If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, there may still be room in your retirement savings for a Roth IRA. Yes, you can contribute to both a 401(k) and a Roth IRA, but there are certain limitations you'll have to consider.

This article will go over how to determine your eligibility for a Roth IRA. You'll also learn how much you can contribute to that Roth IRA, how to work around the eligibility restrictions, the flexibility of saving in a Roth IRA versus other individual retirement accounts, and the benefits of saving in both a 401(k) and a Roth IRA.

Cash in a Mason jar

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Check your eligibility

The first step in determining your eligibility for contributing to a Roth IRA is to find your modified adjusted gross income. That means adding up your wages, interest earned (including qualified savings bonds), dividends, capital gains, and other income. While you'd normally subtract items like student loan interest or tuition and fees, you won't for the purposes of determining your modified AGI for a Roth IRA. You can find a full breakdown of how to determine your modified AGI on the Internal Revenue Service's website.

Once you've determined your modified adjusted gross income, you simply have to compare it to the following table to determine your eligibility.

Tax Filing Status

Maximum Eligible Modified AGI (2020)

Maximum Eligible Modified AGI (2021)

Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)

$206,000

$208,000

Single, head of household, or married filing separately and you didn't live with your spouse at any time during the year

$139,000

$140,000

Married filing separately and you lived with your spouse at any time during the year

$10,000

$10,000

Data source: IRS.

Contribution limits for Roth IRAs

For most households, the Roth IRA contribution limits in 2020 and 2021 will be the smaller of $6,000 or your taxable income. If you're age 50 or older, you can make an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution.

Some may see a reduced contribution limit based on their modified AGI. If you make within $10,000 or $15,000 of the maximum modified AGI, you'll have to do a little math.

  • Take the maximum limit for your filing status and subtract your modified AGI.
  • If you're married filing jointly or separately and you lived with your spouse, take that number and divide by $10,000.
  • Otherwise divide by $15,000.
  • Multiply the resulting percentage by $6,000 (or $7,000 if 50 or older). That's your contribution limit for a Roth IRA.

For example, if you're a married couple and you have a combined AGI of $200,000 in 2020, you'd:

  • Subtract that amount from $206,000, the maximum AGI allowed to make any contribution. The result is $6,000.
  • That number divided by $10,000 is 60%.
  • 60% multiplied by $6,000 is $3,600. That's the maximum amount you and your partner can each contribute to your Roth IRAs.

Importantly, the $6,000 (or $7,000) contribution limit applies to all IRAs. The income limits for the Roth IRA apply only to Roth IRA contributions, so you could still contribute to a traditional IRA up to the $6,000 (or $7,000) limit. Those contributions won't be tax deductible, though, if your Roth contributions are limited by your income and you have a 401(k) at work.

How to get money into a Roth IRA even if you're not eligible to contribute

Savvy savers can still get money into a Roth IRA even if they're not eligible to contribute to one directly. They can utilize the backdoor Roth IRA strategy.

This involves making a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA and converting those funds into a Roth IRA. 

If you have other IRA accounts with pre-tax contributions in them, you'll have to mind the pro rata (or aggregation) rule. This makes the backdoor Roth strategy ineffective. You can get around the problem if your work 401(k) allows rollovers from an IRA. Roll over your pre-tax IRA funds into the 401(k) and then use the backdoor Roth conversion.

Saving for retirement in a Roth IRA

If you meet the income requirements for contributions, there are two compelling reasons to use a Roth IRA for retirement savings.

  1. Tax diversification: Your withdrawals of contributions and earnings after the age of 59 1/2 are tax-free, as long as you've had the account open for five years or more. Your 401(k) and traditional IRA withdrawals, on the other hand, are taxable. Tax-free withdrawals from a Roth IRA are most appealing if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement. In that case, it's not a bad idea to diversify your retirement income with a tax-free source.
  2. Estate planning: Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs). If you don't need the money for expenses, you can leave it in the account to bequeath to your loved ones.

Other reasons to use a Roth IRA

One of the biggest advantages of a Roth IRA over other retirement savings accounts is the ability to access contributions at any time. Thus a Roth IRA can be a good vehicle to save for preretirement goals if you otherwise wouldn't contribute to an IRA. 

Assuming you're eligible for Roth IRA contributions, let's say you deposit $9,000 over three years. You invest those contributions in low-cost mutual funds, and your balance grows to about $13,000 in six years. At that point you decide to buy a car. You can withdraw up to $9,000 from the account without explanation and without penalties. You can't touch $4,000 in earnings unless you want to pay income taxes plus a 10% penalty.

There's also a way to access your Roth IRA earnings early, without paying penalties or taxes. You can withdraw up to $10,000 in earnings (plus any amount of contributions) if you use the money for a home purchase. These are the requirements:

  • It's been at least five years since your first Roth IRA contribution
  • You and your spouse haven't owned a primary home in the past two years
  • You use the funds within 120 days of withdrawal

The $10,000 earnings withdrawal exception is a lifetime cap, so you can't repeat this move in the future.

If you use the backdoor Roth strategy, you can access conversions after five years. You can use conversions to gain access to your traditional pre-tax retirement accounts early without paying a penalty if you strategically convert funds five years before you'll need them. You'll still owe taxes on the funds at the time of conversion.

Benefits of having both a 401(k) and a Roth IRA

Using both a 401(k) and a Roth IRA to save can be a great option for someone looking to put as much money as possible into tax-advantaged retirement accounts. 

If you're a higher-income earner on the edge of qualifying for a Roth IRA contribution, making a 401(k) contribution could push you under the income limitations, since those contributions don't count toward your AGI. That would open the door for more flexibility with short-term savings in a Roth IRA.

Ultimately, an employer-sponsored 401(k) shouldn't prevent you from getting money into a Roth IRA. While you should consider any other options at your disposal, maximizing the amount of money in your tax-advantaged savings accounts is usually a good strategy for a healthy retirement.