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What Is a Roth 401(k)?

A Roth 401(k) brings the benefits of the Roth IRA to the 401(k) scene. With a regular 401(k), you save for retirement with pre-tax dollars. Roth 401(k)s let you use after-tax dollars. That means you pay taxes now, but not when you take withdrawals from the account in retirement. Not all employees have access to Roth 401(k)s, but those who do may be well served to enroll in one. 

What Is a Roth 401(k)?

Not just anyone can go out and open a Roth 401(k). That’s because Roth 401(k)s are employer-sponsored retirement plans. You either have access to one or you don’t (though you may decide after reading this that you want to ask your employer to add one to the company’s retirement plans).

How Does It Work? 

With a Roth 401(k), you take after-tax dollars and put them into a retirement account. Your choices as to which retirement account will depend on what your employer offers. You may decide to opt for a Target Date Fund, or you may build your own mix of stocks, bonds, and money market holdings. You pay regular income taxes each year on the money you choose to contribute to your Roth 401(k). Then, when you retire, you can start taking distributions from the account. You won’t owe taxes on the distributions – not even on the investment gains. Pretty sweet, right?

Check out our retirement calculator.

What Are the Contribution Limits?

It’s pretty common for people to split their employer-sponsored savings between a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k). For this reason, the IRS states annual contribution limits in the aggregate. In 2015, you can contribute up to $18,000 in either a traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k). If you choose to use both kinds of 401(k), the total amount you contribute across the two accounts cannot exceed $18,000. Workers 50 and over are allowed catch-up contributions of up to an extra $6,000 per year.

What Are the Rules?

Taking tax-free distributions in retirement is the biggest benefit of the Roth 401(k). In order to take advantage of this benefit without paying an early withdrawal penalty, though, you must be at least 59 1/2 when you begin taking distributions from your account. In addition, you must have had the Roth 401(k) for at least 5 years. Roth 401(k)s also come with Minimum Required Distribution (MRD) rules. Once you hit age 70 1/2, you must start taking distributions from your Roth 401(k).

Roth 401(k) vs. Traditional 401(k)

As mentioned above, you don’t necessarily have to choose between a regular 401(k) and a Roth 401(k). You can split your retirement savings between the two. If you want tax savings now, go for the traditional 401(k). If you want tax savings in retirement, opt for the Roth 401(k). If you want to diversify your tax risk in retirement (since you can’t be sure exactly what your retirement income will be, or how tax law will have changed by then), go for a combination of traditional and Roth 401(k) contributions.

Roth 401(k) vs. Roth IRA

In 2015, the annual contribution limit for Roth IRAs is $5,500. Compare that to the $18,000 you can save in a Roth 401(k). Some workers save in a regular 401(k) through their employer and then open a Roth IRA on their own. They do this to diversify their tax burden in retirement. Now that Roth 401(k)s are becoming more widely available to employees, more workers are wondering how to choose between a Roth 401(k) and a Roth IRA.

Well, the IRS may have chosen for you. With the Roth 401(k), anyone can contribute, no matter how rich. There is no income limit. Roth IRAs, on the other hand, are designed with lower- and middle-income savers in mind. This year, the AGI phase-out range for a married couple filing jointly is $183,000-$193,000. For those filing singly, the range is $116,000 to $131,000.

Why a range? If your income is below the bottom of the range, you can contribute the full $5,500 to a Roth IRA. If it’s within the range, you are subject to contribution phase-out rules, meaning that you won’t be able to contribute the full $5,500. If your income is above the top of the phase-out range, IRS rules prohibit you from contributing to a Roth IRA.

So, if your income excludes you from saving in a Roth IRA but you still want to diversify your retirement tax risk, you can instead opt for a Roth 401(k).

Bottom Line

If you like the sound of a Roth 401(k) but your company doesn’t provide access to one, consider taking your case to HR. Fight for your right to Roth now, rather than waiting to see if your next gig will offer you a Roth 401(k). The more time your savings have to grow in a Roth 401(k), the greater the benefits to you. That’s because you’ll see more tax-free earnings as your savings compound with time. Compound interest: it’s like magic!

Tips for Getting Retirement Ready

  • Figure out how much you’ll need to save to retire comfortably. An easy way to get ahead on saving for retirement is by taking advantage of employer 401(k) matching.
  • Work with a financial advisor. According to industry experts, people who work with a financial advisor are twice as likely to be on track to meet their retirement goals. A matching tool like SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor can help you find a person to work with to meet your needs. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and goals. Then the program will narrow down your options from thousands of advisors to up to three registered investment advisors who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.

Photo credit: flickr

Amelia Josephson Amelia Josephson is a writer passionate about covering financial literacy topics. Her areas of expertise include retirement and home buying. Amelia's work has appeared across the web, including on AOL, CBS News and The Simple Dollar. She holds degrees from Columbia and Oxford. Originally from Alaska, Amelia now calls Brooklyn home.
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