Roth IRA vs. Traditional IRA

Traditional and Roth IRAs differ mainly in how and when your money is taxed.
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An IRA is one of the most common retirement savings accounts, and when opening one, you'll need to choose between two main types: Roth or traditional.

The difference between Roth and traditional IRAs

The main difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA is how and when you get a tax break. Contributions to traditional IRAs are tax-deductible, but withdrawals in retirement are taxable as income. In comparison, contributions to Roth IRAs are not tax-deductible, but the withdrawals in retirement are tax-free.

And while you can have both types of IRAs, deciding to contribute to a traditional IRA vs. a Roth IRA might come down to other differences between the accounts.

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Roth vs. traditional IRA

Here are the other main differences between traditional and Roth IRAs:

Roth IRA

Traditional IRA

Annual contribution limit

$6,500 in 2023 ($7,500 if age 50 and older). For 2024, the limit is $7,000 ($8,000 if age 50 or older). The contribution limit for IRAs is a combined limit.

Income

Ability to contribute is phased out at higher incomes.

Ability to deduct contributions can be phased out depending on income and access to an employer retirement plan.

Tax benefits

No immediate tax benefit for contributing; distributions in retirement are tax-free.

If deductible, contributions reduce taxable income in the year they are made. Distributions in retirement are taxed as ordinary income.

Early withdrawal options

Roth IRAs allow contributions to be withdrawn at any time, but earnings distributed before age 59 1/2 may be subject to a 10% penalty and income taxes, unless you meet an exception. There is also a five-year holding rule for Roth IRA investment earnings.

Unless you meet an exception, distributions from a traditional IRA before age 59 1/2 are subject to taxes and a 10% penalty. This applies to both contributions and investment earnings.

Distributions in retirement

No required minimum distributions.

There are required minimum distributions once you reach a certain age. That age was previously 72; in 2023, it increased to 73 and in 2033, it will increase again to 75.

Roth vs. traditional IRA: How to choose

Most advice on the Roth IRA vs. traditional IRA topic begins with a question: Do you think your tax rate will be higher or lower in the future?

If you can answer that question definitively, you can theoretically choose the type of IRA that will give you the biggest tax savings: If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, consider a Roth IRA and its delayed tax benefit. If you expect lower rates in retirement, consider a traditional IRA and its upfront tax advantage.

But it's hard to anticipate what your tax rate will be in retirement, particularly if you're decades away from leaving the workforce. Fortunately, there are other ways to determine whether a Roth or traditional IRA is best for you.

First things first: Check your IRA eligibility

The IRS rules on IRA eligibility may make the Roth vs. traditional decision for you. Your income will determine:

  • If you're eligible to contribute to a Roth.

  • How much of your contribution to a traditional IRA you can deduct from this year’s taxes. Traditional IRA deductibility is restricted only if you or your spouse has access to a workplace savings plan like a 401(k).

Traditional IRA income limits for 2023 and 2024

These income limits apply only if you (or your spouse) has a retirement plan at work. The limits are based on modified adjusted gross income, which is your adjusted gross income with some deductions added back in.

Filing status

2023 traditional IRA income limit

2024 traditional IRA income limit

Deduction limit

Single or head of household (and covered by retirement plan at work)

$73,000 or less.

$77,000 or less.

Full deduction.

More than $73,000, but less than $83,000.

More than $77,000, but less than $87,000.

Partial deduction.

$83,000 or more.

$87,000 or more.

No deduction.

Married filing jointly (and covered by retirement plan at work)

$116,000 or less.

$123,000 or less.

Full deduction.

More than $116,000, but less than $136,000.

More than $123,000, but less than $143,000.

Partial deduction.

$136,000 or more.

$143,000 or more.

No deduction.

Married filing jointly (spouse covered by retirement plan at work)

$218,000 or less.

$230,000 or less.

Full deduction.

More than $218,000, but less than $228,000.

More than $230,000, but less than $240,000.

Partial deduction.

$228,000 or more.

$240,000 or more.

No deduction.

Married filing separately (you or spouse covered by retirement plan at work)

Less than $10,000.

Less than $10,000.

Partial deduction.

$10,000 or more.

$10,000 or more.

No deduction.

Roth IRA income limits for 2023 and 2024

These income limits are based on modified adjusted gross income, which is your adjusted gross income with some deductions added back in.

Filing status

2023-2024 Income range

Maximum annual contribution

Single, head of household or married filing separately (if you didn't live with spouse during year)

  • Less than $138,000 in 2023.

  • Less than $146,000 in 2024.

  • $6,500 ($7,500 if 50 or older) in 2023.

  • $7,000 ($8,000 if 50 or older) in 2024.

  • $138,000 up to $153,000 in 2023.

  • $146,00 up to $161,000 in 2024.

Contribution is reduced.

  • $153,000 or more in 2023.

  • $161,000 or more in 2024.

No contribution allowed.

Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)

  • Less than $218,000 in 2023.

  • Less than $230,000 in 2024.

  • $6,500 per person ($7,500 if 50 or older) in 2023.

  • $7,000 per person ($8,000 if 50 or older) in 2024.

  • $218,000 to $228,000 in 2023.

  • $230,000 to $240,000 in 2024.

Contribution is reduced

  • $228,000 or more in 2023.

  • $240,000 or more in 2024.

No contribution allowed

Married filing separately (if you lived with spouse at any time during year)

Less than $10,000

Contribution is reduced

$10,000 or more

No contribution allowed

» Want a Roth but don’t qualify? Read how a backdoor Roth IRA might allow you to get one anyway.

Worth noting: You can contribute to a traditional and a Roth IRA during the same year, as long as the total amount does not exceed the maximum allowable contribution limit: $7,000 in 2024 ($8,000 if age 50 or older).

» Our picks for the best Roth IRAs and best traditional IRAs

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Track your retirement savings balances in one place by linking your accounts.

Why the Roth IRA works for many savers

Here’s why it may be better to go with the Roth vs. a traditional IRA, for those who qualify.

1. Early withdrawal rules are much more flexible with a Roth. Although early withdrawals from retirement accounts are generally discouraged, if you do have to break the seal on the cookie jar, the Roth allows you to withdraw contributions — the money you put into the account, not earnings — at any time without having to pay income taxes. Note that if you do withdraw earnings early, that money may be taxed and an additional penalty may be applied.

Dip into a traditional IRA before age 59 1/2 and the IRS isn’t as lenient: You’ll likely be socked with a hefty 10% early withdrawal penalty and owe taxes at your current income tax rate on the money you take out, even if you only remove your contributions. There are a few exceptions to this rule — see our page on traditional IRA withdrawal rules for details — but you’ll need to proceed much more carefully than you would with a Roth.

2. The Roth has fewer restrictions for retirees. Traditional IRAs require you to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) at certain ages. That age was previously 72; it increased to 73 in 2023 and will increase again to 75 in 2033.

Unless you’re inheriting the Roth IRA, Roths have no required minimum distribution rules: You’re free to let your savings stay put in the account to continue to grow tax-free as long as you live.

3. Unless you’re an extremely disciplined saver, you’ll end up with more after-tax money in a Roth IRA. Yes, both types of IRAs offer a tax break. But there’s an oft-overlooked benefit to the way the Roth treats taxes: Because your tax break doesn’t arrive until retirement (via tax-free withdrawals), you won’t be tempted to spend it before then. With a traditional IRA, the tax benefit is delivered annually when you file your taxes, which makes it easy to fritter the money you saved on taxes away on any number of things.

To come out even in terms of after-tax savings, you have to be disciplined enough to invest the traditional IRA tax savings you get every year back into your retirement savings. If that seems unlikely to happen, then you’d be better off saving in a Roth, where you’ll arrive at retirement with more after-tax savings.

4. Funding a Roth in conjunction with your 401(k) provides tax diversification. The classic 401(k) plan offered by most employers provides the same tax benefits as a traditional IRA. Although some workplaces offer a Roth 401(k) option for employees, if yours doesn’t, diverting some of those retirement savings dollars into a Roth IRA will give you more options for managing your tax burden in retirement.

5. Roth IRAs can be used for estate planning. Whatever money you don't use, you can pass to your beneficiaries tax-free in an inherited Roth IRA.

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Making the call

The sole advantage of a traditional IRA for most people is the upfront tax break. And that can be a huge advantage for high earners and a great incentive for people who might otherwise skip saving for retirement. In the short term, it effectively makes it “cheaper” to save for retirement, since the tax savings each year reduces the cost of your contributions.

But you will eventually have to face that tax burden in retirement, which means unless you really need that upfront tax break, it’s hard to go wrong with a Roth IRA.

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