Q&A: Why do 401(k) and IRA contributions have such different rules?

Dear Liz: Can you please explain to me why the IRS allows an employee in a workplace 401(k) to contribute $19,000 but a wage earner without a 401(k) can contribute only $6,000 to an IRA? This seems grossly unfair. Why does one group get to save three times as much for retirement?

Answer: Congress works in mysterious ways, and this is far from the only weird byproduct of tax law.

The 401(k) and the IRA were created through different mechanisms.

The 401(k)’s birth was almost accidental. Benefits consultant Ted Benna created the first 401(k) savings plan in 1981, using a creative interpretation of a section of IRS code. Benna crafted the plan to provide an alternative to cash bonuses, not to replace traditional pensions — although that’s what it ended up doing.

IRAs, by contrast, were created deliberately by Congress in 1974 to provide a way for people to save independent of their employers.

Raising the IRA limit would be costly to the budget, while decreasing 401(k) limits would be unpopular, since so many people rely on them for the bulk of their retirement savings.

You aren’t, however, limited to saving only $6,000 annually for retirement. You can always save more in a taxable account. You wouldn’t get the tax deduction for contributions, but your investments can qualify for favorable long-term capital gains treatment if you hold them for at least one year.

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