Retirement Plans: Understanding the Basics


Retirement planning can be a daunting task, especially when faced with a multitude of options and confusing jargon. In this blog post, we will provide an overview of the different types of retirement accounts, including 401ks, IRAs, Roth IRAs, and Roth 401ks. By the end of this article, you will have a better understanding of the key differences between these accounts and be better equipped to make informed decisions about your retirement savings.

401ks and IRAs

Let’s start with the two main categories of retirement accounts: 401ks and IRAs. The 401k, introduced by Ted Benna in 1978, has become a popular choice for many employees. It offers the benefit of tax-deferred earnings, meaning you only pay taxes on the earnings when you withdraw them, typically at the age of 59 and a half or later. Additionally, contributing to a 401k lowers your taxable income, which can result in potential tax savings. The maximum contribution limit for a traditional 401k in 2020 is $19,500, with an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution allowed for individuals over the age of 50. However, it’s important to note that investment choices within a 401k are typically limited to what is offered by your employer.

On the other hand, an IRA (individual retirement account) provides more flexibility in terms of investment options. Contributions to a traditional IRA are tax-deductible, meaning they can lower your taxable income. The contribution limit for a traditional IRA in 2020 is $6,000, with an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution allowed for individuals over the age of 50. However, it’s worth noting that the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is subject to income limits. While traditional 401ks and traditional IRAs offer tax advantages during the accumulation phase, withdrawals from these accounts are subject to income tax.

Roth IRAs and Roth 401ks

The Roth IRA and Roth 401k differ from their traditional counterparts in the way they are taxed. Contributions to a Roth account are made with after-tax dollars, meaning you have already paid income tax on the money you contribute. However, the benefit is that the earnings in a Roth account grow tax-free, and qualified withdrawals are also tax-free. This makes Roth accounts an attractive option for individuals who anticipate being in a higher tax bracket during retirement. It’s important to note that there are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA, with the contribution limit being $6,000 for 2020 ($7,000 for individuals over 50). Similarly, the contribution limit for a Roth 401k is $19,500 ($26,000 for individuals over 50).

SEP IRAs and 403 Bs

For self-employed individuals, a SEP IRA (Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Account) is a viable option. It functions similarly to a traditional IRA but allows for higher contribution limits. In 2020, the maximum contribution limit for a SEP IRA is $57,000 or 25% of your income, whichever is lesser. It’s worth mentioning that individuals who work for non-profit organizations or educational institutions may have access to a 403b plan, which is similar to a traditional 401k. However, 403b plans may have some unique features, such as the ability to contribute more after 15 years of service.

Rollovers and Other Considerations

If you change jobs, you may need to decide what to do with your existing 401k. You have the option to roll it over into an IRA or a Roth IRA. It’s important to note that if you choose to convert a traditional 401k to a Roth format, you will owe taxes on the converted amount. However, if you roll over a traditional 401k to another traditional account, no taxes will be due at that time. Most employers have a process in place to help you transfer your old 401k to your new employer’s plan. Alternatively, you can roll over a 401k into an IRA or a Roth IRA using a brokerage platform that offers these account types.


In summary, understanding the different types of retirement accounts is crucial for effective retirement planning. The choice between a 401k, IRA, Roth IRA, or Roth 401k depends on factors such as your tax situation, investment preferences, and future income expectations. It’s important to consider your individual circumstances and consult with a financial advisor if needed. Remember, investing in your retirement is a long-term commitment, and making informed decisions now can greatly impact your financial future.

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