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Where Should You Invest First – 401(k) or IRA?

by Ryan Guina

One of the most important things my father taught me about managing money is investing for retirement. Based on his advice, I opened an IRA at age 19 and have been investing ever since. When I first started investing, I was eligible for an IRA, but I was in the USAF and we did not have a 401(k) plan. It wasn’t until I was in for about two years that the military had an equivalent plan, the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

At that point, I wasn’t earning enough money to fully max out my IRA and contribute to the TSP. I had to decide which investment plan was the best for me. Since I didn’t receive a “company” match to my TSP, I chose to invest in a Roth IRA. (Why choose Roth over Traditional IRA?).

IRA vs 401k – Finding the Best Retirement Plan for You

Should you invest in a 401(k) or an IRA?

Should you invest in a 401(k) or an IRA? Or both?

In my current situation, I have a 401(k) plan with my employer, and I have the option of investing in an IRA plan as well. I face the same question a lot of people face: where should I invest my retirement funds – in a company 401(k) plan, or in an IRA? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of both accounts, then you can use this information to make the best decision based on your needs.

Employer Sponsored Retirement Plans, including 401(k) Plans: There are a variety of employer sponsored retirement plans, including 401k, 403b, 457, 401a Plans, and Thrift Savings Plan. For continuity, we will use the term 401k. Please see the IRS page for more info on related retirement plans.

Company sponsored 401k plans are similar to Traditional IRAs as far as taxes go – contributions are invested before taxes are withdrawn, which can lower your adjusted gross income (AGI), giving you a tax break now. The invested money will be taxed when withdrawn at retirement age, and there are stiff penalties for early withdrawal. There is also the possibility of investing in a Roth 401(k), although not all employers offer this option. The maximum annual 401k contribution amount is the same for both traditional and Roth 401k plans..

A distinct benefit in favor of 401(k) plans is a possible company match, which is essentially free money for employees. My current company offers a 401(k) match of up to 1.5% of my pay. It isn’t very much, but it is free money and I take advantage of every penny of it!

Individual Retirement Arrangement, or, IRA: There are two main types of Individual Retirement Accounts: Traditional and Roth. (I have chosen not to focus on SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, or other forms of IRAs as they are not applicable to everyone).

  • Traditional IRA: The main benefit of a Traditional IRA is that the money can be fully or partially deductible, depending on your situation. The money is invested before taxes are withdrawn, which can lower your AGI, resulting in an immediate tax break. The invested money will be taxed when withdrawn at retirement age, and there are stiff penalties for early withdrawal (barring certain exceptions).
  • Roth IRA: Roth IRAs are non-deductible, which means you use post-tax money to fund your account. However, the distributions made during retirement age are tax exempt, which is the main reason people invest in a Roth IRA. As with the Traditional IRA, early withdrawals may incur stiff penalties.
  • For both IRAs: These are individual investments, meaning there are no company matches. There may be certain tax or eligibility restrictions for Traditional or Roth IRAs based on your income, filing, and marital status. The IRA contribution limits can also vary based on age and other factors.

Pros and Cons of 401(k) Plans and IRAs

401(k): The biggest benefit of a company 401(k) plan is the possibility of having your company match a portion of your contributions. Free money is something you shouldn’t pass up, especially when it will compound over time. On the downside, some company 401(k) plans may have a limited selection of funds to choose from or may have higher investment fees than you would have if you invested on your own. Your investment options will be limited to whichever funds are in the company plan, which can be detrimental if your plan consists primarily of funds with high expenses.

IRA: With IRAs, all investment responsibility lies with the individual. He or she must decide where to invest, how much to invest, etc. This can be overwhelming for some people, but there is always the option of paying someone to manage your funds. The benefit of controlling your investment is the flexibility of deciding where to invest: funds, stocks, bonds, ETFs, etc. the possibilities are limitless. The other benefits of IRAs include controlling your tax diversification options by investing in a Roth IRA for tax free withdrawals, or investing in a Traditional IRA to lower your AGI and current tax obligations.

Where Should You Invest?

Where should you invest - 401k, or IRA?

Carefully weigh your investment plan options.

Only one of these types of retirement plans involves the possibility of free money – the company 401(k) plan. If your company offers a match, it is probably in your best interest to invest in a 401(k) plan at least to the point of receiving the maximum company match. It is hard to pass up free money!

After you have put in enough money to get the match, I would consider investing in a Roth IRA if you are eligible. Roth IRAs are beneficial because you will be able to withdraw this money tax free in retirement. Doing this diversifies your future tax liabilities by having a taxable and non-taxable retirement funds.

If you have enough money to invest for the full company match, and max your Roth IRA, then you should consider investing more money in your 401(k) plan. This will ensure you maximize your retirement contributions, and diversify your tax obligations both now and in retirement.

On a personal level, I max out my IRA at the beginning of the year, using money from my savings account. Then I contribute to my 401k via payroll deductions. I contribute enough to get the company match and a little on top of that. My goal is to increase it until I can max out both my IRA and my 401k plans. My goal is to funnel as much money as possible into my retirement accounts while I am young and able to do so!

Always Research Your Investment Options Before Investing

These recommendations are based on common situations. You should always ensure your investment decisions are based on your needs and the amount of risk you are willing to take. The most important thing is to get started and keep investing. Your future is worth it!


Published or updated November 19, 2012.
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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ryan

Jesse, thanks for the reply. My company just announced they will offer the Roth 401(k) starting in a few months, so I think I may look into investing in that. I think it is a great opportunity.

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2 Adfecto

Your comments are spot on for the vast majority of people. My only addition would be to address the income caps that come with the Roth IRA (make too much money and won’t qualify). The alternative is a non-deductible IRA which is a third type of IRA that is outside the scope of your post. Oh, I would also add that ideal situation for a Roth IRA is if your income is current taxed at a lower rate than your likely tax rate in retirement (pay tax now at a low rate rather than later at a higher rate). Great post.

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3 Jesse

Bingo man, I couldnt agree more. 99.99% of the time you will be in a higher tax bracket when you want to retire (and also want to KEEP withdrawing a higher amount) so max company match on 401k then roth is def the way to go.

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4 Ryan

Adfecto, Thanks. It is tough to cover each rule the IRS imposes for IRAs, 401(k) plans, and other tax rules. There are always a lot of exemptions and exclusions. I appreciate the info and comments.

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5 Writer's Coin

The match is key since most 401(k) plans have sky high expense ratios and limited choices. So never underestimate the importance of it.

And please max out your Roths people!

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6 Dividends4Life

You are doing it the right way. Don’t leave any match dollars on the table, then fund your Roth, then work toward maxing out your 401(k).

Best Wishes,
D4L

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7 Dividend growth investor

Thanks for the nice article. I myself like cutting my taxable income by putting as much as possible into a 401k. I think that over time whether you invest into 401k or a ROTH ira doesn’t matter, as long as you contribute for retirement.

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8 walkerny

The tax free benefit of the Roth is based in part on faith the government will ‘play fair’ decades from now. I think they will be eye Roths as a hungry wolf eyes a lamb.

I max out my 401K limit to the current 15500, and if I have any left it goes in a Roth. We also are working on being debt free. Hopefully in my mid 50′s (ten years from now) we will be debt free and can both max our 401K’s and Roths to the limit, including the catch-up limits.

One thing to check on is whether either spouse can take part in either a Health Savings Account, or some other form of yearly medical savings plan. The ones you have to ‘estimate’ the next years med expenses (you lose any excess) are a pain, but if you have big “Known” medical costs looming (eyeglasses, braces, operation, Lasik, etc.) you can basically get 30-40% of these costs back in the form of a tax break.

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9 walkerny

Another VERY important thing to take into account is the state you live in now and the one you will retire to:

I pay in to my 401K now in the highest tax state in the union, New York. So my tax break realized right now is 40% or more. If I pick a low state tax state to retire to, say the total Fed & State damage is 25%, It will make the 401K a 15% better deduction than the Roth.

If you are from high tax states NY, CT, MA, PA, OH, IL, MD, etc you should take this into account.

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10 Richard

Is it possible to have a 401(k) AND an IRA at the same time? Just wondering…

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11 Ryan

Hello Richard, Yes, you can have both a 401(k) plan, which is sponsored through an employer, and an IRA, which is directed by the individual.

You can invest in both at the same time, only in one or the other, or in neither. They are subject to contribution limits and some other rules.

Generally it is best to contribute to a 401(k) plan up to the company match before contributing elsewhere because that is free money. Then decide where it is best to contribute any additional funds.

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12 Kelly

My husband is putting in the max matched at his company 401k. Last year he pulled most of that ($34,000) and put it into a traditional ira. he put the ira in a 7 month cd because he’s thinking about pulling $20,000 from it in July to pay off his truck and rolling the balance into a roth. He will continue to put into his 401k until he retires in another year. This is our plan at this point — what would you advise?
Thanks.

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13 ERIC

Infor on 401K. I put in 15%. I think they only match up to 5%.

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14 Robson

Hello,

I’m in shock! I just got a letter from the IRS asking for 1300. plus penalties for my 2007 return. I contributed the max to my company 401K and opened an IRA for 5000 that year. My bank and employer advised adding the 5k as I was over 591/2 and eligible.
Now the IRA is disallowing it and I’ll be hit for the 2008 return also. Did I make a mistake? Will I be able to ‘remove’ that 5k from my IRA – I don’t want to be hit with taxes when I withdraw.
Thank you!

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15 Ryan

Robson, It’s possible there was an error in either the information you were given or an error on the part of the IRS. Another possibility is contributing to an IRA when you were above the contribution limit. For example, if you contributed to a Traditional IRA and claimed a tax deduction, but earned too much to qualify.

My recommendation is consulting with a CPA for more information specific to your situation.

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16 Daddy Paul

“Only one of these types of retirement plans involves the possibility of free money – the company 401(k) plan. If your company offers a match, it is probably in your best interest to invest in a 401(k) plan at least to the point of receiving the maximum company match. It is hard to pass up free money!”
I think every one need to read this one. ran into a friend of my daughters who was telling me 401K was a waste of time. I showed her using the savers tax credit she could invest 350 bucks and get a 2000 investment in her 401K.

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17 Mitch

One thing worth considering: the way the company MATCHES the employee contribution! For example, I worked for a company that matched at the 6% (3%) level – but only with its own stock. When their share price went from the $20′s to the $6′s, you can imagine the results. Second consideration: compare the expense ratios on the 401K’s mutual fund offerings with the closest equivalent fund, or that same fund, available on the open market. Often a company 401K plan expense ratios are outrageous!

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18 Ryan

Great points, Mitch. Another consideration is vesting period. Most companies make employees wait a couple years before they can take matching contributions with them when they leave. The last two companies I worked for had a year vesting period, though you could be partially vested after 3 years.

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19 Patricia Williams

My questions is i just lost my job a month ago, which the company i worked for had 401k plan. However i just rollover the money i had in a Personnal Retirement Plan. As a result i am trying to make a decsion on what i should invest in, stock bonds, manuel funds. I need help with this so that the money i do have would be save ,and it may grow. HELP!

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20 Ryan

Patricia, it may be best for you to consult with a professional financial planner who can help you design an investment plan to fit your specific needs.

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21 burroughsrd

i understand that i can contribute to both a 401K at work and an IRA at home. But…if i max out my 401K contributions to the highest allowed by law ($16,500, with additional matching funds coming from my employer), can i then fund a traditional IRA for another $5,000? or, once i reach the max contribution in a 401K, am i no longer able to participate in a traditional IRA.

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22 Ryan

You can still contribute to your IRA to the max amount your income will allow. Here are 2010 Traditional and Roth IRA Contribution Limits.

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23 CST

Hi,
Could you please explain to me the difference between “Roth IRA” and “Roth 401k”? My employer offers Roth 401k plan and I was wondering if it has the same advanatges as the Roth IRA. Thank you.

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24 Ryan

CST, the principle is basically the same regarding how the money is contributed and withdrawn. The difference is the Roth 401k is an employer sponsored plan with a higher maximum contribution limit than IRAs, which are an individual investment option. So yes, the advantages are the same regarding taxation. There may be additional advantages if your employer offers matching contributions.

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25 Tj

I can’t figure out how to allocate specific funds to the Roth portion of my 401k. Lame :-/

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26 Bob

I have been unemployed for some time now. My wife has a 401K with her job and has about $90,000 in this account at this time. Here is the problem…we have two mortgages (both in arrears by one month) and many bills. We are flat broke, and have poor credit. We were hoping to withdraw $25,000 from the 401K and incur the penalties so that we could replace our car, pay bills, send myself back to school, and pay legal bills. WE WERE TOLD THAT THIS DOES NOT FALL UNDER THE HARDSHIP QUALIFICATIONS and were told no can do. WE ALSO TRIED TO GET A LOAN THROUGH THE 401K. Unfortunately, my wife had already taken a small loan less than one year ago to pay off a credit car and to pay for the used car that we currently have at this time and they will not allow another loan to be taken until the first loan is paid off. IS THERE ANY WAY WHATSOEVER TO WITHDRAW MONIES FROM THE CORPORATION 401K IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM…This money is needed immediately. Are we allowed to roll some of it over into another IRA of some type and possibly withdraw it that way….WE ARE IN DESPERATE NEED OF ADVICE…

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27 Ryan

Bob, you may be able to just withdraw money from your account without doing a hardship withdrawal or loan. However, if you were able to do so, you would still need to pay penalties and taxes. Try contacting your 401k provider for your options. Best of luck.

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28 Joe

Hey Ryan,

I’m not sure I understand the benefit of the Roth option of the government TSP that just recently got introduced this month. I understand the basic idea of reducing your tax liability both now (due to tax deferred contributions which lower your AGI) with the regular TSP and later (due to current tax paid contributions which allow growth and withdrawal to be sheltered from taxes later) with the Roth option of the TSP.

What I’m unclear about is this situation:
Let’s assume that an individual has enough cash flow to support maximizing their normal TSP at the annual contribution limit of $16500, which does not include the goverment matching of course. And let’s also assume that the indivual has enough cash to be able to invest in a Roth IRA, and maximize this as well, at the annual contributing limit of $5000 if single and $10000 if married.
The new Roth TSP guideline states that the contributing limits are the same as the normal TSP at $16500 and it goes on further to state that if an individual elects to invest in both the Roth TSP and regular TSP the $16500 limit applies to both (in other words $16500 is all that the individual is allowed to invest before penalty). Also, keep in mind that any agency contributions will be treated as tax deferred contributions.

How would the Roth TSP be beneficial for this individual at all (if they choose this option they are not taking full advantage of the tax benefit now by reducing their AGI as much as possible) when they can afford to potentially invest $10000 per year in a Roth IRA and an additional $16500 in the government TSP which allows them to invest a total of $26500 per year and be able to take advantage of reducing tax liability both now by lowering AGI and later by maximizing the Roth IRA as well.

I understand that you can elect to invest in a hybrid between both the normal TSP and the Roth TSP at the same $16500 contribution limit and still invest in a Roth IRA as well.

I guess that I am not necessarily convinced that the hybrid is the better way to go unless there is a maximum limit to the tax liability that you incur by reducing your AGI each year. (In other words, if you reach the point where even by reducing your AGI you still remain in the same tax bracket). If this is the case, how do you figure out what tax bracket you fall into and what are the parameters that exist which can enable you reduce that tax liability.

I suppose that if even after the maximum contribution limit of $16500 per year…if you cannot reduce your tax liability by reducing your AGI simply because you make too much money…than perhaps the Roth TSP is the way to go just to shelter any potential gains from taxes in the future.

What do you think?

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29 Ryan

Joe, I think you understand it well – the main difference is as you said: taking the tax deduction now, or taking it later. It depends which you value more. Many people believe that the current tax rates are historically low and unsustainable, that is to say, many people believe that taxes will be higher in the future. If that is the case, then it makes sense to invest in a Roth IRA and/or 401k because you can pay the taxes now and avoid them later. Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball, and no one knows what the tax rate will really be in the future. My recommendation is to consult with an investment professional if you want more insight regarding the pros and cons of using a traditional or Roth vehicle for your investments. Here is an article about How to Interview a Financial Planner. Best of luck!

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30 david

I didn’t see a post on which choice would make more money. For a basic definition, a ira is a fixed rate for say a year or so, what about 401k? How does each type of retirement choice earn it’s money? I’m assuming in different ways to where one whould be a better producer than another? I’m reading about all the benifits of each, but not the best earnings. thanks for you help.

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31 Ryan

David, these aren’t investments by themselves, they are an investment vehicle, meaning a classification type for the IRS which recognizes the tax advantages of the plans. This article may be helpful in understanding the concept: What Are the Best Roth IRA Rates?. Best of luck.

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32 david

Thank you for the info, I have one employee that I ask him to invest in his retirement, as a small business of him(he’s 25 now”) and I, i want to make sure he’s taken care of at the end of his days. For 4 years I’ve deducted 200 a month. Now our bank doesn’t offer Sep IRA’s. The Sep Ira was so easy as it would mature and roll over. with no knowledge really, we’re not sure what to do as they moved the money into a “club account”. for two guys who know nothing about investing where and what is a good choice. i don’t feel we’ll be to involved with the whole thing as we’re just your common joe workers. thanks david.

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33 Jean

I have a question. My son-in-law redrew $55,000. from his IRA. They deducted $10000.00 For Taxes, and then they also deducted another $4900.00 for penalties. Our tax adviser said that they will also have to claim the entire $55000.00 as income which will then force them into a higher tax bracket. Is this true? I would have thought that the $10000. they deducted was for that purpose. Could you please email me back and let me know if they do all 3 things to them. If they do, what a terrible price to pay for paying off credit card debt!!!!!!!!!. Thanks Jean

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34 Jean

Hi again: I forgot to let you know that he is only 37 years old when he withdrew the $55000.00. Thanks again Jean

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35 Ryan

Jean, I recommend he speak with a tax professional to help him better understand his situation and options.

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36 Brian Greenberg

Solid advice Ryan.
1. utilize company matching(401k)
2. roth ira
3. more 401k contributions
It starts to get a little more confusing with Roth 401k’s though :) Contributions to Roth 401k would then be #3.
Good job starting your investing so early. Your Father is a wise man.

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37 Sun

Ryan – Where does debt fit into 401k/403b employer match and Roth IRA? My employer offers 4% 403b match. I also have $20k in credit card debt. Should I look to max out a Roth IRA after the employer match or focus on the credit card debt? Is there a sweet spot interest rate between investing in Roth IRA vs credit card? For example, if all my credit card debt was 0%, it would make sense to invest in Roth IRA for the year. What if the CC APR was 10%? If you were Dave Ramsey, he’d say pay the CC off no matter what first… but from a math greek perspective, what would be best?

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38 Brenda

I’m leaving my job & I’m looking into putting my 401k into a Traditional IRA. Somebody advice me to look into the Mutual Fund Company American Funds? How well rated is this company in the market? Can you provide me with any advise?

One more thing – Should I open an Individual account or should open a joint account with my husband. Pros & Cons? I would like to hear your opinion as well. Thank you kindly!

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39 Ryan

Brenda, Rolling a 401k into an IRA is a great option since you can control your costs and investment options. Here are more things to consider: Should You do a 401k Rollover into an IRA?

I ended up rolling all of my previous 401k plans into IRAs when I changed jobs. When I rolled my 401k plans over I chose to use roll my old 401k into an IRA at Vanguard.

I can’t advise you on Company American Funds as I am not familiar with them. A good source to start with is this following article which lists our favorite places to open a Roth IRA. Best of luck!

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40 Ryan

Hey there, I am just getting into all this. I am 24 tomorrow and it’s time to get going! I am a salaried quality engineer and am able to contribute towards this stuff right now. The company does little in the means of matching, but they do have a profit sharing account that I hear does very well. I was going to dive in 15-18% (it doesnt impact my weekly check by too much since its taken out pre taxes).

My question is should I put some in an IRA? Is it worth it? What type and why? I can max an IRA which is why I’m doing the 401k, besides a larger investment in one has more potential for better growth (i know they say not all in one basket but I also have a pretty sizable investment in the stockmarket). While I am young I am taking the more aggressive stance

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41 Aaron Long

Hello,

I am 26 years old and ready to start my retirement account… however, I am not sure if I should invest in my employer’s 401(k) plan or start an IRA.

My employer does not match funds and I am honestly not very comfortable with the limited investment options that my employer’s plan offers. I have researched every mutual fund that is offered (they go through fidelity) and the e/r seems to be on the lower side for the actively managed funds (.70-.76% for international & mid-cap funds & .93% for their only small-cap fund).

I take some comfort with the fact that none of the mutual funds have an e/r that is above 1%, however, I am torn between just investing in very low cost index-funds or trying my bet with some actively managed funds. I have heard that there is research out there which suggests that index funds are best utilizled for the large-cap and bond portions of your portfolio but there may be good reason to try your bet with actively managed funds in the small to mid-cap areas as well as the international area. My employer’s plan only offers a large-cap index fund (FXSIX) and the rest of the funds are all actively managed–so if I want to invest in small/mid-cap, bond and international funds… I do not have the option of putting my money in an index fund.

My debacle is this… The 401(k) is attractive because the contribution limit is much higher but the caveat is I will have much less flexibility with my investing options and possibly higher expenses. The IRA is attractive because I have much more flexibility with my investing options and possibly lower expenses but the caveat is that I have a very low max contribution limit of $5,000. I am at a loss for deciding what will be more valuable for me in the long run… I have considered investing in both the 401(k) and IRA… but I fear that splitting my money amongst the two retirement accounts will hamper the compounding effect I would realize. Any thoughts?

Thank you,
Aaron

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42 Ryan Guina

Based on your input, it may make sense to invest the $5,000 into an IRA, then invest the rest in your 401k. This gives you the best of both worlds when it comes to tax advantages and controlling your investment choices and fees. You shouldn’t have any problems splitting your money between two accounts, even when it comes to compounding returns. Just make sure the overall account is balanced, and it should be fine. (this is, of course, much better than the alternative, which is not investing at all).

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43 Stacey

You missed a HUGE difference between 401k’s and IRA’s. 401k’s offer a stiff 10% penalty should you need to withdraw the money before you hit the golden years. IRA’s allow you to withdraw your contributions without a penalty (earnings on those contributions are another story). In these tough economic times, you never know what is around the corner. It’s nice to have the OPTION to have access to your funds in case of an emergency without having to pay stiff penalties.

Additionally, should you be a first time homebuyer. You can withdraw up to $10K no penalties accessed from your IRA whereas there is no such benefit offered for 401k’s on first time home purchases.

Lastly, ROTHS are the way to go for sure – be it a Roth 401k or a Roth IRA. Do you really trust the government? I sure don’t. I forsee America headed for financial collapse just like the great Roman empire of yesteryears. I want to know that when I check my account balance, the amount I see in there, is the amount I will get when I retire in Bora Bora. No one will be taking my money from me then! Pay the taxes now people!!!!

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44 Ryan Guina

Stacey, your comment regarding IRA withdrawals is partially true. You can withdraw Roth IRA contributions without penalty, and under certain circumstances (again, not any earnings, just the contributions). There are other factors involved, so it’s a good idea to read more about how Roth IRA withdrawals work. If you do not meet these requirements, early Roth IRA withdrawals are also subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Withdrawing from a Traditional IRA too early can also subject your withdrawal to a 10% fee.

But I agree, having access to your investments is a nice option to have. As for future taxes, I don’t know what will happen. My retirement funds are in a mix of traditional and Roth plans. Obviously, I like the Roth for the long-term flexibility.

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45 Andrew Pohl @ FinanceCubed

When deciding to invest money in a 401k on top of what is being matched I think it is extremely important to consider the fees involved. Typically the mutual funds available in 401k plans charge higher than normal fees on top of what the 401k administrator is charging. If you don’t mind doing a bit of extra work you could get a much larger pallet of funds to choose from and pay less in fees by opening a traditional IRA for the extra money you want to put into retirement savings. I personally am contributing a few % extra to my 401k on top of what I need for my match and I have yet to make the switch because of the ease of using the 401k plan to automatically invest my contributions. Auto investment is also available at many brokerage houses and there are many free mutual funds and ETFs with low fees that are available to trade… in other words, there is no excuse to pay higher fees and I need to make the switch!

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