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Should Young Investors Choose a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA?

by Ryan Guina

Graduating college and entering the “real world” is an exciting and sometimes stressful time – you start your first job and begin an independent life in all respects, including handling all things financial. Most colleges don’t require any financial courses, and it’s not always easy to understand the how’s and why’s of investing, even if you understand many of the basics.

I received the following question from a recent college grad who is looking for more information about his retirement plan options:

I am a 22 year old recent grad and have been confused on what IRA to invest in given my situation. I have a 401k plan with my employer which isn’t active until January 2010. My salary is $60,000 however I started in September so it will be much less maybe $30,000. I want to put my money in a retirement fund. The traditional IRA will give me a tax deduction. However, for the 2010 year, I will have a 401k. I wanted to have a Roth as well… that’s three different retirement funds. Is that too many/diversified? So many options… and which funds should I pick for my 401k, traditional, Roth and in what combination?

Thank you, Joseph

Great question, Joseph. You’ve got several great things going for you right now, and it’s good to see you taking advantage of your opportunities while you are young. $60,000 is a very respectable salary, and with good financial management, you should be able to put yourself in a favorable financial position. Let’s look at a couple of your options.

Retirement plan options – 401k, Traditional IRA, and Roth IRA

Traditional or Roth IRA for young investors

Should young investors choose a Roth or Traditional IRA?

These three options are the most commonly available tax advantaged retirement plan options for most people (or the non-profit 403b or government Thrift Savings Plan in lieu of the 401k). Before we go further, let’s give a quick explanation:

  • 401k, 403B, TSP: Contributions are tax deductible in current year and are taxed when withdrawn in retirement.
  • Traditional IRA: Contributions are tax deductible in current year and are taxed when withdrawn in retirement.
  • Roth IRA: Contributions are not tax deductible in current year and are not taxed when withdrawn in retirement.

There are a few things to keep in mind – early withdrawal penalties and income and contribution limits, [see Traditional and Roth IRA contribution limits and Traditional IRA Account Rules for more information]. Tax advantaged retirement plans have specific rules regarding when you can make withdrawals, and there are contribution limits and income limits for some of these plans, which may affect your eligibility.

Benefits of tax diversification in retirement plans

One of the advantages of opening a 401k or Traditional IRA is the tax deduction you can receive the year you earn the money. The money is contributed before taxes have been assessed and will grow without the drag of taxes until you withdraw it in retirement (assuming you don’t withdraw it early; see the link above regarding penalties).

Roth IRAs offer a different advantage – you pay taxes on the money now, the money will grow without the drag of taxes until it is withdrawn, and you will not pay any taxes when you withdraw it. So you pay taxes now for the benefit of not paying taxes later.

Having contributions in both types of plans will diversify your tax bill both now and in retirement, potentially giving you more flexibility in retirement.

Should Young Investors Choose a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA?

There are several good reasons why young people should consider a Roth IRA. Let’s start with taxes. Most younger folks are earning less now than they will be when their careers progress, so they are probably in a lower tax bracket now than they will be later in their careers. So the benefit is paying taxes now at a lower rate and being able to make tax free withdrawals in retirement when their tax rate may be higher. Another factor to consider is the unknown – we simply cannot predict what taxes will look like when we retire. Many people speculate that taxes will rise, and a Roth IRA provides a hedge against future tax rates because they offer tax exempt withdrawals. There are a couple other benefits as well, including being able to make penalty free early withdrawals under certain circumstances and no minimum distribution requirement, which is found with Traditional IRAs.

The main advantage of using a Traditional IRA is the tax break offered now, which can help reduce your tax bill. But this benefit is also available with a 401k plan. A Roth offers the other side of the tax equation, which helps with tax diversification. Here is a Roth IRA and Traditional IRA comparison for more information about how the plans differ.

How many retirement plans can you have?

This is a common question, and the answer is – it varies. There is nothing wrong with opening a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA and a 401k plan. You can even open multiple IRAs, and if you change companies, you can have more than one 401k plan. But having multiple retirement accounts makes it more difficult to track your accounts and maintain an asset allocation that meets your needs. The best way to go is to open only the minimum number of accounts necessary to meet your needs. You may be able to consolidate retirement plans if you change jobs or need to open another retirement account. [See How Many Retirement Accounts Can You Have? for more information about multiple retirement accounts].

Which funds, how should you invest, and where?

Investment options - where should you invest?

Where should you invest?

This is something I can’t answer directly. The best answer I can give is that you should invest based on your needs and risk tolerance. To start with you will need to define your investment goals, then determine your risk tolerance. From there, you can settle upon an asset allocation that you are comfortable with. *Note 401k plans and IRAs are vehicles for investments, they are not investments themselves. You can read more about this here: Where Do You Get the Best Roth IRA Rates?.

Where to open your IRA. You will open your 401k plan through your employer and fund it via payroll deductions. You will need to open your IRA through a qualified custodian, which could include an independent financial advisor, a bank, a discount brokerage firm, or a mutual fund house. Here is more information about how to start an IRA, and some of the best places to open an IRA.

Finally, I should offer this last reference article: Where Should You Invest First – 401(k) or IRA? This article covers how to maximize your retirement contributions to receive the max employer match and maximize your IRA contributions, should you decide to go with a Roth.

There is no right or wrong way to go

I hope you have a better idea of your options after reading this article and the reference articles. As you can see, these plans offer many different advantages, disadvantages, and variables. In the end, you will need to go with the plans and investments that best meet your needs and your risk tolerance. I recommend speaking with a professional, reading other sources, and thinking about your specific goals and needs. Best of luck, and congratulations on getting off to such a great start!

Readers – do you have any tips or comments to add?


Published or updated November 28, 2012.
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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Financial Samurai

The math says it doesn’t really matter whether you pay now or pay letter.

But, if you’re a young-in who has great belief you’ll be rolling in BIG BUCKS in retirement, do a Roth for sure.

I plan to escape to a foreign country, or at least to NEvada or Washington to avoid state taxes! :)

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2 Neal A. Deutsch, CFP

While the comment by Financial Samurai is great in theory, the fact is a bit more down to earth planning may be in order. One of the common mistakes made in making IRA contributions is neglecting the ultimate outcome and need at retirement. From our earliest working age through retirement age, the goal is to be in the accumulation phase of investing, moving into the income phase once your wage earning years have theoretically ended. At that time, all dollars count and taxation may take a bite into your income. Therefore, it would be prudent to invest in both a traditional plan where you get the deduction now but your withdrwawels will be taxable, and an after tax (Roth) vehicle which will give you income with no taxation at retirement. Be sure to evaluate your planning every few years, and make adjustments accordingly- that’s why they call it “financial PLANNING”.

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3 Ryan

Great tips, Neal. I think the 401k contributions could cover the tax exemptions now, and the Roth could be good for the tax exemptions later – which would offer more tax diversification than going with a traditional 401k and a Traditional IRA.

But I agree, one should look at their needs often and adjust accordingly. A big life event could change the way someone should plan for their retirement and current finances.

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4 Miranda

I’m glad I have a Roth IRA. And we’ll probably open one for my husband soon. And when he gets done with school, and gets a job, we’ll hopefully have a 401k. I am also currently looking into my options for self-employed retirement planning beyond the Roth IRA (SEP, solo 41k, etc.).

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5 Craig

I am a post grad too in a similar situation (although wish I had that salary) and have just maxed out my Roth IRA in its first year. I am sticking with that and while I have no 401K now, just Roth, figure that is the best strategy. I would rather no what’s in my account is exactly what I will get at retirement opposed to dealing with taxes being taken out.

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6 JoeTaxpayer

At retirement, it would take quite the pre-tax savings to create enough income to be in even the 25% bracket. For this reader, I suggest that when in the 15% bracket or lower, he go with the Roth, but if he is in the 25% bracket, use a pre-tax account.

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7 Don@MoneyReasons

I have both a Roth IRA and a 401(k).

I get a match on my 401(k) at work (it’s nice – for the first 5% of my salary that I contribute, the company will match 100%) . So for example, if my yearly contributions of 5% equal $5,000, my company will also put in $5,000 for a grand total put into my 401(k) of $10,000 yay! Matches = free money! I don’t turn away free money.

I also put money in my Roth IRA (not to be confused with a Roth 401k). While I use it for investing, it also doubles as an extra hands-off “emergency fund” (since any contributions you make can be withdrawn without penalty).

I think it’s great that a $22 year old is so financially aware! Kudos to Joseph!

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8 Britt Gillette

I agree with the idea that a Roth IRA is generally more favorable for young people just starting out. Mostly for the reasons you already stated such as the unknown of future tax rates and the lower current tax rates at the lower early-career salary. However, I’d also like to add that the IRS places income limits on who can and can not contribute to a Roth IRA. Early in your career you’re more likely to eligible to contribute the max to your Roth IRA, while later on, you may be ineligible to make ANY contributions. But a Traditional IRA? While there are income limits on the deductibility of your contributions, anyone can make non-deductible contributions regardless of income.

As a result, if tax diversification is important and you wish to have both types of accounts in retirement, then you should fund the Roth IRA when you can, because a Traditional IRA will always be available for contributions.

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9 Curious Cat Investing Blog

There is actually two right ways – a Roth or regular IRA :-) I think Roth is the best choice but regular is very good too.

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