The Pros and Cons of a Roth IRA

In the world of retirement accounts, Roth IRAs are the favored child. What’s not to love about totally tax-free growth on your retirement savings? And if you ask a financial advisor about their disadvantages, the list is likely to be mighty short. Still, Mr. Roth isn’t always Mr. Right.

The cons of Roth IRAs

Let’s start with the Roth’s disadvantages.

You pay taxes upfront

Roth IRAs provide tax-free withdrawals for Future You. But if you’re struggling to save, taking a tax deduction now for contributing to a traditional IRA might be just the carrot you need to get your retirement savings on track.

The maximum contribution is low

You can contribute $5,500 to a Roth IRA in 2017, and you can do the same in 2018. If you’re 50 or older, you’re allowed an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution each year. Traditional IRAs have the same limits. That’s not a lot. You’ll probably need to invest elsewhere, such as in a 401(k), to have enough for retirement. A 401(k) has a higher annual contribution limit of $18,000 in 2017, and that limit is set to increase by $500 in 2018. They also allow savers 50 and older to make catch-up contributions of up to $6,000 each year.

You have to set it up yourself

The beauty of a 401(k) is your employer encourages you to join — possibly even auto-enrolls you. But you must open your own Roth IRA and remember to fund it each year. Setting up automatic contributions from your bank account can make the process easier.

There are Income limits

Only people with income under specific amounts can contribute to a Roth IRA. We detail those income limits here.

“That’s certainly a con,” says John H. Konetzny, a certified financial planner and enrolled agent at Practical Planner LLC in Groton, Massachusetts. Still, he’s a big fan of Roths. There’s no income limit on converting your traditional IRA to a Roth, however.

The pros of Roth IRAs

Despite the items above, the Roth is still a powerful way to save for retirement:

your savings grow tax-free

“Once you pay for the privilege by paying the tax upfront, all the earnings build income-tax-free,” says Ed Slott, a certified public accountant and founder of in Rockville Centre, New York. When you hit retirement age, you won’t have to pay taxes on withdrawals. That can give your savings a powerful boost if your tax rate is higher in retirement. For example, a person who saves the maximum $5,500 for 30 years in a Roth could end up with an account worth $555,902, compared with a traditional IRA worth $472,835.

If your tax rate is LOWER in retirement If your tax rate is HIGHER in retirement
Current tax rate25%25%
Tax rate in retirement15%33%
Annual investment$5,500$5,500$5,500$5,500
After-tax value in retirement*$555,902$572,898$555,902$472,835

There’s No need for required minimum distributions

Traditional IRAs force you to pull out money beginning at age 70½. Not so with a Roth. Plus, you can leave your account to your child or grandchild so she can potentially stretch tax-free distributions over her lifetime. However, there’s talk in Congress of eliminating one or both of these perks.

You can withdraw your contributions

Unlike most retirement accounts, it’s easy to withdraw your Roth contributions — not your earnings, mind you — without penalty.

That makes Roths a nice backup emergency fund, as long as you have the discipline not to abuse yours. Says Konetzny: “I never had a client who regretted having a Roth IRA.”

You get tax diversification in retirement

If you have a 401(k) or traditional IRA, you’ll pay taxes on that money when you start withdrawing it in retirement, and you’ll likely owe taxes on a portion of your Social Security income, too. The beauty of having some money in a Roth is that you can juggle your distributions from each account so you don’t push yourself into a higher tax bracket. That is, you collect your Social Security, then take some money from your 401(k) or traditional IRA — just enough to bump up against the top edge of your income tax bracket. If you need more income, you take a withdrawal from your Roth, which won’t count as taxable income.

Andrea Coombes is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @andreacoombes.

The Pros and Cons of a Roth IRA originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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