Retirement Accounts

Establishing a retirement account is an important part of financial planning. Future retirees can no longer rely on Social Security or pension payments to meet all their income needs. Choosing the right retirement account depends on many factors, including your age, employment and tax bracket.

What Are the Best Retirement Accounts?

An increasing number of Americans use retirement accounts to fund their post-work years.

These accounts allow you to set aside money and invest it — usually into stocks, bonds and mutual funds. The money grows throughout your working career.

Your employer may offer a retirement plan, or you can open your own at a financial institution such as a bank or brokerage firm.

There are several types of retirement accounts, and each offers favorable federal tax treatment to encourage people to save early and often.

Retirement accounts can either be tax-deferred or tax-exempt.

Traditional 401(k) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs, are tax-deferred. Tax savings are realized in the year you make contributions.

In contrast, Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k) plans are tax-exempt, which means withdrawals are tax-free in retirement.

What Account May Be Best for You?

If your workplace offers a 401(k) plan.
Most financial experts recommend contributing to a workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k), Roth 401(k), 403(b) or 457(b) — especially if your job offers to match your contributions.
If your workplace doesn’t offer a 401(k).
Consider opening either a traditional or Roth IRA. The difference between these accounts is how and when taxes are applied. See below for more detail on traditional and Roth IRAs.
If you maxed out your 401(k) contributions.
Consider opening a traditional or Roth IRA.
If you’re self-employed or own a small business.
Several options for small business owners and self-employed people help streamline the process of creating a retirement account and may have higher contribution limits. These plans include SEP IRAs, Solo 401(k)s and Simple IRAs.

Individual Retirement Accounts

An Individual Retirement Account, or IRA, is an investment account set up at a financial institution. The two main types of IRAs are Roth and traditional.

The yearly maximum contribution to an IRA is $6,000 in 2020, and $7,000 if you’re 50 years or older.

Traditional IRA

With a traditional IRA, contributions are generally tax-deductible in the year they are made. This can help lower your income tax burden each year.

However, you will pay taxes when you withdraw the money in retirement.

Tip
Experts often recommend traditional IRAs for people who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket during retirement than they are now.

If you withdraw money before turning 59.5 years old, the IRS imposes a 10 percent penalty. There are exceptions to this penalty if you meet certain criteria or spend the money on specific purchases, such as buying a home.

Traditional IRA Advantages
  • Anyone can contribute to a traditional IRA, regardless of your yearly salary.
  • Contributions are tax deductible the year they are made.
  • Wide selection of investments to choose from.
Traditional IRA Disadvantages
  • Early withdrawals before age 59.5 are subject to a 10 percent penalty from the IRS.
  • Income tax is owed on any withdrawals after age 59.5.
  • You must begin taking required minimum distributions by age 72.

Roth IRA

Unlike its traditional counterpart, contributions to a Roth IRA do not count toward lowering your annual burden at tax time.

Because you don’t receive a tax break on contributions, you won’t be taxed again when you withdraw money during retirement.

Roth IRAs also offer greater flexibility to access money before age 59.5 than traditional IRAs.

If the money you withdraw comes from your contributions and not from gains, interest or dividends, you avoid government penalties and taxes.

Tip
Experts often recommend Roth IRAs for people who anticipate making more money in retirement than they do now.

If you’re a high-income earner, you may not qualify for a Roth IRA. The IRS sets limits on how much money you can make and still contribute to this type of retirement account.

Roth IRA Advantages
  • Tax-free withdrawals during retirement.
  • No required minimum distributions.
  • Wide selection of investments to choose from.
Roth IRA Disadvantages
  • Contributions are not tax deductible the year they are made.
  • You can’t qualify for a Roth IRA if your modified adjusted gross income is above $139,000 a year.

SEP IRA

A Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Account, or SEP IRA, is a type of traditional IRA that gives entrepreneurs, self-employed people and small business owners a way to save for retirement.

With a SEP, employer contributions are made directly to traditional IRAs for the business owner and each eligible employee.

The business owner is responsible for making contributions, but workers still own and maintain their own investment portfolios.

High contribution limits are a unique feature of SEP IRAs.

In 2020, employers can make annual contributions of up to $57,000 or 25 percent of each employee’s compensation, whichever is less, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

For example, if your employee earns $40,000 a year, you can contribute up to $10,000 to his or her SEP IRA annually.

Self-employed people can contribute up to 20 percent of their net self-employment earnings to their own account.

Nondeductible IRA

A nondeductible IRA is funded with after-tax dollars and offers no immediate tax benefit. You cannot deduct contributions on your tax return.

If you earn more than $139,000 a year, you can’t deduct contributions from a traditional IRA. So, a nondeductible IRA is most common for high income earners.

Nondeductible contributions come with their own eligibility rules and contribution limits that must be followed.

Spousal IRA

Usually, nonworking people are ineligible to open an IRA because they don’t earn income.

However, married, nonworking people whose spouse is employed can open a spousal IRA — as long as the couple meets certain requirements.

This way, the working spouse can make contributions to an IRA for the nonworking spouse.

It’s important to note that each spouse’s IRA is separate. IRAs cannot be held jointly.

Simple IRA

A Simple IRA plan stands for Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees, and it is eligible to most small businesses with 100 or fewer workers.

Establishing a Simple IRA requires minimal paperwork for the employer and maintenance costs are low.

Employees can contribute a maximum of $13,500 annually to a Simple IRA in 2020. Employees ages 50 and older can contribute up to $16,500.

A Simple IRA plan follows the same investment, distribution and rollover rules as traditional IRAs.

Self-Directed IRA

Self-directed IRAs offer a wider range of investment options than other accounts.

Instead of limiting your choices to stocks, bonds and mutual funds, self-directed IRAs let you invest in alternative assets such as real estate, livestock, gold, silver, mineral rights and more.

You do not manage a self-directed IRA entirely on your own. You need to appoint a custodian or trustee to administer the account.

However, these accounts can be very complex and risky. They are only recommended for experienced investors.

In 2020, you can contribute up to $6,000 a year to a self-directed IRA, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older.

401(k) Plans and Other Employee-Sponsored Accounts

While you can open a Roth or traditional IRA outside of work, you can only access a traditional or Roth 401(k) if it’s offered by an employer.

Both traditional and Roth 401(k)s feature tax advantages, either now or in the future.

In a traditional 401(k) plan, a portion of your pre-tax paycheck funds the account.

You select the investments — usually mutual funds — and the money grows tax deferred until you withdraw it in retirement.

Some employers even offer to match your contributions, up to a certain percentage.

For example, your job may offer a 100 percent match up to 3 percent of your salary. If you make $40,000, and contribute $1,200 annually to your 401(k) plan, your workplace in this scenario will also kick in $1,200 a year.

This is essentially free money for your future.

Roth 401(k)s are similar in many ways but with one key difference.

The amount you contribute to a Roth 401(k) doesn’t reduce your annual income tax burden the way a traditional plan does. However, you won’t pay taxes on money you withdraw from a Roth account during retirement.

Contribution limits are much higher for 401(k) plans than IRAs.

In 2020, you can contribute up to $19,500 a year to a 401(k), along with an additional $6,500 a year if you’re 50 years or older.

403(b) Plan

A 403(b) plan is a retirement plan offered by public schools and certain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations.

The features of these plans are comparable to those found in a 401(k). Both feature the same basic contribution limits and offer Roth options.

457(b) Plan

A 457(b) plan is a tax-advantaged employee retirement plan only offered by state and local public employers. Some nonprofit employers may also be eligible to participate.

It is one of the least common defined-contribution retirement plans. These plans are very similar to 401(k) plans. However, there are a few key differences.

Differences Between 457(b) and 401(k) Plans
  • An early IRS withdrawal penalty is not assessed on participants who take money out before age 59.5.
  • The contribution catch-up limit provision for people over age 50 is doubled.
  • Independent contractors can participate.
Last Modified: October 26, 2020

11 Cited Research Articles

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  2. Internal Revenue Service. (2020, January 15). Traditional IRAs. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/traditional-iras
  3. Internal Revenue Service. (2020, January 10). Roth IRAs. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/roth-iras
  4. Internal Revenue Service. (2020). IRC 457(b) Deferred Compensation Plans. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/irc-457b-deferred-compensation-plans
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  6. Internal Revenue Service. (2019, December 11). SEP Plan FAQs – Contributions. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/retirement-plans-faqs-regarding-seps-contributions
  7. Hartman, R. (2019, May 15). A Guide to Self-Directed IRAs. Retrieved from https://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/iras/articles/a-guide-to-self-directed-iras
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  10. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. (n.d.). Self-directed Plans - Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Retrieved from https://www.investor.gov/additional-resources/retirement-toolkit/self-directed-plans-individual-retirement-accounts-iras
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