Questions You Must Ask Before You Open an IRA or a 401(k)

A man ponders a decision while looking at a computer laptop.
Getty Images

Getting started on saving for retirement involves a lot of choices: how much you can afford to stash away, what you should invest in and — maybe before you get to all that — what type of account to open.

There are IRAs, which are individual retirement arrangements that you open yourself. And there are 401(k)s, plans you may access through your employer.

Both are great vehicles for building a retirement nest egg, but there are some key differences between them.

We’ll explain the nuances of an IRA vs. a 401(k) to help you decide which type of account to open.

Answer: ideally both.

 

What Is a 401(k)?

A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan where contributions are generally deducted from your paycheck before taxes.

The money in your 401(k) grows over time from investments in mutual funds, stocks and bonds. With a few exceptions, you cannot withdraw money from your 401(k) until you’re 59 ½ without a 10% penalty.

Because your contributions were made before taxes were taken out, you must pay income taxes when you withdraw your money in retirement.

You’re not required to make withdrawals until you’re 70 ½. Then, you must take what are called required minimum distributions.

You can contribute up to $19,000 per year to a 401(k) (plus $6,000 more if you’re over age 50). There are no income restrictions, and your contributions do not count as taxable income.

When Should You Invest in a 401(k)?

A Woman uses a computer in the grass at a park.
Getty Images

A 401(k) might be a good retirement savings option for you if you answer “yes” to any of these questions:

Does your employer offer a 401(k) and match your contributions?

If so, this perk can maximize your retirement savings. You put your own money in, typically up to 3% of your salary. And anything your employer matches — i.e., also adds to your account — is basically free money.

Is an automatic paycheck deduction in line with your saving style?

Payroll deductions are seamless and hassle-free. You never see the money, so you won’t be tempted to spend it.

Could you use the lower income tax?

If you’re currently in a higher tax bracket, your pretax 401(k) contributions can reduce your taxable income now. And if you expect to live on less in retirement, you may fall into a lower tax bracket when you’re ready to start making withdrawals. Those tax savings can really add up.

Have you reached your IRA’s maximum annual contribution?

If you’ve hit the annual max contribution for a traditional or Roth IRA, you can still contribute to a 401(k). Its annual contribution limit of $19,000 allows for mega saving.

What Is an IRA?

An IRA is an individual retirement account that is not attached to an employer. It stays with you regardless of where you live and work or your marital status.

You open an IRA on your own, and you can invest up to $6,000 per year — or $7,000 once you’re 50 or older — in addition to any 401(k) contributions.

You contribute when it’s convenient for you and choose what mutual funds, stocks and/or bonds you want to invest your money in.

Most IRAs do not have a minimum opening deposit, but there might be purchase requirements on some investments and a mandatory annual contribution.

Your contributions to a traditional IRA may be fully tax-deductible depending on your financial situation, but your withdrawals are taxed as income. You can withdraw money from your IRA once you’re 59 ½ without the 10% early withdrawal penalty with a few exceptions. You’re also required to make a minimum annual withdrawal once you’re 70 ½.

FROM THE RETIREMENT FORUM

What About a Roth IRA?

Traditional and Roth IRAs are similar, but there are a few key differences.

The biggest distinction: Your contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax money, meaning the withdrawals are totes tax-free on the back end. Woo!

Roth IRAs have income limits. Individuals who make more than $137,000 per year or married couples who make more than $203,000 a year cannot contribute.

Like a traditional IRA, maximum annual contributions for a Roth IRA are capped at $6,000 — or $7,000 once you’re 50 or older.

You can withdraw the money you contribute before age 59 ½ without penalty since you already paid taxes on it, but there’s a 10% penalty on the earnings if you withdraw those before 59 ½. You can skip the early withdrawal penalty if it’s for college, medical bills or first-time home purchases.

Unlike a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA has no mandatory distribution requirement, which means you will not be forced to take withdrawals at 70 ½.

As with a traditional IRA, you must make your own investments with a Roth IRA.

When to Invest in an IRA or a Roth IRA

A woman ponders a decision while looking at a computer laptop on a patio.
Getty Images

Opening a traditional IRA or Roth IRA might be a good option if your situation fits some of the following criteria:

Your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) match or other retirement plans.

IRAs are great DIY saving options because they’re not attached to an employer. An IRA allows you the freedom to invest on your terms regardless of your situation, especially if you don’t have access to a 401(k).

You’re a job hopper or don’t plan to stay at your current employer for long.

It’s becoming more common to change jobs frequently, and with it comes the pain of perpetually rolling over your old 401(k). An IRA stays in one location while you seize all the job opportunities.

You prefer to choose how and where your money is invested.

IRAs give you complete control over the type, quality and amount of investments. You can manage it yourself, whereas in a 401(k), you’re paying to have someone else manage it for you. It’s like making your own dinner at home or going out to eat. Essentially, an IRA is like picking the ingredients and setting the oven to “bake.”

You’re in a low tax bracket.

If you’re young and in a low tax bracket, consider a Roth IRA. Seriously, you pay the lowest possible taxes now and reap the rewards later.

If you plan to fall in a higher income bracket when you retire, or you don’t want to gamble on future tax rates.

Paying taxes on Roth IRA investments upfront is ideal if you’re studying for a high-income profession or climbing the corporate ladder. The more you earn, the more you’ll pay in taxes in the long run. There’s also risk with withdrawing later — who knows what the tax brackets might be in 30 to 50 years.

You’ve reached the maximum annual contribution limit on your 401(k).

If you’ve reached the $19,000 limit on your 401(k), first of all, good for you! Second, you could still invest up to the maximum amount in an IRA.

You want to make a contribution for last year.

You can contribute to your IRA for the previous year up until the tax filing deadline of the current year.

IRA vs. 401(k): Final Considerations

No matter which option you choose, don’t forget to check the fees and do comparison shopping. It’s a competitive marketplace, and some plans include value-added services, resource tools and automatic withdrawals.

“There is no set it and forget it,” said Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of Transamerica Institute. “No one has more vested interest in the outcome of your retirement savings than you and your family.”

One way or the other, future you will be oh so happy to have a stash of cash. Even if you can only contribute $100 per month, the interest on that money will compound over time and help you when you might need it the most.

“The single most important thing is to save for retirement and to save on a consistent basis,” Collinson said.

 

Stephanie Bolling is a former staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.