Roth 401K versus Traditional 401K

The following is a staff writer post from MikeS and it was supported by Genworth.  MikeS is a married father of 2.  So, with the cat, he ranks number 5 in the house.  He loves numbers and helping people. Please leave any questions or comments below for either Mike or Crystal.

I am happy to say that I am increasing my retirement contributions starting in January.  As I outlined previously, I was changing my company benefits for next year.  With those changes, I also analyzed how my take-home pay was going to be impacted and whether I needed to adjust my federal income-tax withholdings.  Since, I was setting aside a larger amount of money pre-tax via the HSA; I was able to increase my deduction number.

This has enabled me to increase my retirement plan contributions so I can afford to retire quicker or use my accounts for something like annuities in the future.  My first thought was simply to increase my 401k contribution by 1%.  But then I realized that I had another option, I could contribute to my Roth 401k.  So which one to choose?  This presented a problem, a nice problem to have for sure.

The Difference Between a Roth 401k and Traditional 401k

The main difference between the Roth and traditional is the tax treatment.  A Roth 401k contribution is subject to taxation before you invest it.  From there, the contribution and any growth you will be able to receive tax-free in retirement.  The traditional 401k contribution is pre-tax; however the contribution and any growth are treated as taxable income upon withdrawal during retirement.

The other notable difference is the ability to access the money contributed to a Roth 401k without penalty.  With the Roth 401k, 5 years after making a contribution, you can withdraw that contribution amount without penalty.  You can only withdraw the amount you put in, not any of the gains.  In contrast, if you withdraw anything from the traditional 401k prior to retirement, you are subject to a 10% penalty, along with ordinary income taxes.

My Choice

At first, I will be honest; I didn’t put much thought into it.  When January rolled around I was just going to up my traditional 401k contribution percentage by 1 and be done with it.  However, I began to rethink that thought.

For starters, I have already maxed out my employer’s contribution.  The match is 100% up to 6%.  They also contribute a flat 2% on top of that, regardless of whether you contribute to the plan or not.  The extra 2% contribution essentially takes the place of a traditional pension.  So, I gain nothing, in terms of matching, by contributing to the traditional 401k.

The second thought I had was in regards to my current tax bracket.  I currently am in the 15% marginal tax bracket, with a ways to go before I cross into the 25% bucket.  So, I began thinking, what bracket am I likely to be in upon retirement.  I envision my deductions will be much lower if not the straight standard deduction.  Other than my wife and I, there probably will be no other dependents.  I also will probably have more taxable income.  Thinking through all of this, I began to think the probability of being in a higher tax bracket at retirement was high.

Being a numbers guy, I decided to see what the impact would be over the course of 30 years.  I did a basic analysis on how the 1% contribution will grow over time and how much the taxes would be in 30 years.  In the end, I can save more on taxes in the long-term, by paying some now on the contributions.  Why is that you might ask?  Since I expect to pay more than 15% in taxes during retirement, it makes sense to pay the lower rate on the contributions now, rather than pay the higher rate on the contributions and gains in the future.

Bottom Line

As always, you have to know your situation and evaluate your options.  Had I just went ahead an increased my traditional 401k contribution without any additional thought, I likely would have cost myself money in the future.  When you make informed decisions, you are much more likely to make the correct one.

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12 Comments
  1. I am pretty familiar with a regular Roth, but don’t know much about Roth 401K’s. Thanks for the information. It seems like a good idea to take advantage of your low tax bracket. I believe taxes are only going to go up with time.
    Kim recently posted..One Year After Paying Off Credit Card DebtMy Profile

    • That’s the same conclusion I came to Kim. Glad I could provide some useful information.

  2. I do not have access to a 401k as I am a public school teacher. The plan we have is a 403b which is similar to a 401k. The big difference is that it takes the place of a traditional pension and our contributions are mandated by the State Retirement System.
    Paul @ The Frugal Toad recently posted..More Ways to Stretch Your Retirement IncomeMy Profile

    • I guess there is some benefit to having your contributions be an automatic amount. I’m sure it forces many people to contribute who otherwise might not.

  3. I can’t contribute to my old 401k anymore, so we heavily are relying on each of our Roth IRA’s. May be looking into a SEP IRA soon though.
    Crystal recently posted..Cupcake Makeover $50 Holiday GiveawayMy Profile

    • I don’t think you miss contributing to a 401k. :-) If you are, it means you are working for the man.

  4. I am a huge fan of my company’s Roth 401(k)! I absolutely love that after I max out my Roth IRA I still have another Roth option. That will definitely pay off for me down the road!
    Lance @ Money Life and More recently posted..Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard Review – $440 Valued BonusMy Profile

    • I was pretty happy when they added the option a few years back. It makes investing in one that much simpler. I’m all for maximizing my money, but I also like doing it in the simplest manner.

  5. Since I’m currently self-employed, the 401k option is not available to me. I have a general investment account, and I’ve been toying with the idea of opening a Roth IRA. For the moment, however, I’m going to leave the money where it is. The possibility of being in a higher tax bracket upon retirement wasn’t something I had really thought about. Thanks for pointing out that possibility!
    Caitlin recently posted..American Express: Go Ahead and Leave Home Without It?My Profile

    • Glad I could help Caitlin. The thought to look at the Roth was triggered when I saw a comment someone made on another blog. They were talking that people often stretch to save on taxes immediately which might cost them more money in the future. That triggered my analysis. I’m glad I saw it.

  6. I think you made the right decision here. Since you’re expecting to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, then taking the hit now while you’re in a lower one will save you. For me, I like to take the hit upfront and I may even do so at the risk of losing a few dollars in potential growth (if I thought I would be in the same bracket, for instance).
    Khaleef @ Faithful With a Few recently posted..Dealing With A Job That You HateMy Profile

  7. Thanks Khaleef. Based upon the facts I have today it looks right. It’s something that I will have to keep an eye on to make sure it continues to be the right decision. I like having the mix of tax treatments. I think of it as tax diversification.

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