What is a Roth 401(k)?

By Pam O’Brien · January 19, 2024 · 8 minute read

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What is a Roth 401(k)?

A Roth 401(k) is a type of retirement plan that may be offered by your employer. You contribute money from your paychecks directly to a Roth 401(k) to help save for retirement.

A Roth 401(k) is somewhat similar to a traditional 401(k), but the potential tax benefits are different.

Here’s what you need to know about a Roth 401(k) to help answer the question of what is a Roth 401(k)?, and to decide if it may be the right type of retirement account for you.

Roth 401(k) Definition

What is a Roth 401(k)? The plan combines some of the features of a traditional 401(k) and a Roth IRA.

Like a traditional 401(k), a Roth 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement account. Your employer may offer to match some of your Roth 401(k) contributions.

Like a Roth IRA, contributions to a Roth 401(k) are made using after-tax dollars, which means income tax is paid upfront on the money you contribute.

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How a Roth 401(k) Works

Contributions to a Roth 401(k) are typically made directly and automatically from your paycheck. Your employer may match your Roth 401(k) contributions up to a certain amount or percentage, depending on the employer and the plan.

Your contributions to a Roth 401(k) are taxed at the time you contribute them, and you pay income taxes on them. In general, your money grows in the account tax-free and withdrawals in retirement are also tax-free, as long as the account has been open at least five years.

Differences Between a Roth 401(k) and a Traditional 401(k)

While a Roth 401(k) shares some similarities to a traditional 401(k), there are some differences between the two plans that you should be aware of. Here is how a Roth 401(k) differs from a traditional 401(k):

•   Contributions to a Roth 401(k) are made with after-tax dollars and you pay taxes on them upfront. With a traditional 401(k), your contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, and you pay taxes on them later.

•   With a Roth 401(k), your take-home pay is a little less because you’re paying taxes on your contributions now. That typically lowers your tax bill for the year. With a traditional 401(k), your contributions are taken before taxes.

•   Your money generally grows tax-free in a Roth 401(k). And in retirement, you withdraw it tax-free, as long as the account is at least five years old and you are at least 59 ½. With a traditional 401(k), you pay taxes on your withdrawals in retirement at your ordinary income tax rate.

•   You can start withdrawing your Roth 401(k) money at age 59 ½ without penalty or taxes. However, you must have had the account for at least five years. With a traditional 401(k), you can withdraw your money at age 59 ½. There is no 5-year rule for a traditional 401(k).

Roth 401(k) Contribution Limits

A Roth 401(k) and a traditional 401(k) share the same contribution limits. Both plans allow for the same catch-up contributions for those 50 and older.

Here are the contribution limits for each type of plan.

Roth 401(k) Traditional 401(k)
2023 Contribution Limit $22,500 $22,500
2023 Contribution Limit for individuals 50 and older $30,000 $30,000
2024 Contribution Limit $23,000 $23,000
2024 Contribution Limit for individuals 50 and older $30,500 $30,500
2023 Contribution Limit on employer and employee contributions combined $66,000
($73,500 for individuals 50 and older)
$66,000
($73,500 for individuals 50 and older)
2024 Contribution Limit on employer and employee contributions combined $69,000
($76,500 for individuals 50 and older)
$69,000
($76,500 for individuals 50 and older)

Roth 401(k) Withdrawal Rules

When it comes to withdrawal rules, a Roth 401(k) is subject to the 5-year rule. Under this rule, an individual can start taking tax-free and penalty-free withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) at age 59 ½ only once they’ve had the account for at least five years.

This means that if you open a Roth 401(k) at age 56, you can’t take tax- or penalty-free withdrawals of your earnings at age 59 ½ the way you can with a traditional 401(k). Instead, you’d have to wait until age 61, when your Roth 401(k) is five years old.

Early Withdrawal Rules

It’s possible to take early withdrawals — meaning withdrawals taken before age 59 ½ or from an account that’s less than five years old — from a Roth 401(k), but it’s complicated. Early withdrawals are subject to taxes and a 10% penalty.

However, you may not owe taxes and penalties on the entire amount. Here’s how it typically works: You can withdraw as much as you’ve contributed to a Roth 401(k) without paying taxes or penalties because your contributions were made with after-tax dollars. In other words, you’ve already paid taxes on them. Any earnings you withdraw, though, are subject to taxes and penalties, and you’ll owe tax proportional to your earnings.

For example, if you have $150,000 in a Roth 401(k) and $130,000 of that amount is contributions and $20,000 is earnings, those $20,0000 in earnings are taxable gains, and they represent 13.3% of the account. Therefore, if you took an early withdrawal of $30,000, you would owe taxes on 13.3% of the amount to account for the gains, which is $3,990.


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Roth 401(k) RMDs

Previously, individuals with a Roth 401(k) had to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) starting at age 73. However, in 2024, as a stipulation of the SECURE 2.0 Act, RMDs will be eliminated for Roth accounts in employer retirement plans.

By comparison, traditional 401(k)s still require you to take RMDs starting at age 73.

Pros and Cons of a Roth 401(k)

A Roth 401(k) has advantages, but there are drawbacks to the plan as well. Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros

You can make tax-free withdrawals in retirement with a Roth 401(k).
This can be an advantage if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, since you’ll pay taxes on your Roth 401(k) contributions upfront when you’re in a lower tax bracket. Your money grows tax-free in the account.

Your current taxable income is reduced when you have a Roth 401(k).
Because Roth 401(k) contributions are made after taxes, your paycheck will typically be reduced. That lowers your tax bill for the year.

There are no longer RMDs for a Roth 401(k).
Because of the SECURE 2.0 Act, required minimum distributions will no longer be required for Roth 401(k)s as of 2024. With a traditional 401(k), you must take RMDs starting at age 73.

Early withdrawals of contributions in a Roth 401(k) are not taxed.
Because you’ve already paid taxes on your contributions, you can withdraw those contributions early without paying a penalty or taxes. However, if you withdraw earnings before age 59 ½, you will be subject to taxes on them.

Cons

Your Roth 401(k) account must be open for at least five years for penalty-free withdrawals.
Otherwise you may be subject to taxes and a 10% penalty on any earnings you withdraw if the account is less than five years old. This is something to consider if you are an older investor.

A Roth 401(k) will reduce your paycheck now.
Your take home pay will be smaller because you pay taxes on your contributions to a Roth 401(k) upfront. This could be problematic if you have many financial obligations or you’re struggling to pay your bills.

Is a Roth 401(k) Right for You?

If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, a Roth 401(k) may be right for you. It might make sense to pay taxes on the account now, while you are making less money and in a lower tax bracket.

However, if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, a traditional 401(k) might be a better choice since you’ll pay the taxes on withdrawals in retirement.

Your age can play a role as well. A Roth 401(k) might make sense for a younger investor, since they are likely to be earning less now than they may be later in their careers. That’s something to keep in mind as you choose a retirement plan to help reach your future financial goals.

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FAQ

How is a Roth 401(k) taken out of a paycheck?

Contributions to a Roth 401(k) are automatically deducted from your paycheck. Because contributions are made with after-tax dollars, meaning you pay taxes on them upfront, your paycheck will be lower.

What is the 5-year rule for a Roth 401(k)?

According to the 5-year rule for a Roth 401(k), the account must have been open for at least five years in order for an investor to take withdrawals of their Roth 401(k) earnings at age 59 ½ without being subject to taxes and a 10% penalty.

What happens to a Roth 401(k) when you quit?

When you quit a job, you can either keep your Roth 401(k) with your former employer, transfer it to a new Roth 401(k) with your new employer, or roll it over into a Roth IRA.

There are some factors to consider when choosing which option to take. For instance, if you leave the plan with your former employer, you can no longer contribute to it. If you are able to transfer your Roth 401(k) to a plan offered by your new employer, your money will be folded into the new plan and you will choose from the investment options offered by that plan. If you roll over your Roth 401(k) into a Roth IRA, you will be in charge of choosing and making investments with your money.

Do I need to report a Roth 401(k) on my taxes?

Because your contributions to a Roth 401(k) are made with after tax dollars and aren’t considered tax deductible, you generally don’t need to report them on your taxes. And when you take qualified distributions from a Roth 401(k) they are not considered taxable income and do not need to be reported on your taxes. However, it’s best to consult with a tax professional about your particular situation.


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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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