When it comes to retirement planning, you’ve probably asked yourself: IRA or 401(k) – which comes first? Both are great options worth considering, so provided you meet certain baseline conditions, you don’t have to pick one or the other if you’re looking to maximize tax-deferred retirement savings. For example, if you contribute to your company’s 401(k) plan, there’s no reason you can’t also fund a traditional IRA or Roth IRA depending on your income eligibility. The trick is to determine how to prioritize allocations between the vehicles in a way that will enhance your savings goals. It’s also important to keep in mind that funding a traditional IRA may not be tax-deductible for those earning above certain income thresholds.
With all of this in mind, here are four questions that can help you plan your optimal contribution strategy, as of 2019:
1. Does your employer offer a 401(k) match?
The answer is very likely yes as on average, three in every four 401(k) plans do. And if you don’t take advantage of your matching options, you’re essentially choosing to decline a portion of your salary.
Here’s a common scenario: For the first six percent of an employee’s 401(k) contributions, the employer will contribute an additional 50 percent of that amount. So, if you make $100,000 per year and contribute six percent — or $6,000 — your employer would then add $3,000 to that total, giving your account balance a significant boost.
Self-employed? Establish a solo 401(k) and you can contribute up to $19,000 as an employee as well as an additional 20 percent of income as an employer, up to a total of $56,000 ($62,000 if you’re 50 or older) per year.
If your employer doesn’t offer a match, you might consider applying those initial funds to your IRA instead.
2. Do you qualify for IRA tax advantages?
The catch with most 401(k) plans is that you’re limited to the investment options within the plan, which commonly include a predetermined selection of diversified equity and fixed-income mutual funds.
A self-directed IRA, on the other hand, offers you the freedom to invest in a much broader universe that can include a wide array of diversified and specialty mutual funds, stocks, bonds, CDs, ETFs and more.
There are two types of IRAs: Traditional and Roth. Traditional IRAs allow for a tax deduction (in accordance with income limitations), which effectively decreases taxable income for the year the contribution is made. Roth IRAs, meanwhile, are funded with after-tax dollars. Their main advantage is that all earnings grow tax-free and you won’t owe any income tax on Roth distributions when you retire.
The IRA can be an alluring retirement option; just be aware that the annual contribution limit is low — just $6,000 per year ($7,000 if you’re 50 or older). As mentioned previously, there are also income limits: A single-filer will start to see tax benefits phased out for the traditional IRA after a $65,000 salary. For a single-filing Roth IRA investor, the allowable contribution will start to decrease at a salary of $124,000.
Self-employed business owners have a few other options. Open a SEP IRA, for example, and you will be allowed to contribute 25 percent of your income, up to $57,000. SIMPLE (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) IRA owners, meanwhile, can contribute up to $13,500 ($16,500 if over age 50), plus a two to three percent match, depending on how you set up your plan. If you have employees, however, both plans may also require mandatory matching payments for each of your workers.
3. Should I select a Roth or traditional option?
The two-flavor option isn’t just for IRAs. Almost half of all 401(k) plans offer the Roth option, too.
For most investors, the choice boils down to whether you expect your taxes to be higher today or when you retire. When you consider the fact that only part of the equation will be within your control, it’s a bit of a trick question.
First, there’s the income you expect to draw from your retirement accounts once you reach those golden years. Plan to live on less than you earn today and you could be in a lower tax bracket.
That’s only the first half of the equation, though. It’s next to impossible to predict long-term tax policy. The top marginal rate has fluctuated between 24 and 94 percent during the past 100 years, but there’s no telling where it will be after we’ve lived through the next several decades.
An online calculator can help remove some of the guesswork. Still, some investors opt to hedge their tax bets, investing a portion in each type of account. That way, you can reap the benefit of today’s tax deduction while, at the same time, prep a solid source of future tax-free income.
The "Backdoor Roth" or Roth IRA Conversion can be another option for those seeking to build up Roth assets. While the advantages are straightforward (the ability to bypass Roth contribution income limits by converting traditional IRA assets to Roth assets so that future withdrawals may be tax-free), the decision process and mechanics can be complex. We recommend consulting a professional tax advisor to gain situational understanding and advise that the following questions are considered:
- What is your projected taxable income for the year? Generally speaking, Roth conversions are most beneficial in a year where your income is expected to be lower.
- Have you made non-deductible IRA contributions with funds that have already been taxed? If any assets you are targeting to convert were made pre-tax, there will be tax implications when converting to a Roth.
- If you have multiple IRAs (Rollover, Traditional, SEP, etc.), will you be converting your entire retirement portfolio, or only a portion? This will determine the effect of the pro-rata rule.
4. How much cash do I need to have on hand?
For many long-term investors, there’s the question of how to balance the need for cash now with the desire to stash as much as possible away for retirement goals.
Saving for retirement is important — the earlier you start, the better off you’re likely to be — but it’s important to keep an ample supply of easy-to-access cash on hand so you’re prepared to meet your shorter-term goals, like buying a home or paying your child’s tuition. Tapping your retirement fund early can come with a costly 10 percent tax penalty. Map out your short-term goals ahead of time and you won’t be tempted to cash in on those hard-earned retirement savings dollars.
In short, the key is to invest in the vehicles that offer the greatest potential for both financial gain and retirement preparation. For most long-term retirement investors, that means:
- Start by ensuring you’re on track to receive your employer 401(k) match
- Think about funding your IRA (traditional or Roth) depending on income limitations and tax-deductibility
- Then, circle back to max out your 401(k)