When you're planning for retirement, 401(k) plans get all the love from financial planners. You'll find countless articles extolling the virtues of 401(k)s, urging you to sign up with your employer to get started on your retirement savings journey. And to be fair, 401(k)s do have useful attributes.

IRAs don't draw as much attention. Part of the reason is that their contribution limits are lower than what you can put into a 401(k), and 401(k)s are notable for their ability to allow employers to add matching or profit-sharing contributions to your retirement account. Yet IRAs have some distinct advantages over 401(k)s, making them a vital part of your overall financial strategy for retirement.

An interstate highway sign with "IRA" written on it.

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1. You can invest an IRA in almost anything.

The key advantage that IRAs offer over 401(k)s is that IRAs impose very few restrictions on the permitted investments in your account. With a 401(k), you're completely at the mercy of your employer, because your employer is solely responsible for picking the available investment options in the plan. Many workers end up having to pick the best of a bad lot because their employers don't include good low-cost, high-quality choices in their plans.

Your investment choices in an IRA aren't entirely unlimited, but there's a huge amount of flexibility. You can pick the same mutual funds and exchange-traded funds that 401(k) plans typically offer, but you can also invest in individual stocks and bonds as well as bank CDs and other financial products. With some extra effort, you can even find IRA providers that will let you invest in special assets like precious metals and real estate. Moreover, you can choose the lowest-cost options of whatever type of investment you want, ensuring that you keep as much of your hard-earned money as possible. The ability to tailor your retirement portfolio to your individual needs is a huge boon that makes IRAs invaluable.

2. You don't have to beg your employer to include a Roth option.

IRAs come in two flavors -- traditional and Roth -- and they each have their own advantages. Traditional IRAs, like most 401(k)s, give you an up-front tax break in exchange for paying taxes when you withdraw money from your retirement account. But Roth IRAs give you tax-free treatment of your income and gains even when you withdraw them. You just have to give up the up-front tax break, and for many in low tax brackets, that's a sacrifice worth making.

There are Roth 401(k) options available to some workers, but your employer has to make a specific decision to include them in your plan. If that doesn't happen, you're out of luck and have no ability to insist on your employer including the Roth 401(k) option.

Now it's true that there are income limits on the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. In 2019, if you're single with adjusted gross income above $137,000 or file jointly with income over $203,000, then you're not allowed to make Roth IRA contributions. But for those with more modest incomes, the ability to save tax free in a Roth can be extremely useful.

3. You control the timing of your IRA contributions

With a 401(k) plan, your employer sets the guidelines for when and how you contribute. Typically, you'll have a fixed amount or percentage of your assets taken out of every paycheck, and making last-minute changes to those elections can be extremely difficult.

By contrast, IRAs give you full control over when and how much you contribute to your account. You can contribute the maximum as early as Jan. 1 or as late as April 15 of the following year. So if you get a big bonus and want to put it all toward your retirement, it's easy -- just send it to your IRA provider or have it electronically transfer money directly to your account.

Get the best of both worlds

Both IRAs and 401(k)s have a place in your retirement savings strategy. Knowing which one's better for your particular needs can help you take maximum advantage of both and put you on course for a financially secure retirement.

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