We consistently hear from our wealth management clients and retirement plan participants that saving for retirement tops their list of important financial goals. And the data supports it. According to our 2022 Empowering America’s Financial Journey study, below are Americans’ top five financial goals*:
- Saving for retirement
- Paying off debt
- Making ends meet
- Building an emergency fund
- Saving for a major purchase or expense
It’s a big decision, and a highly personal one, to determine exactly how to go about saving and investing for your future. Part of this is understanding what type of retirement account(s) you can save into. There are numerous options available – traditional 401k, Roth 401k, traditional IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA.
Depending on who you are and what your employer offers, there will likely be several options available to you. This is always going to be a personal call, and a financial professional can help you decide what’s best for your financial goals and tax situation.
Roth accounts are becoming increasingly popular for retirement savings, as any potential investment growth is tax-exempt with a qualified withdrawal. There are two major types of Roth accounts: Roth 401k and Roth IRA. People are often confused by these two accounts, and we commonly get questions like: How are they different? How are they similar? If I’m looking for a Roth-type account, which one is right for me?
In this article, I’ll break down these two account types and hopefully answer all of these frequently asked questions.
What is a Roth 401k?
A Roth 401k is an employer-sponsored retirement plan. But unlike a traditional 401k, contributions are made with after-tax dollars.
For context, the Roth 401k was introduced in 2006 to give Americans a new type of retirement savings vehicle to complement the popular Roth IRA, which was introduced in 1997. Roth IRAs and Roth 401ks are similar, but there are some pretty significant differences you should understand when deciding which one is right for you.
Roth 401k vs. Roth IRA: How are they similar?
Before we look at the differences between Roth IRAs and Roth 401ks, let’s look at the similarities. Here’s the big one: with both accounts, any growth is not taxed with a qualified withdrawal. This can mean a larger nest egg when you decide you’re ready to retire.
Also, in most circumstances, you can withdraw money from both a Roth IRA and a Roth 401k income tax-free after you turn 59 ½ if the withdrawal is qualified. Practically, this means favorable tax treatment in retirement, since you won’t have to pay taxes on the distributions you take after you hit 59 ½ and the account has been open for five years, you become disabled or die.
With a Roth IRA, you can withdraw contributions penalty-free, but earnings will generally be taxed and penalties assessed on any withdrawals made before age 59½, with a few exceptions. With Roth 401ks, withdrawals before age 59½ are usually taxed and assessed a penalty, but there are ways to avoid this (401k loans, for example).
Roth 401k vs. Roth IRA: How are they different?
The biggest differences between a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA are their different annual contribution limits, eligibility criteria, and whether you will need to take required minimum distributions (RMDs).
Let’s start with the annual contribution limits.
In 2023, you can contribute up to $22,500 per year — and a catch-up contribution of $7,500 per year if you’re age 50 or over — to a Roth 401k. However, the annual contribution limit for Roth IRAs is much lower: just $6,500 per year, or $7,500 if you’re 50 years of age or over.
Another big difference between the Roth 401k and the Roth IRA is the eligibility criteria. If you make too much money, you can’t open or contribute to a Roth IRA. More specifically, for tax year 2022, you are not eligible for a Roth IRA if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is:
- $144,000 or more if you are single or head of household
- $214,000 or more for married couples filing jointly
With Roth 401ks, the only eligibility criteria is that your employer offers this option.
Another big difference is that you don’t need to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from Roth IRAs. But with Roth 401ks, you must start taking RMDs when you turn 70½ years old if you were born before July 1, 1949. If you were born on or after July 1, 1949, you generally must begin receiving RMDs in the year in which you turn 72.
Pros and cons of a Roth 401k
A big advantage that the Roth 401k has over the Roth IRA is the possibility of an employer matching your contributions up to a certain percentage. Employer matches are the closest thing there is to “free money,” so if you’re deciding between a Roth 401k vs. a Roth IRA — keep this in mind. It’s also important to note here, though, that if you receive an employer Roth 401k match, the matching funds could also go into a traditional 401k.
A con, however, is that a Roth 401k account can sometimes have fewer investment options than a Roth IRA.
Pros and cons of a Roth IRA
On the flip side, Roth IRAs generally offer more investment options than Roth 401ks. With a Roth IRA, you generally have a large number of investments to choose from, including stocks, bonds, cash alternatives, and alternative investments. With a Roth 401k, you are limited to the investment options offered by your employer’s 401k plan.
However, one con of a Roth IRA is the income limit associated with this type of account. If you earn too much money, you won’t be able to contribute to this option. Roth IRAs also aren’t sponsored by an employer, which means that there is no employee contribution match.
Choosing between a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA
As with any financial planning, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. One way to help figure out which account makes more sense for you is to talk to a financial professional about your specific situation, but here are a few scenarios to help guide your conversation.
A Roth 401k might be the better choice if you:
- Earn too much money to open and contribute to a Roth IRA.
- Want to take advantage of an employer match.
- Want to contribute as much money as possible.
- Appreciate the ease of signing up at work and having contributions automatically deducted from your pay each pay period.
A Roth IRA might be the better choice if you:
- Want access to a wider range of investment options.
- Want to be able to withdraw contributions tax- and penalty-free before you turn 59½ without making a plan loan.
- Have no inclination toward taking RMDs when you turn 70½ or 72.
Can I have a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA?
Yes, you can have both a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA. Keep in mind the contribution limits for each account.
If you receive a Roth 401k option through your employer, here’s one strategy to consider: contribute enough money to your Roth 401k to receive the company match. Then you can also open a Roth IRA and contribute any additional retirement money you have to this account in order to diversify your retirement savings.
Weighing the pros and cons
Roth IRAs and Roth 401ks are both good options for retirement savers. The answer to which account is the better option will really depend on your unique situation. It’s a good idea to talk to a financial professional to weigh the pros and cons and come up with the best choice for your situation.
- To get a complete picture of your retirement readiness, sign up for Empower’s free online financial tools. You can use these tools to form a personalized retirement plan and see how likely you are to meet your goals.
- Consider talking to a financial professional to help guide you through these types of important retirement decisions.