Roth vs. Traditional IRA – Do You Know the Difference?

This is the third post in a series of six blog entries focused on topics that might be of interest to the Millennial generation. If you would like to see our attempt at making these subject matters entertaining, visit our YouTube page to see a video version of this article.

 

“Roth IRA” and “traditional IRA” – these are terms that are bandied about willy-nilly by financial advisors and others in the business. You’ve often wondered what the difference is but haven’t asked, because you feel like you should know already. You nod along, meaning to Google it when you get home but of course you forget as soon as you step through the door and directly into a pile of something your loving pet left for you to clean up. Allow me to help! With the IRA definitions, I mean – not the mess. That’s all you.

First, the similarities – both are types of retirement accounts that allow the investments within them to grow without requiring you to pay taxes on any realized gains. So if you buy a stock for $500 and sell it for $1000, you don’t have to pay capital gains taxes on the $500 you made. Awesome, right? Another bonus – you don’t have to pay taxes on any dividend or interest income that you earn within either type of IRA. In a regular brokerage account you would have to pay taxes on realized gains, dividends, and interest income, which would cut into your portfolio return.

So what are the differences? Both traditional and Roth IRAs feature tax advantages on either contributions or withdrawals, but not both. A traditional IRA allows you to make tax-deductible contributions (so the funds you put in there are not being taxed as income). However, when you withdraw the money after age 59 ½, it will be taxed as ordinary income at your marginal tax rate.

Conversely, contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible (so this is income that has already been taxed). But when you withdraw the money (assuming you’ve had the account for at least 5 years and are older than 59 ½) it’s all tax-free! That’s why traditional IRAs are called “tax-deferred” accounts and Roth IRAs are called “tax-exempt” accounts.

Now, as with anything the IRS gets its hands on, there are all kinds of rules, guidelines, exceptions and so forth when it comes to how much a person can contribute to either type of account, how much is tax-deductible, what types of early withdrawals are allowed without a penalty, etc. Rest assured that all of this information is available on the internet, so I will spare you the details. Better yet, call your financial advisor and ask him or her how the rules affect your unique situation. There are so many different scenarios that, if I were to attempt to address them all, it would completely defeat the purpose of this blog, which is to simply explain the main difference between a Roth and a traditional IRA.

Because your situation is unique, you should talk to your financial advisor about the different account types and which ones are best for you. But now, when you hear phrases like “tax-deferred” or “tax-exempt,” “Roth” and “traditional IRA,” you can nod along knowledgeably.

Sarah DerGarabedian, CFA Portfolio Manager

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