or meet one of several exemptions (disability, qualified first-time home purchase, or death among them).

This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor.

Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation.

Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

The information provided herein is general in nature. It is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal or tax advice. Because the administration of an HSA is a taxpayer responsibility, you are strongly encouraged to consult your tax advisor before opening an HSA. You are also encouraged to review information available from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for taxpayers, which can be found on the IRS website at You can find IRS Publication 969, Health Savings Accounts and Other Tax-Favored Health Plans, and IRS Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses, online, or you can call the IRS to request a copy of each at 800-829-3676.

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