Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA

When savers contemplate funding their retirement IRAs, they may often wonder which IRA – Traditional or Roth– is the better option. If you are one of these individuals, here are some of the differences between these two popular retirement accounts, their eligibility requirements and other factors to consider when picking the account that’s right for you.

Comparing Roth IRAs and Traditional IRAs
Trying to grasp the differences between a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?  It can be confusing but understanding each IRA’s advantages can earn you many more $$ in the long run. It is worth knowing the differences between Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs in order to select the best one for you.

IRA Income Limits
Anyone with earned income who is younger than 70½ can contribute to a Traditional IRA. Whether the contribution is tax deductible depends on your income and whether you or your spouse (if you’re married) are covered by a retirement plan through your job, such as a 401K.   Click here for details from the IRS.
Roth IRAs don’t have age restrictions, but they do have income-eligibility restrictions.

IRA Tax Incentives
Both a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA  provide generous tax breaks. But it’s a matter of timing when you get to claim them. Traditional IRA contributions are tax-deductible tax returns for the year you make the contribution; withdrawals in retirement are taxed at ordinary income tax rates. A Roth IRA provides no tax break for contributions, but earnings and withdrawals are generally tax-free. Consequently, with a Traditional IRA, you avoid taxes when you put the money in. With a Roth IRA, you avoid taxes when you take it out in retirement.

With both types of IRAs, you pay no taxes whatsoever on all of the growth of your contributed funds, as long as they remain in the account.

 IRA Withdrawal Rules
One major difference between Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs is when the savings must be withdrawn. A traditional IRA will require you to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs), mandatory, taxable withdrawals of a certain percentage of your funds, at age 70½, whether you need the money at that point or not. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, does not require any withdrawals during the owner’s lifetime. If you have enough other income, you can let your Roth IRAs continue to grow tax-free throughout your lifetime, making them ideal wealth-transfer vehicles.

The same applies to your heirs. Beneficiaries of a Roth IRA do not owe income tax on withdrawals and can stretch out distributions over many years. However, beneficiaries may be subject to estate taxes.

Both Traditional and Roth IRAs allow owners to begin taking penalty-free, “qualified” distributions at age 59½. However, Roth IRAs require that the first contribution be made at least five years before the first withdrawal, in order to avoid incurring a tax payment. If you meet that benchmark (and you only have to meet it once), you will have only paid taxes on what went into the account, not the sum you eventually take out.

Extra Benefits & Considerations
It’s also worth factoring in some of the specific rules and benefits of Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Here’s a breakdown:

Traditional IRAs:

  • Contributions to a Traditional IRA generally will lower your taxable income.  That lowers your adjusted gross income, helping you qualify for other tax incentives you may not otherwise receive. (Note that if you or your spouse has an employer retirement plan, your ability to deduct contributions may be reduced or eliminated.)
  • If you are under 59½, you can withdraw up to $10,000 from your account without the normal 10% early-withdrawal penalty to pay for qualified first-time home-buyer expenses and for qualified higher education expenses. Hardships such as disability and certain levels of nonreimbursed medical expenses may also be exempt from the penalty, However, you’ll still pay taxes on the distribution. Read more on the IRS website

Roth IRAs:

  • Roth IRA contributions (but not earnings) can be withdrawn penalty- and tax-free at any time, even before age 59½.
  • If you are under 59½, you can withdraw up to $10,000 of Roth earnings penalty-free to pay for qualified first-time home-buyer expenses, provided at least five tax years have passed since your initial contribution.
  • Roth IRAs can be invested in virtually anything you want: index funds, lifecycle funds, individual stocks, or many alternative investments.

Future Tax Rates & Your IRA
Deciding between a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA depends, basically, on how you think your income – and by extension, your income tax bracket – will compare to your current situation. In effect, you’re trying to determine whether the tax rate you pay on your Roth IRA contributions today will be greater or smaller than the rate you’ll be paying on distributions from your Traditional IRA after you’ve retired (or have to start making them, at age 70½).

Of course, it’s hard to predict what federal and state tax rates will be 10, 20 or 40 years from now. But of course, no one knows.

Still, you can ask yourself some basic questions about your personal situation: Which federal tax bracket are you in today? Do you expect to be in a higher or lower one after you retire? Will your annual income increase or decrease? Although conventional wisdom suggests that gross income declines in retirement, taxable income sometimes does not. Think about it. You will be collecting (and owing taxes on) Social Security payments. You might opt to do some consulting or freelance work, on which you will have to pay self-employment tax. And once the kids are grown and you stop adding to the retirement nest egg, you lose some valuable tax deductions and tax credits. All this could leave you with higher taxable income, even after you stop working full-time.

Tax Deductions Vs. Tax Credits
A quick primer on tax deductions and tax credits:
A tax deduction is an item the government lets you write off of your taxes to lower your total taxable income. Deductions usually only apply if you itemize them, rather than taking the standard deduction.  Itemizing deductions is beneficial only if the total amount surpasses the sum for the relevant standard deduction you qualify for. Deductions basically get you a discount on the tax you pay. You don’t take a dollar off of taxes for every dollar spent; instead, every dollar that is deducted from your taxable income lowers the amount of income you will be taxed on. If you are in the 25% tax bracket, for example, every dollar you deduct gets a 25-cent tax break.

In contrast, a tax credit is a direct reduction of the amount of tax you owe. Common credits have been issued for spending money on green home improvements or for going back to school. No matter which credits you use, you are slashing your tax bill to the federal government: If you have $2,000 in tax credits, your taxes drop by $2,000. You can take credits whether you take a standard deduction or itemize deductions.

Tax credits are usually more elusive and not as easy to claim as tax deductions – but they are much better, because they always reduce your taxes. If you have the opportunity to take a $5,000 tax credit or a $5,000 tax deduction, the credit is the better deal. Say you have a tax bill of $10,000. The deduction would lower your taxable income by $5,000; so, if you were in the 25% tax bracket, your taxes would be reduced by $1,250 to $8,750. A credit would directly lower the tax due to $5,000, and that’s regardless of your bracket.
More on tax credits vs tax deductions on the IRS website

Rolling Over A 401K to an IRA
When you leave a job, you may not realize that the money in your employer-sponsored 401K plan can leave with you. A 401K rollover allows you to transfer your balance into another retirement account — like an individual retirement account or your new employer’s 401K plan — all while still keeping the money tax-deferred.

Research Financial Strategies offers 401K rollover plans that we would be happy to discuss with you.

401K Rollover Options:

  • 401(k) to Traditional IRA: Allows you to keep your money tax-deferred, and may offer more investment options, possibly with lower fees.
  • 401K to Roth IRA: Also offers access to more investment options, though you’ll pay taxes on the rolled amount because it will be treated like a Roth conversion. The exception is if you’re rolling over a Roth 401K
  • Old 401K to 401K with a new employer: May be a sensible choice if you prioritize keeping your money in one account, and if your new employer’s plan allows rollovers and offers low-cost investment options.
  • Leave you 401K with your old employer.


Once you’ve made your decision, and if you’re interested in a IRA, the Research Financial Strategies team of Rollover Consultants can help you take the next step. Contact a Retirement Advisor»


At Research Financial Strategies, our success depends upon a detailed understanding of the needs of each of our clients.  The foundation of our strategy is an in-depth discovery process, allowing us the ability to best understand your concerns, goals and values.  It is recognized that your financial future represents a significant emotional investment, but we also know that it is critical to manage that future with process and logic rather than emotional reactions.  Our team will create a detailed plan custom-made to your unique situation. Research Financial Strategies proprietary methodology that leverages technical analysis means we can avoid the pitfalls of institutionalized money management—and focus instead on achieving real returns for each client.
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