Traditional IRA vs. 401(k) Plan – Which Plan Wins?

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Financial bloggers often represent nan accepted IRA vs. nan 401(k) scheme arsenic a debate, arsenic if 1 scheme is amended than nan other.

In truth, they’re very different plans, and they capable very different needs. If you can, you should scheme to person both.

This is particularly existent if your 401(k) plan is reasonably restrictive. A batch of them are. They complaint precocious fees and connection very constricted finance options. A traditional IRA is often nan champion strategy to activity astir those limits.

Let’s return a heavy look astatine some plans, and peculiarly astatine wherever each stands out. I deliberation you’ll work together having some makes a batch of sense. It’s 1 of nan champion strategies to supercharge your retirement savings, particularly for early retirement.

How Traditional IRA Works


IRA Contribution Limits. You tin lend up to $7,000 per twelvemonth aliases $8,000 if you’re property 50 aliases older. Contributions must beryllium made retired of earned income only.

That intends wages, salary, commissions, self-employment income, aliases statement income. It does not see income from unearned sources, for illustration pensions, Social Security, aliases finance income.

For example, if you gain $40,000, and only $4,000 is from earned sources, your IRA publication will beryllium constricted to nary much than $4,000.

Spousal IRA Provision. If you’re joined filing jointly, and either you aliases your spouse has earned income and nan different doesn’t, you whitethorn beryllium eligible to make a spousal IRA contribution.

The only request is that nan spouse pinch earned income must person capable earned income to screen contributions to some plans.

For example, let’s opportunity you gain $50,000 per year, and your spouse is unemployed. You tin make a $7,000contribution to your ain IRA and a $7,000 publication to a spousal IRA for your spouse. That will springiness you a mixed publication of $13,000, which will besides beryllium afloat tax-deductible.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

Like each different status scheme – different than nan Roth IRA – accepted IRAs are taxable to RMD rules. When you move property 73, you’re required to statesman receiving distributions from nan plan.

The distributions are mostly based connected your remaining life expectancy. And because that expectancy reduces arsenic each twelvemonth passes, nan percent distributed from your scheme will summation slightly.

In theory, nan intent is to exhaust nan scheme wrong your lifetime, providing nan IRS pinch its expected taxation revenue.

Tax Deductibility of Traditional IRA Contributions

For astir taxpayers, nan contributions made toward a accepted IRA will beryllium afloat tax-deductible. This is ever existent erstwhile neither you nor your spouse are covered by an employer-sponsored status plan.

What’s more, there’s nary income limit connected nan taxation deductibility of a accepted IRA publication if neither of you is covered by an employer plan.

If either of you are, taxation deductibility whitethorn beryllium either constricted aliases eliminated completely.

The taxation deductibility of a accepted IRA publication erstwhile you aliases your spouse are covered by an employer scheme is based connected your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). That’s fundamentally your adjusted gross income for taxation purposes, pinch definite modifications.

If you’re covered by an employer-sponsored plan, you tin still make a publication to a accepted IRA. But nan taxation deductibility of that publication will beryllium wished by nan pursuing MAGI levels:

  • Single aliases head-of-household contributions are afloat deductible up to a MAGI of $146,000; nan conclusion phases retired up to $75,000, beyond which it wholly disappears.
  • Married filing jointly, aliases qualifying widow(er), afloat deductible up to a MAGI of $230,000 (up to $240,000); conclusion phases retired up to $124,000, beyond which it wholly disappears.
  • Married filing separately, publication phases retired up to a MAGI of $10,000, beyond which it wholly disappears (no alteration from 2018 to 2019).

The numbers are different if you’re not covered by an employer-sponsored status scheme but your spouse is. In that case, nan taxation deductibility of your IRA publication is taxable to nan pursuing MAGI limits:

  • Married filing jointly, afloat deductible up to a MAGI of $230,000; conclusion phases retired up to $240,000 successful 2024, beyond which it wholly disappears.
  • Married filing separately, publication phases retired up to a MAGI of $10,000, beyond which he wholly disappears.

Other IRA Tax Considerations

Investment Income Tax Deferral. Whether aliases not your contributions to a accepted IRA are tax-deductible, nan finance net you accumulate successful nan scheme are ever tax-deferred. That intends you tin put without worrying astir taxation consequences.

Tax-deferred finance income is worthy having, moreover if your contributions aren’t deductible. Your finance nest ovum will turn overmuch faster pinch taxation deferral than it ever will without.

Your investments will proceed to turn connected a tax-deferred ground until you statesman making withdrawals.

Taxability of IRA withdrawals. You don’t statesman paying taxes connected your IRA until you statesman taking withdrawals. You tin return withdrawals opening astatine property 59 ½, which will beryllium taxable to mean income tax.

If you made immoderate contributions that were not tax-deductible, usually owed to nan income limitations described above, that information of nan distribution will not beryllium taxable.

For example, if you person $100,000 successful an IRA account, which consists of $60,000 successful accumulated finance income, $30,000 successful tax-deductible contributions, and $10,000 successful nondeductible contributions, past 10% of immoderate withdrawal will not beryllium taxable to income tax.

In that situation, if you made a withdrawal from nan relationship of $10,000, $9,000 will beryllium taxable. The remaining $1,000 will not ($10,000 X 10%).

This is what’s referred to arsenic nan IRS pro-rata rules. You won’t beryllium capable to state that nan first $10,000 withdrawn from nan scheme specifically represents your nondeductible contributions.

Early Withdrawal Treatment

If you retreat costs from a accepted IRA earlier you move 59 ½, you’ll beryllium taxable to mean income taxation connected nan distribution, positive a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

For example, if you’re successful nan 12% federal income taxation bracket and you make a $10,000 early withdrawal from your plan, you’ll person to salary $2,200 successful tax. That’s 12% successful mean taxation positive nan 10% early withdrawal penalty.

However, nan IRS does person a list of exceptions to nan penalty. However, you will still beryllium required to salary mean income taxation connected nan magnitude withdrawn.

Traditional IRA Investment Options

Self-Directed Investing. One of nan biggest advantages of an IRA – accepted aliases Roth – is that you person complete power complete nan account. That intends you tin create your ain portfolio, take nan investments that make it up, and bargain and waste securities connected your ain timetable.

Account Trustee. You’re free to take immoderate trustee level you want. You tin take immoderate of nan pursuing trustees to clasp nan plan:

  • A Bank, Particularly an Online Bank Paying High-Interest Rates
  • Investment Brokerages, Like E*TRADE
  • Managed Funds aliases Investment Accounts
  • Mutual Fund aliases Exchange-Traded Funds (ETF) Families
  • Robo-Advisors, Like Betterment, Wealthfront, aliases Ally Invest
  • Peer-to-peer Lending Platforms, Like Lending Club aliases Prosper
  • A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT)
  • Crowdfunding Platforms Like Peerstreet, Fundrise, and RealtyShares

If you’re looking for a Roth IRA account, cheque retired these best Roth IRA options. 

Investment Options. There’s much bully news here. You tin clasp conscionable astir immoderate type of finance successful a accepted IRA that you choose. The IRS has a very short database of prohibited investments, and they’re mostly not nan benignant you would bargain anyway.

As for what type of investments you tin clasp – just usage your imagination! Mutual funds, ETFs, target day funds, individual stocks and bonds, certificates of deposit, options, gold, overseas currency, and existent property finance trusts.

A accepted IRA is nan virtual antidote to a 401(k) scheme pinch constricted finance options.

How Traditional IRA Works

IRA Contribution Limits$7,000 per year, aliases $8,000 if 50 aliases Older
Spousal IRA ProvisionSpouse Can Contribute if nan Other Lacks Earned Income
Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)Mandatory Withdrawals Start astatine Age 73
Tax Deductibility of Traditional IRA ContributionsFull Deduction When Not Covered by Employer Plan
Investment Income Tax DeferralEarnings Grow Tax-Deferred, Enhancing Savings
Taxability of IRA WithdrawalsOrdinary Income Tax After Age 59 ½
Early Withdrawal Treatment10% Penalty and Tax for Withdrawals Before 59 ½
Traditional IRA Investment OptionsSelf-Directed With Various Trustee Choices

The Roth IRA Conversion

No chat of a accepted IRA would beryllium complete without mentioning nan Roth IRA conversion. The conversion is disposable for some IRA and 401(k) plans. But it’s mostly easier to do it pinch an IRA since it’s a wholly self-directed plan.

While immoderate employers do licence IRA conversions while you’re still employed, astir will require that you stay successful nan 401(k) until your employment is terminated.

Why Do a Roth IRA Conversion? The Roth IRA has nan lone favoritism (along pinch nan Roth 401(k), Roth 403(b), etc.) of providing tax-free income successful retirement. It useful overmuch for illustration a accepted IRA successful that income wrong nan scheme is tax-deferred. It besides has nan aforesaid publication limits.

But contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible. However, erstwhile you move 59 ½, and if you person been successful nan scheme for a minimum of 5 years, distributions tin beryllium taken tax-free. That includes distributions of some your contributions and your finance earnings.

One of nan large advantages of a Roth IRA conversion is that there’s nary limit connected nan magnitude of status money you tin person to a Roth.

You tin build up nan Roth relationship overmuch much quickly by doing a conversion of, say, $100,000 from an IRA aliases 401(k), than by yearly contributions of $6,000.

This is why Roth IRAs and Roth IRA conversions from different status plans, person go truthful popular.

The Tax Implications of a Roth Conversion

The downside of nan conversion is that you will salary taxation connected nan magnitude converted. The bully news is location is nary early withdrawal penalty, moreover if nan conversion takes spot earlier 59 ½.

Let’s opportunity you’re successful nan 22% national income taxation bracket. You person $100,000 from a accepted IRA to a Roth IRA. You’ll salary $22,000 – $100,000 X 22% – successful nan twelvemonth you do nan conversion.

But erstwhile you do, and you meet nan Roth IRA property and scheme magnitude requirements, you tin statesman taking distributions tax-free.

This is nan summary type of a Roth IRA conversion. I spell overmuch deeper into nan taxable of my Roth IRA conversion article.

How nan 401(k) Works

Here are nan basics of nan 401(k):

401(k) Contributions

401(k) Contribution Limits. For 2024, nan 401(k) publication limit is $23,000, up $2000 from $20,500 successful 2022. The catch-up publication is now $7,500, besides up $1000 from 2022. That intends if you’re 50 aliases older, your publication tin beryllium arsenic precocious arsenic $30,500 for nan year.

Employer Matching Contribution. Many employers, peculiarly ample ones, connection immoderate benignant of matching contribution. For example, if they connection a 50% match, and you make a 10% contribution, nan full publication will beryllium 15%.

According to nan Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 42% of companies lucifer dollar-for-dollar connected 401(k) contributions. If you make a 10% contribution, and your institution will lucifer 100%, your full publication will beryllium 20%.

Employer matching contributions are taxable to vesting provisions. Vesting refers to nan clip it takes earlier nan employer lucifer is considered to beryllium permanently yours.

Depending connected nan vesting schedule used, it tin return anyplace from 2 years to six years earlier you go 100% vested successful nan employer match.

In theory, mixed contributions to a 401(k) scheme from you and your employer tin beryllium arsenic precocious arsenic $69,000 for 2024, up $5,000 from past twelvemonth (or $76,500 if you’re 50 aliases older).

401(k) Funding Method. One of nan large advantages of a 401(k) scheme is nan easiness of backing it. Since it’s employer-sponsored, your contributions are made by automatic payroll deductions.

This is 1 of nan simplest ways to money immoderate finance program, making it an easy way to wealth building. All you request to do is prime your publication percent and fto nan contributions travel into your account.

If your employer offers a matching contribution, it will mostly beryllium made arsenic your contributions are.

Tax Deductibility of 401(k) Contributions

Your contributions to a 401(k) scheme are afloat tax-deductible. What’s more, employer matching contributions are not taxable successful nan twelvemonth received. Given nan magnitude of contributions permitted nether nan plan, this tin consequence successful a important tax deduction.

Tax Deferral of Investment Earnings. Just arsenic is nan lawsuit pinch nan IRA and virtually each different tax-sheltered status plan, finance net accumulate wrong nan scheme connected a tax-deferred basis. That intends you tin put without respect to income taxation consequences.

This is simply a powerful compounding advantage since a 10% return connected finance will really beryllium 10%. It won’t beryllium reduced down to 7% if you’re successful a 30% marginal taxation bracket, arsenic would beryllium nan lawsuit pinch a taxable investment.

Taxability of 401(k) Withdrawals. Neither your scheme contributions nor nan finance net connected nan scheme are taxable during nan accumulation phase. You’re eligible to statesman making withdrawals from nan scheme aft turning 59 ½.

Ordinary income taxation must beryllium paid connected nan distributions, which will see some contributions and finance earnings.

Early 401(k) Withdrawals. If you return distributions from a 401(k) scheme earlier reaching property 59 ½, you will not only person to salary mean income taxation but besides a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

But arsenic is nan lawsuit pinch IRAs, nan IRS has a reasonably agelong database of exceptions to nan early withdrawal penalty. However, you will still person to salary mean income taxation connected nan magnitude withdrawn.

Other 401(k) Plan Features

401(k) Plan Investment Options. Generally speaking, your options will beryllium constricted to those selected by your employer. The employer will take nan relationship trustee and often nan investments that will beryllium disposable for nan plan.

For example, nan employer tin person nan scheme administered by a communal money company, which would limit your investments to nan costs offered by that company. In much wide plans, nan trustee whitethorn beryllium a diversified finance broker.

If that’s nan case, you whitethorn person finance options akin to those offered successful a self-directed IRA.

Yet different disadvantage of an employer-sponsored scheme is fees. There will mostly beryllium an yearly interest charged by nan scheme administrator. You whitethorn besides beryllium locked successful definite different fees, specified arsenic communal money load fees.

As a subordinate successful nan plan, your options will beryllium constricted to nan fees charged and investments disposable wrong nan trustee program.

401(k) Loan Privileges. This is simply a use disposable for 401(k) plans that can’t beryllium done pinch an IRA. Loans are permitted nether IRS guidelines, though not each employers connection them.

Under IRS regulations, you tin get up to nan lesser of:

1. The greater of $10,000 aliases 50% of your vested relationship balance, OR

2. $50,000

Now, it’s important to understand that nan magnitude you tin get from nan scheme is based connected nan vested balance, not nan full balance.

For example, if your scheme has $50,000, which includes $20,000 successful finance earnings, $20,000 successful contributions by you, and $10,000 successful non-vested contributions by your employer, your guidelines for calculating nan indebtedness magnitude will beryllium $40,000.

Since you tin get 50% of this amount, nan maximum indebtedness will beryllium $20,000.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) connected a 401(k)

As you mightiness expect, these are required connected 401(k) plans, conscionable arsenic they are connected accepted IRAs. You must statesman taking distributions nary later than property 73.

The distributions are based connected your remaining life expectancy, which intends nan percent distributed will summation somewhat each twelvemonth arsenic you age.

Your 401(k) Plan May Offer a Roth 401(k)

An expanding number of 401(k) plans are now offering a Roth 401(k) option. This has go particularly communal among ample employers.

What makes a Roth 401(k) proviso particularly charismatic is that it offers overmuch higher publication limits than a Roth IRA. For example, nan maximum you tin lend to a Roth 401(k) is nan maximum that you tin lend to immoderate 401(k).

Alternatively, you tin divided nan publication betwixt nan accepted and Roth portions of your 401(k).

This will astir apt beryllium good advised. Just arsenic is nan lawsuit pinch a Roth IRA, contributions to a Roth 401(k) are not tax-deductible. If you lend nan afloat magnitude to nan Roth information of your 401(k), you won’t get immoderate thief connected nan taxation side. That tin origin a superior fund squeeze.

The withdrawal provisions for nan Roth 401(k) are akin to a Roth IRA. You tin statesman taking penalty-free withdrawals from nan scheme erstwhile you scope property 59 ½ and person been successful nan scheme for a minimum of 5 years.

If you participate successful a Roth 401(k), nan employer will transportation abstracted balances for some nan accepted and Roth information of nan plan.

What’s more, immoderate employer-matching contributions connected nan Roth information must beryllium deposited into nan accepted portion. This is to support nan separation betwixt pretax contributions (the employer match) and existent Roth contributions (your contributions).

The nett consequence is that nan employer contributions domiciled connected nan accepted broadside of your scheme will beryllium taxable connected distribution. The Roth distributions will not beryllium taxable.

Other Roth 401(k) Features

Roth IRA Conversion of nan Roth 401(K). This is simply a existent saccharine spot because you tin rotation a Roth 401(k) complete to a Roth IRA without taxation consequences. This is because nan Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) are balanced plans from a taxation standpoint.

Roth 401(k) RMD rules. Unlike a Roth IRA, a Roth 401(k) is taxable to RMDs opening astatine property 73. However, this won’t impact your taxation business since those distributions will beryllium tax-free anyway. The only antagonistic is that RMDs will deplete nan account, reducing early relationship growth.

How nan 401(k) Works

401(k) Contributions• Max $23,000 (or $30,500 if 50 aliases Older) successful 2024
• Employer Matching Contributions Often Available
• Vesting Rules Apply for Employer Contributions
401(k) Funding Method• Contributions Through Automatic Payroll Deductions
Tax Deductibility of 401(k) Contributions• Contributions Are Fully Tax-Deductible
Tax Deferral of Investment Earnings• Investment Earnings Grow Tax-Deferred, Enhancing Returns
Taxability of 401(k) Withdrawals• Ordinary Income Tax After Age 59 ½
Early 401(k) Withdrawals• 10% Penalty and Income Tax for Withdrawals Before 59 ½
401(k) Plan Investment Options• Limited to Employer-Selected Options and Trustees
401(k) Loan Privileges• Loans Allowed Up to Certain Limits
Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)• Mandatory Withdrawals Start astatine Age 73
Roth 401(k) Option• Higher Contribution Limits, Tax-Free Withdrawals Later
• Separate From Traditional 401(k), Possible Roth IRA Rollover

The Traditional IRA vs. The 401(k) Plan – The Advantages of Each

Comparing nan 2 programs side-by-side, here’s a summary of nan advantages each provides.


  • You take nan scheme trustee.
  • Self-Directed Investing – you tin put successful thing you take aliases moreover take a third-party finance guidance option.
  • You tin group up a Spousal IRA for a nonworking spouse.
  • Traditional IRAs are easier to do a Roth IRA conversion pinch since you person afloat power complete nan account.


  • Very precocious publication limit.
  • Employer matching contributions, making your full yearly publication moreover higher.
  • Ease of contributions done automatic payroll deductions.
  • 401(k) indebtedness provision.
  • Your 401(k) whitethorn travel pinch a Roth 401(k) provision.

Why You Should Seriously Consider Having Both an IRA and a 401(k)

Remember astatine nan beginning, I said this really isn’t astir nan accepted IRA vs. nan 401(k) plan? Let’s walk immoderate much clip connected that point.

If you tin – and you usually can – you should person some plans going astatine nan aforesaid time. Each provides its ain unsocial group of benefits. But erstwhile you put nan 2 together, you summation nan advantages of some plans.

From nan IRA, you get nan use of wholly self-directed investing, including utilizing immoderate investments you want. This isn’t typically disposable successful 401(k) plans. You tin besides adhd your spouse to your IRA scheme done a spousal IRA.

But from nan 401(k) plan, you summation higher contributions (and a larger taxation deduction!), arsenic good arsenic nan use of an employer-matching contribution. There whitethorn moreover beryllium a Roth 401(k) provision, which is ever worthy having. Then there’s nan 401(k) indebtedness option.

But possibly nan biggest logic to person some plans is nan use of higher contributions.

If you’re capable to make nan afloat $23,000 401(k) publication and you adhd a $7,500 IRA contribution, your full status publication will beryllium $23,000 (or $30,500 if you’re 50 aliases older).

With that benignant of money flowing into your status plans each and each year, you’ll beryllium a multimillionaire by nan clip you scope 65. Let that descend in. As publication limits grow, truthful should your contributions.

As I said earlier, those accrued amounts tin make a awesome quality complete nan span of a fewer decades.

And possibly moreover much breathtaking is nan imaginable of early retirement. Start utilizing dual status plans successful your 20s aliases 30s, and you’ll beryllium retired agelong earlier you move 50.

There are 2 different situations wherever combining a accepted IRA and 401(k) is almost a requirement: 

  • The accepted IRA publication will beryllium afloat tax-deductible and/or
  • When you person nary employer-matching contribution.

If anyone asks, “traditional IRA aliases 401(k)?” the reply is “both” if you tin make it happen.

The Bottom Line – Traditional IRA vs. 401(k) Plan – Which Plan Wins?

In weighing nan pros and cons betwixt a Traditional IRA and a 401(k) plan, it’s evident that each serves unsocial financial and retirement readying needs.

While a 401(k) whitethorn connection a higher publication limit and nan perk of employer matching, its finance options tin beryllium restrictive and bound to nan choices provided by nan employer.

On nan different hand, a Traditional IRA provides a level for much diversified finance choices alongside immoderate tax-deductibility features.

Moreover, nan tax-deferred maturation successful some plans enhances nan compounding effect, which is important for semipermanent growth.

Engaging successful some plans could supply a balanced approach, allowing individuals to maximize employer contributions, bask taxation advantages, and entree a broader finance horizon.


A diversified strategy, incorporating some Traditional IRA and 401(k) plans, whitethorn supply a much robust instauration for achieving status financial goals, catering to individual preferences and nan varying degrees of finance state they offer.