Roth IRA Is Better Than Roth 401(k)

Roth IRA vs Roth

The Roth IRA has one distinct advantage over the newly-arrived Roth 401(k).

401k Contribution Limits

Here are the 401k Contribution Limits

With a Roth IRA, you can withdraw your initial investment fee- and tax-free at any time. Not so with the Roth 401(k). You can’t withdraw your contribution to a Roth 401(k) until you actually retire.

Should you want to withdraw your contribution from your Roth IRA, simply contact the financial services company where you invest and tell them what you want to do. They’ll be able to tell you the amount you’ve contributed if you don’t remember. Let them know your intentions and they can set the whole thing up. It’s very straightforward.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love the Roth 401(k) and invest a majority of my 401(k) contributions in it. With a Roth (either the 401(k) or IRA) you get your contribution and its gains tax-free at retirement. Pay no taxes on your retirement money – awfully sweet deal if you ask me.

 

Most people agree, which is why you’ll continually see the advice to fund a 401(k) to the employer match then switch to a Roth IRA. I don’t completely agree, though. I think the better technique is to fully fund your 401(k) then put money into a Roth IRA.

The reason is simplicity. If you have to take two actions every year – fund the Roth IRA and modify your 401(k) contribution somewhere during the year – it’s less likely you’ll actually do it.

So when comparing directly, the Roth IRA has the distinct advantage of your being able to get at your contribution before retirement. Though I don’t recommend raiding your IRA for spending money, a Roth IRA can function as a back-up emergency fund. There are different rules for withdrawing money before retirement from a traditional IRA.

Basic Tax Diversification

Tax Diversification

When investors talk about diversification, they’re typically referring to diversification. But there’s another kind of diversification. It’s called tax diversification and you might be practicing it without knowing it.

Tax diversification is the idea that you should have investments subject to each of the various tax treatments. The idea applies not only to U.S. citizens, but those of other countries as well. There are three types of tax treatments for our purposes – tax-deferred, tax-free, and taxable.

The three account types

  • Tax-deferred. Tax-deferred accounts are those that grow tax free until they are liquidated, at which time full taxes are due. Examples are the 401(k) and traditional(”deductible”) IRA. You invest pre-tax dollars. The full amount of money goes to work for you, compounding until withdrawn. At the time of liquidation, the entire amount withdrawn is taxed as ordinary income.
  • Tax-free. Tax-free accounts use after-tax money to buy investments that then grow without ever being taxed again. Examples are the Roth 401(k) and Roth IRA and municipal bonds. In these types of account, you purchase the investment with after-tax income. The investment then grows over time. When liquidated, the total account balance is tax-free.
  • Taxable. These accounts invest after-tax income. When the investment is liquidated, the earnings are taxed again. An example is a regular brokerage account.

How tax diversification works
In short, you use tax diversification when you split your investable dollars between the three types of accounts. Tax rates and treatments are moving targets. By using tax diversification, you’re hedging.

Why use it?
You simply cannot know what the tax brackets will look like at retirement (unless you’re within a year of retirement, I suppose). Using this technique, you’re spreading the risk of using any one type of account.

For example, if the bulk of your retirement investments are in a combination of traditional IRA and 401(k), at retirement all of that money is fully taxable. As of today, it’s taxed as ordinary income. If your tax bracket is lower in retirement, you made a shrewd move. If it is instead higher, you lost money by using only the tax-deferred accounts. So whether you think Roths are bad or good, it makes sense to have at least a portion of your retirement savings there.

I personally use this technique in my investments. Currently, I have 8% pre-tax going to my traditional 401(k) and 11% going to a Roth 401(k). We also have a taxable account we fund each month.