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Understanding Marginal Tax Rates and Their Impact on Retirees Thumbnail

Understanding Marginal Tax Rates and Their Impact on Retirees

As a retiree, navigating the complex world of taxes can be a daunting task. One crucial concept to grasp is the marginal tax rate, which plays a significant role in determining how much of your income goes towards taxes.

In this comprehensive guide, we'll dive deep into marginal tax rates, explain how they work, and explore their effect on retirees. By the end, you'll have a better understanding of how to manage your finances and make informed decisions in your golden years.


  • Marginal tax rates represent the percentage of tax you pay on each additional dollar of income, based on a progressive tax system.
  • Retirees should understand marginal tax rates to effectively plan their income, manage retirement account withdrawals, and minimize taxes on Social Security benefits and investment income.
  • Strategies to manage marginal tax rates in retirement include Roth conversions, tax bracket management, charitable giving, harvesting capital losses, and contributing to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs).
  • Tax laws and rates can change over time, so it's essential to stay informed and work with a financial professional to create a tax-efficient retirement income plan.

By understanding marginal tax rates and implementing smart tax strategies, retirees can keep more of their hard-earned money and enjoy a financially secure retirement.

Remember, every individual's situation is unique, so it's always best to consult with a qualified tax or financial expert before making any significant decisions.


To fully understand marginal tax rates, it's essential to know how tax brackets work. For the 2024 tax year, there are seven federal income tax brackets, each with its own tax rate. These brackets are different for single filers, married couples filing jointly, and heads of household.

Here are the 2024 tax brackets for married couples filing jointly:

Tax Rate Income Range
10% $0 - $23,200
12% $23,201 - $94,300
22% $94,301 - $201,050
24% $201,051 - $383,900
32% $383,901 - $487,450
35% $487,451 - $731,200
37% $731,201 or more

As you can see, each tax bracket corresponds to a specific marginal tax rate. When your income increases and pushes you into a higher tax bracket, only the portion of your income that falls within that bracket is taxed at the higher rate. This is why it's important to understand the difference between marginal and effective tax rates.


A marginal tax rate is the percentage of tax you pay on each additional dollar of income. In the United States, we have a progressive tax system, which means that as your income increases, so does the tax rate applied to each new level of income.

It's important to note that your marginal tax rate is not the same as your effective tax rate, which is the average rate you pay on your total income.

Let's break it down with an example. Suppose you're a single filer in 2024, and your income is $100,000 and you take the standard deduction of $16,550. This leaves you with a taxable income of $83,450. Here's how this taxable income would be taxed:

Tax Bracket Tax Rate Income Range Tax Owed
10% 10% $0 - $11,600 $1,160
12% 12% $11,601 - $47,150 $4,266
22% 22% $47,151 - $100,525 $7,986


In this scenario, your marginal tax rate is 22% because that's the rate applied to your last dollar of taxable income.

Here is another example for someone married filing jointly in 2024, and their income is $150,000 and they take the standard deduction of $32,300. Here's how their taxable income of $117,700 would be taxed:

Tax Bracket Tax Rate Income Range Tax Owed
10% 10% $0 - $23,200 $2,320
12% 12% $23,201 - $94,300 $8,532
22% 22% $94,301 - $201,050 $5,148


In this scenario, the marginal tax rate is 22% because that's the rate applied to the  last dollar of taxable income.


While marginal tax rates represent the percentage of tax you pay on each additional dollar of income, effective tax rates show the average rate you pay on your total income.

Effective tax rates are generally lower than marginal rates because they take into account the fact that portions of your income are taxed at lower rates.

Let's revisit the earlier example of a married couple filing jointly with taxable income of $117,700 in 2024. Their marginal tax rate is 22%, but their effective tax rate is only 10.7%. This is because the first $23,200 of their income is taxed at 10%, the next $71,100 is taxed at 12%, and only the remaining $23,400 is taxed at 22%.

Understanding the difference between marginal and effective tax rates is crucial for retirees, as it can help them make informed decisions about their income sources and withdrawal strategies.

By keeping their taxable income in lower brackets when possible, retirees can minimize their marginal tax rates and, consequently, their overall tax liability.


As a retiree, understanding marginal tax rates is crucial for several reasons:

  1. Income Planning: Retirees often have multiple sources of income, such as Social Security benefits, pensions, investments, and part-time work. Each income source may be taxed differently, and the combination can push you into a higher tax bracket. By understanding marginal tax rates, you can strategize to keep your income in lower tax brackets when possible.
  2. Retirement Account Withdrawals: When you withdraw money from traditional IRAs or 401(k)s, that income is taxed at your marginal rate. If you take out a large sum in a single year, you may end up in a higher tax bracket and owe more in taxes. On the other hand, Roth IRA withdrawals are tax-free in retirement, so they don't affect your marginal tax rate.
  3. Social Security Taxation: Up to 85% of your Social Security benefits may be taxable, depending on your income level. The taxable portion of your benefits is determined by your "combined income," which is your adjusted gross income + nontaxable interest + 1/2 of your Social Security benefits. If your combined income exceeds certain thresholds, more of your benefits become taxable, potentially pushing you into a higher marginal tax bracket.
  4. Capital Gains and Dividends: Long-term capital gains and qualified dividends are taxed at preferential rates (0%, 15%, or 20%), depending on your income. However, these investment incomes can still affect your marginal tax rate by increasing your overall taxable income. Additionally, high earners may be subject to the 3.8% Net Investment Income Tax (NIIT), further impacting their tax liability.
  5. Tax Deductions and Credits: Retirees can use deductions and credits to lower their taxable income and, consequently, their marginal tax rate. Common deductions include the standard deduction, medical expenses exceeding 7.5% of AGI, and charitable donations. Tax credits, such as the Credit for the Elderly or Disabled and the Retirement Savings Contributions Credit, can directly reduce your tax bill.


Now that we understand how marginal tax rates work and their impact on retirees, let's explore some strategies to minimize your tax burden:

  1. Roth Conversions: Consider converting a portion of your traditional IRA or 401(k) to a Roth account. While you'll pay taxes on the converted amount at your current marginal rate, future withdrawals from the Roth account will be tax-free. This strategy works best when you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement or if tax rates increase in the future.
  2. Tax Bracket Management: Aim to keep your taxable income within a lower tax bracket by carefully managing your income sources. For example, you might choose to delay Social Security benefits until age 70 to reduce your taxable income in the early years of retirement. Or, you could alternate between taking withdrawals from taxable and tax-free accounts each year to stay in a lower bracket.
  3. Charitable Giving: If you're over 70½, consider making Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) from your IRA. QCDs allow you to donate up to $105,000 directly from your IRA to charity, which satisfies your Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) without increasing your taxable income. This strategy helps keep your marginal tax rate lower while supporting causes you care about.
  4. Harvesting Capital Losses: If you have investments that have lost value, consider selling them to offset capital gains or ordinary income. You can deduct up to $3,000 of net capital losses against other income each year, and any excess losses can be carried forward to future tax years. This strategy helps reduce your taxable income and, in turn, your marginal tax rate.
  5. Health Savings Accounts (HSAs): If you're enrolled in a high-deductible health plan, contribute to an HSA. Contributions are tax-deductible, growth is tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified medical expenses are also tax-free. In retirement, you can use HSA funds to pay for healthcare costs, reducing your taxable income and keeping your marginal tax rate lower.


It's important to note that tax laws and rates can change over time. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017 made significant changes to the tax code, including adjusting tax brackets and increasing the standard deduction.

However, many of these provisions are set to expire after 2025, which could result in higher marginal tax rates for some individuals.

As a retiree, it's crucial to stay informed about potential tax law changes and adapt your financial strategies accordingly. Work with a financial advisor or tax professional to create a retirement income plan that takes into account various tax scenarios and optimizes your after-tax income.

👉 If you would like to get a FREE retirement assessment, click the link to schedule your 20-minute call to start the retirement assessment process.

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