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Gene Walden
Senior Finance Editor

CLIENT EDUCATION

The power of pairing your 401(k) with a Roth IRA

12/22/2020
By Gene Walden, Senior Finance Editor | 12/22/2020

If you already contribute to a 401(k) plan at work, you are taking a big step toward saving for your retirement. But many of the nearly 100 million Americans who participate in a 401(k) may still fall short of the funds they’ll need to finance a comfortable retirement.1

By also contributing to a Roth IRA in addition to your 401(k), you may be able to not only supplement your retirement savings, but also provide more flexibility in addressing your financial situation during and after your working years.

A 401(k) can be an excellent vehicle for retirement savings – particularly if your company offers a matching or partially matching contribution. Adding a Roth IRA account to your retirement portfolio would provide some benefits not available with a 401(k). Typically, 401(k) contributions are automatically withdrawn from your salary each pay day and deposited in your account. Your traditional 401(k) is funded with pre-tax contributions, which typically lower your current year’s taxable income, but your withdrawals in retirement would be taxed. On the other hand, if you have a Roth 401(k), your contributions would not lower your taxable income, but qualified distributions would be tax-free.

Why move money to a Roth IRA?

While a Roth IRA doesn’t provide a tax benefit for the current year, any earnings on your contributions would grow tax-deferred, and you would have the benefit of tax-free withdrawals later if you meet the requirements for a qualified distribution. There are several requirements that make a distribution “qualified,” which are found in detail in IRS Publication 590.

While you wouldn’t be able to contribute as much to a Roth IRA as you would to a 401(k), over a period of years, your contributions could add up to a nice supplement to your 401(k) savings.

For the 2020 and 2021 tax years, the maximum contribution you could make to a Roth would be the lesser of $6,000 or your taxable compensation. If you’re 50 or over, you can contribute a total of $7,000.  Note that these limits apply to your combined contributions to traditional and Roth IRAs.  

Even if you contribute the maximum amount to a 401(k), you can still contribute to a Roth IRA in the same year, unless your income exceeds the eligibility limit. (For income restrictions, see 2020-2021 IRA contribution rules and limits.)

While the primary benefit of adding a Roth IRA to your investment arsenal is the potential for building a bigger retirement plan, there are some other benefits to pairing a Roth IRA with your 401(k):

Roth IRA funds are available for other uses. 

Even before you turn 59 ½ you can use your contributions to a Roth IRA for other life milestones, such as educational funding for your children, a down payment on a home, or to pay for an unexpected family emergency. In fact, contributions (not earnings) can be withdrawn from your Roth at any time for any reason, federal tax and penalty free. You can also withdraw your earnings from your Roth IRA, but you must meet certain requirements in order to have a federally tax-free “qualified” distribution.  If you don’t meet these requirements, your non-qualified distribution may be taxable and subject to an early withdrawal penalty unless you qualify for an exception. For more detail review IRS Publication 590

There are no upper age restrictions on contributing to a Roth IRA. 

You can continue to contribute to a Roth IRA regardless of your age, as long as you have sufficient earned income to cover the contribution.

There are no required minimum annual distributions with a Roth IRA. 

While you may have to begin taking minimum distributions the year you turn 72 from a traditional IRA and a 401(k) (unless you’re still working for the company and you are not a 5% or greater owner of the company), with a Roth IRA, you are never required to take a distribution during your lifetime. Although your beneficiaries are subject to Required Minimum Distributions, they would typically be a tax-free “qualified” distribution if you established your Roth IRA at least 5 years before your death. (See: The 5-year wait: One more reason to open a Roth IRA now)

Investment choices

The investment options available within an employer plan are generally determined by the employer and will vary from a few to unlimited. With a Roth IRA, you may have the flexibility to choose how you want your assets invested to best fit your financial goals.

You have the flexibility to choose between taxable and tax-free withdrawals. 

If you have both a Roth IRA and a 401(k), you potentially have more control over your tax situation (particularly prior to age 72). For instance, if you want to minimize your taxes during a particular year, you may be able to take more money out of your Roth IRA. Contributions can be withdrawn from your Roth IRA anytime and, if your account has been open for at least five years, your earnings may also be withdrawn tax-free after you turn 59 ½. Once you are subject to required minimum distributions from your 401(k), then you could limit your withdrawals from your Roth IRA to facilitate additional tax-deferred and potentially tax-free growth on those dollars.

Advantages and disadvantages of rolling over your 401(k) to a Roth IRA

Rolling over your 401(k) to a Roth IRA is one of multiple options available for your retirement plan – including leaving your assets where they are. By leaving your money in a 401(k), you typically wouldn’t need to be concerned with administrative work since that is handled by the employer. Your 401(k) also may have loan provisions which you may find attractive, and the 10% early withdrawal penalty doesn’t apply to distributions if you separate from service with the employer in the year you are age 55 or older.

Before making a move, you should weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a 401(k) with those of a Roth IRA.

To qualify for a rollover, you must either be 59 ½ or completely separated from your employer, unless you qualify for a special exemption such as disability.

When you do the rollover, you would be responsible for paying income taxes on the amount of pretax 401(k) assets you roll over to the Roth IRA. For that reason, if your employer’s plan allows it, you may want to consider making a series of rollovers over a period of years rather than in one lump sum, which might put you in a higher tax bracket depending on the amount of assets in your account.

Other considerations, such as rolling over more in low income years and less in high income years, might also play into your rollover tax strategy. You should seek professional tax guidance to determine if this would be an appropriate option for you. On the other hand, if you leave your assets in your 401(k) account, you will continue to benefit from tax deferral. In addition, if your 401(k) includes stock of your employer, there may be other tax benefits available.

By moving the money to a Roth IRA, you would no longer be subject to the required minimum distribution rules of the 401(k), and you would be free to take your money out at your own discretion. In addition, if you roll over multiple 401(k)s, you may be able to have all of your retirement savings in one place. This may make your retirement account easier to manage and monitor progress, and if you are working with a financial representative, you may have access to professional guidance.

The rollover option may be particularly beneficial for individuals who are already retired. Although you may not be eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA if you have no earned income, you may still be able to rollover as much money as you want from your 401(k) to your Roth IRA. If you have a traditional 401(k), you would need to pay taxes on the pretax assets you roll over, but you would typically owe no taxes if you have a Roth 401(k). Keep in mind, if you are subject to required minimum distributions in the year you roll 401(k) funds over to a Roth IRA, you must take the distribution before rolling over your assets.

After the money is transferred to your Roth IRA, any investments within the account would typically be tax-deferred and would be withdrawn tax-free if you meet the requirements for a “qualified distribution.” You may also have the other benefits of a Roth IRA, such as the flexibility of a wider selection of investment options, and more control over when you withdraw your money and how you use it.

When considering moving your retirement assets, it’s important to review your needs and circumstances along with the possible benefits. Consider factors such as investment options and fees, the services offered by your plans and providers, the flexibility you may have or not have with distributions, and even creditor protections. For more information, see Making Sense of Rollovers and Transfers.

No 401(k) at work? Start your own tax-advantaged retirement savings plan

If you don’t have a 401(k) at work, you can get started now investing some of your earnings in a Thrivent Mutual Funds traditional IRA or Roth IRA

If you have your own business, you may be interested in opening a Simplified Employment Pension Plan (SEP) or a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE), which offer tax-deferred savings benefits similar to a 401(k).


American Benefits Council, 401(k) Fast Facts, October 2017

The information provided is not intended as a source for tax, legal or accounting advice. Please consult with a legal and/or tax professional for specific information regarding your individual situation.

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