Roth 401(k)s vs. Traditional 401(k)s

By now, most Americans understand that at the very least, they should be participating in their employer’s defined contribution plan, most commonly offered in the form of a 401(k). But some companies offer two forms of these plans: the traditional 401(k) and the Roth 401(k). You thought deciding how much to allocate to your plan and then researching and electing the investment funds to support it was confusing enough, but here you are, faced with yet another option for safeguarding some retirement funds. Let’s break it down just a bit more.

What’s the difference?
The primary difference between a traditional and a Roth 401(k) is simple but significant. With a traditional 401(k) plan, your contributions grow tax free, and you pay taxes on the withdrawals; Roth 401(k)s, on the other hand, work in precisely the opposite way, as you pay taxes on your contributions but not on your withdrawals.

Additionally, Roth 401(k)s tend to be seen as more of an estate planning tool, since they do not necessitate that you to take required minimum withdrawals (RMDs) once you reach age 70 ½, as you must do with traditional 401(k)s. This allows you to leave your funds untouched for as long as you want after retirement, letting your investment grow tax free all the while.

Which is right for you?
This is a conversation best held with your financial advisor, as you must determine whether the back-end payoff of a Roth 401(k) outweighs the benefits of traditional tax deferral on the front end, but generally speaking, it depends largely on where you are in life and into which tax bracket you fall.

If you’re relatively young with an eye toward saving for retirement and you don’t earn a great deal of money, a Roth 401(k) may be worth exploring, as the upfront tax-savings benefits wouldn’t be as significant to you as a tax-free payout in retirement. Conversely, if you’re an established earner in a higher tax bracket, getting up-front tax-advantaged treatment is probably best, making the traditional 401(k) your most likely option. This is especially true for individuals who expect to be in a significantly lower tax bracket when they retire.

You can even double-dip.
If your employer does offer both types of 401(k) plan, you can split your contributions between the two if you so choose, as long as your  combined annual contributions do not exceed 2012’s annual limit of $17,000. If you’re 55 or older, that limit jumps to $22,500.

With so many options, there is a 401(k) plan, or a combination of the two, that is ideal for your current situation. But before you make your decisions, be sure to weigh these considerations carefully, especially if you don’t speak with a financial advisor regularly.

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