401(k) vs. IRA: What’s the Difference?

The differences include contribution limits and investment options

401(k) vs. IRA: An Overview

The two main goals for saving for retirement include 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). When employers want to give their employees a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement, they may offer participation in a defined-contribution plan such as a 401(k).

Employees typically contribute a percentage of their salary to their 401(k), while the employer may offer matching contributions up to a specific limit. Employers might also offer a simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA, or a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRA if the company has 100 or fewer employees.

Individuals can opt to save on their own and open an IRA (an individual can have both a 401(k) and an IRA). However, IRAs don’t provide matching contributions from an employer. Various types of IRAs have specific income and contribution limits, as well as their own tax advantages. Both traditional IRAs and 401(k)s grow tax-free, meaning there’s no tax on the interest and earnings over the years. However, distributions or withdrawals from these accounts are typically taxed at your then-income tax rate in retirement.

That said, there are IRAs that offer tax-free withdrawals in retirement. Most IRAs and 401(k)s do not allow withdrawals before the owner reaches the age of 59½; otherwise, there’s a tax penalty levied by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Again, depending on the specific retirement account and a person’s financial situation, there can be exceptions to the early withdrawal penalty.

Key Takeaways

  • 401(k) plans are tax-deferred retirement savings accounts.
  • They are offered by employers who may match an employee’s contributions.
  • Individuals can also set up a traditional IRA or Roth IRA, which do not have employer matching.
  • IRAs generally offer more investment choices than 401(k)s, but permitted contribution levels are much lower.
  • SEP and SIMPLE IRAs were designed to make it easy for employers to set up retirement plans for employees.

401(k)s

A 401(k) is a tax-deferred retirement savings account employers offer their employees. Employees contribute money to their account via elective salary deferrals, meaning a percentage of their salary is withheld and contributed to the 401(k).

The money is deposited in various investments, typically a lineup of mutual funds, as selected by the sponsor. The fund choices are designed to meet a specific risk tolerance so that employees may only take on as aggressive or conservative a risk as they are comfortable with taking. Investment income accrues and compounds tax-free.

Many employers are also offering Roth 401(k)s. Unlike a traditional 401(k), contributions are funded with after-tax money, so they are not tax-deductible; however, qualified withdrawals are tax-free.

Employee Contributions

Contributions to 401(k) accounts are made pretax, meaning the total of the contributions would reduce your taxable income for that year by the contribution amount. For example, if an employee earned a $50,000 salary and contributed $10,000 to a 401(k), then the taxable income for the year would be $40,000—all else being equal.

For 2022, participants can contribute up to $20,500 per year ($19,500 in 2021) to a traditional or Roth 401(k), with an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution allowed for people ages 50 and older.

Employer Matching Contributions

Employers typically match a percentage of their employees’ contributions up to a certain limit or percentage. An employer might match based on how much the employee contributes annually. For example, an employer could match 50% of an employee’s contribution up to 6% of their salary. If an employee contributes 6% of their salary, then the employer will contribute a 3% match.

If the employee doesn’t contribute the full 6%, they might not qualify for a match and receive either nothing or a reduced portion from the employer. To receive the employer match, the employee typically must contribute a minimum amount or percentage of their salary. It’s important to review the 401(k) retirement plan documents to determine if there’s an employer match, and if so, what the maximum match and the minimum employee contribution are to qualify for a matching contribution.

The IRS has established limits on total contributions—by both employee and employer—to a 401(k). For 2022, the total amount of annual contributions to an employee’s account can’t exceed $61,000 or $67,500, including catch-up contributions ($58,000 and $64,500, respectively, for 2021).

Distributions From 401(k)s

Withdrawals are taxed at the person’s income tax rate, and there’s no penalty for withdrawals as long as the distributions are made at age 59½ or older. An employee may be permitted to take loans or hardship withdrawals from a 401(k). Loan repayments are generally deducted from the employee’s paycheck.

Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons of 401(k)s

Pros
  • Allows loans

  • Higher contribution limits

  • May offer employer matching

Cons
  • Fewer investment options

  • Higher fees and costs

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

There are several types of IRAs, which are tax-deferred retirement savings accounts established by an individual. IRAs can be held by banks, brokerages, and investment firms.

An IRA can be as straightforward as a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD) at a local bank. IRAs held by brokerage and investment firms offer IRA owners more investment options than 401(k)s, including stocks, bonds, CDs, and even real estate. Some assets, such as art, are not permitted within an IRA, according to IRS rules.

IRA Contribution Limits

Annual contribution limits for traditional and Roth IRAs are $6,000 as of 2021 and 2022, with an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution allowed for people ages 50 and older.

 2022 401(k) IRA
 Contribution Limits  $20,500  $6,000
Total with catch-up contribution (50 years old and older) $27,000  $7,000 

Traditional and Roth IRAs

Like 401(k)s, contributions to traditional IRAs are generally tax-deductible. Earnings and returns grow tax-free, and you pay tax on withdrawals in retirement. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars, meaning you don’t receive a tax deduction in the year of the contribution. However, qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax-free in retirement.

IRA Benefits

Employer plans typically provide some amount of matching contribution. You get to select from a menu of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs), as outlined by your individual plan. An IRA is not tied to an employer. If your income is below a certain amount and you are not covered by an employer plan, then you can contribute up to $6,000 per year plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those ages 50 and over.

The benefit of an IRA is that your investment choices are much greater and almost unlimited. The costs of each need to be considered, and they will vary depending on the investment selection.

Michelle Mabry, Certified Financial Planner, Client 1st Advisory Group, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Pros and Cons

Pros and Cons of IRAs

Pros
  • More investing options

  • More control over costs

Cons
  • Doesn't allow loans

  • Lower contribution limits

  • No employer matching contributions

SEP and SIMPLE IRAs

SEP and SIMPLE IRAs are offered by employers to their employees and are similar to 401(k) accounts in many ways, but there are some differences—their contribution limits chief among them.

SEP and SIMPLE IRAs were designed to make it easy for employers to set up a retirement plan for employees. They have fewer administrative burdens than 401(k) plans. For the self-employed, the term employer includes an owner/employee.

SEP IRAs

SEP IRAs have higher annual contribution limits than standard IRAs, and only your employer can contribute to them. Employer contributions can be as much as 25% of an employee’s gross annual salary as long as they don't exceed a certain amount. In 2021, the contribution limit is $58,000, or $64,500 if the employee is age 50 or older. That amount rises to $61,000 or $67,500 for those 50 and older in 2022.

Many 401(k)s have vesting requirements for matching contributions, but SEP and SIMPLE IRAs are 100% vested as soon as a contribution is made.

SIMPLE IRAs

SIMPLE IRA contributions work differently than SEP IRAs and 401(k)s. An employer can either match up to 3% of an employee’s annual contribution or set up a nonelective 2% contribution of each employee’s salary. The latter doesn’t require employee contributions.

The contribution limit for employees is $14,000 in 2021 and 2022. People 50 and over can make an additional catch-up contribution of up to $3,000.

Is It Better to Have a 401(k) or an IRA?

Whether a 401(k) or an IRA is better for an individual depends on the individual. A 401(k) allows for more money to be contributed each year on a pretax basis than an IRA. However, an IRA tends to have more investment options. Note that an individual can have both.

Is a 401(k) an IRA?

Both accounts are retirement savings vehicles, but a 401(k) is a type of employer-sponsored plan with its own set of rules. A traditional IRA, on the other hand, is an account that the owner establishes without an employer's involvement.

Is a 401(k) Considered an IRA for Tax Purposes?

Not all retirement accounts have the same tax treatment. There are different tax benefits for IRAs and 401(k)s. Roth IRAs don’t offer a tax deduction for contributions, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. Traditional IRAs offer a tax deduction, while 401(k)s allow pre-tax income to be deposited, which reduces taxable income in the year of the contribution. Distributions in retirement from 401(k)s and IRAs are considered taxable income.

Can You Lose Money in an IRA?

Yes. IRA money held by a brokerage or investment firm is usually invested in securities such as mutual funds or stocks, which fluctuate in value. Note that an IRA is no more or less likely to decline in value than any other investment account. The owner of an IRA faces the same market risks as the account holder of a 401(k).

Can You Roll a 401(k) Into an IRA Penalty-Free?

The IRS allows for a rollover or transfer of your funds from a 401(k) to an IRA. However, the process and guidelines outlined by the IRS must be followed so that the IRA transfer doesn’t count as a distribution, which could incur a penalty. The easiest way to make sure funds roll over penalty-free is to do a direct rollover.

The Bottom Line

IRAs and 401(k) plans are both great investing tools with different strengths. Because a 401(k) is an employer-sponsored plan, you may have less ability to choose your investments, but your contribution limits are much higher than in a traditional or a Roth IRA. Ideally, you can use the two accounts together to create a comprehensive retirement portfolio so you can relax and enjoy your golden years.

Article Sources

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  1. Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics — Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions.”

  2. Internal Revenue Service. “Roth Comparison Chart.”

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "2022 Limitations Adjusted as Provided in Section 415(d), etc," Pages 1-2.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. “Hardships, Early Withdrawals and Loans.”

  5. Internal Revenue Service. “IRA FAQs.”

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "2022 Limitations Adjusted as Provided in Section 415(d), etc," Page 3.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. “Traditional and Roth IRAs.”

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP)."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "SIMPLE IRA Plan."

  10. Internal Revenue Service. “SIMPLE IRA Plan FAQs — Contributions.”

  11. Internal Revenue Service. “Rollovers of Retirement Plan and IRA Distributions.”

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