Should I Choose a Roth or Traditional IRA?

Do you have questions about which type of Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is right for you? When deciding between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, consider factors to such as tax incentives, age restrictions, and income restrictions before making your decision.

Tax Incentives

One of the main differences between the traditional IRA and the Roth IRA is the tax incentives provided by each. When deciding which is right for you, focus on what tax bracket you plan to be in when you retire and if that bracket will be higher or lower than the one you’re in now.

  • Traditional IRAs – A traditional IRA is the best choice for you if you believe your tax rate will be lower in retirement than it is right now. With traditional IRAs, you are not taxed when you contribute money to your account. Taxes are paid when you withdraw the funds.
  • Roth IRAs – Roth IRAs are the best choice for you if you believe your tax rate will be higher in retirement than it is now. When you contribute to a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on the funds as you put them in. You will not have to pay taxes on funds when you’re able to withdraw.

Age Restrictions

In addition to considering tax incentives when choosing between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, it is important to keep in mind that with a traditional IRA, there are age restrictions for contributions.

  • Traditional IRAs – Anyone younger than 70 ½ with earned income can contribute to a traditional IRA.
  • Roth IRAs – Roth IRAs don’t have age restrictions.

Income Restrictions

  • Traditional IRAs – You can contribute to a traditional IRA regardless of how much money you make. However, the amount of money you contribute can’t exceed the amount of income you earned that year.
  • Roth IRAs – For some high-income earners, Roth IRAs are out of the question. To contribute to a Roth IRA, single tax filers must have a modified gross income of less than $135,000 (in 2018). Married couples filing jointly must have modified AGIs of less than $199,000 (in 2018) to be able to contribute to a Roth IRA. The amount you contribute to a Roth IRA can’t exceed the amount of income tax you earned that year.

Withdrawal Rules

Both traditional and Roth IRAs allow their owners to begin taking penalty-free distributions at age 59 ½. A major difference between traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs is when the savings must be withdrawn:

  • Traditional IRAs – Traditional IRAs require you to start withdrawing funds at age 70 ½, even if you don’t need the money.

  • Roth IRAs – Roth IRAs don’t require withdrawals during the owner’s lifetime, which means that you can let your Roth IRA continue to grow throughout your life (tax-free) if you don’t need the money. To avoid incurring a tax payment, Roth IRAs require that the first contribution be made at least five years before the first withdrawal.

Since Roth IRAs don’t require that you withdraw funds in your lifetime, and beneficiaries aren’t required to pay taxes on withdrawals, Roth IRAs can be a good wealth transfer strategy.

Other Considerations

  • Traditional IRAs – Contributing to a traditional IRA lowers your adjusted gross income for that year, which can help you qualify for other tax incentives such as the child tax credit or the student loan interest deduction.

With traditional IRAs, if you are under 59 ½, you can withdraw up to $10,000 from your account to pay for qualified first-time homebuyer expenses and higher education expenses, without paying the 10% early-withdrawal penalty. You are still required to pay taxes on the distribution.

  • Roth IRAs – Roth contributions (but not earnings) can be withdrawn penalty and tax-free at any time. Even before age 59 ½.

If you are under age 59 ½, you can withdraw up to $10,000 of Roth earnings penalty-free to pay for qualified first-time-home-buyer expenses, if at least five tax years have passed since your first contribution.

Roth IRAs can be invested in almost anything you want: index funds, lifecycle funds, individual stocks, or other investments.

Remember, whether you choose a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, it is important that you begin contributing as soon as possible to accrue savings, and avoid withdrawing earnings before age 59 ½ to avoid penalties.