Maxing Out Your 401(k) vs. an IRA or Roth IRA

Author: Michael Harris

Arguably the most important financial decisions you will make revolve around your retirement accounts. Sure, buying a home is a big decision, but if you make the wrong retirement decisions now, having enough money to live on during your later years is nearly impossible. That's why you have to understand how your retirement accounts work and how to maximize their effectiveness. You don't have to be an expert, but you should aim to understand enough about your financial future to know where to direct your money.

Main Types of Accounts

There are two main types of retirement accounts (called tax-advantaged among professionals) – the 401(k) and the individual retirement account (IRA). Within each there is a Roth and a traditional option. A 401(k) plan most commonly is offered by your employer and often, your employer will match a part of your contributions: Most will contribute around 50 cents for every dollar you contribute up to about 6% of your salary.

There are many decisions that aren't cut and dried when it comes to retirement, but there's one that's hard to dispute: If your employer wants to give you free money, take all of it that you can! That 50 cents for every dollar you contribute is free. Even if your 401(k) isn't of the highest quality, you will make more money investing in a bad plan than in saying no to free cash.

Make sure you contribute to your 401(k) up to the point where your employer no longer gives you free money. (To find out more, see The Basics of a 401(k) Retirement Plan and 401(k) Plans: Roth or Regular?)

401(k): How Much Can I Put In?

In 2015, you can contribute $18,000 to your 401(k) and still receive the tax benefits. That's $1,500 per month. If you're age 50 or more, you can contribute $24,000. Most people can't afford to contribute that much, so the maximums may not affect you. If you contribute up to the company match, assuming it's 6%, you would have to make a six-figure salary before you have to worry about IRS maximums for annual contributions.

Even if you make $50,000 per year, you would have to contribute $6,000 to get the maximum employer match of $3,000, assuming that it's 6%. That means your contribution would be $500 per month. For many households, that doesn't leave much, if anything, left over to go outside of your 401(k).

How's Your Willpower?

Can you turn down a tasty cupcake or that third slice of pizza? If so, you probably have pretty good willpower – but does that extend to your finances? Having a 401(k) is nice because the money comes out of your paycheck before you can get your hands on it. If you're going to invest into an IRA, do you have the willpower to contribute even if there's some new toy you really want or money is tight this month? If you don't, stick with the 401(k). Financial advisers know that most people aren't saving enough (or they're not saving at all) so putting away something somewhere is better than nothing.

Tell Me About the IRA

If you're maxing our your 401(k) up to the company match and your willpower is impressive, it's time to talk about the IRA.

IRAs have (what feels like) an unlimited number of options. You're not strapped to the investment vehicles your employer offers in the 401(k), but that's only helpful if you have some investing knowledge. Before you put money into an IRA, you should either know enough to make wise choices or ask a financial professional for help.

You can contribute up to $5,500 in 2015 if you're under the age of 50. If you're 50 or older, you have a $6,500 contribution limit.

But this is where things start to get complicated. Assuming you're under 50 years old, you can contribute up to $18,000 to your 401(k) and another $5,500 to your IRA. If you have more than one 401(k) account, a Roth and traditional, for example, you still only have $18,000 to work with.

The same goes for your IRA. Your limit is $5,500 (or $6,500, if you are 50 or older), regardless of how many IRA accounts you have. If your income is high enough that you have to consider these limits when making contributions, you should know that you may only get a portion of the tax deduction – or no deduction at all, depending on your income. If you want to learn more, and you like reading huge amounts of Internal Revenue Service (IRS) verbiage, check out Publication 590-A for a more thorough explanation.

Enough, Already: What Do I Do?

If you fall into the average earning family, you probably won't bump into those limits and probably won't contribute more than your company can match. If you can, contribute up to your company match. Then, contribute up to the limit of an IRA. If you are considering a Roth IRA, keep in mind that there are income limitations that may affect the amount of your contribution or even whether or not you can put money in. To decide which type – traditional or Roth – you should contribute to, see What Is the Difference Between a Traditional and a Roth IRA? and Roth vs. Traditional IRA: Which Is Right for You?

If you still have money left over, go back and contribute more to your 401(k). And if you still have money left, put it in a regular brokerage account. Be aware, by the way, that regardless of the permitted contribution limits, you can't contribute more to your retirement accounts than you earn from your job(s) in a year.

The Bottom Line

We said at the outset that retirement decisions are the most important financial decisions you will make. For that reason, don't try and figure it all out on your own unless you have extensive financial knowledge. Many financial advisors will give you a free or low-cost review, and you probably have some attached to your company 401(k) who can help you, as well. Use the suggestions in this article as talking points with a financial professional, who can give you advice based on your specific circumstances.