Traditional vs Roth IRAs

Ever since the introduction of Roth IRAs in 1997, the debate over Traditional IRAs vs Roth IRAs has raged non-stop, and is likely to continue for as long as the choice remains. One thing is certain, the choice an individual must make between the two is not a simple one as the rules and requirements, and outcomes of each are different and it should rely heavily on their own personal circumstances. The best course is to gain an understanding of how each works and what sets them apart from each other.

Traditional IRA Basics

Traditional IRAs have been around for a long time, so most people are familiar with them. Established by Congress to encourage individual retirement savings, Traditional IRAs enable individuals to save for their future by making tax-deductible contributions of up to $5,000* that can be invested in a number of ways to accumulate a nest egg that isn’t taxed until it is withdrawn, presumably at a lower tax rate in retirement. Any withdrawals made prior to age 59 ½ also be subject to a 10% penalty unless certain requirements are met.

Roth IRA Basics

Contributions made to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible but can be invested in the same way as a Traditional IRA and allowed to grow without current taxation. The biggest difference between the two is that, with the Roth IRA, distributions are not taxed, and, although they may be subject to the same early withdrawal penalty, there are provisions that allow for withdrawal of principle at any time without penalty.

Other Key Differences between Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs


Traditional IRAs:

Anyone who does not currently participate in another qualified retirement plan such as an employer-sponsored plan is eligible to contribute to a Tradition IRA. Those who do participate in another qualified plan may contribute to a Traditional IRA if their income doesn’t exceed a certain amount which, for a single filer is $60,000 and joint filers $100,000.

Roth IRA:

Anyone can contribute to a Roth IRA regardless of whether they participate in another plan as long as their income doesn’t exceed a certain income range which for single filers is $95,000 and $110,000 and joint filers $150,000 to $160,000. The contribution limit is reduced once a person’s income enters the range and then is disallowed completely when it exceeds the range.


Traditional IRA:

All distributions from a Traditional IRA will be taxed as ordinary income. Any early distributions are subject to a penalty unless they meet certain requirements such as: Recipient is deemed disabled and cannot work; funds are used as part of a down payment on a first-time home purchase; funds are used to pay for college expenses; or they are distributed based on a schedule of equal periodic payments for life.

Roth IRA:

All distributions received from a Roth IRA are tax exempt. Early distributions are allowed to the extent that they are from the principles which are drawn out before interest. Also, distributions cannot be taken until the 5-tax year hold period has been met, meaning, the initial contribution to a Roth has to be held in the account for at least five years based on when the contribution was actually made. The same early withdrawal penalty exclusions that apply to Traditional IRAs apply to Roth IRAs.

Minimum Distribution Rules

Traditional IRA:

Distributions must commence by age 70 ½ and be sufficient to pay out the total balance by life expectancy.

Roth IRA:

There are no minimum distribution requirements.

Estate Taxation

Traditional IRA:

Distribution to beneficiaries are included in the estate for estate tax purposes, and they are also taxed to the beneficiary as ordinary income.

Roth IRAs:

Also included in the estate but not taxed to the beneficiary.

Which is Best?

While the Roth IRA holds some clear advantages over the Traditional IRA in terms of eligibility and distribution flexibility and taxation, the answer still lies in which one is best for your particular situation. For most people, the Roth IRA is likely to produce the best outcome. For example, a person who begins contributing at the age of 37 and is in a combined federal and state tax bracket of 33%, would generate about $700 more monthly income from a Roth than an IRA (assuming an 8% average return on investment and a 15% tax bracket after retirement).

Should I Change to a Roth?

If you have a Traditional IRA and are considering changing or converting it to a Roth IRA, you should be aware that the conversion will trigger a taxable event, which could impact the ultimate outcome. The amount of money that your move from a Traditional IRA into a Roth in excess of your principle will be taxed in the year of the conversion at your ordinary income tax rate. The tax can be paid directly from your IRA or with funds that you have available elsewhere. Either way, it will have the effect of diminishing your long term returns.

An alternative to consider is to simply cease making contributions to your Traditional IRA and start making them to a Roth. The only problem is that you will then have two different IRA accounts which can be more troublesome to administrate.


With all of the moving parts of both a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA and the difference of each, it would be important to compare both with careful consideration of your current and future financial needs. Your best advice is to run some comparison using any number of IRA calculators available online that will help you determine which will produce the best outcome at retirement.

*Current limit for IRA contribution. Future limits will be indexed or increased by increments of $500