Which Wins for Retirement Savings: Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)?
Q: I am 30 and just starting to save for retirement. My employer offers a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) but no company match. Should I open and max out a Roth IRA first and then contribute to my company 401(k) and hope it offers a match in the future?– Charlotte Mapes, Tampa
A: A company match is a nice to have, but it’s not the most important consideration when you’re deciding which account to choose for your retirement savings, says Samuel Rad, a certified financial planner at Searchlight Financial Advisors in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Contributing to a 401(k) almost always trumps an IRA because you can sock away a lot more money, says Rad. This is true whether you're talking about a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA. In 2015 you can put $18,000 a year in your company 401(k) ($24,000 if you’re 50 or older). You can only put $5,500 in an IRA ($6,500 if you’re 50-plus). A 401(k) is also easy to fund because your contributions are automatically deducted from your pay check.
With Roth IRAs, higher earners may also face income limits to contributions. For singles, you can’t put money in a Roth if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $131,000; for married couples filing jointly, the cutoff is $193,000. There are no income limits for contributions to a 401(k).
If you had a company match, you might save enough in the plan to receive the full match, and then stash additional money in a Roth IRA. But since you don't, and you also have a Roth option in your 401(k), the key decision for you is whether to contribute to a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). (You’re fortunate to have the choice. Only 50% of employer defined contribution plans offer a Roth 401(k), according to Aon Hewitt.)
The basic difference between a traditional and a Roth 401(k) is when you pay the taxes. With a traditional 401(k), you make contributions with pre-tax dollars, so you get a tax break up front, which helps lower your current income tax bill. Your money—both contributions and earnings—will grow tax-deferred until you withdraw it, when you'll pay whatever income tax rates applies at that time. If you tap that money before age 59 1/2, you'll pay a 10% penalty in addition to taxes (with a few exceptions).
With a Roth 401(k), it's the opposite. You make your contributions with after-tax dollars, so there's no upfront tax deduction. And unlike a Roth IRA, there are no contribution limits based on your income. You can withdraw contributions and earnings tax-free at age 59½, as long as you've held the account for five years. That gives you a valuable stream of tax-free income when you’re retired.
So it all comes down to deciding when it's better for you to pay the taxes—now or later. And that depends a lot on what you think your income tax rates will be when you retire.
No one has a crystal ball, but for young investors like you, the Roth looks particularly attractive. You’re likely to be in a lower tax bracket earlier in your career, so the up-front tax break you’d receive from contributing to a traditional 401(k) isn’t as big it would be for a high earner. Plus, you'll benefit from decades of tax-free compounding.
Of course, having a tax-free pool of money is also valuable for older investors and retirees, even those in a lower tax brackets. If you had to make a sudden large withdrawal, perhaps for a health emergency, you can tap those savings rather than a pre-tax account, which might push you into a higher tax bracket.
The good news is that you have the best of both worlds, says Rad. You can hedge your bets by contributing both to your traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k), though you are capped at $18,000 total. Do this, and you can lower your current taxable income and build a tax diversified retirement portfolio.
There is one downside to a Roth 401(k) vs. a Roth IRA: Just like a regular 401(k), a Roth 401(k) has a required minimum distribution (RMD) rule. You have to start withdrawing money at age 70 ½, even if you don’t need the income at that time. That means you may be forced to make withdrawals when the market is down. If you have money in a Roth IRA, there is no RMD, so you can keep your money invested as long as you want. So you may want to rollover your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA before you reach age 70 1/2.
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