Should I Choose a Traditional or Roth Retirement Account?

Whether you work for a private company, a non-profit organization, or a government agency, these days you probably have access to a retirement savings plan. It may be called a 401(k) plan, a 403(b), or a 457(b). It will certainly offer the traditional version of a retirement savings plan, but it may also offer a Roth option.

It is up to your employer whether it offers a Roth option. It is also up to your employer the investments you can choose from. Most of your investment options will be mutual funds, but they may range from highly conservative bond funds to highly speculative stock funds.

Almost nine out of ten employers offer Roth 401(k) options, while nearly 60% of 403(b) plans offered Roth options in 2021. If either option if available to you, it very well may be worth considering for the long-term tax implications. The Roth can be a little more pain in your working years in return for a lot more gain once you retire.

Key Takeaways

  • If you have an employer-sponsored plan, it's up to the employer whether a Roth account is an option.
  • The Roth option means a bigger hit to your take-home pay during your working years in return for a bigger retirement income down the line.
  • You not eligible to deduct Roth contributions from your income, opposite of what is allowed for traditional contributions.
  • You can divide your savings between both types of accounts. You can even change your mind and change your allocation at any time.
  • There are also different rules on withdrawing contributions prior to retirement as Roth IRAs are more flexible.

Roth vs. Traditional Accounts

There are numerous and substantial differences between a Roth and Traditional accounts. Though both are vehicles for an investor to save for retirement, each have unique aspects that limit or enhance various benefits.

Tax Deductions

When you invest in a Roth account, you pay with after-tax dollars. When you withdraw money after you retire, you owe zero taxes on that money. The investment returns over time are tax-free, and you have already paid the income tax on your contribution.

If you invest in a traditional retirement account, you pay with pre-tax dollars. Your taxable income is reduced by the amount you pay in. That softens the impact of the loss in your take-home pay. After you retire, you'll owe income taxes on those pre-tax dollars you put in, and on the investment returns the account generated.

Generally speaking, Roth accounts are usually better served for people who are in lower tax brackets today and expect to be in higher tax brackets in the future. Traditional accounts are usually better for higher earners that expect to be in lower tax brackets when they retire.

Income Phase-Out Limits

Depending on the Roth account, a taxpayer may be excluded from being able to contribute if they make too much money. Traditional accounts generally do not have income limits, though the amount you can contribute to Roth IRAs depends on your income.

For 2022, taxpayers filing joint returns may have a modified adjusted gross income less than $214,000 to contribute to a Roth account. Joint filers with income between $204,000 and $214,000 could contribute a partial amount. For single taxpayers, this range was between $129,000 and $144,000, with no Roth IRA contributions allowed above this range.

For 2023, each of the income ranges has increased. Joint filers now phase out between $218,000 and $228,000 (with no contributions allowed above this), while single filers now phase out between $138,000 and $153,000 (with no contributions allowed above this.

Early Withdrawals

Roth IRAs are specially designed to allow investors to be able to withdraw their funds before retirement. Roth IRA contributions may be withdrawn at any time, though earnings are taxed and assessed a penalty if withdrawn prior to retirement. In addition, there are special circumstances that allow an investor to withdraw Roth funds for items such as the first time they purchase a house.

These rules are not in place for traditional accounts. All traditional IRA contributions must be held until retirement, else taxes and fees apply.

Required Withdrawals

There are a few other differences that won't matter much to you until you retire. Investors in a traditional account must begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) by age 73. In the past, you had to stop contributing to a traditional IRA at the same age taking RMDs was required.

As of 2020, because of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, you can contribute to a traditional IRA at any age so long as you have income. Neither restriction applies to the Roth account.

You Can Choose Both

If your employer offers both traditional and Roth options, you can split your money between the two if you like. You just can't pay in more than the maximum amount allowable for either or both.

For both the 401(k) and the 403(b), that is $20,500 for 2022 (increasing to $22,500 for 2023), plus another $6,500 if you are aged 50 or older (increasing to $7,500 for 2023). For the 457(b) plan, the limits are the same except that you can pay in up to twice the annual 457(b) limit if you're three years or less from retirement age.

Your employer may place other limits on the amount you contribute.

The contribution amounts are usually the same for traditional and Roth accounts, though Roth accounts may be subject to limits based on income.

You Can Change Your Mind

You can even change your mind any time and roll over a traditional account to a Roth account, or vice versa. Just remember, if you're converting a traditional account to a Roth account, you'll owe income taxes on the balance in that tax year. In addition, your employer like has a simple way for you to change your contribution amount on 401(k) accounts.

More Factors to Consider

If your employer gives you the opportunity to contribute to either, the following are some personal factors that might point to favoring the Roth option:

  • You have quite a few working years left to save for retirement.
  • You are in a low tax bracket today or you're fairly sure that your tax bracket will be higher when you retire.
  • You don't want to ever have to pay taxes on the money your investments earn while they are in your account.
  • If something happens to you, you want to be sure your heirs keep as much of their inheritance as possible.
  • You can manage the strain of paying in a chunk of your taxable income month after month.

Reasons to stick to the traditional retirement account might include:

  • You're on a very tight budget right now. It's easier to squeeze out enough for a traditional pretax contribution since some of that money comes back to you immediately as a lower tax on your paycheck.
  • You expect to be in a lower tax bracket after you retire. Tax rates are impossible to predict, but many people do have lower incomes after retirement, and therefore owe less in income taxes.
  • You're close to retirement age. Those taxable returns have a few more years, not decades, to add up.

What Is the Difference Between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA?

Traditional and Roth IRAs are both different types of tax-advantaged individual retirement accounts that allow owners to save for retirement. A traditional IRA is funded with pre-tax dollars, meaning that you will have a lower tax bill in the year you invest. A Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars, but you will not have to pay income taxes when you withdraw money. You can only invest $6,500 in your IRAs each year (or $7,500 if you are 50 or older). If you withdraw money before you reach age 59½ you may face a tax penalty, except under certain circumstances.

When Is a Roth IRA Better than a Traditional IRA?

Generally speaking, a traditional retirement account reduces your tax bill on contributions, while a Roth retirement account reduces your taxes on withdrawals. This means that a Roth account is better if you expect to have a higher income when you get older.

How Do I Know If I Have a Traditional or Roth Retirement Account?

The specifics of your retirement account will be stated on your plan documents. Look for a document titled "Plan summary" stating the types of tax advantages for your account.

The Bottom Line

The choice between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA will depend on your individual circumstances such as your current and expected tax rates, your age, and your retirement goals. Each account has its unique rules and benefits, and it may be important to consult with a financial advisor to determine which type of IRA is best for you.

Article Sources
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