Saving for retirement can be challenging. If you don't have access to certain types of retirement accounts then saving for the future could be even more difficult than it needs to be.
Approximately 31% of Americans don't have access to a workplace retirement plan, such as a 401(k), according to a survey from Morning Consult and Funding Our Future. Furthermore, of those who don't have a retirement account through their employer, three-quarters said they would set aside money in that type of account if they had access to one.
A 401(k) is one of the most powerful ways to save for retirement, especially if your employer offers matching contributions. But if you don't have a 401(k), there are other options.
No 401(k)? No problem
Without access to a 401(k), your next best options are either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. A traditional IRA is very much like a 401(k) in that contributions are tax-deductible upfront; then you'll pay income taxes on your withdrawals once you retire. With a Roth IRA, you pay taxes when you initially contribute to your account, but qualified withdrawals are tax-free.
One major difference between 401(k)s and IRAs is the contribution limits. In 2019, you can contribute up to $19,000 in a 401(k). For those aged 50 and over, the annual limit increases to $25,000. With IRAs, however, you're limited to just $6,000 per year, or $7,000 per year for those age 50 and over. So if you're a power saver, an IRA might hinder how much you can contribute each year. But if saving in a 401(k) isn't an option, an IRA is certainly better than nothing.
That doesn't mean IRAs don't have their perks, however. One advantage IRAs have over 401(k)s is a wealth of investment options. With a 401(k), you're limited to the small pool of investments chosen by your employer. But with an IRA, you have seemingly endless options to suit your needs. Sometimes it may even play out in your favor to invest in an IRA rather than a 401(k). If your 401(k) charges high fees and you don't have the option to lower them by investing in different funds, it may be a smart move to contribute to an IRA instead, so you can opt for funds with lower fees.
There's no rule saying you can't double-dip by contributing to both a 401(k) and an IRA. If you do have a 401(k), be sure to invest enough to earn any employer matching contributions -- after all, you never want to turn down the chance to earn free money. Then, if you find an IRA with lower fees or better investment options, you may choose to invest the rest of your money there. If you've got loads of cash to invest and you've maxed out your IRA, contribute the rest to your 401(k).
Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA
If you don't have a 401(k) or you decided that an IRA is a better option, the next step is to choose whether a traditional IRA or Roth IRA is a better fit.
For those who expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, a Roth IRA may be a better option. That way, you'll pay taxes upfront when you make the initial contributions (when you're in a lower tax bracket), but you won't need to pay taxes on withdrawals (when you're in a higher tax bracket). If the opposite is true and you think you'll pay less in taxes in retirement than you do now, a traditional IRA may be your best bet, because you'll get that upfront deduction now, when you'd be paying more in taxes.
A Roth IRA may also be advantageous if you know you'll be stretching every dollar in retirement. Not having to pay any income taxes on your withdrawals means you have more disposable income to spend in retirement. While you'll still be taxed on your contribution initially, it may be easier to pay those taxes when you're still working than when you're retired and living on a fixed income.
The age at which you are required to start withdrawing your money is another key difference between traditional and Roth IRAs. With a traditional IRA, you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) at age 70 1/2, regardless of whether you're ready to start withdrawing your money. That's because you haven't paid any taxes on the money in your account yet, and Uncle Sam demands his bite. But with a Roth IRA, because you've already paid taxes on your contributions, you can keep the money in your account for the rest of your life if you choose.
This factor makes a difference if you expect to continue working into your 70s. Older Americans are working longer than ever, with roughly 7 in 10 baby boomers saying they expect to delay retirement until past age 65 or never retire at all, according to a report from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. If you're planning on working past age 70, it may be beneficial to leave your money in your account past age 70 until you're ready to withdraw it. But if you expect to retire earlier than age 70, RMDs may not make a difference to you.
While a 401(k) is one of the easiest and most effective ways to save for retirement, that doesn't mean you can't save for the future if you don't have access to one. IRAs are valuable investment options that sometimes have even more advantages than 401(k)s, so be sure to explore your options and choose the retirement account that best fits your needs.