Investing Deathmatch: Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA

Investing Deathmatch: Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA

Two methods of investing in the stock market enter the ring.

Only one will leave victorious.

Welcome back to another installment of… INVESTING DEATHMATCH!!!!!!!!!

If you’re one of our Patreon supporters, there are four things I know for sure about you. One: you’re beautiful on the inside and out. Two: you’re powerful, also on the inside and out (like, you are spiritually intimidating and also extremely muscular). Three: You have excellent taste in blogs run by women who are emotionally in their mid-seventies but physically in their early thirties.

The fourth and most important thing I know about our Patreon supporters: Once a month, they get to choose a topic for an upcoming blog post. And this month they selected a battle royale between traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs.

So if you enjoy this week’s post, you have our gorgeous, strong, good-taste-having, democratically empowered Patreon supporters to thank for it. Please consider becoming one, or continue to aspire to grow up to be one.

So real.

Now let’s get down to the EXTREMELY ANALYTICAL CARNAGE.

The reigning champion: Traditional IRA

An Individual Retirement Account is a type of savings account. Just like your regular old savings account, you put money into it, and you can take it out again later when you need it. Hopefully with some sprinkles on top. But unlike an all-purpose savings account, an IRA is specially designed to hold money for one’s future retirement.

Why do we need these specialized accounts? Well, Uncle Sam really wants to incentivize people to save up for their retirement. Millions of dead-broke elderly people are a bit of a liability, as it turns out. And even though saving for your twilight years is a really, really, really good idea, it’s hard to get people to do it. It’s probably because we keep inventing things like water trampolines. I’m on hold to buy six right now, and I don’t even live on or near the water! And yes, I buy things on the phone! (See aforementioned emotional maturity of the average septuagenarian.)

So this IRA is designed with incentives that make it easy to put your money in, but hard to take it out for any purpose other than retiring, and specifically retiring in old age.

You can access the money in your IRA for non-retirement purposes, but there are heavy tax penalties for doing so too early—at least 10%. It’s best to think of the money as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises. She’ll show up at the last possible second to save your ass by shooting Bane with a Batpod cannon. But she does everything on her own terms, so you still can’t rely on her, per se.

The reigning champion of IRAs is the traditional IRA. The most notable feature of the traditional IRA is that your money is taxed coming out, not going in. Meaning if you make $50K a year and put $3K into your traditional IRA, you will not pay income tax on that $3K until you are An Old and ready to take the money back out. Then and only then do you pay the income tax.

The upstart challenger: Roth IRA

Roth IRAs are named after Samantha Roth. You know: the fiery red-haired Scottish detective who, in 1971, finally caught the infamous serial killer Bible John as he preyed upon unsuspecting women at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom. THE FACTS ARE THE FACTS, PEOPLE.

Okay, okay, it’s named after one of the legislators who came up with the idea. But my Samantha Roth fan fiction will be available soon as a bonus for our Patreon supporters.

The Roth IRA is basically the inverse opposite of the traditional IRA. The money is taxed on its way in rather than on its way out. There are other differences, but overall they’re minor tweaks that facilitate this key difference. If you’re interested in the minor intricacies between the two, NerdWallet has a really nice table that breaks down the minor apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the winner is…

It depends!


Okay, okay, I’m sorry, I’ll extrapolate!

The Roth is almost always the right choice for young people and low-income people. Because they are more likely to be in lower tax brackets. If you diligently save a healthy portion of your income in your Roth retirement account, by the time you are ready to withdraw it, you’ll likely be in a higher bracket than you were when you first paid your taxes. But you’ve already ponied up at the lower rate, allowing you to walk away whistling like a trickster Looney Tunes character.

Some people will say that a Roth IRA is always the winner in this fight, and that’s not the case. There are situations where a traditional account would be better. It’s just that those situations are rarer.

Most people earn more money at the end of their lives than the beginning. Older individuals are theoretically at the top of their careers and earning more than their counterparts still in their twenties. They have more investments and may own real estate.

But if you’re interested in retiring much earlier than most (i.e., FIRE), traditional accounts could actually be better. If your life plan includes your income tapering off—like, say, if you have a plan to switch to part-time work after age whatever—you may want to pursue the traditional model. Your tax bracket would be lower at the end of your life than at the beginning.

But again, this is rare. For the majority of people, the Roth is the better option.

How do you know what’s right for you?

I personally would probably benefit from a traditional account, yet I have a Roth. I like the cleanliness of it. If I follow all the rules, I know that 100% of the money sitting in my IRA account is mine upon retirement. I don’t have to calculate what it will be minus taxes, which makes it easier to figure out how close I am to meeting my savings goals. I’m learning to live with less now by accustoming myself to paying taxes on money I don’t yet have. And I don’t have plans for a dead halt to my earnings, even after I retire.

The general rule is this: if you think your tax rate will be higher when you retire, choose a Roth IRA so you can pay taxes now when you’re in a lower bracket. If you think your tax rate will be lower when you retire, choose a traditional IRA so you can pay at a lower rate later.

Another way to put it: A Roth IRA is usually the better choice for young people far away from retirement, and traditional is usually the better choice for middle-aged or older people close to retirement.

If you’re really not sure, go with the Roth. Overall it is the better choice for most people—and most people are most people. And in the minor non-tax variations between the two plans, the Roth offers a bit more flexibility in terms of age of withdrawals, minimum withdrawals, and conversions.

The ultimate victor

Investing in your retirement in any way is the real winner!

The type of account where you store your retirement account definitely matters. But this is the kind of choice that can paralyze or confuse people into inaction. And taking no steps, or egregiously delayed steps, is the worst possible outcome when saving for retirement.

And if you have an old traditional IRA with $700 in it from the Aeropostale whose shirts you folded all throughout high school, you don’t have to rush out and mess with it now. Putting extra money into your student loans or credit card debt is almost certainly a better investment.

Thank you again to our Patreon supporters for sponsoring this milquetoast smackdown! We hope you MAX OUT all of your contributions and READY THEM FOR THE PUMMELING that is life in a capitalist world.

Is this the best Drag Race challenge ever? Yes.

New to investing?

If you’re convinced by this episode of Investing Deathmatch to start investing… try our favorite micro-investing app, Acorns. Acorns sticks your money in ETFs (exchange-traded funds), which are like mini index funds. Everything about them is mini and micro—they even withdraw money from your checking account in lil’ round-ups of change after every purchase you make. SUPER CUTE, YOU GUYS.

12 thoughts to “Investing Deathmatch: Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA”

  1. It depends really is the right answer. People need to make quite a few assumptions on what their far-off retired future will be like (specifically, how much they’d need to take out of a Roth), and what tax rates will be then, too. There’s really no way to know.

    But, we can make some assumptions. For very early retirees, I think the Traditional IRA is the winner because of the 5 year Roth Pipeline. (The Mad Fientist has a fantastic post outlining this.) But if you stop working very early, you can move over money from the Traditional to the Roth in small-untaxed amounts, let it season for five years, and never pay taxes on that money.

    But for someone who isn’t retiring early, it’s not that simple. For those folks, I think investing in both a 401k (works like a Traditional) and a Roth IRA can provide some neat flexibility later in live: allowing you to make withdrawals from both in a way that lets you control how much tax you pay.

    Really cool post idea, too.

  2. Why not both? (insert meme of charming girl talking about tacos here)
    My employer offers both, and I put enough in to get the employee match on the traditional, and throw an extra chunk each paycheck onto the Roth. Neither balance is huge, but hopefully I’m doing something kinda savvy that I’ll thank myself for later.

    *oh, and thanks for sending me into a Wikipedia rabbit hole with Bible John- I started on that page and ended up at “post-mortem photography” so it’s been an exciting Monday.

    1. Are you thinking of a 401(k) and a Roth IRA instead of traditional/roth IRAs? Because you should definitely have BOTH a 401(k) and an IRA of either kind.

      1. I would say that it depends on how much you earn. Having a traditional IRA + a 401K doesn’t make sense for people making over $72K/year. For those over $133k/year (single filers) then the Roth isn’t initially an option. Have you seen the Mad Fientist’s Mega Backdoor Roth for high income earners?

  3. “The ultimate victor: Investing in your retirement in any way is the real winner!”

    Oooh I like what you did there! And then:

    “This is the kind of choice that that can confuse or paralyze people into inaction.”

    As a recovering perfectionist who is capable of concocting extremely thorough schemes and plans, but has only in the last few years come to accept that it is not possible for me to apply this level of ferocious attention to every single thing of interest to me in my life, this cautionary note speaks to me. My retirement planning is still not where I want it to be, but every half-hearted, partially informed attempt at getting my retirement saving in order has been SO much better than allowing inertia or perfectionism to win, and left me in S better financial position than I was before, and now I have something to work with while I continue to learn the ropes.

    The strategically “good enough” approach, i.e. selective mediocrity, has been a lifesaver for my general wellbeing in finances & other things!

    1. /pls excuse me while I soapbox passionately in the comments about a tangent that is *part* of the OP but not the *main* point of the OP but I got all fired up (thx bitches) sry (not sry?)/

      Like, if I buy pants, and they’re even 20% off, maybe I feel good about the pants because I really needed pants, and I’m lucky enough to have the money to buy pants, and I even got a discount.

      But then later, I realize that if I’d waited until the big seasonal sale in 3 days, I could have had them for 60% off, and I might feel bummed because I could have had a better deal.

      And maybe I would commit to learning more about sales, so that next time I’d play the game better.

      But on the other hand, I would still have pants.

      And I even saved money on them, just not AS MUCH as I COULD have, if only I’d known.

      And I mean, knowing that most Americans have little or nothing saved for retirement at all, maybe in my weird metaphor, you also have to assume that most people don’t have any pants at all.

      So like: maybe step 1 is, “do you have pants at all?”

      And then step 2 is: “wow, I’m so glad I have pants now! In fact, I’m inspired to learn about pants. Maybe if I shop around for the best deals, I could afford MOAR THAN ONE pair of pants! Or I could learn to take care of my pants so they last longer, etc etc.”

      /end somewhat tangential rant

  4. The other thing to consider about pretax investments is the growth you will get on that extra money you are investing. The flip side of that though is it’s hard to know if that extra growth will be greater than the potentially higher taxes you’ll be paying when you withdraw later. Personally I do a mix of traditional and roth, and I definitely agree with any kind of saving and investing is the winner!

  5. Hey, I’m the low-income young person you mentioned and after a lot of thoughts, I have decided on the Roth. Unfortunately, I don’t know where to start with picking an institution to open the account, and my parents cannot help me with this one. Any thoughts/earlier articles about how to start?

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