What are the differences between a 401K and an IRA?

401(k), IRAs
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A traditional IRA and 401(k) are similar in terms of how they are treated for taxes. The main differences are contribution limits, access to funds, and eligibility.

Both the IRA and 401(k) are retirement accounts and the IRS provides special tax benefits for money contributed and held in these respective account types. Funds invested in both will grow tax deferred, and typically investors receive an income tax deduction for the tax year in which they make contributions. Your ability to receive a tax deduction for contributions to an IRA depends on your tax situation, here is information about deductions for IRA contributions from the IRS.

You can contribute more to a 401(k) each year than you can to an IRA and you can contribute to both in any given year. Furthermore, if you are over the age of 50, you can make additional “catch up contributions”. Below are the 2016/2017 annual personal contribution limits published by the IRS:

  IRA 401(k)
Normal Contribution $5,500 $18,000
With Age 50+ Catch Up $6,500 $24,000

If you withdraw funds from an IRA or 401(k) before age 59 ½, the IRS will assess a 10% tax penalty in addition to income taxes owed on the funds disbursed. Some 401(k) plans may offer loans, which allows you to access a portion of your 401(k) account in the form of a loan, which you are expected to pay back to yourself. If you don’t pay it back, it will be considered a withdrawal and you may be subject to the early withdrawal penalty based on your age at the time of taking the loan. IRA accounts do not allow loans.

The key factor of being able to contribute to a 401(k) is having access to one. Anyone can setup an IRA for themselves, but a 401(k) is a group retirement plan setup by an employer. If you are an entrepreneur or a small business owner, your business can setup a plan for you. If you are an employee, it would be up to your employer group to offer a 401(k) plan.

There are many other differences in terms of maintaining a 401(k) which is subject to ERISA and entails all sorts of additional reporting, testing, and compliance each year. An IRA is much more simple to setup and does not involve any of this additional reporting or annual administration.

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October 2012