IRAs: Roth or Traditional?

The question comes up pretty often: when contributing to an IRA, should you choose the Roth or Traditional? I often approach this question in general with my recommended “Order of Contributions”:

  1. Contribute enough to your employer-provided retirement plan to get the company matching funds. So if your employer matches, for example, 50% of your first 5% of contributions to the plan, you should at least contribute 5% of your income to the plan in order to receive the matching funds.
  2. Maximize your contribution to a Roth IRA. For 2015 that is $5,500, or $6,500 if you are age 50 or older.
  3. Continue increasing your contribution to your employer-provided plan up to the annual maximum. So if you have more capacity to save after you’ve put 5% into your employer plan to get the matching dollars, and you’ve also contributed $5,500 (or $6,500) to your Roth IRA, you should increase the amount going into your employer plan. Increase this amount up to the annual limit if possible. For 2015 the annual limit for employee contributions to an employer plan like a 401(k) is $18,000 (plus a catch-up amount of $6,000 if you’re age 50 or older).

Beyond those three items if you have more capacity to save, you may want to consider college savings accounts or tax-efficient mutual funds in a taxable account among other choices.

But the question I was referring to is this: Which is better – a Roth or Traditional IRA?

The answer, as you might expect, is a fully-qualified “It depends”. The are several important factors to take into consideration.

If you were to compare the two types of accounts side-by-side, at first glance you’d think that it doesn’t make any difference which one you contribute to – especially if you assume that the tax rate will be the same in retirement (or distribution phase) as it was before retirement (or accumulation phase). This is because you’d be paying the same tax on the distribution of the Traditional IRA after the investment period, simply delayed, that you would pay on the Roth contribution, only this part is paid up-front.

Clear as mud, right? Let’s look at the following table to illustrate. I have purposely not included any increases in value, as we’ll get to that a bit later. In the example, we’re using a 20% ordinary income tax rate.


Each year we had $1,250 available to contribute to either a Traditional or a Roth. We had to pay tax on the Roth contribution each year, but we were able to make the whole contribution of $1,250, tax-deducted on our Traditional account.

What happens when we factor in growth in the account? The following table reflects the next step in our analysis, with each account growing at 10% per year, and the values are as of the end of the year:


If you subtract the tax from the Traditional balance, you come up with the same number as the Roth account, since there is no tax on the Roth account at distribution. So, although you pay more in taxes, you had more contributions to your account, so it all comes out in the wash.

So far, I’ve not come up with a convincing argument for a Roth or Traditional IRA. Let’s make another change to our table, by assuming that the tax rate in distribution increased to 25%, and that we remain at a 20% rate during accumulation. The following results come from that change:


As you can see, this results in a nearly $1,100 increase in taxes at distribution, making the Roth IRA the preferred option. Conversely, if the ordinary income tax rate is lower in distribution, the Traditional IRA is a better option.

There are some other factors that we could consider and run calculations on, but for the most part we’ve covered the important bases. Depending upon your own situation, one might be better than the other, and the reverse could be true in slightly different circumstances.

However, strictly going by the numbers the Roth IRA is preferred when the income tax rate is higher in retirement, and it’s at least as good as the Traditional IRA if the rates remain the same. If the numbers were the only differences between the two accounts, this is not a strong argument for the Roth, because you’re just making a gamble as to what will happen with tax rates in the future.

Thankfully, there are more factors to bear on the decision. In my book An IRA Owner’s Manual I point out three very good reasons to choose the Roth IRA over the Traditional IRA (excerpt below). With those factors in mind, and given that most folks have a generally pessimistic view of tax rate futures in the US, it seems that the Roth IRA is the better choice in nearly all situations.

Three Very Good Reasons to Choose
The Roth IRA Over the Trad IRA

  1. Roth IRA proceeds (when you are eligible to withdraw them, at or after age 59½) are tax free. That’s right, there is no tax on the contributions you put into the account and no tax on the earnings of the account. You paid tax on the contributions when you earned them, so in actuality there is no additional tax on these monies.
  2. There is no Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) rule for the Roth IRA during your lifetime. With the Trad IRA, at age 70½ you must begin withdrawing funds from the account, whether you need them or not. For some folks, this could be the biggest benefit of all with the Roth IRA.
  3. Funds contributed to your Roth IRA may be withdrawn at any time, for any reason, with no tax or penalty. Note that this only applies to annual contributions, not converted funds, and not the earnings on the funds. But the point is, you have access to your contributions as a sort of “emergency fund of last resort”. While this benefit could work against your long-term goals, it may come in handy at some point in the future.
  4. (a bonus!) A Roth IRA provides a method to maximize the money you pass along to your heirs: Since there’s never a tax on withdrawals, even by your heirs, the amount of money you have in your Roth IRA is passed on in full to your beneficiaries, without income taxation to reduce the amount they will eventually receive – estate tax could still apply though.

As illustrated, if you believe ordinary income tax rates will remain the same or increase in the future, the calculations work in favor of the Roth IRA.

The post IRAs: Roth or Traditional? appeared first on Getting Your Financial Ducks In A Row.

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

An IRA Owner's Manual
A Social Security Owner's Manual

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