How to Choose Between an IRA and a 401(k)

No matter where you are in your career, it is never too early to plan for retirement. If you’ve been avoiding setting up a retirement savings plan because you don’t know where to start, you’re not alone. The two main types of retirement savings plans are a 401(k) and an IRA—but how do you know which one is best for you? Determining which kind of retirement savings plan is right for you will depend on which option fits your specific lifestyle. Here, we will look at a few of the key differences between the two and when it’s advisable to invest in an IRA or a 401(k).

What is a 401(k)?

A 401(k) is a retirement savings plan through your employer. Contributions are normally deducted straight from your paycheck into your 401(k). The money put into your 401(k) will grow over time as it is invested on your behalf into mutual funds, stocks, and bonds. You can contribute up to $19,000 a year to a 401(k) and there are no income restrictions. Money in your 401(k) cannot be taken out until you reach age 59 ½ without a 10% penalty, but after you are 70 ½ you must take minimum distributions. Your contributions are tax-deductible, but you will pay income taxes on money you withdraw from your 401(k).

There are a few ways to tell if a 401(k) is a good retirement investment for you:

– Your employer offers a 401(k) and will match your contributions, essentially giving you free money.

– Automatic paycheck deductions will make you less tempted to spend the money. It is gone before you ever have it in your hands.

– You have reached your IRA’s maximum annual contribution. You could use a 401(k) to maximize your savings.

– You want to take advantage of the tax benefits of a 401(k). Because the contributions to your 401(k) are taken out of your paycheck before taxes, you could reduce your taxable income and therefore fall into a lower tax bracket. This could allow you to receive higher income tax returns.

What is an IRA?

An IRA, or individual retirement account, is the other most popular retirement savings plan. An IRA is not through your employer and will therefore stay with you no matter how much your lifestyle changes. You can invest up to $6,000 per year until you are 50, at which point you can invest $7,000 per year. Like a 401(k), you cannot withdraw money before age 59 ½ without paying a 10% penalty and you must make minimum withdrawals after you are 70 ½.

Your IRA contributions may be tax deductible depending on your financial situation, but any withdrawals will be taxed as income. However, this is different if you have a Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, you pay taxes up front on your contributions, but you do not have to pay taxes when you withdraw later. There are no income limits with a Roth IRA and because you pay taxes up front, you can withdraw your funds at any time without paying a penalty. There is also no mandatory minimum distribution requirement at a certain age, so you do not have to touch your contributions until you are ready.

A traditional IRA or Roth IRA may be right for you if:

– Your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) match or any other retirement plans. IRAs allow you to save and invest on your own terms, even if you don’t have access to a retirement savings plan through your employer.

-You change jobs a lot or don’t plan to stay with your current employer. An IRA stays with you no matter where you go or who you work for.

-You are in a lower tax bracket. Especially if you are young, you can invest what you can in a Roth IRA now while paying the lowest possible taxes.

-You want to control how your money is invested. Whereas with a 401(k) you are paying someone to make investments for you, IRAs give you control over what kind of investments your money goes to.

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you pick a plan and start saving consistently. When you are looking at your options, don’t be afraid to compare different plans and services provided. There are so many variables that go into saving for retirement and it can be hard not to become stagnant with worry about the what-ifs. Focus on what you can control: making steady contributions to a retirement savings account that fits your lifestyle.

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