The Difference Between an Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA


One of the biggest decisions associated with saving for retirement is choosing between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA. The primary difference between the two IRAs is when you pay income tax. A traditional IRA is usually funded with pre-tax dollars providing you with a current tax deduction. Your money grows tax deferred, but you have to pay regular income tax upon distribution. A Roth IRA is funded with after tax dollars, and does not provide a current tax deduction. Generally, a Roth IRA grows tax free and you don’t have to pay taxes on distributions. In 2013 you can contribute up to a total of $5,500 per year plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution if you are over 50. You can make a contribution into a combination of a Roth and a Traditional IRA as long as you don’t exceed the limit. You also have until your filing date, usually April 15th, to make a contribution for the previous year. New contributions must come from earned income.
There are some income restrictions on IRA contributions. In 2013, your eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA begins to phase-out at a modified adjusted gross income of $112,000 if you file single and $178,000 if you file married filing jointly. With a traditional IRA, there are no limits on contributions based on income. However, if you are eligible for a retirement plan through your employer, there are restrictions on the amount you can earn and still be eligible for a tax deductible IRA. In 2013 your eligibility for a deductible IRA begins to phase out at $59,000 if you are single and at $95,000 if you file married filing jointly.
Generally, you cannot take distributions from a traditional IRA before age 59 ½ without a 10% penalty. Contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn anytime, tax free. Earnings may be withdrawn tax free after you reach age 59 ½ and your money has been invested for at least five years. There are some exceptions to the early withdrawal penalties. You must start taking required minimum distributions on Traditional IRAs upon reaching 70 ½. Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions.
The decision on the type of IRA is based largely on your current tax rate, your anticipated tax rate in retirement, your investment timeframe, and your investment goals. A Roth IRA may be your best choice if you are currently in a low income tax bracket and anticipate being in a higher bracket in retirement. A Roth IRA may also be a good option if you already have a lot of money in a traditional IRA or 401k, and you are looking for some tax diversification. A Roth IRA can be a good option if you are not eligible for a deductible IRA but your income is low enough to qualify for a Roth IRA.

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