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What's the Difference Between Traditional and Roth IRA?

IRA stands for individual retirement account, so it's literally an account that individuals can use to save for retirement. Most financial institutions offer IRAs as a product, alongside other financial accounts like a savings account or brokerage. When you open an IRA, you decide how to invest the money that's inside the account, the same way you would with a regular brokerage investment account. You can also buy insurance products such as deferred annuities that are designated as IRAs, which mostly affects how the money is taxed through the years.

Here's what's the same between traditional and Roth IRAs

There are two types of IRAs: traditional (often called 'pre-tax') and Roth. Financial institutions also often offer "rollover" IRAs, which is really just a traditional or Roth IRA that's funded with money that's rolled over from another retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b).

Both have the same contribution limit. Each year you can add up to the IRS-designated limit to an IRA – for 2019 and 2020, the limit is $6,000 in total across all types, with an additional $1,000 catch-up amount if you're age 50 or older.

Both have the same contribution deadline. You can add money to your IRA account up until the April tax filing deadline and designate it a prior year contribution.

Here's what's different

  Traditional IRA Roth IRA
How they are taxed

Contributions may be deductible

Withdrawals are taxable

Contributions are not deductible

Qualified withdrawals are tax-free

Age limit You cannot contribute after age 70 ½, when you must begin withdrawals No age limit
Income requirements Anyone can contribute regardless of income, but you may not be able to deduct it if you have a workplace retirement plan available and make over the IRS limits for that year Once your income exceeds the limits set by the IRS, you cannot make direct contributions
When you can withdraw Age 59 ½ unless you meet certain exceptions

Contributions can be withdrawn at any time

Growth can be withdrawn after reaching age 59 ½ as long as the account is at least 5 years old – there is an exception for first time home purchase that allows to withdraw up to $10k before age 59 ½

Required distributions Must begin upon age 70 ½ No required distributions during your lifetime


How do you choose?

The biggest difference between the two types of IRAs is how the money is taxed. If you think you'll be in a lower tax bracket when you're making withdrawals from your IRA than you are when you're making contributions, then a traditional IRA would make more sense, assuming you can deduct your contributions.

On the flipside, if you think you'll be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, then a Roth IRA might make more sense so that you can have tax-free income in retirement and enjoy tax-free growth of your savings.

What if you have both?

It's common to have both types of IRA, which is totally fine. You can decide each year which one you want to contribute to, or you could split your contributions between both (remember the total amount can't exceed the annual limit).

Additionally, if you have traditional IRA money that you'd like to convert to a Roth IRA (for example, if you find yourself in a year with lower income than normal and want to go ahead and pay the taxes at a lower rate), you can do that at any time, up to the full value of your traditional IRA. Just remember that you cannot undo that decision, so if you convert your traditional IRA to Roth IRA and then the value of your account drops, you still have to pay tax on the value that the account was on the day your converted it.