The Big Debate #1: 401(k) or Roth IRA?

?This week, The Simple Dollar is taking a deeper look at five common personal finance debates.

One of the most common questions I get asked about retirement plans is whether or not a person should be putting their money into a 401(k) or a Roth IRA for retirement. The answer isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

What Are The Options?
A 401(k) is a employer-sponsored deferred contribution retirement plan, so named because it’s defined under section 401(k) of the IRS code. In a nutshell, it works like this. You sign up for a 401(k) plan in your workplace and choose investment options within the plan. Your workplace takes money out of your paycheck before income taxes are taken out and deposits this in your plan. In some workplaces, your contributions are matched by the employer. Then, when you reach retirement age, you can take money out of the 401(k), but those withdrawals are subject to income tax – since you didn’t pay it earlier, you have to pay it later on. Currently, there is no upper income limit on who can contribute, but an individual can contribute at most $15,500 to his or her 401(k) in 2008 and the maximum amount that can be contributed total between employer and employee is $46,000 in 2008. You can find a lot more detail in the Wikipedia entry on 401(k)s.

A Roth IRA is an independent individual retirement account that you set up directly with an investment firm; it’s name comes from its chief legislative sponsor, Senator William Roth. With a Roth IRA, you set up an account with an investment house yourself, choose investment options with them, and then directly deposit after-tax money (from your checking account, for example) into the Roth IRA. Then, after meeting a few basic requirements (you’re 59 1/2 years old or older and have had the plan for five years or more), you can withdraw both your deposits and gains completely tax free. In 2008, the maximum contribution you can make is $5,000 a year (unless you’re over 50). There is one big caveat: there are income limits on who can contribute – if you make more than $99,000 individually or $156,000 jointly, you can’t contribute the full amount (and may not be able to contribute at all). You can find out a lot more detail in the Wikipedia entry on Roth IRAs.

What Are The Big Differences?
The big differences between the two are employer contributions, investment options/management, and taxes. Let’s look at each aspect.

Employer contributions With a 401(k) retirement plan, an employer may match contributions made by an employee up to a certain percentage. For example, one 401(k) program I know of offers a 2:1 match for every dollar contributed to a 401(k) up to 5% of the salary. So, if you contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), the employer also puts in an extra 10% of your salary, effectively tripling your contribution. In short, if your employer offers matching contributions to your 401(k), that likely trumps any other concern and you should use a 401(k). It’s free money, after all – don’t turn it down.

Investment options/management With a 401(k), you’re tied into whatever management and investment options are made available to you by the plan your company offers. That often means the investment choices are relatively weak. Things to look out for in your investment plans are expense ratios (if they’re high, that’s bad) and investment options (the more choices, the better). With a Roth IRA, you are allowed to choose your management and thus also your investment options – you pick the investing house you want to use. I chose Vanguard because the expenses they charge me are very low and they offer a huge number of index funds, my investment of choice. Roth IRAs offer an advantage in that they allow you to choose your plan’s manager, though if your 401(k) offers good options, this may not be a big advantage.

Taxes This is really the sticky wicket out of the three because it involves some prediction of what the future holds for you. Here’s the deal: if you think your income tax rate will be higher at withdrawal time than it is now, a Roth IRA is a better choice and will save you money in the long run. If you think your income tax rate will be lower at withdrawal time than it is now, a 401(k) is a better choice and will save you money in the long run.

How can you know which rate will be higher? Here are a few things to ask yourself.

Will my income grow vastly between now and retirement? If the answer is yes, you’ll likely be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, which favors the Roth. If you’re near your peak, you’ll probably be in the same bracket or lower, which favors the 401(k).

Will I be working in my retirement years? If the answer is yes, you have a much higher chance of at least being in the same tax bracket you are now. If the answer is now, likely your income will be lower.

Will the political landscape shift towards higher tax rates? This one, honestly, is complete guesswork. If I had to guess, I would speculate that tax rates will go up in the future, and that favors the Roth IRA. If you think they’ll go down, that favors the 401(k).

Seem confusing, even overwhelming? That’s because it is. It’s really hard to tell what will happen with the future and balancing different factors like that is hard. My personal opinion is that the Roth IRA has a slight edge in the tax department, but that’s mostly because I believe taxes are going to eventually go up.

So What Should I Do?
The first step, to me, is pretty easy. If your employer’s 401(k) plan has matching funds, always contribute up to the maximum amount that receives matching. This is free money, and enough of it that it trumps the other concerns. Get it while you can.

The question really revolves around what to do with additional retirement money. Given all the factors above, and also assuming you’re young and have many years of income growth ahead of you, I believe the best option is a Roth IRA – but they take a bit more work. You have to find your own investment plan with a Roth IRA and set it up yourself (it’s not that hard, but it does take a bit of time up front), but that gives you the freedom to find an investment house that matches your philosophy and saves you money (for me, that’s Vanguard).

If you’re older, near the peak of your income potential, and expect to have a smaller income in retirement, then more contributions to your 401(k) is probably your better choice.

No matter which path you decide to follow, simply by the act of putting money away you’re putting yourself ahead of the game. Don’t let this debate keep you from starting to save – if all else fails, simply start making contributions to one or the other now and then make up your mind later on – you can always change your contributions around later.

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  1. Mike Holzer says:

    Hi, my company offers a Roth 401k as well as a traditional 401k. What are the advantages/disadvantages of the Roth 401k?

  2. Ken says:

    Hi Trent,
    I think the best answer to this question is “both.” Do the 401(k) for the employer matching, and the Roth for the tax free earnings. I also don’t think contributing to just one or the other will allow one to accumulate enough to retire on, especially if you’re starting late.
    I’m really lucky, my employer takes 10% of my pay and matches it in a 403(b) (works like a 401(k)). Also this year, they started a voluntary Roth 403(b) program. There is no employer matching, but I can contribute up to $15,500 per year (regular Roth IRA’s limited to $5,500 per year?) and roll it into my regular Roth IRA when I quit. Both are with Fidelity, so my investment choices aren’t too limited.


  3. Catherine says:

    This very question was in our local Sunday paper this week. That author recommended 1) 401K to the matching limit and 2) ROTH – because he believes the income tax will go up to 30% for the lowest bracket in the next 10 years!!

  4. Marcin says:

    “… 2:1 match for every dollar contributed to a 401(k) up to 5% of the salary. So, if you contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), the employer also puts in an extra 10% of your salary, effectively tripling your contribution.”

    Trent please correct this 2:1 means I put 6% and employer puts 3%.
    Just a correction…

    Good article by the way.

  5. Anne Marie says:


    Dont forget about the option of a Roth 401K. That is my favorite, as it gives you the tax benefits of the Roth IRA, but the match from your employer (generally in a regular 401K, as their contribution is not taxed) too.

    The other piece to look at is your investment options in your company’s 401K. Sometimes the fees and poor options do not make even getting a match worthwhile, and it is best to invest on your own, but those cases are few and far between.

    ~Anne Marie

  6. Dave says:

    Both a Roth 401(k) and a Roth IRA for me!

  7. Miranda says:

    Great post looking at the basics of what most people have for their retirement choices. I have a Roth IRA, since I work for myself, and I am thinking about opening a solo 401(k) or a SIMPLE as well.

  8. Johanna says:

    Another tax consideration to keep in mind is that your tax bracket is (as I understand it) determined by your taxable income, not your total income. If your income doesn’t grow between now and retirement, but most of your post-retirement income comes tax-free from a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), then you’ll be in a lower tax bracket then than you are now. That, I think, is a good reason to mix it up between traditional and Roth, rather than going straight Roth.

  9. Matt says:

    One thing that is often neglected in these conversations is whether the value of your accounts will affect need-based financial aid status for college.

    Does having $10,000 in a Roth IRA make you look more wealthy when financial aid analysts determine your need and expected family contribution?

    A friend who works in a welfare and social services office said that the value of a Roth IRA counts against the recipient, while 401(k)s do not. Is there a similar distinction in financial aid?

    If so, for someone close to attending college or returning to grad school, it might make sense to ignore the conventional recommendations.

  10. Steve says:

    Like Dave, I contribute to both a Roth and my 401(k). For those few of us who max out their contributions, a Roth has an interesting benefit: it effectively lets you put more money in a tax-advantaged account. Because the Roth is after tax, it’s as if you contributed, say, 25% more than if you had put that money in a 401(k) instead. Of course by definition if you’re maxing, you’re probably maxing both the Roth and the 401(k). But thinking of it that way does open up options such as rolling 401(k)s from previous employers into Roth IRAs.

  11. Tax rates are definitely way going up (even if McCain is elected) because of the entitlements (Medicare/Social Security) problem. If universal healthcare is implemented (Obama plan), it will be even worse. Therefore, I would get the taxes out of the way now and go Roth IRA and Roth 401k all the way, making sure you get the match. Also keep in mind that many small company “match” programs are really profit sharing contributions necessitated to avoid being top heavy, meaning that the employee will get the contribution even if there are no salary deferrals.

  12. Caroline says:

    I have a retirement account that is neither of these: a 403(b). What’s the difference?

  13. I think that every investor needs to have not only a portfolii with a diversified mix of investments in it but also a diversified mix of taxable and tax free investments. That’s why having both a 401K and a Roth Ira ( or just an ira) could be a good strategy for you.
    If you want to save as much money as possible save in both = that’s a total of $20,500/year if you areunder 50

  14. Kacie says:

    My husband has a Roth 401k and for now, that’s all we’re contributing to for our retirement.

    We’re in the 15% federal income tax bracket, and expect to be here for at least a few more years.

    Do you know if on down the road, he can switch to a regular 401k? As in, leave the Roth 401k alone to grow and open a regular 401k to put new contributions into it?

  15. Stacey says:

    I agree with Dividend Growth Investor and Johanna – mix it up! My biggest fear for the Roth is not increased taxes, but consumption-based “fair” taxes. I’m not saying they’re fair… I’m just saying it’s possible.

    We’re splitting our savings 60/40 with traditional and Roth IRAs. As we need to withdraw money in retirement, it will hopefully give us some diversity as we attempt to manage our taxes.

  16. RDS says:

    Thanks for the quality information about the difference between the two types of accounts. While many people might find themselves in an either/or situation with regard to a 401(k) and a Roth IRA, I believe that almost everyone’s long term goal should be to fund both accounts. Not only will that likely lead to greater savings, but it will give you greater flexibility with your taxes once you are retired.


  17. michelle says:

    The other thing to consider with a 401k are the hidden tax advantages. For instance, If you are married filing a joint return and your Ajusted Gross Income is below $52,000 then you qualify for a tax credit (form 8880) for putting money into ANY retirement account. You can use 401k contributions to lower your AGI to below $52,000 then your 401k and roth IRA contributions will both qualify for the credit (up to $1,000 per person). It definitely pays to understand your particular tax situation.

  18. Elizabeth says:


    When I read the article, it sounds to me like you’re making an “either or” type situation: like invest in either the 401 OR the Roth IRA. I’m doing both . . . isn’t that what I should be doing to try to save the most money for retirement?

    Just wondering,

  19. JoeTaxpayer says:

    One major point to consider – it take a huge pre-tax nest egg to create enough income at retirement to be above the 15% bracket. Today, for a couple, it means taxable income of $65,100. Add the standard deduction ($10,900) plus the two exemptions ($3,500 ea) and this totals $83,000. If one follows a 4% withdrawal rate, it would take $2,075,000 in pre-tax accounts to generate that level of withdrawals.

    Also, as few people go through their whole life with no disruptions, one can take advantage of periods of low income to convert from the pre-tax accounts into a Roth IRA, and smooth their marginal rate to 15% as they go.

    Of course, my remarks above are somewhat moot if one has a great traditional pension plan which is going to replace much of their income. In that case the advice to go Roth or Roth 401(k) is sound. (But who has a great pension nowadays? And if you do, are you still saving a high percent of your income in retirement accounts?)


  20. George says:

    More considerations: government employees (and those with traditional pensions) can’t contribute to a 401k, though there might be an additional compensation plan available (“deferred compensation”). Often their income is greater than the deductible IRA, so the Roth IRA becomes the only other option for a tax advantaged account.

  21. HarryG says:

    Here’s something to think about regarding the ability to access your contributions. With a 401(k) your contribution is “trapped” by penalty payment for early withdrawl along with the amount withdrawn being tax at your current income level.

    The way I understand it – you can access your contributions to a Roth IRA at anytime with no penalty and no tax implication. Not a sound investment strategy and you can take it out a lot faster than you could replenish it given the contribution limits. That said I consider contributions to a Roth as a Plan B or Plan C emergency fund. To be raided before a 401(k).

    I do worry that in the future there will be a way for the govt to confiscate funds taken out of a Roth that won’t technically be a tax. Say reduce your SS payments (if there are such things in 25 years) by the amount of money you take out of your Roth. Maybe something much more subtle than that does not yet exist in my philosophy.

  22. Lurker Carl says:

    I think your last paragraph sums it all up, contribute as much as you can to both retirement vehicles.

    If you can’t afford to max out both plans, contribute up to your employer’s match in your 401k and contribute the remainder you can afford into a Roth IRA. By all means, take advantage of monetary advantages being offered by Uncle Sam and your employer.

    If you earn too much to qualify for a Roth IRA, you probably qualify for a traditional IRA. But, in the year 2010 only, traditional IRAs can be converted to Roth IRAs regardless of salary AND that income tax bite can be spread out over the 2011 and 2012 tax years.

  23. Jesse says:

    As another poster mentioned, my favorite is the Roth 401k. My company just started offering this and I switched over as soon as I saw it. The great benefits of the Roth IRA, but with company match. The best of both worlds. And since I can’t come close to maxing out on a yearly basis I dont hit any sort of “cap” problem.

  24. KC says:

    Jim Cramer says it best in his newest book – Stay Mad. He recommends meeting the company match first – cause that is free money and can be 100% or 50% return on your money (depending on your plan). Cramer recommends investing this money in the lowest cost funds your company plan offers. In other words he fully agrees that paying attention to fees is more important that returns in the long run.

    After meeting the match, he recommends doing the Roth IRA. He says your options are better there for investing are better than your 401k – and he recommend low cost index funds if you don’t have the time to actively manage your portfolio. Beyond that he recommends investing the rest and paying regular taxes on it. The options you have outside of a 401k are simply better than what you have inside it. So match first for the free money, then max out the Roth.

  25. Mike Sty says:

    How is 401(k) with employee matching “free money”? Don’t the employers just compensate that by giving you less salary?

    Why not just ask for more money in the salary, and then do what you wish with that (such as a Roth IRA plan) and turn down the 401(k)?

    Sorry, I’m a lazy college student and I have no idea what’s going on, but I felt it important to ask that.

  26. jim says:

    I don’t like the argument that “matching money” is simply offset by a reduction in salary because you’re not making a fair comparison. While it’s true that they could give you more money, the match is actually better for you because now that money can grow tax-free until disbursement.

  27. Frugal Dad says:

    I like the idea of investing in your 401(k) through the match, and then investing in Roth IRAs above and beyond. The tax free growth is just such a sweet deal, and many times a self-directed Roth has better investment options than an employer-directed 401(k) plan. At least that is true in my case.

  28. Robyn says:

    Why can’t you do both?

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  29. Rick says:

    As some have already pointed out, it’s good to diversify, both in your investments, and in your tax classifications. In truth, we do have no idea what the future holds, so the best we can do is diversify.

    Here’s something else to think about: even when you have to pay taxes on your money, you still have a portion that can be tax free. If you and your spouse are both still alive in reirement, you can take the standard deduction and the personal exemption. So in today’s dollars, somewhere around $15K in taxable income a year can still be tax-free. Plus, depending on your goals and your values, you may be interested in donating money to charity. You’ll probably want at least some income to be able to write off your charitable donations against.

    So all this to say: even if you choose the Roth IRA route, I would still suggest contributing at least some money to a pre-tax account, like a 401(k).

  30. Jared says:

    I agree with you Trent, bank all the 401K goodness you can, when matching is maxed its off to Roth IRA land.

  31. justin says:

    Most 401(k) matching schemes are 2:1 in that I put in 6% the employer puts in 3%. Not the way you have it.

  32. Adam says:

    I think it is beneficial to do both. Even if the 401(k) does not offer a match, you should still invest in both. You will then have a variety of money in tax-free and taxable accounts. No one knows what taxes will be when they retire. This way you are covered if they either go up or down.

  33. Anne says:

    Rick’s (#21) point is crucial to the tax question. The point he’s making is that your 401(k) contributions are deferred at your marginal rate, but your eventual withdrawals will be taxed at your overall rate. Your overall rate is *always* less than your marginal rate because our tax system is progressive.

    This means that when mulling over future tax rate changes, you have to compare your predicted future *overall* rate to your current marginal rate. If you think things will stay the same, the 401(k) is the better option.

  34. jb says:

    The timing of this article is perfect for me. After seven years of maxing out my 401k contirbutions, I just stopped contributing. These are my reasons:

    * I had (perfectly valid, IMHO) cause to raid my emergency fund. So, I want to make rebuilding my emergency fund a priority.

    * I have a goal of starting my own business over the next few years. But it will obviously require a good amount of savings to allow for this.

    * My mortgage interest already helps my tax bracket to some extent.

    * Once I get my emergency fund in order, I think I will be able to select better investment choices than the mutual funds available within my 401k.

    Is this the right decision? Honestly, I don’t know. But I will continue maxing out my Roth IRA contributions. And I will continue to save the “401k money”. I will just pay taxes on it first, and then invest it on my own.

  35. Sara says:

    Woah, what company matches 2-to-1 to a 401(k)? Mine contributes 50% of up to 6% of my salary (so if I contribute 6%, the company puts in 3%), which I believe is pretty typical.

    @ Mike Sty (#17) – Most companies that offer a 401(k) match offer the same match to everyone. You can choose to take advantage of it or not, but there’s usually no option to have them add that money to your salary instead of your 401(k). So if you choose not to contribute to your 401(k) enough to get the full match, you are passing up extra money that the company is willing to give you.

  36. jrh says:

    One complicating wrinkle (and one I do not hear talked about much)….

    Since Traditional IRA/401k is tax deferred and Roth is not, try to split up your conservative investments into the tax deferred account and the aggressive stuff in the Roth. The aggressive/higher returns in the Roth will be tax free while the conservative investments grow at a slower pace. As long as your time horizon is long enough (to take advantage of the differences in returns of conservative vs aggressive), this is a great tax minimization strategy, provided you are investing in both a 401k and Roth.

  37. Beth says:

    Maybe it just me or my life style, however I have not had a 401k option for the last 10 years. Part was because my employers did not offer them, right now my husband and I at both of our jobs do not have a 401k option.

    So that being said, Roth is all I know along with a few other accounts.

  38. tightwadfan says:

    I make my decision based on the investment options in the 401(k). I was lucky, I worked for the federal government which has a great version of the 401(k) called the TSP, so I did both that and a Roth.

    But my younger brother recently asked for my advice whether to join the 401(k) at his job or stick with the Roth IRA that he already had. I looked at the investment options at his job’s 401(k), they were terrible!!! Actively managed funds with expense ratios over 1%.

    I told him only to contribute to the 401(k) up to the match and continue with his Roth IRA as his main retirement account.

  39. The correct answer is both. I used to contribute 8% of my 401k at my old job, but I reduced that down to the max contribution (4%) because the menu of options we had was so terrible (basically index funds with managed fees, around 1%-2%). I put that extra money into the Roth (which I max out every year). Now my new job has better options, so I’m back at 8% and still maxing the Roth. Sometimes you need to pay attention to how good the options are in the plan before contributing too much.

  40. K says:

    I don’t think Trent made a mistake. Your company probably has a 50% match but there are some companies (most schools included) who actually put in double the amount you do (a 200% match).

    @Kacie – yes, your husband can open a regular 401k at any time, as long as his employer offers it.

    @ Mike Sty
    Once you have a job, your salary is the same whether you take advantage of the 401k match or not. Most companies offer this across the board and it’s not negotiable. Even if it was, you are limited to only $5000 in a Roth, which isn’t really enough to save for retirement.

    I do a mix of both, although I do like the Roth because you can withdraw your contributions at any time. This will allow you to retire early without filling out any paperwork for the SEPP plan. Even if your investment options are terrible, you aren’t going to find anything anywhere else that gets an automatic 50% return.

  41. Eric Hollins says:

    I created this wikipedia page because I couldn’t find anything like it anywhere else. I think this is in a pretty clear format that compares the 4 main retirement vehicles.

  42. BM says:

    The 401(k) at my work offers NO employer contributions. All of the Investment options in the 401(k) have atleast 5% Sales Charge and additional expense ratio of 0.5% or higher. In such a scenario what should I do, Should I still continue to invest in 401(k) or should I invest only in ROTH IRA?

  43. Dawn says:

    This probably doesn’t apply to a lot of people on this website, but one point in favor of the 401K is that you usually have very little paperwork to do, you do it at work and the money comes automatically out before you see it. In short, it is very easy.

    There are so many (especially younger) employees at my workplace who don’t contribute to the 401K because they are “going to start a Roth IRA”. But, they never get around to it. So instead of having a 401K that may or may not be worse than a Roth IRA, they have nothing. Sometimes convenience is reason enough to do something.

  44. Kevin says:

    I like the Roth 401(k) since it gives me the best of all worlds:

    1) employer match is pre-tax, which diversifies for tax purposes – my money is post tax and will not be taxed again when I withdraw, but the employer funds will be taxed later

    2) greater contribution limits than an IRA

    3) no phase out

    But I’m 33 and have a long time until retirement. About the only downside to the 401(k) plan at my work is they don’t have Vanguard funds available.

  45. GT says:

    My employer offers a 401(k) plan, but with no matching. Is it worth it for me to contribute? I max out my Roth IRA every year, and have my other savings in accounts that are not tax-deferred.

  46. Ken says:

    @ jb (#25) “I have a goal of starting my own business over the next few years. But it will obviously require a good amount of savings to allow for this.”

    In this situation, a Roth is better for you. If you take money out of a 401(k) or traditional IRA early, you not only pay income tax on it, but an early withdrawal penalty.
    With a Roth, in most circumstances, you can withdraw your basis (the amount you’ve contributed) without paying income tax or penalties, since the money was already taxed.
    In your case, the money will be there if you need it to start your business, but if you don’t need it you can just let it keep growing with tax free earnings.


  47. j0lt says:

    Thanks for posting this – I had been under the impression that the total combined employee/employer contribution was the same as the individual cap – we’ll be adding more to my husbands 401k as a result. (I’m in a pension plan so I can’t do it, but his employer does have a 2 to 1 match, I’ll have to check the limits)

    Thank you!!

  48. Lisa says:

    I agree with Dave who said both Roth 401k AND Roth IRA! My company recently added the Roth 401k option and I jumped at it! I would rather pay taxes on the $200 I put in each paycheck than pay taxes on the thousands of dollars that I will withdraw when I am retired! My husband’s wedding gift was opening a Roth IRA (which is now worth less than the amount I put in it, due to the market, but we have plenty of time for that to grow back!)

    Trent, Thanks for the article! I’ve enjoyed reading about your journey!

  49. No Debt Plan says:

    I just had this discussion over at my blog as well. I’ve already met the amount I need to put in to my Roth 401k to get the max. employer match (not much). I was debating on whether to: stop contributions entirely and save the money elsewhere, switch to traditional 401k contributions, or do nothing at all.

    I decided to stick with the Roth 401k for two reasons. One, it’s the easiest thing to do. I don’t have to change anything. Two, I also think tax rates have got to go up in the long term.

  50. Thanks for these very helpful details! I think in the quest to work, especially for those that are running their own businesses or trying to start new careers, it’s easy to forget about the distant future as we try to live in the moment and take care of important tasks associated with just staying afloat in “the now” (especially with the current U.S. economy). It’s great to see all these pros and cons laid out on paper, as I think it’s pretty easy to get confused when talking to a financial advisor; many have their own strong opinions about which of these plans is better (as well they should if they are advising) and we don’t always necessarily get the picture from the standpoint of someone else like us that is investing and saving. It’s always helpful to see for ourselves what the reality is in terms we can understand before making decisions. Thanks a lot again for these important details!

  51. Carol says:

    Great summary of the issues. One point to consider is that some 401k plans offer BETTER options than an individual investor can achieve on their own. This is done by offering low cost funds to begin with and aggregating assets of contributors to reach share classes with LOWER expense ratios (think Vanguard Admiral share classes) than individuals can achieve through IRA accounts.

    Also keep in mind the reason for employer matching. Sometimes it is because they are just nice folks. Usually it is to encourage greater participation thereby making full contributions possible for the highly compensated individuals at the firm. Participation must be balanced for everyone to contribute fully. (This is a vast oversimplification of complex IRS rules).

  52. Stephanie says:

    While we’re discussing 401(k) plans and their poor options, we should acknowledge that some 401(k)s are downright awful. I’ve got one and so does my husband. They’re group annuity contracts. Heard of them? Probably not. But, if your 401(k) manager is an insurance company and your “mutual funds” are sold to you in “units” with a “unit price” that is nowhere near the NAV that you can look up on any stock quote site, guess what you’ve got? Yep. You’re invested in a group annuity contract that is backed by mutual funds.

    The fees are nearly impossible to find because insurance fee disclosures are state-regulated, but a typical number would be 1.3% on top of the mutual fund fees.

    Further, consider that your 401(k) is locked to your job. The ONLY way to move that money to a better-performing investment company is to QUIT YOUR JOB. Quitting will allow you to move it to a rollover IRA with the investment company of your choice.

    Also, if your company offers a lousy 401(k), and you’re in a high tax bracket and want tax-free contributions, you’re out of luck. You’re considered “covered by a retirement plan” and a tax-deductible IRA is only an option for those who don’t end up in a high tax bracket.

  53. Mike Taylor says:

    For people working in education and other non-profit sectors, a 403(b) is roughly equivalent to a 401(k) in terms of the advice given above.

    But I haven’t seen mention of one aspect that some people may find important…

    Taking funds out of a 401(k) before retirement often comes with a penalty (except for rare instances), but if I recall correctly you can take your contributions from a Roth IRA at any time without penalty, you just can’t touch the gains until retirement. So…while having a separate emergency fund is always a great idea, this could serve as a secondary buffer in case of something truly tragic and expensive.

  54. SwingCheese says:

    As I work for a public school system, I do not have a 401(k) option, but a 403(b) option. Regarding tax advantages for married/filing jointly under 56K (which is my situation for the next few years): does anyone know if the 403(b) carries those same tax advantages?

  55. Kevin says:

    SwingCheese –

    401(k) and 403(b) plans are virtually interchangeable when talking about tax law, so you should qualify for the retirement savings credit if that is what you’re referring to.


  56. Roger says:

    Wonderful discussion, and I have to agree with what’s already been said: if you are able to contribute a substantial amount towards your retirement, the question shouldn’t be which retirement account to choose, but rather, how much to put into each one, and where to invest that amount. Answering those questions starts to get much more complicated and dependent on individual situations, though, and leads to confusion.

    I’m with K regarding Roth IRAs; the ability to withdraw the principle early without penalty is a big plus in my book. The ability of a Roth to thus serve as a last-resort emergency fund as well as a source of early retirement money increase its value even more. (I suppose this is not an unmitigated positive, though, as there are some people who will withdraw from a Roth without having a really good reason to do so. For people who can resist such temptation, though, it’s another point in Roth’s corner.)

    As for taxes (and the implications thereof), the simple fact is that with the National debt climbing as high as it is, something is going to give if the U.S. is to avoid going into default. The only options besides higher taxes are (1) dramatic across the board cuts in spending (which might work, but getting politicians to agree what to cut and doing so by enough to make a real difference, is going to require a vastly different political environment than I’ve seen in my adult life) or (2) allowing inflation to increase dramatically, eroding the real value of our current debt (and also the real value of our savings, investments, and salaries). Ultimately, it’ll probably take a mix of all three in order to get the national debt to a more manageable level, but the point remains: there’s almost no chance the post-Reagan tax rates we’re currently experiencing will remain this low, so investing in a Roth IRA/401(k) is definitely a smart idea.

    Although… As Stacey mentioned, there is the possibility that our tax system could be converted to a ‘fair tax'; where the bulk of taxes would be collected through a national sales tax. In this case, unless there is some kind of compensation or allowance included in the new tax law, Roth holders will be screwed: they’ll have been taxed on the income that went into the Roth, and taxed again on the spending when the money comes out. (401(k) or Traditional IRA holders will benefit, though, in having completely dodged the income tax bullet, even if they still have to pay the new national sales tax as they withdraw their savings.)

    However, while such plans do have some good points (easier to administer, decreases consumption, no disincentives to saving or investing), there are problems that (in my opinion) will keep it from gaining traction, the biggest being the regressive nature of the tax. (If I, a person making half my salary, and a person making twice my salary all spend the same amount in a given year, we’ll all pay the same amount in taxes, but the person who makes twice my salary will have paid a much smaller portion of his income than me, and I will have paid a smaller portion than the person making half my salary.) There are ways to remedy this situation (like per capita checks sent out on a quarterly basis), but without a truly comprehensive plan, I don’t see this as an issue in the near future.

  57. I just cough up 9 percent to the 401k Gods every paycheck in the riskiest Vanguard fund they offer. I am only 25 so I figure what the heck. Also, my employer does not match the 401k contributions because I get a GREAT pension. But, when I get married, we are going to start maxing out a Roth.

    Thanks for explaining that stuff in “dummy” terms. I have contributed to a 401k for years but I never really have known what I am doing, so that was nice of you.

  58. We’ve always maxed out our 401k and Roth IRAs so I’m not sure. But if I had to pick I’d do match, then Roth IRA, then back to 401k.

  59. Matt says:

    Even though I live in a high COL area that pays higher salaries overall, I’m no better off but still face a higher tax bracket. Right now, it’s critical that I minimize my current tax burden. That points straight to 401(k).

    But I’m also planning for contingencies with a Roth IRA. Not contributing to the max, but probably 80/20.

    As things change, I’ll reevaluate.

  60. SwingCheese says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I wish I had known that a couple of years ago :)

  61. Kevin says:

    SwingCheese –

    You can always go back and amend your old tax returns! Usually 3 years worth depending on when they were filed.

    Good luck.

  62. malcolm says:

    “Jim Cramer says”

    Scariest words in personal finance…..

  63. Wizie says:


    Thank you for this, as a Canadian I was very confused when this subject would come up, but now at least I understand the basics. This is probably a good measure of how well you explained it.

    If you ever need a tutorial on RRSP’s, RESP’s, RRIF’s, HBP’s, LLP’s or tax-free savings accounts (new in 2009!) let me know. :)

    All the best.

  64. Bonnie says:

    Anne Marie, my company recently started offering a Roth 401(k) in addition to a regular 410(k). I’ve been hesitant to switch, though. Do you think I should?

  65. Matt says:

    One thing I never see mentioned in this discussion is that 401ks are considered pension plans and protected from lawsuits and bankruptcy. IRA are not and can be seized creditors.

  66. Bruce says:

    NO! NO! NO!

    You save money on your 401(k) contributions based on your current *marginal* tax rate.

    When you take money out in retirement, you will pay taxes based on your overall *effective* tax rate.

    It is highly unlikely that your future effective tax rate will be higher than your current marginal rate unless your marginal rate is very low now (0 or 10%).

  67. Ιt’s an awesome piece of writing in favor of all the internet people; tɦey will get benefit from it I am

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