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Roth vs. SEP vs. Traditional IRA: What's the Difference?

These three IRAs serve different purposes. See which is best for you

Traditional vs. Roth vs. SEP IRA: An Overview

Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, and SEP IRAs are three types of individual retirement accounts, and they're similar in many ways. But there are some key differences in how they work, which can make one kind better for someone than another.

Here are the basics, starting with the best-known and most common kind of individual retirement account: the traditional IRA.

Key Takeaways

  • Roth, traditional, and SEP IRAs can serve different purposes for different people.
  • With a traditional IRA, you get an upfront tax break, while with a Roth your tax break comes later.
  • If you have self-employment income, a SEP IRA will allow you to save more for retirement than either a traditional IRA or a Roth.

Traditional IRAs

With a traditional IRA, you can put pre-tax income into the investments of your choice, which will then grow tax-deferred until you eventually withdraw the money. Many workers also roll the funds from their 401(k) or other company retirement plans into traditional IRAs when they retire or change employers.

You can take a tax deduction for your contributions to a traditional IRA, provided your income falls below certain limits and you meet the other eligibility requirements (such as not having access to a workplace retirement plan for you or your spouse).

When you later withdraw money from the account, typically in retirement, it will be taxed as ordinary income. After age 72, you must begin to take the required minimum distributions (RMD) from the account each year, according to a formula based on your age at the time. The money in a traditional IRA can't grow tax-deferred forever. For many years, the RMD age was 70½, but following the passage of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE Act) in December 2019, it was raised to 72.

For both 2021 and 2022, traditional IRA contributions are capped at $6,000 a year, with the option of an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if you're 50 or older, for a total of $7,000.

If you don't have a work-place sponsored retirement plan, or if you think you'll be in a lower tax bracket after you retire than the one you're in now, a traditional IRA can be a good savings option.

Roth IRAs

Another type of individual retirement account, the Roth IRA, was introduced in 1997. It works much like a traditional IRA but in reverse.

The contribution limits on Roth IRAs are the same as for traditional IRAs—including catch-up contributions—but you won't receive any upfront tax deduction. Instead, you'll get a tax break later, when the money you withdraw will be tax-free. For that reason, Roth IRAs are an attractive option for people who expect to be in a higher tax bracket after they retire than they are currently.

Another positive feature is that, unlike traditional IRAs, Roths aren't subject to required minimum distributions during your lifetime. So, if you don't need the money in your Roth IRA for living expenses, you can simply pass it along to your heirs when the time comes.

Roth IRAs have their own eligibility requirements. If your income exceeds a certain level, you won't be able to contribute to one. In 2021, for married filers who submit a joint tax return, the amount you can contribute is reduced for those who make more than $198,000 and is completely phased out if they make $208,000 or more.

For single filers, the range is $125,000 to $140,000 for 2021. The income phase-out range for taxpayers making contributions to a Roth IRA is increased in 2022 to $129,000 to $144,000 for singles and heads of household. For married couples filing jointly, the income phase-out range is increased to $204,000 to $214,000. 

With a SEP IRA, there are no catch-up contributions for people aged 50 and over.


A simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA is a type of individual retirement account that can be opened by an employer, who might simply be a self-employed individual. The SEP IRA allows small employers to provide a basic retirement plan for themselves and their employees, if any, without the cost and complexity of a 401(k) or similar plan. Employers can take a tax deduction for their contributions, much like a traditional IRA.

An advantage of the SEP IRA, if you have self-employment income to fund it, is that it has much higher contribution limits than either a traditional or Roth IRA. You can contribute up to 25% of your compensation or $58,000 for 2021 ($61,000 for 2022), whichever is less. As with a traditional IRA, withdrawals from a SEP IRA are taxed as ordinary income in retirement, and required minimum distribution rules apply.

Individuals may be able to contribute to both a SEP and an IRA, especially if they are self-employed or have self-employment income and meet the stated income guidelines.

Advisor Insight

Rebecca Dawson
Dawson Capital

With a traditional IRA, you contribute pre-tax money that reduces your taxable income. When you withdraw the money in retirement, it is taxed as ordinary income, meaning your tax obligation was deferred.

With a Roth IRA, you contribute post-tax money. Contributions do not offer any up-front tax break. Instead, withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

A SEP is set up by an employer, as well as a self-employed person, and permits the employer to make contributions to the accounts of eligible employees. The employer gets a tax deduction for contributions and the employee is not taxed on those contributions, though their eventual withdrawals will be taxed at their income tax rate. A self-employed person is both the employer and the employee, so they fund their own account.

Article Sources

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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Traditional and Roth IRAs." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "IRA Deduction Limits." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  5. Congressional Research Service. "The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997: An Overview," Page 6. Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Amount of Roth IRA Contributions That You Can Make For 2021." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Announces Changes to Retirement Plans for 2022." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Catch-Up Contributions." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP)." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  10. Internal Revenue Service. "SEP Contribution Limits (Including Grandfathered SARSEPs)." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

  11. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 590-B (2020), Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)." Accessed Dec. 13, 2021.

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