While historically people could count on Social Security and pension plans to provide a comfortable income during retirement, people today need to save and invest as they prepare for life after work. Luckily, there are wide variety of retirement plans available. However, understanding which vehicle is the best option can be confusing. Learning more about the specific advantages and disadvantages of various plans can help people figure out what they need for their particular retirement needs and goals. One way to categorize retirement plans is to consider those sponsored by employers versus individual retirement accounts.

 

Retirement Plans Sponsored by Employers

A great way to start saving is through employer-sponsored plans. The most basic employer-sponsored retirement account is the defined-contribution plan, typically a 401(k). A defined-contribution plan involves payroll deductions that go directly to an individual account within the company plan. Ideally, your company will match your contributions, which means that your employer will also put money into the account, up to a certain amount and based on how much you elect to contribute.

Employer-sponsored accounts are generally easy to set up, since the contributions are usually deducted directly from your pay each pay period. They’re also easy to maintain, because the plan administrator handles most of the statements and disclosure. In addition, 401(k) contribution limits are typically higher than those for individual retirement accounts—not to mention the fact that any employer matching is free money. Furthermore, contributions to 401(k) plans reduce your taxable income now. However, you’ll pay taxes on withdrawals from traditional 401(k) accounts during retirement.

In contrast, with a Roth 401(k), your payroll contributions are made after taxes, so your withdrawals during retirement are tax-free. A Roth 401(k) also has no income restrictions, unlike a Roth individual retirement account. Which you choose (traditional vs Roth 401(k)) basically depends on whether you think you’ll be in a higher income tax bracket during your retirement. Roth 401(k)s are often recommended for younger investors, who tend to fall in lower income tax brackets, but there may be good reasons for older investors to consider Roth 401(k)s as well. A financial advisor can help you make the best decision.

There are some drawbacks to defined-contribution plans, the most obvious of which is greater restrictions on investment choices. With an individual plan, you have much more control over where your money is invested. In addition, employer-sponsored plans often come with high management and administrative fees, which can take a significant chunk out of your savings. New employees should also make note of any waiting period before they can make contributions, as this is common. You may also have to wait until you’ve been with your company for a certain period of time (say, a year) before your employer will match your contributions.

 

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Individual Retirement Accounts

The other main option when it comes to saving for retirement is the individual retirement account (IRA), which can be set up through banks, brokerage firms, and other financial institutions. These accounts hold various investments, from stocks and bonds to cash and mutual funds, reserved for retirement. Several different types of IRAs exist, each with its own tax and contribution rules, so it’s important to look through all the options. As with a 401(k) plan, you can select a traditional or Roth IRA, with Roth contributions made with after-tax income, in order to avoid taxation upon withdrawal during retirement. You can contribute to both a Roth and traditional IRA in the same year, provided that you qualify for both.

The main advantage of IRAs is the fact that you’re in the driver’s seat and make all the decisions, whether that means personally or choosing a professional to do so. Furthermore, an IRA comes with a very wide range of investment choices, so it becomes easier to diversify. However, there are some downsides, too. IRAs in general have lower annual contribution limits, although these limits increase once you turn 50. Contribution limits depend on your modified adjusted gross income. Furthermore, even traditional IRA contributions are not always tax-deductible. (Roth IRA contributions are never tax deductible.) The deductibility limits for traditional IRAs depend on your income, as well as your tax filing status and access to workplace retirement plans.

 

General Guidelines for Deciding on Retirement Contributions

The exact savings strategy you should use will depend on your individual circumstances, but some general guidelines can help you determine your contributions. For the most part, you should first take advantage of any workplace retirement plan that comes with employer matching. Outside of the 401(k), these plans might include 457(b)s, 403(b)s, and defined-benefit plans, which work much like a pension.

Once you’ve maxed out your 401(k) contributions, or at least the matching available from your employer, it might be time to consider an IRA. Additionally, people who do not have a retirement plan through their company should focus on an IRA. Here, the most important decision is whether a traditional or Roth IRA is more appropriate. Determining this will involve making some predictions about your tax status in retirement. People who will fall into a lower tax bracket in retirement will benefit the most from a traditional IRA. Furthermore, people who are self-employed or who own a small business should recognize that specialized accounts exist for them, including the solo 401(k) and specialized IRAs.