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  • Writer's pictureJoel Hyde

Roth vs Traditional 401(k)

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

Roth 401(k) vs. Traditional 401(k): Understanding the Key Differences

When it comes to planning for retirement, 401(k) accounts are among the most popular investment tools available. However, not all 401(k)s are created equal, and understanding the differences between a Roth 401(k) and a traditional 401(k) is crucial for making informed financial decisions.

The primary distinction between these two retirement accounts lies in how they handle taxation. In a traditional 401(k), contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, which means the money you invest reduces your taxable income for the current year. This offers an immediate tax benefit as your contributions grow tax-deferred until withdrawal during retirement, at which point they are taxed as ordinary income. On the other hand, a Roth 401(k) involves after-tax contributions, meaning you don't receive an upfront tax deduction. However, the real advantage comes during retirement: withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) are tax-free, including both contributions and earnings, provided you meet certain conditions.

Another key distinction is in the realm of required minimum distributions (RMDs). Traditional 401(k)s mandate that you start taking RMDs after reaching age 72, ensuring that the government can collect taxes on the deferred earnings. Roth 401(k)s, however, have no RMDs during your lifetime, allowing your investments to grow tax-free for as long as you wish. This can be a valuable feature for estate planning, as Roth 401(k)s offer the potential to pass on a tax-free inheritance to beneficiaries.

The choice between a Roth 401(k) and a traditional 401(k) boils down to a trade-off between immediate tax benefits and potential long-term tax savings. If you're willing to forgo the upfront tax deduction and believe that you'll be in a higher tax bracket during retirement, a Roth 401(k) could offer substantial tax-free withdrawals in the future. Alternatively, if you're seeking immediate tax relief and don't mind potential taxation upon withdrawal, a traditional 401(k) might suit your needs. It's crucial to evaluate your current financial situation, long-term goals, and tax expectations to make the choice that aligns best with your individual circumstances.

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