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401K Vs. IRA: What’s the Difference?

David Bufton Updated: August 27, 2023 • 5 min read
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Key Points:

  • IRA vs. 401(k): IRAs are individual tax-advantaged retirement accounts with a $6,500 annual limit, while 401(k)s are employer-sponsored with a $22,500 limit.

  • Tax Benefits: Traditional IRAs offer tax-deductible contributions and taxed withdrawals, while Roth IRAs and 401(k)s vary in tax treatments for contributions and withdrawals

  • Eligibility & Limits: Roth IRAs have income restrictions, 401(k)s may have employer matches, and both require minimum distributions at age 72.

When considering the IRA vs. 401(k), there are many different factors that you need to keep in mind. We’ll take you through the difference between IRA and 401(k)s, alongside the advantages and disadvantages of each, so you can choose the retirement planning option that is right for you. 

The earlier you start your retirement planning, the bigger the benefits that you will receive.

What is an IRA?

An IRA is a retirement savings product that offers individuals a tax-advantaged way to save. IRAs were established in 1974 and are considered a tax-efficient method of retirement planning. Individuals can open IRAs through a bank, a personal broker, an online broker, or an investment company. 

After choosing to open an IRA, you can select to invest in a wide range of financial products, including mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and many other financial instruments. IRAs offer the advantage of being flexible, so you can invest in a market or industry type that aligns with your savings strategy and risk appetite. 

However, there are limits to how much you can invest in an IRA each year. You can invest up to $6,500 annually, with a catch-up contribution of $1,000 allowed for those over 50 years old. You can withdraw funds early, but any funds withdrawn before you are 59 and a half may incur a penalty. 

As mentioned, IRAs come with tax planning advantages, and these advantages depend on the type of IRA chosen. There are two main types of IRA, and we’ll let you know everything you need to know so that you can choose the IRA that’s right for you.

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Types of IRA

The two main types of IRA are Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs:

Traditional IRA

With a traditional IRA, contributions are tax-deductible in the year they are made, lowering your taxable income. Earnings on your investment in the IRA are tax-deferred until withdrawal, at which point you pay tax on your withdrawals. If you are looking to open an IRA but have a need for cash now, then a traditional IRA may be a good option for you. 

Roth IRA

Amounts contributed to a Roth IRA are taxed when the contribution is made, but withdrawals in retirement, including earnings, are tax-free. Roth IRAs have an income limit, so you can only contribute to a traditional IRA if you earn over $153,000 as a single person or $228,000 in a joint household. 

What are the Pros and Cons of an IRA?


  • IRAs offer tax benefits, with Traditional IRAs allowing tax-deductible contributions and Roth IRAs offering tax-deductible withdrawals in retirement.
  • You can invest in a wide range of options through your IRA, meaning there will be an investment option that is right for your situation and risk profile.
  • IRAs provide a flexible savings platform, with easy options to roll over and consolidate multiple retirement funds into a single account.


  • The contribution limits may not be sufficient for higher earners to plan for their required retirement needs.
  • Early withdrawals before the age of 59 and a half incur a 10% penalty.
  • The required minimum distribution must start at 72, which may affect your financial planning.
  • Roth IRAs have income limits that exclude higher earners.

What is a 401(k)?

A 401(k) is a method of saving for retirement that is offered by employers in the US. 401(k) plans allow you to contribute a portion of your pre-tax salary into a retirement account, lessening your current taxable income. It is common for employers to provide a matching contribution to the amount that you make, incentivizing you to save for retirement. 

401(k) plans are typically invested in a range of options, including stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, allowing you to tailor the plan toward your desired level of risk. You can put a maximum of $22,500 into your 401(k) each year unless you are over 50, where the limit increases to $30,000 per annum.

401(k)s are flexible retirement plans that offer different portability options. You can take your 401(k) with you if you change jobs, leave it where it is, or even convert it into an IRA. Yet, it’s essential to note that if you access your 401(k) before you are 59 and a half years old, any withdrawals will be subject to penalties and income taxes. 

Types of 401(k) Plans

As with IRAs, there are two main types of 401(k) plans, Traditional and Roth. 

A Traditional 401(k) plan allows you to contribute pre-tax income, reducing your taxable income. Funds invested in the 401(k) grow in a tax-deferred manner until withdrawal. Any withdrawals made in retirement are then subject to income tax. On the other hand, a Roth 401(k) lets you contribute after-tax income to your retirement account. You can then enjoy tax relief when you start processing withdrawals in retirement, as there will be no tax to pay. 

Roth 401(k)s are rarer than their traditional counterpart, and employer contributions can be made for both Traditional and Roth IRAs. There are many different investment opportunities with each type of 401(k), including mutual funds and stocks, so there is likely to be a choice that is right for you. 

What Are the Pros and Cons of a 401(k)?


  • Employers often match your contributions, which is effectively giving you free money.
  • Tax-advantageous, with either relief on contribution or withdrawal
  • Highly portable and easy to administer
  • High contribution limits available


  • Early withdrawal penalty if you access your 401(k) before you are 59 and a half years old
  • Administration fees can be high
  • Some 401(k) plans limit your investment options

IRAs vs 401(k)s – Key Differences

  IRA 401(k)
Contribution limit $6,500 or $7,500 if over 50 $22,500 or $30,000 if over 50
Employer match N/A – personal account Yes, at your employer’s discretion
Tax treatment Tax deductible Tax deductible

No income limit for Traditional IRA

$153k limit for Roth IRA

Eligibility is determined on an employer-by-employer basis
Investment availability Determined by individual Offered through your employer, so it may be limited
Required minimum distributions Age 72 Age 72


An IRA is not the same as a 401(k), but both offer investment plans that will benefit you during retirement. When considering a traditional IRA vs. 401(k), the former are individual accounts where you can contribute up to $6,500 each year. On the contrary, the latter are employer-sponsored accounts allowing you to invest up to $22,500 a year. If you are over 50 years old, these limits increase further. 

Ultimately, the earlier you start your retirement planning, the bigger the benefits that you will receive. So, if you are in the position to get started with an IRA or 401(k), read this guide and choose the option that is right for you.



Is it better to have a 401(k) or an IRA? 

Both options are beneficial for tax-advantageous retirement planning, but the best choice depends on your individual circumstances. If you are employed and your employer offers a matching 401(k) scheme, this could be a good option for you. If you want investment flexibility, an IRA could be a better choice.

Can you lose money in an IRA? 

You can lose money in an IRA. The value of your investments can go down and up depending on market conditions.

Can you roll a 401(k) into an IRA penalty-free? 

Yes, you can rollover your funds from a 401(k) into an IRA without paying a penalty. Be sure to follow specific rollover rules and guidelines. Note that rolling over from a traditional 401(k) to a Roth IRA will incur tax consequences.

Written by David Bufton

After graduating from the University of Warwick with a degree in accounting, David went on to become a fully certified accountant. Since then, he has amassed years of experience working in and writing for various sectors, including finance, gaming, and telecommunications. Now, he uses his extensive experience and knowledge in business and finance to deliver top-quality content.