Roth IRA vs Traditional IRA: Main Differences, Explained

By Pam O’Brien · March 28, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Roth IRA vs Traditional IRA: Main Differences, Explained

Two of the most popular types of IRA are the traditional IRA and the Roth IRA. It’s helpful to understand the difference between Roth vs. traditional IRA when saving for retirement.

Traditional IRAs are funded with pre-tax dollars, while a Roth IRA is funded with after-tax contributions. The same annual contribution limits apply to both types of IRAs, including catch-up contributions for savers aged 50 and older. For 2024, the annual contribution limit is $7,000, with an additional $1,000 allowed in catch-up contributions. For 2023, the annual contribution limit is $6,500, with an additional $1,000 allowed in catch-up contributions.

Whether it makes sense to open a traditional IRA vs Roth IRA can depend on eligibility and the types of tax advantages you’re seeking. With Roth IRAs, for example, you get the benefit of tax-free distributions in retirement but only taxpayers within certain income limits are eligible to open one of these accounts. Traditional IRAs, on the other hand, offer tax-deductible contributions, with fewer eligibility requirements.

In weighing which is better, traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA, it’s important to consider what you need each plan to do for you.

Key Differences Between Roth and Traditional IRAs

When choosing which type of retirement account to open, it’s helpful to fully understand the difference between Roth vs. traditional IRA options. Here are the main differences between the two types.

Eligibility

Anyone who earns taxable income can open a traditional IRA. Previous rules that prohibited individuals from opening or contributing to a traditional IRA once they reached a certain age no longer apply.

Roth IRAs also have no age restriction—individuals can make contributions at any age as long as they have earned income for the year.

Roth IRAs, however, have a key restriction that a traditional IRA does not: An individual must earn below a certain income limit to be able to contribute. In 2024, that limit is $146,000 for single people (people earning more than $146,000 but less than $161,000 can contribute a reduced amount). For those individuals who are married and file taxes jointly, the limit is $230,000 to make a full contribution and between $230,000 to $240,000 for a reduced amount.

In 2023, that limit is $138,000 for single people (people earning more than $138,000 but less than $153,000 can contribute a reduced amount). For those individuals who are married and file taxes jointly, the limit is $218,000 to make a full contribution and between $218,000 to $228,000 for a reduced amount.

The ceilings are based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI).

đź’ˇ Quick Tip: How much does it cost to open an IRA account? Often there are no fees to open an IRA, but you typically pay investment costs for the securities in your portfolio.

Taxes

With a traditional IRA, individuals can deduct the money they’ve put in (aka contributions) on their tax returns, which lowers their taxable income in the year they contribute. Come retirement, investors will pay income taxes at their ordinary income tax rate when they withdraw funds. This is called tax deferral. For individuals who expect to be in a lower tax bracket upon retirement, a traditional IRA might be preferable.

The amount of contributions a person can deduct depends on their modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), tax filing status, and whether they have a retirement plan through their employer. This chart, based on information from the IRS, illustrates the deductibility of traditional contributions for the 2023 tax year.

2023 Filing Status

If You ARE Covered by a Retirement Plan at Work

If You ARE NOT Covered by a Plan at Work

Single or Head of Household You can deduct up to the full contribution limit if your MAGI is $73,000 or less. You can deduct up to the full contribution limit, regardless of income.
Married Filing Jointly You can deduct up to the full contribution limit if your MAGI is $116,000 or less. You can deduct up to the full contribution limit, regardless of income, if your spouse is also not covered by a plan at work.

If your spouse is covered by a plan at work, you can deduct up to the full contribution limit if your combined MAGI is $218,000 or less.

Married Filing Separately You’re allowed a partial deduction if your MAGI is less than $10,000. You’re allowed a partial deduction if your MAGI is less than $10,000.

With a Roth IRA, on the other hand, contributions aren’t tax-deductible. But individuals won’t pay any taxes when they withdraw money they’ve contributed at retirement, or when they withdraw earnings, as long as they’re at least 59 ½ years old and have had the account for at least five years.

For people who expect to be in the same tax bracket or a higher one upon retirement—for example, because of high earnings from a business, investments, or continued work—a Roth IRA might be the more appealing choice.

Contributions

Contributions are the same for both Roth and traditional IRAs. The IRS effectively levels the playing field for individuals saving for retirement by setting the same maximum contribution limit across the board.

For the 2024 tax year the IRA contribution limit is $7,000, with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution for those age 50 or older. Individuals have until the April tax filing deadline to make IRA contributions for the current tax year. For instance, to fund an IRA for the 2024 tax year, investors have until the April 2025 tax filing deadline to do so.

For the 2023 tax year the IRA contribution limit is $6,500, with an extra $1,000 contribution for those age 50 or older. Individuals have until the April tax filing deadline to make IRA contributions for the current tax year. To fund an IRA for the 2023 tax year, investors have until the April 2024 tax filing deadline to do so.

As mentioned above, there is no age limit to making contributions to a Roth IRA or a Traditional IRA. As long as a person has income for the year, they can keep adding money to either type of IRA account, up to the limit.

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Withdrawals

Generally with IRAs, the idea is to leave the money untouched until retirement. The IRS has set up the tax incentives in such a way that promotes this strategy. That said, it is possible to withdraw money from an IRA before retirement.

With a Roth IRA, an individual can withdraw the money they’ve contributed (but not any money earned). They can also withdraw up to $10,000 in the earnings they’ve made on investing that money without paying penalties as long as they’re using the money to pay for a first home (under certain conditions).

With a traditional IRA, an investor will generally pay a 10% penalty tax if they take out funds before age 59 ½ . There are some exceptions to this rule, as well.

These are the IRS exceptions for early withdrawal penalties:

•   Disability or death of the IRA owner. In this case, disability means “total and permanent disability of the participant/IRA owner.”

•   Qualified higher education expenses for you, a spouse, child or grandchild.

•   Qualified homebuyer. First-time homebuyers can withdraw up to $10,000 for a down payment on a home.

•   Unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

Health insurance premiums paid while unemployed.


💡 Quick Tip: Before opening any investment account, consider what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you’re not sure, start with more conservative investments, and then adjust your portfolio as you learn more.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

The IRS doesn’t necessarily allow investors to leave money in your IRA indefinitely. Traditional IRAs are subject to required minimum distributions, or RMDs. That means an individual must start taking a certain amount of money from their account (and paying income taxes on it) when they reach age 73—whether they need the funds or not. Distributions are based on life expectancy and your account balance.

If an individual doesn’t take a distribution, the government may charge a 25% penalty on the amount they didn’t withdraw.

For those who, in their retirement planning, don’t want to be forced to start withdrawing from their retirement savings at a specific age, a Roth IRA may be preferable. Roth IRAs have no RMDs. That means a person can withdraw the money as needed, without fear of triggering a penalty. Roth IRAs might also be a vehicle for passing on assets to your heirs or beneficiaries, since you can leave them untouched throughout your life and eventual death if you choose to.

For a helpful at-a-glance comparison of all the differences between a Roth vs traditional IRA, this chart looks at each guideline individually.

Roth IRA

Traditional IRA

Good for… Individuals who are income-eligible and want the benefit of tax-free withdrawals in retirement Individuals who want an upfront tax break in the form of deductible contributions
Age Limit No, you can make contributions at any age as long as you have earned income for the year No, you can make contributions at any age as long as you have earned income for the year
Income Eligibility Yes, you must earn below a certain income limit to be able to contribute No, anyone with earned income for the year can contribute
Funded With Funded with after-tax contributions Funded with pre-tax dollars
Annual Contribution Limits (2024 Tax Year) $7,000, plus an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions if you’re 50 or older $7,000, plus an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions if you’re 50 or older
Tax-Deductible Contributions? No Yes, based on income, filing status and whether you’re covered by a retirement plan at work
Withdrawal Rules Contributions can be withdrawn penalty-free at any time; earnings can be withdrawn penalty-free and tax-free after 5 years and age 59 ½ Penalty-free withdrawals after age 59 ½; taxed as ordinary income
Early Withdrawal Penalties Early withdrawals of earnings may be subject to a 10% penalty and ordinary income tax Early withdrawals of contributions and earnings may be subject to a 10% penalty and ordinary income tax
Required Minimum Distributions? No Yes, beginning at age 73
Tax Penalty for Missing RMDs N/A 25% of the amount you were required to withdraw

Deciding Which Is Right for You

Still debating which type of IRA is best for your particular situation? Taking this traditional vs. Roth IRA quiz can give you a better idea of how each IRA works and which might be best suited to your needs.

The Takeaway

For most people, an IRA can be a great way to bolster retirement savings, even if they are already invested in an employer-sponsored plan like a 401(k). You just have to decide which type of IRA is better for you—a Roth or traditional IRA.

When it comes to retirement, every cent counts, and starting as early as possible can make a big difference—so it’s always a good idea to figure out which type will work for you sooner than later.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Help grow your nest egg with a SoFi IRA.

FAQ

Which is better, a Roth or Traditional IRA?

A Roth IRA may be better if you expect to be in a higher income tax bracket in retirement. That’s because with a Roth, you make contributions with after-tax dollars, the money in the account grows tax-free, and you generally withdraw the funds tax-free in retirement. A traditional IRA may be better for you if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement because you’ll pay taxes on withdrawals then. You can take deductions on your traditional IRA contributions upfront when you make them.

What are the benefits of a Roth IRA vs a Traditional IRA?

Because you make after-tax contributions to a Roth IRA, your money generally grows in the account tax-free and you make tax-free withdrawals in retirement. In addition, with a Roth IRA, you can withdraw your contributions at any time without penalty, and you do not have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) like you do with a traditional IRA.

What are the disadvantages of a Roth IRA vs a Traditional IRA?

Disadvantages of a Roth IRA include the restriction that you must earn below a certain income limit to be eligible to contribute to a Roth. In addition, you will not get a tax deduction from contributions made to a Roth IRA. However, you will generally be able to withdraw the funds tax-free in retirement.


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