Fellowship Recipients Can Save for Retirement Outside an IRA

Congratulations on your fellowship! Winning a fellowship that pays your stipend during graduate school is a great honor and achievement. A fellowship stipend may even be larger than the base stipend provided by the department, giving you additional discretionary income. While you might have an enhanced ability to save for retirement in terms of your cash flow in comparison with your peers, unfortunately you may be excluded from using a tax-advantaged retirement account like an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA).


The advantage that an IRA offers is tax-free growth on your investments over the several decades until you are of retirement age. This allows compound interest to have its maximum effect of growing your investment balances exponentially, unburdened by the drag of paying tax on the growth and dividends. However, only “taxable compensation” can be contributed to an IRA. As fellowships are not reported on W-2s, they are not considered taxable compensation for this purpose. If your only income in a calendar year is fellowship income, contributing to an IRA is not an option during that year.

Save for Retirement Outside an IRA

While IRAs confer great benefits, they are not the only way to save for retirement. Instead of opening an IRA at a brokerage firm, you can open a normal taxable investment account. If you like, you can buy the same funds that you would have put inside your IRA. The important component is that you have designated that your investments are for retirement, not whether they have a tax-advantaged status tied to retirement. Your investments will be subject to the drag of taxes while in the investment account, but the burden can be made fairly light.

1) You can choose tax-efficient investments. Plenty of people have long-term investments in taxable investment accounts, so minimizing taxes is somewhat of a solved problem. Taxes on investments are not like income taxes when you have a job; they don’t occur every year like clockwork. Taxes only come into play in an investment account when there is a taxable event like selling an asset or receiving a dividend. Reducing the frequency of your taxable events reduces the frequency at which you have to pay tax. There are also two tax rates, and which one you fall into partially depends on how long you have held the investment (a longer holding period gives the lower rate). One of the best ways to minimize your tax burden is to employ a buy-and-hold strategy. The best investment strategy for graduate students (passive investing) is also a tax-efficient strategy, so you don’t have to sacrifice your returns or more of your time to minimize the tax burden in your taxable account.

2) Your low income tax bracket is currently an advantage when it comes to taxes on investments. The two investment tax rates that apply to capital gains are long-term capital gains (for investments held more than one year) and short-term capital gains. The two investment tax rates that apply to dividends are qualified dividends and non-qualified dividends. Short-term capital gains and non-qualified dividends are taxed at ordinary income levels, i.e., your marginal tax bracket. Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at a lower rate. If you fall into the 15% marginal tax bracket or lower, as the majority of graduate students do, your federal long-term capital gains and qualified dividends tax rate is 0%. You may still have to pay state tax on your long-term capital gains and qualified dividends, but your federal tax rate is as low as it can get.

If you employ a buy-and-hold strategy, you can minimize your tax burden on your investments to the point that it is only slightly worse than it would have been inside an IRA (depending on your state tax).

How to Save for Retirement Outside of an IRA

The process for saving for retirement in a taxable brokerage account is very similar. You choose a brokerage firm, open an account (in this case, a taxable account, which is the default, instead of an IRA), and buy investments with a lump sum or ongoing contribution. If you want to make things easy on yourself, use the same brokerage firm and investments for your taxable account that you would have (or do) for your IRA. One of the advantages of saving for retirement outside of an IRA is that you are not subject to the $5,500 yearly contribution limit.

How to Transfer Your Investments into a Tax-Advantaged Vehicle

In a future year, you may have the opportunity or desire to shift the assets in your taxable brokerage firm into a tax-advantaged retirement account like an IRA, 401(k), or 403(b). While keeping your investments in a taxable brokerage account is not a bad short-term solution, over the long term it is more advantageous to keep them inside a tax-advantaged vehicle if possible, especially as you move up in tax brackets and start paying tax on your long-term capital gains and qualified dividends.

In each year that you are eligible to contribute to a tax-advantaged retirement account, determine how much money you would like to contribute from your income. Most people save a set amount or percentage from each paycheck to dollar-cost-average their investment purchases. If you have any contribution room left above this goal amount, sell that amount of your assets in your taxable account and increase your contribution to your tax-advantaged retirement account commensurately.

For example, perhaps later in graduate school you receive W-2 pay and plan to contribute 10% of your income to an IRA, which amounts to $2,500. In that year, you will have $3,000 of additional contribution room for a total of $5,500. At the beginning of the year, you can sell $3,000 of assets inside your taxable account and buy an additional $3,000 of assets inside your IRA. Then, set up an automatic withdrawal to contribute $2,500 over the course of the year.

As another example, perhaps you do not have access to a tax-advantaged retirement account until you start your first post-PhD job. If your salary is $80,000 and you plan to contribute 10% to your 401(k), you have $10,000 of contribution room remaining for your first year (for an $18,000 total contribution limit). You can maximize your contribution rate to your 401(k) and sell $10,000 of assets inside your taxable investment account to supplement your salary during your first year.

Having no taxable compensation in the course of a calendar year does not prevent you from saving for retirement. You can still save and invest in a taxable brokerage account. You will forgo the tax-advantaged status of an IRA, but that is not a big sacrifice when you are in a low tax bracket. Once you have excess contribution room in a tax-advantaged retirement account, you can ‘transfer’ some of your taxable assets into it. Don’t let the type of pay you receive dissuade you from working toward your long-term financial goals!

Are you saving for retirement outside of a tax-advantaged retirement account?

2 thoughts on “Fellowship Recipients Can Save for Retirement Outside an IRA”

  1. Great post! I’ll add that a self-owned 529 account can be leveraged for retirement savings as well, with the added benefit of a state tax deduction on contributions if your state qualifies (NY does). This is how I’ve been saving with my fellowship funds. The withdrawal rules allow 529 accounts to pay for room and board, thus allowing a transfer out of my 529 (up to the amount I spend on rent and board…a hefty sum) towards the end of my graduate career to be (eventually) deposited to a tax-advantaged account at a later time.

    1. I recently heard of this strategy and it sounds like a great fit for someone in a state that gives deductions on 529 contributions! Great job!

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