The best retirement plans can help you build your nest egg. But given the different features and benefits of the various types of IRAs and 401(k) plans, it can be a challenge to find the right one for you and your situation. The good news is that you can have more than one.

Key Takeaways

  • A key difference between Roth and traditional IRAs is when you pay taxes—either when you make the contributions (Roth) or in retirement (traditional).
  • If you can only invest in one type of retirement account, your money may grow fastest in a 401(k) plan with an employer match.
  • If you can invest in more than one type of retirement account, consider how to get the maximum match and most favorable tax treatment.

Once upon a time, a pension and Social Security benefits were enough to cover expenses during retirement. Today, not so much. Instead, most people fund their own post-work years using various retirement plans that offer tax breaks and other benefits.

Here's a look at different scenarios and factors to consider when you are faced with choosing an investment account.

Roth IRA vs. Traditional IRA

Individual retirement accounts—or IRAs—are tax-advantaged accounts that hold the investments you choose. There are two main types of IRAs: traditional and Roth. You must have earned income—wages, salaries, and the like—to contribute to either.

The contribution limits for traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs are the same. For 2019 and 2020, you can contribute up to $6,000 a year, plus an additional $1,000 if you turn 50 (or are older) by the end of the tax year.

You have to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from a traditional IRA when you turn age 70½. However, Roth IRAs have no RMDs during the owner's lifetime. That makes a Roth IRA a good wealth-transfer vehicle because you can pass the entire account—and its tax benefits—onto your heirs.

If you are eligible for both types of IRA, making the choice usually depends on when you want to pay taxes—now or in retirement.

Traditional IRA Income Limits

With a traditional IRA, you get an upfront tax break—you can deduct your contributions—but you pay taxes on withdrawals in retirement. One caveat: You can always deduct your contributions in full only if you and your spouse don't have a 401(k) or some other retirement plan at work. Otherwise, your deduction could be reduced or eliminated, depending on your income. Here's a rundown for 2019 (and 2020).

2019 (and 2020) Traditional IRA Deduction Limits
If your filing status is… And your modified AGI is… Then you can take…
Single, head of household, qualifying widow(er), married filing jointly or separately and neither spouse is covered by a plan at work Any amount A full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) and you're covered by a plan at work $103,000 ($104,000) or less A full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit
  More than $103,000 ($104,000) but less than $123,000 ($124,000) A partial deduction
  $123,000 ($124,000) or more No deduction
Married filing jointly and your spouse is covered by a plan at work $193,000 ($196,000) or less A full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit
  More than $193,000 ($196,000) but less than $203,000 ($206,000) A partial deduction
  $203,000 ($206,000) or more No deduction
Single or head of household and you're covered by a plan at work $64,000 ($65,000) or less A full deduction up to the amount of your contribution limit
  More than $64,000 ($65,000) but less than $74,000 ($75,000) A partial deduction
  $74,000 ($75,000) or more No deduction
Married filing separately and either spouse is covered by a plan at work Less than $10,000 (remains the same for 2020) A partial deduction
  $10,000 or more (remains the same for 2020) No deduction

Roth IRA Income Limits

With a Roth IRA, your contribution isn't tax-deductible, but qualified distributions are free of taxes and penalties. What constitutes "qualified"? It must be at least five years since you first contributed to a Roth, and one of the following must also hold true:

  • You have reached the age of 59½
  • You have a disability
  • You are using the distribution to buy a first home (lifetime limit: $10,000)
  • You have died (and your beneficiary receives the distributions)

Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs have income limits for contributions. In short, if you make too much money, you can't contribute to a Roth. The limits are based on your modified adjusted gross income and your filing status:

2019 (and 2020) Roth IRA Income Limits
Filing Status Modified AGI Contribution Limit
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) Less than $193,000 ($196,000) $6,000 ($7,000 if you're age 50 or older)
  $193,000 ($196,000) to $203,000 ($206,000) Reduced
  $203,000 (206,000) or more Not eligible 
Single, head of household, or married filing separately (and you didn't live with your spouse at any time during the year) Less than $122,000 ($124,000) $6,000 ($7,000 if you're age 50 or older
  $122,000 ($124,000) to $137,000 ($139,000) Reduced
  $137,000 ($139,000) or more Not eligible 
Married filing separately (if you lived with your spouse at any time during the year) Less than $10,000 (remains unchanged for 2020) Reduced
  $10,000 or more (remains unchanged for 2020) Not eligible

To help you decide which IRA to invest in, look at your current tax bracket compared to your projected tax bracket during retirement. Try to choose according to which plan results in lower taxes and more income (granted, determining this may not be an easy thing to do).

In general, a Roth is the better choice if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, or if you expect to have significant earnings in the account. As long as you take qualified distributions, you won't ever pay taxes on earnings.

401(k) Plans

Like IRAs, 401(k) plans are tax-advantaged accounts used to save for retirement. But instead of being set up by individuals (that's the "I" in IRA), they're offered by employers.

Note that 401(k)s are defined contribution plans. Employees make contributions to their 401(k)s through automatic payroll withholding. And the employer can add money, too, through something called an employer match.

For example, your employer may contribute up to 5% of your salary—as long as you put in at least that amount yourself. If your employer offers a match, do everything you can to max out your contributions to get that match—it's essentially free money.

401(k) Contribution Limits

For 2019, you can contribute up to $19,000 to your 401(k), or $25,000 if you're age 50 or older (because of a $6,000 "catch-up" contribution). The limits increase to $19,500 and $26,000, respectively, for 2020.

Employers can contribute, too. For 2019, there's a $56,000 limit on combined employee and employer contributions, or $62,000 if you're age 50 or older. For 2020, the combined limits increase to $57,000, or $63,500 with the catch-up contribution.

These high contribution limits are one advantage that 401(k)s have over traditional and Roth IRAs.

What If You Can Contribute to a 401(k) or an IRA?

It may be that you are eligible to make traditional IRA or Roth IRA contributions as well as salary deferral contributions to a 401(k) plan. But you may not be able to afford to do both.

You must decide what is most beneficial to you—to make one, two, or all three work. Some of the following concepts can also apply if you have the option of contributing to both a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k).

Let's 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, and he can afford to contribute $2,000 each year, which he has decided to put into one account to avoid excessive fees. Therefore, Casey must decide whether it makes better financial sense to contribute to the 401(k) or to an IRA.

If There Is a Company Match

If Company A provides a matching contribution on Casey's salary deferral contributions, the 401(k) will be the better choice. Below is a look at the growth of his accounts over a 10-year period, assuming an employer match 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%). In 10 years, his 401(k) would grow significantly faster than an IRA.

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If There Isn't a Company Match

If Company A isn't making matching contributions to the 401(k) plan it offers, Casey should consider the following questions before deciding whether to invest in the 401(k):

Which investment choices are 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.

That means participants can 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 may do better if he contributes to an IRA, which would provide a broader range of investment choices.

What are the fees? One hot-button issue is 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.

Casey would need to research the fees that apply to his company's 401(k) plan and compare them with the operational and trade-related fees that apply to the IRA.

Are the 401(k) funds accessible? While retirement savings are intended to accumulate until retirement, situations sometimes arise that leave a participant no choice but to make withdrawals or take out a loan from their retirement accounts.

Generally, assets in a 401(k) plan cannot be withdrawn unless the participant experiences a triggering event. However, if Company A's 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.

What's the cost of professional management? If Casey isn't proficient in investment management or doesn't have the time to properly manage his plan investments, he may need the services of a professional investment advisor. That person could make sure his asset allocations are consistent with his retirement goals and objectives.

If Casey's employer provides those services as part of its employee benefits package, Casey won't incur an additional cost to have a professional manage his investments. This perk may not be available for an IRA unless an employer extends such services to assets outside of its employer-sponsored plan.

These points are worth considering, even if matching contributions are being made to the 401(k) account. But without a match, the answers to these questions may lead Casey to conclude that the savings benefits of an IRA outweigh those of a 401(k).

What about tax deductions? Contributions to a 401(k) reduce taxable income. So do contributions to a traditional IRA—but those employed by a company with a retirement plan, like Casey, are subject to income limits on how much of the contribution is deductible, as noted above.

And, of course, contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible at all; the benefit of a Roth IRA is that withdrawals at retirement are not taxed, unlike withdrawals from a traditional IRA or 401(k). Figure out how important getting a tax deduction this year is when choosing among retirement plans.

What If You Could Contribute to a 401(k) and an IRA?

Now, let's take a look at TJ, who can afford to fund her 401(k), a traditional IRA, and a Roth IRA. If she can afford to contribute the maximum to all her accounts, then she may have no need to be concerned with how to allocate her savings.

But let's assume TJ 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 example, assume TJ's compensation is $80,000 per year and the match is $1 for $1 up to 3% of compensation. She will need to contribute at least $2,400 to her 401(k) plan in order to receive the maximum available matching contribution of $2,400.

Choosing between IRAs. If TJ puts $2,400 into her 401(k), she'll have $4,600 left for her IRA contribution. She will have to do the math (or check with her tax advisor) to find out how much of her traditional IRA contributions would be tax-deductible and factor that into her decision to choose a Roth IRA, a traditional IRA—or a contribution of the two.

Whatever she decides, her total contributions to both IRAs cannot exceed the limit for that tax year.

If you have more than one IRA, your total IRA contributions cannot exceed the $6,000 ($7,000 if you're age 50 or older) limit for the year.

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.

Consider how matching contributions are made, too. Some companies contribute the amount in one lump sum at the end of their tax-filing deadline, while others contribute amounts throughout the year. If the latter applies, it's better to make salary deferral contributions to the 401(k) early in the year.

Other Points to Consider

In addition to the points listed above, you should consider other factors, such as:

Age and retirement horizon. Your retirement horizon and age are always important points of consideration when determining proper asset allocation. However, if you are at least age 50, participating in a plan that includes a catch-up contribution feature can be an attractive choice, especially if you are behind in accumulating a retirement nest egg.

If that describes you, choosing to participate in a 401(k) plan with a catch-up feature can help to add larger amounts to your nest egg each year. IRAs have catch-up features, too, but you can add only $1,000, not $6,000, to your contribution.

Purpose of funding a retirement account. While retirement accounts are usually intended to finance your retirement years, some people plan to leave these accounts to their beneficiaries.

In that case, you have to think about whether you want to leave tax-free assets to your beneficiaries, and whether you want to avoid having to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) that will lower the balance in your accounts. Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s allow you to pay taxes when you make the initial contributions. For Roth IRAs, the RMD rules do not apply to the IRA owner, which allows for a larger balance to be left to beneficiaries.

Certain government entities offer special retirement plans for employees.

The Bottom Line

For those who are eligible to fund multiple types of retirement accounts and have the money to fund them all, choice is not an issue. For those who don't have money to fund multiple accounts, picking the best option(s) can be challenging.

In many instances, it boils down to whether you prefer to take the tax breaks on the back end with Roth IRAs, or on the front end with traditional IRAs. The ultimate purpose of the account, such as retirement versus estate planning, is also an important factor. A competent retirement planning advisor can help people facing these issues to make practical choices.