401(k)? IRA? Both?

If you are fortunate enough to have a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored retirement plan, it can be the backbone of your retirement savings. Yet there is a good case for adding an IRA to your retirement funds as it not only provides the chance to save more, it can also offer more investment choices than in an employer-sponsored plan. 

The question is, which IRA is right for you?

There are two types of IRAs: a traditional tax-deductible IRA and a Roth IRA. For 2020, the annual contribution limit for both is $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up if you’re age 50-plus. However each IRA does have an income ceiling that will determine whether one or the other is right for you.

  • Traditional tax-deductible IRA—–This is a good option for someone who does not have a 401(k) or similar plan, a traditional IRA is fully tax-deductible. Upfront tax deductibility plus tax-deferred growth of earnings are two of the pluses of this type of IRA. However, if you participate in an employer sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), tax deductibility is phased out at certain income levels based on your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI). For tax-year 2020, the levels are $65,000-$75,000 for single filers, $104,000-$124,000 for married filing jointly.
  • Roth IRA—With a Roth IRA, you don’t get any upfront tax deduction, but you do get tax-free growth plus tax-free withdrawals at age 59½ as long as you’ve held the account for five years. And there’s no restriction if you participate in an employer plan. However, there are income phase-out limits based on your MAGI that determine whether you’re eligible to open and how much you can contribute to a Roth. In 2020, the limits are $124,000-$139,000 for single filers, $196,000-$206,000 for married filing jointly.
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There are a couple of other things to considerwhen choosing between IRAs, the main one being whether you believe you will be in a higher or lower tax bracket when you retire. 

That’s because withdrawals from a traditional IRA are taxed at ordinary income tax rates at the time of withdrawal; qualified Roth withdrawals are tax-free. Also there’s no required minimum distribution (RMD) for a Roth, but with a traditional IRA, you’ll have to begin taking an RMD at age 70½, or 72 if you were born on or after July 1, 1949.

Whether or not you choose to open an IRA, if your employer offers a Roth 401(k), you might also consider adding this to your retirement savings strategy. There are no income limits to participate in a Roth 401(k), and you can have both types of 401(k) at the same time. 

Having both doesn’t mean you can contributemore than the total annual 401(k) contribution limit, but you can split your contributions between the two, giving you a combination of both taxable and tax-free withdrawals come retirement time. Making your 401(k) and IRA work together.

The goal of all this is to give you the greatest opportunity to save, with the greatest flexibility. Contribute enough to your 401(k) to capture the maximum company match, then, if you’re eligible contribute to a tax-advantaged Health Savings Account (HSA). If your 401(k) has limited investment options consider opening either a traditional or a Roth IRA and contribute the annual maximum. 

Next, if you can, put more money in your company plan until you max it out. And if you get to the point where you can save even more (kudos!), put that money in a taxable brokerage account. The bottom line is you can’t really save too much, only too little. 

Use all the savings and investing vehicles available to you, including both an IRA and your 401(k), to save as much as you can, as early as you can—and, at the same time, get the maximum tax break. You won’t regret it.


This blog was excerpted from an online article written by Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CFP®, Board Chair and President, Charles Schwab Foundation; Senior Vice President, Schwab Community Services, Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.; Board Chair, Schwab Charitable.

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