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Roth 401(k) vs. Roth IRA: An Overview

There is no one-size-fits-all answer as to which is better, a Roth 401(k) or a Roth IRA. It all depends on your unique financial profile: how old you are, how much money you make, when you want to start withdrawing your nest egg, and so on. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Here are the key differences you should consider when comparing the two types of Roths.

Key Takeaways

  • Roth IRAs have been around since 1997, while Roth 401(k)s came into existence in 2001.
  • A Roth 401(k) tends to be better for high-income earners, has higher contribution limits, and allows for employer matching funds.
  • A Roth IRA lets your investments grow longer, tends to offer more investment options, and allows for easier early withdrawals.

Roth 401(k)

Created by the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, Roth 401(k)s are a hybrid, blending many of the best parts of traditional 401(k)s and Roth IRAs to give employees a unique option when it comes to planning for retirement. Like traditional 401(k)s, they allow for employer matches and contributions made directly from paychecks. Like Roth IRAs, their distributions are not subject to income tax.

Advantages of Roth 401(k)s

One big advantage of a Roth 401(k) is the lack of an income limit, meaning people with high incomes can still contribute. This pairs well with the Roth 401(k)’s higher contribution limits. Participants in the plans can contribute an annual maximum of $19,500, with an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution if they turn 50 by the end of the year, for 2020 and 2021.

Unlike Roth IRAs, Roth 401(k)s do not have an income limit, allowing high-wage earners to contribute to one.

Another advantage to Roth 401(k)s is those matching contributions. Employers are even offered a tax incentive to make them. There is a hitch, though. Because employers are matching your contribution with pretax dollars, and the Roth is funded with post-tax dollars, those matching funds and their earnings will be placed in a regular 401(k) account. That means you will pay taxes on this money—and its earnings—once you start taking distributions.

A third advantage is the ability to take a loan from a Roth 401(k). You can borrow up to 50% of your account balance or $50,000, whichever is smaller. However, if you fail to pay back the loan as per the terms of the agreement when you take the money out, it could be considered a taxable distribution.

Disadvantages of Roth 401(k)s

With a Roth 401(k), you must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) once you reach the age of 72, as you must with 401(k)s and traditional IRAs. If you don’t, you are subject to a financial penalty. The only circumstances under which you can hold off paying RMDs is if you are still working and are not a 5% owner of the company sponsoring the plan.

Your investment options are limited with a Roth 401(k) to those offered by the plan administrator. In many cases, these boil down to a few basic mutual funds (one growth-oriented, one income-oriented, one money market, etc.). You’re also stuck with the expense ratios—often somewhat high—in 401(k) plan funds, and, of course, the plan administrators get their cut each year too.

Finally, access to the funds in your Roth 401(k) before age 59½ is limited. Tapping nest eggs before retirement should always be a matter of last resort, but if you must do it, you can’t take cash out of your Roth 401(k) without incurring a 10% penalty.


The number of companies that offer a Roth 401(k) according to a 2018 study by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson of 349 medium- and large-sized companies.

Roth IRA

Roth IRAs were established by the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 and named for Senator William Roth of Delaware. What sets them apart from traditional IRAs is that they are funded with after-tax dollars, making qualified distributions tax-free.

Advantages of Roth IRAs

One big advantage of the Roth IRA is that it does not require you to take RMDs—ever. That flexibility gives you the option to keep contributing to your account and letting those funds grow indefinitely, which is beneficial if you do not need them at age 72.

In fact, you could simply leave your Roth IRA intact and leave it to your spouse or descendants. “A Roth IRA will typically pass tax-free to your heirs, as long as the Roth IRA account does not pass through probate. Probate can be avoided by ensuring that beneficiaries are specified correctly,” says Christopher Gething, CFP, EA, founder of Atherean Wealth Management, LLC, in Jersey City, N.J.

Another big advantage of a Roth IRA is the wide range of investment options. The entire asset world is your oyster (a few exotic investments aside). Also, you can shop around to see which custodians and vehicles carry the smallest transaction and administrative expenses.

A final advantage is greater flexibility with pre-retirement withdrawals. You can withdraw an amount equivalent to the contributions you have made at any time without penalties or taxes. This does not, however, apply to Roth IRA’s earnings, for which pre-retirement withdrawals (if you're under 59½) do come with a 10% penalty.

However, under certain circumstances, such as buying a home for the first time or incurring childbirth costs, you can withdraw earnings from your Roth IRA free of penalty if you’ve held the account for under five years, and free of penalty and taxes if you have held it for more than five years.

Disadvantages of Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs come with an income limit. As per the IRS, individual taxpayers who make $140,000 or more in 2021 ($139,000 for 2020), or married couples filing jointly who make up to $208,000 or more ($206,000 for 2020), are not eligible for Roth IRA contributions.

Roth IRAs also have a lower contribution limit—$6,000 per year, compared to $19,500 for a Roth 401(k) for both 2020 and 2021—and do not allow for matching contributions.

Unlike Roth 401(k)s, Roth IRAs don’t allow loans. However, there is a way around this: initiate a Roth IRA rollover. During this period, you have 60 days to move your money from one account to another. As long as you return that money to it or to another Roth IRA in that time frame, you are effectively getting a 0% interest loan for 60 days.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to comparing a Roth IRA with a Roth 401(k), each has its own set of perks and benefits, so neither is inherently better than the other. Indeed, it may help you at some point to switch between them. For example, says Gething, “You can easily avoid required minimum distributions by rolling over your Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA.” And If you happen to be searching for the best place to get one of these accounts, Investopedia has created a list of the best brokers for IRAs.