Which Retirement Plan Is Best?

By Denise Appleby AAA

With the different features and benefits that apply to the various types of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and plans, choosing the one that is most suitable can give you gray hairs before they are due. In some cases, the process is easier because choices can be narrowed down by eliminating the plans for which an individual is ineligible. In this article, we'll look at some scenarios and the factors that should be considered when you are faced with choosing which IRA is best for your golden years.

See: Introduction To Retirement Plans

Eligible for a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA
For an individual who is eligible for both a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, making the choice usually depends on whether the individual is eligible (or wants) to claim the deduction for the Traditional IRA contribution, and the individual's current tax bracket compared to the projected tax bracket during retirement. This choice is determined by which plan results in lower taxes and more income. For more on this see, Roth Or Traditional IRA ... Which Is The Better Choice?

Eligible for a Roth IRA, a Traditional IRA and a Salary Deferral Contribution
For an individual who is eligible for a Traditional IRA contribution, a Roth IRA contribution and a salary deferral contribution to a 401(k) plan, but cannot afford to contribute the maximum amount to the 401(k) plan and the IRA at the same time, a decision must be made as to whether it is more beneficial to choose to make one, two, or all three work. Some of these concepts can also apply if the individual has the option of contributing to both a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k).

Choosing One
Let's take a look at Casey, who works for Company A and is eligible to make a salary deferral to Company A's 401(k) plan.

  • Casey's annual compensation is $50,000.
  • Casey can afford to contribute only $2,000 each year.
  • Casey feels that the fees that will be charged to each accounts makes it cost prohibitive to split the contribution into more than one account. Therefore, Casey must decide whether it makes better financial sense to contribute to the 401(k) or an IRA.

The 401(k) will likely be the better choice if Casey will receive a matching contribution on his salary deferral contribution. Let's look at the growth of his accounts over a 10-year period, assuming a matching contribution of $1 for each $1 Casey contributes, up to 3% of his salary. This means that Casey will receive a matching contribution of $1,500 ($50,000 x 3%).

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No Matching Contributions Made
If no matching contribution is being made to the 401(k) account, Casey will need to consider the following:

  • The investment choices available: Large corporations typically limit investment choices to mutual funds, bonds and money-market instruments. Smaller companies may do the same, but are more likely to allow self-direction of investments, allowing the participant to choose among stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other available investments, similar to the investment options available in a self-directed IRA. If investments in the 401(k) are limited, Casey will need to decide whether he prefers to contribute to an IRA, which would provide a broader range of investments from which to choose.
  • The fees that apply: A hot-button issue will probably always be the fees that are charged to 401(k) accounts. These are not as visible as the fees that are charged to an IRA, leading many participants to believe that 401(k) fees are minimal to non-existent. (To learn more, check out the Department of Labor's report "A Look At 401(k) Plan Fees".) Casey would need to research the fees that apply to the 401(k) plan and compare them with the operational and trade-related fees that apply to the IRA.
  • Accessibility: While retirement savings are intended to accumulate until retirement, situations sometime arise that leave the participant no choice but to make withdrawals or loans from their retirement accounts. Generally, assets in a 401(k) plan cannot be withdrawn unless the participant experiences a triggering event. However, if the plan has a loan feature, Casey could take a loan from his account and repay it within five years (or longer if the loan is to be used for the purchase of a principal residence). IRA assets can be withdrawn at any time. However, except for a rollover contribution, the amount cannot be repaid to the IRA. For information about taking loans from a qualified plan account, see Should You Take A Loan From Your Plan?, Borrowing From Your Plan and Eight Reasons To Never Borrow From Your 401(k).
  • Professional Investment Management Cost and Availability: If Casey is not proficient in investment management or he does not have the time properly manage his plan investments, he may need to engage the services of a professional investment advisor to make sure his asset allocation model is consistent with his retirement goals and objectives. If Casey's employer provides such services as part of its benefits package to employees, Casey will not incur an additional cost to have a professional manage his investments. This perk may not be available for an IRA unless the employer extends such services to assets outside of its employer-sponsored plan.

These points may be well worth considering, even if matching contributions are being made to the 401(k) account. If the matching contributions are significant, they may outweigh the benefits of saving in an IRA instead of a 401(k).

Choosing All Three
Now, let's take a look at TJ, who can afford to fund his 401(k), his Traditional and his Roth IRA. If he can afford to contribute the maximum permissible amounts to all his accounts, then he may have no need to be concerned with how to allocate his savings. On the other hand, let's assume Casey can afford to save only $7,000 for the year. The points of consideration for Casey (above) may also apply to TJ. In addition, TJ may want to consider the following:

  • Getting the maximum match: If a matching contribution is being made to the 401(k) plan, consider the maximum amount that needs to be contributed to the plan in order to receive the maximum available matching contribution. For instance, if TJ's compensation is $80,000 per year and the matching contribution formula is $1 for $1 up to 3% of compensation, he will need to contribute at least $2,400 to his 401(k) plan in order to receive the maximum available matching contribution of $2,400.
  • Choosing the IRA: Because TJ's IRA contribution will be limited to the dollar amount in effect for the year, he will need to decide whether to choose the Roth IRA, the Traditional IRA or to split the contribution between both.
  • Which to fund first: It is usually best to make contributions to the retirement accounts early in the year, or a little each month - beginning early in the year so that the assets can start accumulating earnings as soon as possible. Consideration must be given to how matching contributions are made. Some companies contribute the amount in one lump sum at the end of their tax-filing deadline, while others contribute the amounts throughout the year. If the latter applies, making salary deferral contributions to the 401(k) early in the year is recommended.

Other Points of Consideration
In addition to the points listed above, individuals should consider other factors such as:

  • Age and retirement horizon: An individual's retirement horizon and age are always important points of consideration when determining proper asset allocation. However, for individuals who are at least age 50, participating in a plan that includes a catch-up contribution feature can be an attractive choice, especially if the individual is behind in accumulating a retirement nest egg. If this is the case, choosing to participate in a 401(k) plan with a catch-up feature can help to add larger amounts to the nest egg each year.
  • Purpose of funding a retirement account: While retirement accounts are usually intended to finance one's retirement years, some individuals prefer to leave these accounts to their beneficiaries. If this is the case, consideration must be given as to whether the individual wants to leave tax-free assets to beneficiaries, and whether he or she wants to avoid taking required minimum distribution (RMD) amounts. Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s would allow the individual to pay the taxes owed on the retirement balances during his or her lifetime. For Roth IRAs, the RMD rules do not apply to the IRA owner, allowing a larger balance to be left to beneficiaries.

See: Update Your Beneficiaries.

Conclusion
For those who are eligible to fund multiple types of retirement accounts, choice is not an issue for those who have the money to fund them all. For those who can't, choosing which to fund can be challenging. In many instances, it boils down to whether the individual prefers to take the tax breaks on the back end with Roth accounts, or on the front end with Traditional accounts. The purpose of funding the account, such as retirement versus estate planning, is also an important factor. A competent retirement planning advisor can help those facing these issues to make practical choices.

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