Roth vs Traditional IRA

In our last article, Year-End Tax Planning Strategies, we briefly discussed the potential benefits of a Roth IRA over a Traditional IRA. This article will dive deeper into the differences between these two retirement planning options and provide some guidance on when one makes more sense than the other. 

Contribution Limits

You can make 2019 contributions to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA until April 15 of 2020. The maximum amount you can contribute in 2019 is $6,000. If you are over the age of 50 then you can contribute an additional $1,000 to either one. Additional limitations apply differently to Roth and Traditional accounts based on your income level and whether or not you are covered by a retirement plan through your employer. These additional limitations are complicated so we won’t get into them now. If you want more information on these limitations you can read “Income Limitations” at the end of the article.

Which Account Is Right For You?

The primary distinction between a Traditional and Roth IRA is when you pay taxes on the money in the account. With a Traditional IRA you deduct your contributions from your taxable income and do not pay any tax on that money until you withdraw it in the future. With a Roth IRA you pay the tax now but can withdraw the funds tax-free in retirement. One clear advantage the Roth has over the Traditional IRA is the earnings of the account can be withdrawn tax-free after age 59 1/2. With the Traditional IRA you pay taxes on the earning as well as your original contributions when you withdraw them.

So what is the advantage of the Traditional IRA if it requires you to pay taxes on your earnings? In the past, the argument in favor of Traditional IRAs was that you were likely to be in a lower tax bracket when you retire so it made more sense to defer taxes today so that you could pay them later at a lower rate. However, with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act we are currently in one of the lowest tax environments our country has seen in decades. And with the national debt growing at an accelerating pace there is an increasing chance of significant tax hikes in the future. If tax rates rise significantly in the future you could find yourself in a higher tax bracket in retirement, even if your income decreases. With that possibility, deferring taxes now to pay them in retirement may not be the best decision.

Summary

The decision between a Traditional or Roth IRA comes down to your expectations for your tax bracket in retirement compared to your tax bracket today and the length of time before you retire. If retirement is still 20 or 30 years away, you may be better off investing in a Roth IRA to take advantage of tax-free growth for all of those years. If you are planning to retire in the near future, the benefit of a tax deduction today may outweigh the potential increase in taxes a few years from now, if your income drops significantly when you retire. 

For a deeper discussion on which account makes more sense for your personal situation, please reach out to us. 

Income Limitations

Roth IRA: To contribute the full amount to a Roth IRA in 2019 your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) needs to be less than $122,000 if you file single or head of household and it must be less than $193,000 if you file a joint return with your spouse. If your MAGI is between $122,000 and $137,000 ($193,000 and $203,000 if filing a joint return) then you can make a partial contribution. Once your MAGI exceeds $137,000 ($203,000 if filing a joint return) then you are no longer eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA.

Traditional IRA: If neither you nor your spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work then there is no income limit to your Traditional IRA contributions.

If you are covered by a retirement plan at work and file single or head of household, your Traditional IRA contribution begins to be reduced once your MAGI reaches $64,000 and is eliminated once your MAGI reaches $74,000.

The rules become even more complicated if you file a joint return and either spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work. If you are covered by a retirement plan at work, your contribution begins to be reduced once your MAGI reaches $103,000 and is eliminated once your MAGI reaches $123,000. If you are not covered by a retirement plan but your spouse is then your contribution begins to be reduced once your MAGI reaches $193,000 and is eliminated once your MAGI reaches $203,000.

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