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Traditional Vs. Roth IRA: Your Ultimate IRA Guide


IRAs, or independent retirement accounts, are tax-advantaged savings accounts that help you save money for retirement. There are two main types, traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs, and they work in slightly different ways.

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about traditional and Roth IRAs and help you decide which type of account is better for you. Before delving into the differences, let’s go over what you need to know about independent retirement accounts in general.

Feature image: Retirement / Pixabay


What Is an IRA?

An IRA is a type of savings account designed to help you save for retirement. IRAs offer a major tax advantage wherein your money is only ever taxed once. In a brokerage account, your money can be taxed twice.

An IRA is made up of financial products like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. The money you contribute will slowly grow over time as a result of annual compound interest. Typically, savings in IRAs grow at a rate of 5% to 7% each year.

While this growth won’t look like much at first, it can add up significantly over the decades. If you start saving in your twenties rather than your thirties, you’ll see a huge difference in returns. When it comes to saving for retirement, you’re much better off the earlier you start.

While you can start contributing to an IRA at any time, you must abide by an IRA contribution limit. Read on to find out how much money you can put each year into your IRA.


How Much Can You Contribute to an IRA?

Whether you have a traditional IRA or Roth IRA, you can only contribute up to $5,500 per year. This was the IRA contribution limit for 2015 and 2016. It could change in years to come due to inflation.

If you’re over 50 years old, then you can contribute $1,000 more for a yearly total of $6,500. This extra $1,000 added to the IRA contribution limits is considered a “catch up” contribution to help out those who didn’t max out their limits in earlier years.

Most people contribute to their IRAs via automatic monthly payments. You can put in as much or as little as you like, but you’ll see the greatest long-term benefit by contributing up to the $5,500 limit.

Now that you have a general sense of IRAs and how they help you save for retirement, let’s look closer at the differences between a traditional vs. a Roth IRA.


Roth vs. Traditional IRA: How Are They Different?

The major difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA has to do with how your money is taxed. By learning about the different tax structure, you can figure out which one is more advantageous to you, depending on your age and financial profile.

The second difference when you look at Roth vs. traditional IRA has to do with when you can withdraw money. Consider the tax and withdrawal rules for traditional IRAs, followed by the tax and withdrawal Roth IRA rules.


Tax Advantages of a Traditional IRA

Traditional IRAs allow your money to grow completely un-taxed until you take it out. You contribute pre-taxed money, which grows in your account until you withdraw.

While your money is tax deductible when you contribute to a traditional IRA account, it’s taxed normally when you withdraw. You’ll pay all the taxes that you didn’t pay before, but you may find that you’re saving money on taxes overall. Why? You may be in a lower tax bracket when you retire than you were when you were working and contributing money to your IRA.


Traditional IRA Withdrawal Rules

When you contribute money to a traditional IRA, you can’t touch it until you’re 59 ½ without penalty. If you withdraw money before, then you’ll have to pay a hefty 10% penalty. It’s recommended that you take out about 4% of your savings per year during retirement.

Some accounts also have required minimum withdrawals (RMDs) that compel you to take out a certain amount of money once you hit 70 ½. Even if you’re still working at age 70 ½, you’ll be required to start withdrawing money from your IRA. the amount of the RMD varies by individual and is calculated based on your account balance and age.


Tax Advantages of a Roth IRA

While traditional IRAs are taxed later, Roth IRAs are taxed now. In other words, you contribute money that’s already been taxed to a Roth IRA. You don’t get any tax breaks for your contributions, but you won’t have to pay any taxes when you withdraw.

Basically, a Roth IRA works in the exact opposite way of a traditional IRA. You pay taxes when you contribute and not when you withdraw, whereas with a traditional IRA you pay taxes when you withdraw and not when you contribute.


Roth IRA Withdrawal Rules

Roth IRA rules are more flexible than those of traditional IRAs about when you can withdraw your money. You can take out money from a Roth IRA at any time without penalty as long as you’ve held the account for at least five years.

Technically, you can only withdraw money you’ve contributed without penalty. You can’t touch any earnings on your contributions until you retire. Roth IRAs also don’t have any RMDs, so you’re not required to take out your money once you surpass a certain age.


Traditional IRA vs. Roth Ira—Which One Should You Choose?

Given the difference between Roth IRA rules and traditional IRA rules, which account would be more beneficial to you? The answer to that question largely depends on your age and current tax bracket.

Younger people typically benefit more from a Roth IRA. They have plenty of time for their money to grow until retirement, and they’re usually in a lower tax bracket than they will be in 10 or 20 years. If you’re in your twenties and your tax bracket is 20% or lower, then you’ll probably benefit from a Roth IRA.

People who are older and/or in a high tax bracket will probably do better with a traditional IRA. They can contribute more money, since it’s not taxed, and pay taxes when they’re in a lower tax bracket after retirement.

To see how tax brackets affect your savings in an IRA account, consider the chart below.


If your tax rate is lower in retirement
  Traditional Roth
Current tax rate 25%
Tax rate in retirement 15%
Annual investment $5,500 $5,500
After-tax value in retirement* $613,313 $598,444
*Based on moderate growth (around 8% annual return) over 30 years


If your tax rate is higher in retirement
  Traditional Roth
Current tax rate 25%
Tax rate in retirement 33%
Annual investment $5,500 $5,500
After-tax value in retirement* $505,593 $598,444
*Based on moderate growth (around 8% annual return) over 30 years


If your tax rate goes down in retirement, then you’ll have more money from a traditional IRA. If your tax rate goes up, then you’ll end up with more savings from a Roth IRA.

A secondary factor to consider when deciding between a traditional and Roth IRA is your financial self-control. As you read above, the two types of IRAs have different withdrawal rules. Will you be able to resist withdrawing money from a Roth IRA before retirement?

Since there’s no penalty for withdrawing after five years, you’ll need to set limits on your spending so you don’t end up splurging on a luxury vacation to Fiji with your hard-earned money that was supposed to go toward retirement.

If you don’t have clear cut answers to either of these considerations, then you might consider opening both types of IRAs.


Can You Choose Both Types of IRAs?

If you’re unsure which account is more advantageous to you, then you could consider setting up both a traditional and a Roth IRA. If you start to see real advantages to one over the other, then you could roll your money over to one account.

Before opening both types, you should carefully consider the implications of taxes. If you opt for the Roth IRA, then you’ll have to pay taxes on any money that you roll over from a traditional IRA. This money would have otherwise grown untaxed until you withdrew it at age 59 ½.

You should also note that opening both types of accounts won’t increase your yearly contribution limit. If you choose both types of IRAs, then the $5,500 limit applies to both. You can only contribute $5,500 collectively to your retirement savings accounts per year.

Choosing both types of accounts is unnecessarily complicated for the majority of people. You should only do so if you’ve done some serious calculations and feel that it would be financially beneficial to you in the long term. For most of us, choosing one type of account based on our age and current tax bracket is the better way to go.

Once you’ve chosen your type of IRA, how do you get about setting up an account?


How to Set Up an IRA

There are a number of IRA providers with whom you can set up an account. Most require a minimum investment up front, but some are a lot lower than others. When you set up an account, you can either set it on auto-pilot or take a hands-on approach to choosing your investments and designing your portfolio.

Below are six recommendations for the best IRA providers, but first, let’s go over the factors you should consider when choosing an IRA provider.


What to Look for When Choosing an IRA Provider

The best IRA providers offer some or all of the following:

  • Low account fees
  • Low account minimums
  • Good customer service and educational resources for new investors
  • Low fees for trading stocks (this mostly applies to people looking to take an active approach to building their portfolio)

If you fall in the majority of people who want someone else to manage their account, then you should look for a managed account or a target-date fund. In these types of account, you’ll pretty much only have to set your estimated date of retirement. A broker will do the rest.

Now that you know what to look for in an IRA account and provider, check out the suggestions for the top six IRA providers.


Best IRA Providers for 2016

Based on the factors listed above, these six providers rose to the top for their low account fees, strong customer service, and other offerings.

TD Ameritrade - popular provider with strong resources and support for new investor. TD Ameritrade doesn’t require any minimum balance, and it has a large selection of funds to choose from. One downside is that its trade commission fees are higher than usual at $9.99. TD Ameritrade, then, is a better choice for the new or hands-off investor, but not as popular among active traders.

Vanguard - another popular low-cost provider with a $0 minimum balance. Vanguard is especially strong when it comes to target-date funds, where you set your date of retirement and don’t have to do much else.

E*Trade - a provider with a large selection of funds and no account minimums. E*Trade stands out for its user-friendly website.

Wealthfront - this provider manages accounts of up to $10,000 for no fee. Wealthfront, then, is good for the average investor who wants to take a hands-off approach.

Betterment - like Wealthfront, Benefit is appealing to the hands-off investor. It tends to cater to people with large balances of $100k or more.

Options House - best for active traders. Options House has a lower than average per trade fee of just $4.95.

Once you’ve decided between a traditional and Roth IRA and chosen your provider, how do you open your account?


How to Open an IRA Account

Opening an IRA account is an easy, online sign-up process. Just head to the website of your chosen provider and fill out the IRA application. You’ll enter personal information, including your social security number and employment information.

Most providers offer a different kinds of accounts, so you'll choose the one you want to open. You’ll also indicate how you’ll fund the account, e.g., through automatic monthly transfer from your bank account. You can also transfer money from an existing IRA or 401k (an employer-sponsored retirement account). Depending on your funding choice, you may need your account and routing number or the account number of a separate account.

The best way to make the most of your IRA is to deposit money on a monthly basis, to max out your annual contribution limit, and to start as early as you can. If you start saving in your twenties, then you could have a savings account with hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time you retire.

In closing, let’s go over the key points you need to remember about IRAs.



Saving for Retirement in an IRA: Key Takeaways

When it comes to saving for retirement, it’s never too early to start. Because your money grows in an IRA, you’ll see significantly more earnings the longer your money is invested in the account.

IRA accounts are especially beneficial because of their tax advantages. Your money will only ever be taxed once, either when you withdraw it, as in a traditional IRA, or when you contribute it, as in a Roth IRA. Both accounts have advantages, and the one you choose should largely depend on your age and current tax bracket.

While you should figure out which account will maximize your savings, in truth, you can’t go wrong with either. Both are tax-advantaged accounts that will help you save up money that you’ll rely on later in life. By opening and contributing to an IRA, you invest in your future and let your money work for you.


What's Next?

What is ROA, and how can looking at it provide you with helpful investment information? We discuss the meaning of ROA (return on assets) and how you can use it in this article.

Not ready to open up an IRA but still looking for ways to save? Try the 365-day penny challenge!


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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