Both 401(k)s and Roth IRAs are popular tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts that differ in tax treatment, investment options, and employer contributions. In a perfect scenario, you’d have both in which to put aside funds for retirement. However, if you have to decide between the two, here are some ways these accounts differ.
- If your employer offers a 401(k) matching program, it’s a great opportunity to save even more retirement dollars.
- A Roth IRA doesn’t offer the same type of benefit, as it’s an individually owned account.
- If you believe you’re going to be in a higher income bracket in retirement, a Roth IRA may make the most sense.
- Having both a 401(k) and a Roth IRA (provided you can afford to fund both) presents the most opportunities for a well-funded retirement.
What Is a 401(k) Plan?
Named after section 401(k) of the Internal Revenue Code, a 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement plan. To contribute to a 401(k), you designate a portion of each paycheck to divert into the plan. These contributions occur before income taxes are deducted from your paycheck.
The investment options among different 401(k) plans can vary tremendously, depending on the plan provider. Nevertheless, no matter which fund (or funds) you choose, any investment gains realized within the plan are not taxed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Investment gains you make within your 401(k) are never taxed by the IRS.
401(k) Contribution Limits
Notably, 401(k)s have much higher contribution limits than Roth IRAs. For 2020, the 401(k) contribution limit is:
- $19,500 if you’re under age 50
- $26,000 if you’re age 50 or older
401(k) Employer Match
Overall, 401(k) plans are most beneficial when your employer offers a match, contributing additional money to your 401(k) account. The match is usually a percentage of your contribution, up to a certain percentage of your salary.
For example, your employer may match 50% of your contributions, up to 6% of your salary. The employer match doesn’t count toward your contribution limit, but the IRS does cap the total amount that can go into your 401(k) each year (your contributions plus the match).
For 2020, the combined contribution limits for a 401(k) are as follows:
- $57,000 if you’re under age 50
- $63,500 if you’re age 50 or older
- 100% of your salary (if it’s less than the dollar limits)
401(k) and Taxes
You get a tax break when you contribute to a 401(k). That's because you can deduct your contributions when you file your income tax return. This reduces your taxable income, which saves you money.
You’ll pay taxes after you reach retirement age and begin to make withdrawals from the plan. These distributions, as they are known, are subject to income taxes at your then-current tax rate. If you think your income will be higher when you retire, you may want to plan ahead, as all income from your distributions will be taxed.
401(k) Required Minimum Distributions
If you have a 401(k), you have to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) by April 1 of the year following the year you turn 72 or the year you retire, whichever is later. Here’s a quick look at the pros and cons of 401(k) plans.
Higher contribution limits
Maintained by employer
Fewer investment options
Required minimum distributions
What Is a Roth IRA?
A variation of traditional individual retirement accounts (IRAs), a Roth IRA is set up directly between an individual and an investment firm. Your employer is not involved.
As you set up and control the account, your investment choices aren’t limited to what the plan provider offers. This gives IRA holders a greater degree of investment freedom than employees have with 401(k) plans, even though the fees charged by those providers are typically higher.
In contrast to the 401(k), after-tax money is used to fund a Roth IRA. As a result, no income taxes are levied on withdrawals during retirement. While in the account, any investment gains are untaxed.
Roth IRA Contribution Limits
The contribution limits are much smaller with Roth IRA accounts. For 2020, the maximum annual contribution for a Roth IRA is:
- $6,000 if you’re under age 50
- $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older
Roth IRA Income Limits
For 2020, you can make a full contribution if your income is less than $124,000 for individuals and $196,000 if you're married filing jointly. If your income is between $124,000 and $139,000 for individuals and $196,000 and $206,000 for those married filing jointly, you can make a reduced contribution. If you earn more than these IRS-imposed limits, you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA.
Roth IRA Withdrawals
You can withdraw your Roth IRA contributions at any time or any age with no tax or penalty. Withdrawals on earnings, however, could be subject to income taxes and a 10% penalty, depending on your age and how long you’ve had the account.
In general, you can avoid taxes and the penalty if your account is at least five years old and the withdrawal is:
- Made after you turn age 59½
- Taken due to a permanent disability
- Made by your beneficiary or estate after your death
- Used to buy, build, or rebuild your first home (a $10,000 lifetime maximum applies)
If you don’t meet those guidelines, you may be able to avoid the penalty (but not the tax) if a qualified exception applies.
Unlike 401(k)s, Roth IRAs have no RMDs during your lifetime. If you don’t need the money in retirement, you can leave it in the account, where it can continue to grow tax-free for your beneficiaries.
Below is a rundown of the pros and cons of Roth IRAs.
Withdrawals are tax-free in retirement
More investment choices
No RMDs during your lifetime
Lower contribution limits
Income limits can prevent you from contributing
No employer match
The Bottom Line
Here’s a rundown of the differences between 401(k)s and Roth IRAs.
|401(k)s vs. Roth IRAs|
|Upfront tax break||Yes. Contributions are deductible.||No|
|Withdrawals||Taxed as ordinary income||Tax-free|
|Contribution Limits||$19,500, or $26,000 if you’re age 50 or over||$6,000, or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or over|
|Income Limits||No||Yes. At higher incomes contributions are reduced or eliminated.|
|Employer Match||Yes. There’s a $57,000 ($63,500 for age 50 or over) limit on combined employer/employee contributions.||No|
|Automatic Payroll Deduction||Yes||No|
|Earliest age to withdraw funds without penalty||59½||Withdraw contributions at any time, earnings at 59½|
|RMDs||Yes. RMDs must start by April 1 following the later of the year you reach age 72 or the year you retire.||Not during the owner’s lifetime|
In many cases, a Roth IRA can be a better choice than a 401(k) retirement plan, as it offers a flexible investment vehicle with greater tax benefits—especially if you think you’ll be in a higher tax bracket later on. However, if your income is too high to contribute to a Roth, your employer offers a match, and you want to stash more money each year, a 401(k) is hard to beat.
A good strategy (if you can manage it) is to have both a 401(k) and a Roth IRA. Invest in your 401(k) up to the matching limit, then fund a Roth up to the contribution limit. After that, any leftover funds can go toward your 401(k)’s contribution limit.
Still, everyone’s financial situation is different, so it pays to do your homework before making any decisions. When in doubt, speak with a qualified financial planner who can answer any questions and help you make the right choice for your situation.
Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "26 CFR Sec. 1.401(k)-1 - Certain cash or deferred arrangements." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plans." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plans - Deferrals and matching when compensation exceeds the annual limit." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics — Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "Roth IRAs." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "Amount of Roth IRA Contributions That You Can Make for 2020." Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 590-B: Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)." Page 28. Accessed March 5, 2020.
Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 590-B: Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)." Page 35. Accessed March 5, 2020.