IRA vs. 401(k): Which Is Right for You?

Are you interested in saving for retirement but don’t know where to get started? Most employers offer a retirement savings plan such as a 401(k), but if this option isn’t available to you or you want to maximize saving for retirement, you can look to other savings vehicles. For this reason, many people use individual retirement accounts (IRAs) as part of their retirement savings plan.


Here’s a look at the differences between IRAs and 401(k)s.

What is an IRA?

An IRA is designed specifically for retirement savings. Unlike other savings accounts, when you open an IRA you may enjoy tax-free growth on your earnings. There are two basic types of self-directed IRAs, each with their own unique benefits.

1. Traditional IRAs

A Traditional IRA lets you save money on a tax-deferred basis. This means the money in your account can grow tax free until you reach your retirement age. As long as you are earning money and are younger than 70 ½ years old, you can open a Traditional IRA.

  • When you turn 59 ½ years old, you can begin withdrawing funds from your Traditional IRA. You can also leave the funds in place until you’re 70 ½, when you are required by law to withdraw minimum distributions. Since you didn’t pay taxes on the funds before, you will pay taxes on each individual disbursement.
  • Most people can take a full deduction up to their contribution limit. However, there may be exceptions based on your adjusted gross income, other retirement accounts — including a 401(k) — and filing status. IRA Deduction Limits can change annually based on IRS rules. Those without employer-sponsored retirement plans can speak with a tax professional about how these rules may affect them.
  • If you do have a 401(k) or similar plan, you can deduct all or part of your IRA contributions as long as your modified adjusted gross income falls under the level set by the IRS. Keep in mind that this level may be adjusted annually.

2. Roth IRA

If you open a Roth IRA account, contributions are made after taxes, so you can’t deduct them or receive immediate tax savings. One benefit of Roth IRAs is that unlike Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs don’t have an age cap of 70 ½ for contributions, nor do they have disbursement requirements.

  • You can open and contribute to a Roth IRA at any time as long as your earned income falls below IRS thresholds. (These change annually, so check with the IRS to find the current levels.)
  • Since you paid taxes when you deposited the funds into the account, the tax savings will materialize when you withdraw the funds as you won’t have to pay additional taxes on the interest acquired on your contributions. If you’ve had your Roth IRA for a minimum of five years and are at least 59 ½ years old, you can withdraw without penalty.
  • You can also choose not to withdraw your funds at all. This means you could leave some or all of the money in your Roth IRA to pass on to your heirs. If you’re interested in this option, speak with a financial planner to learn more about the requirements and find out if it’s best for you and your family.

How does a 401(k) work?

A 401(k) is a retirement savings plan sponsored by your employer in which the company typically matches your contributions up to a certain percentage of your salary. For example, your company may match any contributions you make up to five percent of your salary; to make the most of this savings program, you would want to contribute at least the maximum amount matched annually. Speak to your HR department to find out more about the 401(k) program offered by your company.

See how they work together for you

Participating in your employer’s 401(k) plan is an excellent way to start saving for retirement. But that doesn’t have to be your only method of saving — opening an IRA can help you save even more and may confer a number of additional benefits. The chart below can help you compare the advantages of 401(k) plans, Traditional IRAs, and Roth IRAs so you can learn how each benefits you.


  Traditional IRA Roth IRA 401(k)
Sponsored by employer     X
Contributions matched by employer     X
Contributions eligible for tax deductions X   X
Money taxed upon withdrawal X   X
Annual max contribution* $5,500 $5,500 $18,000
Annual max contributions after age 50* $6,500 $6,500 $24,000


*Subject to change based on IRS rules. Amounts accurate as of December 2, 2016.

More information

To learn more about how to save for retirement, Ask a Citizen at your nearest Citizens Bank Branch.


Disclaimer: Views expressed may not necessarily reflect those of Citizens Bank. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only as a service to the public, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel, nor does it constitute advertising or a solicitation. You should do your own research and/or contact your own legal or tax advisor for assistance with questions you may have on the information contained herein.