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The Toddler IRA: Should My 3-Year-Old Have a Tax Shelter?

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I love my Roth IRAs. They just keep on growing tax-free and never send me any annoying tax documents. Vanguard has a post about Working teens and Roth IRAs. I like the idea of a teenager putting some hours in at Jamba Juice and having the discipline to tuck some away for the future. However, the article suggests that you gift your teenager money in order to fund the Roth IRA (with the teen keeping their earnings).

Why wait until they are teenagers? You could take this further into what I call the Toddler IRA. Basically, you find a way to have your 3-year-old (or 6-year-old, etc.) have some earned income, usually via your small business. Maybe they “model” in an advertising spot. Maybe they did “administrative work” and helped organize some business papers for you. Can they weed or dig? Time to pay them for their lawn maintenance skills. Now that your kid has earned income, they (you) can contribute the same amount into a Roth IRA.

At first glance, it’s a little weird. Can I really justify these payments? I’m inclined to pay them more (so I can stuff more contributions into the Roth IRA), but would I really pay that much money if they weren’t my kid? Some parents go as far as making arrangements with other parents where they pay each other’s kids. In fact, there used to be a website (I forget the name) where your kid did some sort of simple online “work” and they would send your kid a check. (The parents would pay for this passthrough employment service.) Yet another example of government incentives working in unexpected ways.

The math sounds pretty impressive when you compound returns tax-free for 60+ years. $1,000 at 6% annual return times 60 years = $33,000. $1,000 at 8% annual return times 60 years = $100,000! Here’s a simple chart from Vanguard that shows the possibility of your kid getting a $100,000 head start on retirement:

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I would add that the effect is exaggerated because doesn’t take inflation into account, but even a 4% real return will make $1,000 into $10,000 after 60 years. You put in $1,000 times 12 years, they end up with close to $100,000 inflation-adjusted after 60 years.

Why my kids don’t have a Toddler IRA. I have a small business. See that cute picture on the top right? I could easily pay them to model for a new photo shoot every month. (Trust me, it’s hard work to get them to all smile at the same time… for me.) I’ve thought about it. In the end, it doesn’t fit in with my personal philosophy about teaching them to fish:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

This act is giving them a big pile of fish. It’s a tax-advantaged gift, but still a gift that they’ll know about at a young age. I don’t like the idea of them turning 18 and finding out they have $XX,000 waiting for them without doing any work.

What about “teaching” them to save? If they don’t feel the pain of earning the money and the separate pain of not spending it either, then I don’t really see the educational benefit. When they start to really earn money as teenagers by waiting tables or bagging groceries, then I will consider doing some sort of 401k-like matching program as a “carrot” to letting me teach them about investing and IRAs.

When they are kids, I will instead contribute any money towards college tuition via a 529 plan. I doubt that I’ll be able to cover full tuition and housing for three kids anyhow. Most parents can’t. Above that, I’d still rather give them $500 to start a food stand at the local farmer’s market than stick it into their IRA.

I feel this is a topic where opinions will vary widely. What do you think?

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The Toddler IRA: Should My 3-Year-Old Have a Tax Shelter? from My Money Blog.


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