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Both 401(k)s and IRAs have valuable tax benefits, and you can contribute to both at the same time. The main difference between 401(k)s and IRAs is that employers offer 401(k)s, but individuals open IRAs (using brokers or banks). IRAs typically offer more investments; 401(k)s allow higher annual contributions.
If the IRA vs. 401(k) comparison is weighing on you, here’s the quick answer:
Here's more on the pros and cons of the IRA vs. 401(k) question:
» Want to turn a 401(k) into an IRA? See our guide to
Hats off to you if you have the means to max out both a 401(k) and a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. If not, this IRA vs. 401(k) road map will help you prioritize your dollars.
Your first step depends on whether your employer matches your contributions to your workplace savings account.
1. Contribute enough to earn the full match. Check your employee benefits handbook. If you see that your employer matches any portion of the money you contribute to the company 401(k) plan, do not bypass this opportunity to collect your free money.
A company matching program is one of the biggest benefits of a 401(k). It means that your employer contributes money to your account based on the amount of money you save, up to a limit. A common arrangement is for an employer to match a portion of the amount you save up to the first 6% of your earnings.
Even if a 401(k) has limited investment choices or higher-than-average fees, carve out enough money from your paycheck to get the full company match, as it’s effectively a guaranteed return on those dollars. Also note that employer contributions don’t count toward the .
2. Next, contribute as much as you’re allowed to an IRA. Depending on which type of IRA you choose — Roth or traditional — you can get your tax break now or down the road when you start withdrawing funds for retirement.
» Stuck between the two? See our comparison
3. After maxing out a traditional IRA or Roth IRA, revisit your 401(k). Even after you’ve gotten the employer match — and even if your investment choices are limited, which is one of the main drawbacks of workplace retirement plans — a 401(k) is still beneficial because of the tax deduction.
The money you contribute to a 401(k) will lower your taxable income for the year dollar for dollar. And don’t forget about the added benefit of tax-deferred growth on investment gains.
1. Contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA first. Not all companies match their employees' retirement account contributions. When that’s the case, choosing an IRA — and contributing up to the max — is generally a better first option.
Why start with an IRA? One of the biggest benefits of an IRA is that it offers access to a virtually unlimited number and type of investments, giving you much more control over your investment options: You can bargain-shop for low-cost index mutual funds and ETFs instead of being restricted to the offerings in a workplace retirement account, and you can avoid paying the administrative fees that many 401(k) plans charge.
2. After maxing out IRA benefits, contribute to your 401(k). Here again, the tax deferral benefit of a company-sponsored plan is a good reason to direct dollars into a 401(k) after you’ve funded a traditional or Roth IRA.
Only in the worst cases — a retirement account with truly crummy, high-fee investment choices and high administrative costs — would it be advisable to completely avoid your company plan.
Remember that if your income passes certain thresholds and you or your spouse put money into a workplace plan, your ability to deduct traditional IRA contributions may be reduced or eliminated. If you aren’t eligible for a traditional IRA deduction, you may still be eligible for a Roth IRA. Also, even if you’re not eligible to deduct your traditional IRA contribution, you can make nondeductible contributions and still benefit from tax-deferred investment growth. And it's possible to convert an IRA to a Roth IRA by using a so-called .
For the complete list, check out our round-up of .