Is a Roth IRA Better Than a Traditional IRA?

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Roth IRA and traditional IRA
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Whether your employer offers a 401(k) option or not, an IRA makes it easy for you to save for retirement on your own or in addition to your employer-sponsored plan.

There are two main types of IRAs: a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. In this article, we’ll take a look at the hallmarks of each and tell you how to decide which one is right for you.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Traditional IRAs vs. Roth IRAs

The main difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA is when you pay tax on your money.

With a traditional IRA, you get a tax deferment today and pay taxes on the money when you draw it down in retirement.

With a Roth IRA, you pay tax on the money today, but it grows tax-free and gets spent tax-free in retirement.

“Our tax rates today are unusually low because we’re running a massive budget deficit. At some point, those tax rates will increase. That means there’s a good chance tax rates will be higher when you go to spend your nest egg in 25 or 30 years,” money expert Clark Howard says.

What you think about Clark’s statement about the direction of tax rates will likely inform your decision about which investment vehicle you choose.

The two main types of IRAs are for individuals. But you can also have a simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA, typically if you own a business or are an independent contractor. We’ve got a full write-up on the SEP IRA here.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus exclusively on traditional IRAs vs. Roth IRAs.

Table of Contents

Definitions of Traditional IRA and Roth IRA

Traditional IRA

An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) allows you to save for retirement with pre-tax money, often through a payroll deduction. By using pre-tax dollars, you lower your taxable income in the present.

However, you don’t get to escape taxes entirely. The tax is deferred until the future, when you withdraw the money from your IRA.

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Meanwhile, traditional IRAs and 401(k) plans are not mutually exclusive. You’re allowed to contribute to both a 401(k) plan at work and an IRA elsewhere.

Of course, if you don’t have access to a 401(k) at work, that makes doing an IRA even more of a necessity in your life. If you don’t make saving for retirement a priority, it probably won’t happen for you anytime soon.

As to where you set up a traditional IRA, Clark likes discount investment houses like Vanguard, Fidelity and Schwab.

Due to new rule changes, you no longer have to stop making contributions at age 70 and a half — the old maximum age for traditional IRA contributions. Now there is no age limit for contributions, per the SECURE Act.

Roth IRA

The Roth IRA is named after William Roth, the former Delaware Senator who proposed it as an addition to the tax code in 1997.

With a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax money that is never taxed again. Unlike a traditional IRA, you do it with money you have already paid taxes on, so there’s no upfront tax benefit. The benefit comes when you are able to withdraw the money you’ve contributed — plus the earning on your investments — tax-free in retirement.

You can have both a 401(k) at work and a Roth IRA elsewhere. Clark likes discount investment houses like Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab for the latter.

And you can continue contributing to a Roth IRA as long as you like. There’s no max age limit for contribution, provided you have earned income in the year you want to contribute.

Contribution and Income Limits

Both the traditional IRA and its Roth counterpart allow you to contribute the same amount on an annual basis. See the latest contribution limits here.

In addition, both types of accounts allow you to contribute an additional $1,000 annually if you’re 50 or older.

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Traditional IRA

There are no firm income limits that would bar you from contributing to a traditional IRA. However, your contributions may not be fully tax-deductible depending on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI):

  • 2019 full deductibility – MAGI of $103,000 or less (joint) and $64,000 or less (single)
  • 2019 partial deductibility – MAGI of up to $123,000 (joint) or $74,000 (single)
  • 2020 full deductibility – MAGI of $104,000 or less (joint) and $65,000 or less (single)
  • 2020 partial deductibility – MAGI of up to $124,000 (joint) and $75,000 (single)

There are also different levels of deductibility for working and nonworking spouses of plan participants who are not covered by an employer-sponsored plan:

  • 2019 full deductibility – MAGI of less than $193,000
  • 2019 partial deductibility – MAGI of up to $203,000
  • 2020 full deductibility – MAGI of less than $196,000
  • 2020 partial deductibility – MAGI of up to $206,000

See full details here.

Meanwhile, note that the IRS has announced you can still make contributions to a traditional IRA for 2019 through July 15, 2020. This is a special one-time change in rules because the coronavirus pushed back tax filing deadlines.

Roth IRA

Meanwhile, IRS income limits state that you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA if you earn more than $139,000 as a single filer or $206,000 when you’re married filing jointly.

That’s unless, of course, you do a backdoor Roth IRA!

A backdoor Roth is simply a name for the process of taking money in a traditional IRA, converting it to a Roth and paying the tax on it. We’ve got full details here.

Required Minimum Distributions

Our nation’s tax law requires investors to take a certain amount of money out of some types of retirement accounts every year when you reach a certain age.

The amount you have to take out is called a required minimum distribution (RMD).

Traditional IRA

For traditional IRAs, the age at which you must take RMDs was recently raised from 70.5 to 72 per the SECURE Act.

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However, RMDs are not required for 2020 on your traditional IRA because of the economic upset surrounding the coronavirus. This is a one-time exception to the rule.

Roth IRA

No RMDs are required on Roth IRAs under the tax code — regardless of your age. That means if you don’t need the money from your Roth IRA, you can just let it grow so it can one day be passed on to your beneficiaries.

Treatment of Withdrawals

Traditional IRA

Withdrawals from traditional IRAs are usually subject to taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take money out before age 59.5.

Right now, however, you can draw down up to $100,000 from your traditional IRA before 59.5 without paying the 10% penalty. This is another special one-time exception for 2020 because of the coronavirus epidemic.

While the penalty is waived right now, you will still have to pay the tax, since you’re tapping pre-tax money. Fortunately, you’re allowed to spread out the tax liability over the next three years — yet another special one-time exception for 2020.

Roth IRA

When it comes to Roth IRAs, you’re allowed to withdraw your contributions — but not your earnings — at any time for any reason before age 59.5.

Since you’ve already paid tax on the money, you won’t be taxed further — provided it’s just your contributions that you’re drawing down.

However, different rules apply for drawing down earnings before 59.5. You can read up on the full rules here.

Final Thought

When you get right down to it, the difference between a traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA really boils down to the question of taxes.

Do you believe you’ll be in a higher tax bracket when you retire? Then you’ll likely want to do a Roth IRA, with its promise of a future tax break.

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However, maybe you believe your tax rate is likely to go down as you age. If that’s so, then you’re probably better off getting the tax benefit of a traditional IRA today.

Clark, of course, has his own feelings about the issue.

“Remember, in general, tax rates are likely to go higher over the years no matter which political party is in power,” he says. “That means it may make more sense to skip the deduction of a traditional IRA now to avoid tax later with a Roth IRA.”

Meanwhile, if you have additional investment and retirement questions, reach out to our Consumer Action Center.

While we can’t currently accept phone calls to our Consumer Action Center helpline at this time, we can still answer your money questions! Visit clark.com/cac to submit your question and a Consumer Action Center volunteer will call you as soon as possible.

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