Great tip about waiting to contribute to IRAs until your taxes are otherwise sorted — we might try that next year! We also have other pre-tax vehicles available to us through work that aren’t subject to the same MAGI limits as IRAs, so I’m exploring those.
Regarding the pension, the contributions are mandatory, but it’s a little more complicated. There is an option to just reduce your salary by the amount of the required contribution, in which case you wouldn’t have to pay tax on that money BUT if you wanted to withdraw it from the plan for any reason (e.g. if you quit before the five-year vesting period, or you quit after you’re vested but you’d rather have the funds because your pension payout would be super low), you can’t. With the track I’m on, 14.5% of your salary is withdrawn automatically into the pension fund and you’re taxed on it (!), but if you want to withdraw early, it’s cold hard post-tax cash that you can have without penalty. I’ve decided that’s the better option given my work horizons, but I hate the “settling up” as you mention.