One big point that I often bring up in favor of Roth IRAs is the fact that you’ve already paid your income taxes on it. When you take money out of your Roth IRA at retirement age, you don’t have to pay income taxes on any of your withdrawals. On the other hand, with a 401(k), you’ll owe income tax on all of your withdrawals.
Obviously, the big difference comes when you pay into these accounts. With a Roth IRA, you put your money in after taxes – from your take-home pay. With a 401(k), you invest with money before taxes. Thus, a 401(k) investment reduces your taxes today, while a Roth IRA investment reduces your taxes tomorrow.
Many people want a simple answer to the question of which retirement account type is better – but it’s not that simple at all. To truly know which option is the best one would require a crystal ball.
The best we can do is make the case for a future where a Roth IRA is better – and a future where a 401(k) is better. Let’s look at each one.
A Roth IRA Is Better If…
… income tax rates go up from where they’re at now. Let’s face it – the United States is deep into debt. The revenue to pay for that debt will have to come from somewhere. At the same time, income tax rates are currently about as low as they’ve been in decades. What’s a reasonable conclusion from this? The government will raise individual income tax rates gradually over time to make up for all of the rampant spending since the start of the Reagan years.
… your earnings go way up from your current level. If you have higher earnings later in life, it’s likely that most of your retirement savings will also come later in life so that you can have a standard of living in retirement that’s notably higher than what you have now. If you need a lot of money in retirement, it’ll be very useful to have some of that money arrive on your plate tax-free, especially if the income tax rates are higher. In other words, if you have a big entrepreneurial bone in your body, a Roth IRA is probably a better option.
… you have other avenues of income in retirement besides the Roth IRA. Most likely, if your income goes way up, you’re going to have investments of all kinds that earn income for you in retirement. Almost all of that will be taxable income. Again, having some of your income in a non-taxable form means substantially less taxes for you, particularly, again, if tax rates are higher.
… your employer isn’t offering matching contributions into a 401(k). If you’re self-employed or with an employer that doesn’t offer a 401(k) – or doesn’t offer any sort of 401(k) contribution matching – a Roth IRA definitely looks good in comparison, since the 401(k) doesn’t have this huge advantage.
A 401(k) Is Better If…
… income tax rates stay at the same level – or go down. Many argue that the best way to increase revenue is to actually lower tax rates, spurring on business growth. If future governments apply this philosophy, it’s likely that tax levels will either stay steady or decline.
… your earnings decline, stay the same, or only go up at a slow rate until retirement. If you’re not entrepreneurial in any way, shape, or form and you’re not interested in battling your way up the corporate ladder, your income will likely remain pretty steady throughout your life. This means you won’t bump yourself up to higher tax brackets later on and you’ll likely be in this tax bracket (or a lower one) in retirement. Thus, deferring the taxes until then is advantageous.
… your main income (besides Social Security) will be your 401(k). If your income in retirement will mostly come from your 401(k) and not from outside investments, your total tax bill will be limited significantly. You won’t have additional income pushing up your tax burden (which your 401(k) will contribute to).
… your employer offers matching 401(k) contributions. This is free money that blows away any tax benefits that might come from a Roth IRA. If your employer matches your contributions, the decision becomes pretty easy – take those matches all the way to the bank.
What About a Roth 401(k)?
Some people also have the option of a Roth 401(k), which essentially works like a 401(k) except with after-tax money. A Roth 401(k) often ends up being like a Roth IRA that gets employer matching, which means that most of the arguments in favor of a Roth IRA apply to it.
In the end, though, you need to decide for yourself where you’re headed and where you believe the government is headed. Of course, all of this is moot if you don’t start saving right now. Regardless of what you choose, you’ll lose any advantage of either choice by putting off saving while you decide. If you’re unsure, sign up for one plan or another and start contributing. If you change your mind later, switch your savings plan. But, no matter what, start saving now – don’t put it off.