Which Retirement Plan Is Right for Me? Traditional IRAs Versus Roth IRAs Versus 401(k)s and 403(b)s

Kelly writes in:

I’m reading about retirement and I see terms like Traditional IRA and Roth IRA and 401(k) thrown around without really explaining what they are or what the differences between them are. Do you have a summary of these plans and how they work?

There’s no better time than the present to offer up some great fundamental personal finance information like this. I’m going to ask a series of basic questions about retirement plans and provide the answers for each type of plan so that you can clearly see how they differ in each area.

I myself have had a 403(b) in the past and I currently have a Roth IRA.

One important point to make: this is a summary of the differences between the plans. Plans often change over time as the government alters the tax code and many plans have loopholes that appear and disappear as the years go by. The goal here is to not provide a be-all-end-all reference, but to make clear the big differences between the plans.

Right off the bat, let’s clarify a key point. A 401(k) and a 403(b) are essentially the same thing. The difference between the two is whether or not your employer is a for-profit entity (a business) or a certain type of non-profit entity (such as an educational institution). In terms of the employee, they’re virtually identical in their usage. Some types of non-profit entities also offer a 457 plan, which is very similar to a 401(k)/403(b) except with a few less restrictions on withdrawals.

Who Offers the Plan?
How can you get involved in each type of plan?

A Traditional IRA is offered directly from investment houses. In order to open a Traditional IRA for yourself, you have to open an account with an investment house.

A Roth IRA is offered in the same way as a Traditional IRA. You have to set up your account yourself with an investment house.

A 401(k)/403(b) is offered through your employer. Your employer sets up an arrangement with an investment house to provide individual 401(k)/403(b) accounts to their employees. Rather than having a choice of investment houses, you are stuck with using whatever investment house your employer provides.

Which has the advantage? The IRAs have the advantage here. Because you have the freedom to choose which investing house to use and can move from investing house to investing house, these companies have good reason to offer you strong investment options. With a 401(k)/403(b), you’re locked into whatever investment house your employer negotiates with, which may or may not provide you with the best investment options. This doesn’t mean that the investment choices in a 401(k)/403(b) are terrible; usually, it just means that the fees are a bit higher than they would be with your own IRA.

Who Is Eligible?
Which people are eligible for each type of plan?

You are eligible for a Traditional IRA if you are under the age of 70 1/2. You must also earn some sort of income from work or be married to someone who earns income from work.

You are eligible for a Roth IRA if you are eligible for a Traditional IRA. The requirements are the same.

You are eligible for a 401(k)/403(b) if you are employed by an organization that offers such a plan to its employees.

How Much Can You Invest?
How much money can you invest in each plan each year?

In a Traditional IRA, you can invest $5,000 per year if you are under 50, or $6,000 per year if you are over 50. These numbers are accurate for 2011 and may go up in future years (they’ve gone up in the past).

In a Roth IRA, you can invest the same amount as in a Traditional IRA. However, there are income caps for investing in a Roth IRA. If you are single and earning between $107,000 and $122,000 or if you’re married and earning between $169,000 and $179,000 per year, your upper limit is less than $5,000 or $6,000 per year. If you’re over the top end of that range, you can’t invest money at all into a Roth IRA this year.

In a 401(k)/403(b), you can invest up to $16,500 per year as of 2011.

Obviously, in this regard, 401(k)/403(b) plans are the big winner as you can invest more in them.

What Tax Advantages Are Included?
The purpose of a retirement plan is to take advantage of tax breaks. What tax breaks do you get with each of these plans.

A Traditional IRA offers the ability to make contributions that are fully tax-deductible. In other words, if you contribute $5,000 to a Traditional IRA in 2011, you will be able to subtract $5,000 from your taxable income when you file your taxes early next year. This results in a smaller tax bill right now.

A Roth IRA contribution does not offer the tax deductibility of a Traditional IRA contribution. Instead, once you contribute to a Roth IRA and have the account for at least five years, you can withdraw any money in the account tax-free (gains or otherwise) once you’re 59 1/2 years old. This results in a smaller tax bill later on, as Traditional IRAs require you to pay taxes with all withdrawals from the account.

A 401(k)/403(b) operates much like a Traditional IRA in this regard. You make contributions today that are fully tax-deductible with regards to your taxes for the coming year. However, there are no tax benefits when you withdraw.

Which is better? It depends strongly on what you think tax rates will do in the future. If you expect them to stay the same or go down, then the Traditional IRA and the 401(k)/403(b) route is better. If you expect them to go up, then the Roth IRA is better. I expect them to go up, so I give the Roth IRA the nod here.

When Can I Withdraw?
I have this money in the account. When can I take it out without a stiff tax penalty?

You can withdraw from a Traditional IRA at age 59 1/2 or any time after that. Withdrawals made from a Traditional IRA will be viewed as income and taxed as such. You must start taking withdrawals at age 70 if you haven’t already started.

You can withdraw from a Roth IRA at any time (once you’ve had the account for five years) as long as you merely withdraw your contributions. You can begin to withdraw your investment gains at age 59 1/2. You do not have to start withdrawing at age 70.

You can withdraw from a 401(k)/403(b) in almost exactly the same way as a Traditional IRA. You may start withdrawing at age 59 1/2. The withdraws you make are taxed. You must start withdrawing at age 70.

The Roth IRA is clearly the most flexible account here. There are no tax penalties for withdrawing contributions early. There’s also no requirement to begin withdrawing at age 70.

How Can I Withdraw Early?
What if I desperately need the cash early? This is usually a bad idea, but it’s worth knowing.

You can withdraw early from a Traditional IRA if you pay a 10% additional tax penalty on your withdraws. This is beyond the normal income tax you’d have to pay on it. So, if you withdraw $10,000 from a Traditional IRA early and are in the 25% tax bracket, you’ll pay $2,500 in taxes on it plus an additional $1,000 penalty. There are some exceptions to these rules for special situations.

You can withdraw early from a Roth IRA if you’ve had the account more than five years. At that point, you can withdraw contributions with no penalty and no tax. If you’ve not had the account for that long, you’ll have to pay a 10% tax penalty on your early withdrawal. If you withdraw above and beyond your contributions before you’re 59 1/2, you’ll have to both pay taxes and a 10% penalty on those additional withdrawals. There are some exceptions to these rules for special situations.

You can withdraw early from a 401(k)/403(b) much like a Traditional IRA. You pay a 10% additional tax penalty on your withdraws beyond the normal income tax you’d have to pay on it. As always, there are some exceptions to these rules for special situations.

Again, the Roth IRA is the best deal here. It offers more flexibility with early withdrawals than the other plans.

A Final Factor
At this point, a 401(k)/403(b) plan looks like the worst option, but there is one huge factor in that plan’s favor. With many employers, the employer will offer matching contributions. For example, one employer that I know of offers one-to-one matching of every dollar an employee contributes to their 401(k)/403(b) up to 6% of the employee’s pay. So, if the employee makes $50,000 per year and contributes 6% of that – which would be $3,000 per year – the employer would match that, giving that employee a total of $6,000 invested each year.

This blows away the benefits offered by other plans. The strength of this kind of multiplying of retirement funds is the best tool you have available to you – if your employer offers it.

What Should I Do?
Here’s my take on the plans as a whole and how I invest for my own retirement.

If my employer offers matching funds on my 401(k)/403(b) plan, I take advantage of those matching funds first. I would contribute as much as possible to retirement to get every drop of matching funds. This is free money that you should never turn down.

After that, I would fully fund a Roth IRA if I were eligible for it. If you make less than $100,000 a year, you’re eligible for it. Find a trustworthy investment house, but do your own research – and open a Roth IRA with them. They’ll make it easy for you to open the account and set up an automatic investment plan that pulls money from your checking account.

If I wasn’t eligible for a Roth IRA, I would fully fund a Traditional IRA.

If I was still not saving 10% of my income for retirement, I would invest enough in my 401(k)/403(b) to add up to 10% of my salary. So, for example, if I were making $100,000 a year and I contributed $4,000 to my 401(k) to get matching and $5,000 to my Roth IRA to fully fund it, I’d still only be saving 9% per year. I’d contribute another $1,000 to my 401(k) to get to that 10% threshold.

I would then pay off any and all debts I have. Before contributing more than 10%, I would get myself to complete debt freedom. I would also take care of buying whatever house I wanted to live in for the long term and make sure that I was saving for major purchases like automobiles. Riding a merry-go-round of debt eats away at your retirement like anything else.

If I were completely and securely debt free, I would increase my personal retirement savings to 15% of my income. This might mean fully funding a Roth IRA, contributing more to a 401(k), or even just saving money in a savings account or non-retirement investment account.

That is the plan I would follow at my age (32, as I write this). My only exception to that is that if I were over 35 and hadn’t saved for retirement yet, I’d put the 15% total savings at a higher priority than total debt freedom, as you have some retirement ground to make up for the years you weren’t saving.

Good luck!

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  1. Becca says:

    I’ve seen the 10% number before, but I’m unclear if the recommendation is for 10% post- or pre-tax, in terms of take home pay.

    Either way, 10% is not going to be $5000, but I’d like to be in the habit of saving before I get a job that pays for more than my living expenses.

  2. Katie says:

    Is there an income limit for taking the tax deduction associated with the Traditional IRA? I thought there was, but if I’m mistaken, that’d be great.

  3. Johanna says:

    Sometimes I feel like a broken record.

    Because of how tax brackets work, even if “taxes go up,” there is an advantage to having some of your money in pre-tax accounts (like the Trad IRA or the 401(k)), not just in Roth accounts. This is true for almost everyone whose federal income tax liability right now is greater than zero. If you do not understand why this is, then go read about how tax brackets work, because I don’t feel like explaining it.

    Also worth noting: the $5000 limit on IRA contributions is for the Trad and Roth IRAs combined. You can’t contribute $5k to one and $5k to the other in the same year. However, you can contribute $5k to an IRA (of either type) *and* $16,500 to a 401(k)/403(b) in the same year.

  4. J says:

    “In a Roth IRA, . . . if you’re married and earning between $169,000 and $179,000 per year, your upper limit is less than $5,000 or $6,000 per year.”

    I assume that the 169-179K income means the combined income of both spouses, right? I feel like this aspect of Roth IRAs is not explained clearly in most summaries (here and elsewhere).

  5. marta says:

    No kidding, Johanna. When I saw the title of this post, I wondered if Trent would FINALLY acknowledge the tax brackets issue.

    Guess not.

  6. Debbie M says:

    In deciding whether the Roth version or regular is better, “It depends strongly on what you think tax rates will do in the future.” Actually, it depends on what you think YOUR tax rates will do in the future. If your marginal tax rate is 10% or 15% now, your tax rates might go up in the future even if the government doesn’t change anything. If your marginal tax rate is higher now, but you haven’t saved much for retirement, your tax rates may be lower in retirement (unless the government really jacks them up.)

    As Johanna is implying, the first money you make is not taxed. If that money is from a taxable fund, you still pay no taxes. Once you pass that level, you pay 5% on the next amount, etc.

  7. Debbie M says:

    Another thing for people with access to 403(b)s–some companies offer Roth 403(b)s. These are like 401Ks and 403(b)s except that you contribute money after taxes (like a Roth IRA), so no more taxes will be due later.

    If you have access to a 457 plan, I like this as an unemployment insurance sort of account. You can get into it as soon as you no longer have the associated job, even if you’re not old yet. (And then, if you don’t need to dip into it in times of unemployment, it will be there for you when you retire.)

    Do read up on all the plans your employer offers–many employers have very good documentation and you’ll know that everything you’re reading applies to your situation (except my employer’s examples tend to assume a much higher income than most of us actually have).

  8. Ryan says:

    I think I get what Johanna is talking about, but I wanted to throw my situation out there:

    I’m in the 10% bracket (college student), so contributing to a Roth is my best option right? I’m thinking that right now is actually the best time for me to contribute to a Roth since my tax rate is the lowest it’ll (hopefully) ever be.

    I can’t contribute to my employer’s 401K until I’m 21 anyway, but if I could, wouldn’t the Roth still make more sense? I’d be saving the 10% now with the 401K, but I’m positive my rate will be higher when I’m ready to retire.

  9. lurker carl says:

    Saving only 10% of your income won’t provide enough money to retire on unless winning the lottery is part of your retirement plan.

  10. Brianne says:

    re: #3 – You should also note that the pre-tax advantage of a traditional IRA no longer applies if you also have a 401K. One year I just barely missed the ability to take a $4,000 deduction for tuition and fees and had to take just a $2,000 deduction. If I had put another $200 in my 401K I would have been able to take the larger deduction.

    I can never tell if I should be putting more money in my Roth IRA or keep funding my 401K. I don’t get a match because our company prefers to call it Profit Sharing and it’s a fixed percentage based on annual profit. We get it whether or not we contribute to our own 401K.

    I find that it’s easier for me to not ever have the money in the first place, rather than have to budget a bigger contribution to my Roth IRA. So 10% goes to my 401K and $100/month goes to my Roth IRA. I’d like to increase both but I’d rather pay off my never ending student loan.

    Does anyone use their Roth IRA as an emergency fund? We’re trying to build back up our emergency fund after just buying our first house and I’m wondering if we should put half of it in Roth IRAs.

  11. Johanna says:

    @Ryan: Yes, if you’re in the 10% tax bracket now and you expect to be in a higher bracket later, it makes sense to use the Roth now and contribute to the pre-tax accounts later when your income goes up.

    (On the other hand, if you expected to be in the 10% bracket for your entire working life, it would be a good idea to put some money in pre-tax accounts at some point, assuming that you could afford to save for retirement at all on that salary.)

  12. Wendy says:

    Trent, there is no age limit for contributing to a Roth IRA. So even if you’re over 70 1/2 you can contribute to an Roth.

  13. George says:

    Standard IRA deduction has a phase-out for income if you’re covered by certain retirement plans (e.g. government employee). It’s a no-brainer to put extra money in the Roth IRA in those situations.

  14. jim says:

    Johanna and Debbie are right that it is YOUR tax rate that matters. Nobody can predict the future of tax rates in general over decades but we should have a much better picture of our own current and probable future income and tax situation. Again Johanna is right that at least some money in pre-tax 401k or IRA is best for taxes in retirement to take advantage of standard deductiuons.

    There are also Roth 401k offered by some employeers now,like the403b Roth that Debbie mentioned.

  15. AnnJo says:

    Another big difference between IRAs and 401(k)s is that you can borrow from a 401(k) up to 50% of your employee contributions to it. There are risks to this, notably that if you lose the job that provides the 401(k), most plans require that you repay the loan almost immediately or have it treated as an early (taxable) distribution, and there’s also the risk of using your 401(k) unwisely, in lieu of a healthy emergency fund or other savings.

  16. valleycat1 says:

    #4 – yes, the limit for couples is computed as their combined earned income for the calendar year.

    #1 – I assume the 10% (or whatever) figure is also based on total earned income (pre-tax) as reported to the IRS.

  17. TC says:

    Where does this mention Roth 401(k)s? I would really like to have a better understanding of how to allocate between a Roth 401(k), a regular 401(k), and an IRA, especially given that all employee matches are in a traditional account.

  18. Steve says:

    @Johanna Exactly. Trent keeps beating the Roth Above All Else drum.

    Also, if you aren’t eligible for a Roth IRA due to too much income, you’re not be eligible for a deductible traditional IRA either (if you’ve already got a 401(k)). You can use the “nondeductible tradition converted to Roth” backdoor, but that’s not mentioned in this article.

    I disagree that “401(k)/403(b) plan looks like the worst option” without the match. For one thing, it has a much higher limit than any kind of IRA. For another, the contributions are automatic – that’s like external discipline (though you can set that up with an IRA, it’s an additional step).

  19. jackie says:

    Trent ignores Roth 401(k)s again!

    My understanding, (which may be wrong) is that most of the rules regarding Roth 401(k)s are exactly like traditional 401(k), in terms of eligibility, limits and withdraws. The only significant difference is in tax structure. Roth 401(k)s are post-tax funds.

  20. getagrip says:

    I thought contributions to a Roth were not on the 5 year time clock? So if I put in $5000 for three years, in the fourth year I could take out $15,000 tax and penalty free. The earnings are on the time clock, not the already taxed contributions you put in.

    @9 While I would also suggest getting to at least 15% for retirement, 10% savings can be enough if you start early enough and get a decent interest rate (e.g. 5% over inflation and 40 years). But it will be a minimal style, you’ll likely be living on 50% or so of your pre-retirement salary. With a paid off home, no debt, reasonable health, and some additional support from Social Security, whatever form it takes in the future, a person should be able to do fine.

  21. getagrip says:

    Thought I’d back up my contribution point with a FAQ from the Motley Fool site:

    “Question: I intend to retire at age 50. When I do, I’ll need income. Can I take money from my Roth IRA without paying any taxes or penalties?

    Reply: Potentially, yes. Under the IRS ordering rules, you are allowed to remove your original contributions at any time without tax or penalty. In addition, after you have waited at least five tax years, you are able to withdraw your original conversion amounts without taxes or penalties. It’s only when you get to the earnings generated by the original contributions and conversions that you will have a tax and/or penalty problem…”

  22. Josh says:

    I still can’t understand why people would want to put taxes off for the future, especially the way things are going now, I don’t see taxes going up. And why are these the only retirement options? Why is it necessary to choose between a few bad plans, all of which will tie up your money until you are 59 1/2, makes no sense.

    Add the market performance for the last 10 years and you get the worst retirement plan ever created and yet tradition trumps intuition.

  23. Tom says:

    #17 TC – a website called calcxml has a nice calculator looking at the difference between a Roth 401k and Traditional – how much you save in taxes while contributing vs how much you’ll pay later when withdrawing
    My guess is Trent doesn’t comment on Roth 401k’s because he or his wife has never used one, and the publicly available information (not written in laymens terms) is kind of sparse.
    One interesting aspect of the Roth 401k is that company matches (and the amount the match earns) is taxed upon withdrawl.

  24. Debbie M says:

    So Josh (#22), what are you doing? We can’t have too many good ideas.

  25. Tom says:

    I wanted to make a 2nd post about a nuanced point that I think Trent missed in the Who offers it section – while an IRA can open the door to any “investment house” you choose, and many options for investing, a company offered 401(k) often gets you access to institutional versions of retail funds that have lower expense ratios, not higher fees has he suggests. You may get access to funds closed to new investors. Also, you can use your 401k to get into funds without meeting a high initial investment requirement. Oh, and no transaction fees (unless your 401k has front-load funds in it) when you buy shares of mutual funds in your 401(k) too, unlike many options in most IRAs.
    As Commenter #21 points out, he’s dead wrong about the contribution withdrawals, and someone who runs a PF blog of this magnitude ought to be able to get that right

  26. Kathy F says:

    #22 Josh, Regarding “I still can’t understand why people would want to put taxes off for the future, especially the way things are going now, I don’t see taxes going up.” If I did not defer some of my taxes by contributing to 401(k)- actually federal employee TSP plan- then my adjustable gross income (AGI) would be too high to qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA. By contributing to both tax deferred and non-tax deferred but tax-free-earnings plan, I hedge against either tax rates going up or down. Actually for me, I will probably be in the same tax bracket (25% federal) with my planned retirement income (retirement four years away)based on my planned expenses. Some of the tax brackets are pretty large. The other reason for contributing to the tax deferred TSP fund is the matching money. Can’t pass up free money!

  27. almost there says:

    Meh, the best laid plans… Just remember what the government gives it can take away. Case in point: ADM Mullen announced that do to having to find 400 billion dollars in defense cuts, military pay and retired pay cuts were not off the table. Of course they won’t consider cutting procurement costs like doing away with money going to defense contractors or closing any of our 700+ overseas bases. Mullen will retire to his defense contractor job and get by on his O-10 retired pay even if it has to be cut a little. Meanwhile the cuts to the lower to midgrade enlisted will be more painful. Fed employees are already having their retirement fund raided by the gubment. Yeah promises are made to be broken when made by our elected representatives.

  28. moom says:

    There’s also the 72(t) rule for early withdrawals from a pre-tax retirement account that avoids the 10% penalty.

  29. bogart says:

    @Brianne it’s wildly controversial in places like this, but I use my Roth as my emergency fund. I cannot imagine having any cash in the bank (emergency fund) and failing to contribute the full amount to the Roth each year. As I’ve struggled to do both, I’ve instead allowed the Roth to serve as the EF. The downside (not such a downside in recent history) is that I therefore keep the Roth in cash equivalents (guaranteed, but low, returns and safe principal).

    To date, I’ve not had an E that has necessitated my tapping into the EF — my Roth (knock on wood and all that).

  30. Paul says:

    Thanks for this article. I just got a $10,000/year consultancy and was considering a structure very similar to the one you lay out at the end, as I’ve already maxed matching in my 401(k) and was thinking that a $5000/year Roth would be a good next step.

  31. Matt says:

    I did a lot of analyzing between Roth and Traditional…. even in worst-case scenarios, Traditional still wins. And by worst-case, I mean you withdraw all your Traditional when you retire, and get hit with a 35% tax bracket…I hope no one would consider doing that.
    The trick is, to be even better off, you should invest some of that money you “saved” by putting it into the tax-deferred plan in the first place. ie, if you invested $15K in a Traditional and ended up saving $2K in taxes, you should invest as much of that $2K as you can, as well.
    I’d be happy to send anyone the spreadsheet I created. Most people have been fed the belief that ROTH is better because everyone is going to get destroyed with tax brackets in the future. If you’re willing to set aside that belief (and you should, because if the middle class gets their tax bracket increased another 20%, you have more things to worry about than your retirement), I think you’ll find that the only reason for going with ROTH is for beneficiary reasons (Traditional forces a lumpsum withdrawal to beneficiaries, leading to that worst-case example — instead of letting, say, your grandkids withdraw the funds, as needed, tax free while letting continued returns pile up). Even if you want to cash out your balance after you die and give it to a non-profit (per a Will or Trust or however you end up doing it), Traditional is still better.
    Trent, I’m disappointed you’re encouraging people to invest in ROTH… but I like your other points about taking advantage of company matching, and investing at least 10%. In the end, putting money away for retirement is what’s important, not if making assumptions for the future could cost you 1-2% in 30 years.

  32. Matt says:

    Also regarding #8:
    YES, that is the sole reason when ROTH is better. And as you grow older and watch your salary (hopefully) grow, you can assess your feelings with future brackets compared to what you’re at currently, and change your plans accordingly.
    As you approach those 25% tax brackets is when you want to seriously consider switching to Traditional. Consider that my one caveat to my last post (#31) — my assumption was you were already in the 25%+ tax brackets.

  33. Matt says:

    It may have already been said, but if your employer-sponsored plan (e.g. 401k or 403b) offers any kind of match, you should always get the full match. For example, my employer offers a 100% match up to 4% of my contributions. So if I contribute 4% of my pre-tax pay, my contribution is effectively “magically” doubled. I can’t conceive of a scenario where opting out of “free money” is a bad idea.

    Regarding taxes, what others have said is true: it’s a “two factor” situation: first, how the government changes the tax code, and second, how your income changes in retirement. I agree with what others have said: it’s all but impossible to predict how the laws will change. But you should be able to at least get a sense of what your own financial future looks like; it should become clearer as you approach retirement. (And if your future is just a huge question mark, then you’re no where near ready to retire!)

    The best strategy is this: the size of your bets should be proportional to your edge. In other words, if you can clearly see your future and what your tax situation will be at that time, you can bias your retirement savings accordingly. But if you have no idea what the future holds, then you should try to make your retirement fund as tax-neutral as possible. That is, hedge in such a way so that big tax changes (govt or personal) have a minimal impact on you.

  34. Tara C says:

    I have shied away from the Roth options due to what happened in New Zealand when the government reneged on the agreement to not tax withdrawals… I can easily see our government getting into a situation where they needed more revenue and started taxing those withdrawals. So I am sticking with traditional IRA/401K. I also think 10% is too low unless you are just starting to work in your early 20′s. People who wait until their 30′s or later to start saving should be saving at least 20%.

  35. Paul says:

    The Roth also has an advantage if you’re maxing out, as it essentially has a limit of the $5000 plus whatever tax you’re paying, while the traditional is just the $5000.

  36. Kate says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been trying to figure out if I needed an IRA of either type in addition to my 403b. I have a VERY generous 403b plan – my employer matches dollar for dollar up to 10% of my pretax salary.

  37. Olga says:

    It is the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy.
    I’ve read this post and if I could I desire to suggest you some interesting things or tips.
    Perhaps you could write next articles referring to this article.
    I wish to read more things about it!

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