Many employers are now offering a Roth 401k option in addition to the traditional 401k option. And with this new choice comes many questions: What is the benefit? Is a Roth 401k a good idea for me? How can I choose between the traditional 401k and the Roth?
Benefits of Roth 401k
Much like a Roth IRA, the Roth 401k can provide you with tax-free income when you retire. This benefit comes to you in exchange for no tax deduction when you contribute your funds to the Roth account.
Contributing money to a traditional 401k account results in a reduction from your income for the year. Then when you withdraw money from the account in your retirement, you will have to pay tax on the money withdrawn. This is the primary difference between the traditional 401k and the Roth.
Another benefit of the Roth 401k is that when you retire (or leave the job) you can rollover the money directly to a Roth IRA – this will eliminate RMDs from ever being required on the account, once the account has been held for 5 years.
Making the Choice Between Traditional and Roth 401k
So, knowing the benefits of a Roth 401k you may wonder if a Roth 401k is right for your situation. This is not a simple answer, as with many investing and savings activities. It all depends on two primary factors: your applicable tax rate now, and the tax rate in the future.
Your applicable tax rate now is important because if you choose a Roth 401k you’ll be paying taxes on the income you are deferring into the account. On the other hand, if this same money was going into a traditional 401k account you would avoid tax on the money deferred.
So if your current applicable tax rate is high, there is much value in deferring tax on some of your income. With a lower (or zero) applicable tax rate then the benefit of deferring tax on contributions is reduced or eliminated.
Looking into the future, if you anticipate that your tax rate in retirement is going to be lower than your tax rate today, then the traditional 401k is likely your best option. This is because you are deferring income at one rate and then paying tax another lower rate in the future.
On the other hand, if you anticipate higher taxes in the future (and who doesn’t?) then the Roth 401k might make more sense. This is due to the fact that, by using the Roth 401k you can pay taxes today at your lower rate and then later withdraw those funds at a zero tax rate.