Roth or Traditional IRA?

By Josh Originally drafted July 11, 2016. Posted March 10, 2018

Congratulations! You’ve decided to put your retirement future in your own hands and open an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA). But which should you choose, a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

A Traditional IRA allows an individual to invest money pre-tax. That is the one true time when you can “Pay Yourself First”, even before Uncle Sam gets his hands on part of your paycheck. Investments grow tax-deferred, and you pay ordinary income taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement.

A Roth IRA is an account whereby the individual invests money after tax has already been paid. The same contribution limit of $5,500 still applies (in 2018), so why invest after-tax dollars? Upon the age of 59.5, all of the money in a Roth IRA can be withdrawn tax-free, because taxes were already paid in the current year, none are due on the investment dollars, nor the growth on those dollars.

So how do you decide which is right for you? It depends on your outlook.

If you expect tax rates to go up in the future, or you will have more income that puts you into a higher tax bracket, it might make sense to pay the income taxes today and invest in a Roth IRA for tax-free retirement dollars later.

If you have a high salary today and plan to live on less income in the future, a Traditional IRA is the way to go, to lower your taxable income in the present and pay taxes in a lower tax bracket in the future.

If you aren’t sure what to think, it is possible to split your $5,500/year investment into both. This year I already maxed out my IRA contributions, with $3,000 going into Traditional IRA (to lower my current taxes) and $2,500 into my Roth IRA (to give me tax-free withdrawals in retirement).

Another consideration is what types of investments you will be making with each account. Some investments such as stocks or REITs pay dividends, which may be treated as taxable income. Consult a tax professional to see what is right for your preferred investment choices.

Some people prefer the Traditional IRA because $5,500 of your annual income can go straight to the account and you’ve met your annual maximum contribution and will reduce your taxable income by $5,500. On the other hand, one must earn $6,160 before taxes (assuming 12% for this example) to earn $5,500 after taxes for the maximum Roth IRA contribution, and there are no tax benefits in the current year.

There are income limitations for Roth IRA contributions, which vary depending on marital status. Some people have figured out a back-door Roth conversion from Traditional IRA contributions, but taxes must be paid in the year of the conversion.

A final word on the Traditional vs. Roth IRA battle royale is that there is no wrong decision. In fact, it may be useful to employ any of the different combinations explained above, including contributing to a Traditional IRA during your working years, and then using a Roth IRA conversion ladder as your income shrinks in retirement. Many Early Retirees use this strategy to combine the tax benefits during their working years with the tax-free income benefits during early retirement.

2 thoughts on “Roth or Traditional IRA?”

  1. We both have Roths. If we continue with the traditional teacher trajectory (and our state doesn’t totally rob my pension), I will make more in retirement than I do now. The big BUT is if we retire early. So far, though, I’m happy with my Roth. Like you said, having the “wrong” retirement vehicle is better than having none at all!

    1. I actually changed my strategy a little bit this year, thanks to reading more from Justin at RootOfGood. Especially with the tax cuts moving me down to the 12% bracket for my marginal income, I went from 100% Traditional IRA in 2017 down to an almost 50-50 split between Traditional and Roth. This year I had only a little bit of room under the limits of the “Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions” but would gladly sacrifice that $200 credit if it meant I was making considerably more 😉 I did get a healthy raise in April 2017, but I sent over 60% of that into my 457(b) so my grubby little hands couldn’t spend it!

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