What the Heck is the Difference Between a 401(k) and an IRA, Anyway??

Both a 401(k) and an IRA are great retirement vehicles, but here’s the deal: there’s no one way to get to your dream Endgame. Sure, the 401(k) has long been touted as the best way to save, but it may not be for you! Time to rethink conventional wisdom and think for yourself. First, you gotta know the difference!

A 401(k) is a retirement plan established by employers. If you’re at a company that has one, you can make contributions before the money hits your paycheck, and it’s invested in an account with your name on it. People get really excited by a 401(k) because sometimes an employer can make a matching contribution to your account, which is like getting free money. One of the most awesome parts of 401(k)s is that any money you contribute goes in before taxes and grows until you need it. You do pay tax when you take the money out. Don’t think it’s tax-free. (If you take it out before you’re 59—the number that the IRS came up with—you have to pay penalty fees as well.) So while you might be bummed to be taking home less dough, you’re giving that money to Future You instead of Uncle Sam.

BUT I want to say upfront that it is not gospel that you should invest in a 401(k). To clarify, that doesn’t mean it’s not for you; just know that you don’t have to participate just because a 401(k) is offered to you. If your employer doesn’t match contributions, or if there are high fees involved, or if the plan doesn’t come with the right investment choices for you, you might want to rethink where you put your money. In this scenario, you can and should take control and plan for retirement yourself—and choose another option or options for retirement like an IRA in addition to or instead of a 401(k).

A 401(k) is right for you if:

  1. Your employer matches your contributions.
  2. You need something easy or you won’t save at all.
  3. You want to go crazy with your contributions.
  4. You want to get the benefits from your employer match and rollover whatever you earned into an IRA/Roth IRA when you leave. It’s all yours to move over without penalty.
  5. You might need to borrow from yourself. You can take out up to $50,000 (or 50% of your balance, whichever is less) if you need it for an emergency and have no penalty if you pay it back within five years.

IRA, on the other hand, stands for “individual retirement account.” You can open one with money you don’t pay taxes on until you use the money when you retire (59 is the earliest you take it out without a penalty), the same as with a 401(k). But unlike a 401(k), an IRA is not offered through an employer; you set it up yourself, and you keep that account no matter where you work throughout your career.

So how do you fund one? You can do this all at once, or at any time up to April 15th after the year for which you’re making the contribution. For example, you have until April 15, 2016, to make a contribution for 2015. Still, if you can, fund your IRA on a regular basis—ideally, monthly. To max out an IRA in a given year, this would be a monthly contribution of $458.33 ($5,500 divided by 12). If this is too much, pick a smaller number; when the end of the year rolls around, you can still add to the account to get to the maximum $5,500 contribution, if you have the money.

An IRA is right for you if:

  1. You are self-employed or freelance.
  2. You have already maxed out your 401(k) (you can have both, and max both out if you have the money to do so!).
  3. You want to be able to withdraw your money more easily. The rules for withdrawal are less stringent than for a 401(k). If you are using the money for medical expenses, to buy a house, or for educational expenses, you can skirt around the 10% penalty fee.

Note, the one con to starting an IRA: You are limited by the amount you can contribute each year. Once you max it out—as you should try to do annually—the show’s over until next year. So having an IRA alone isn’t going to catapult you into retirement rock-stardom. But it’s a solid start!


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