Q&A: A 401(k) versus an IRA: Which one wins this smackdown?

Dear Liz: I am a 27-year-old with a big investment question. The company I work for matches 401(k) contributions up to 9%, which is all well and fine since I contribute enough to receive the company match. I have just about $60,000 in my 401(k) and I have a Roth IRA on the side as well as a brokerage account for stocks. I would like to roll over my 401(k) into another IRA since the investment choices in the 401(k) are rather limited. I’m a big fan of investment diversification with different funds. Is this a good option to choose or is this a silly idea with no merit? I understand the tax implications involved but am willing to bite the bullet for more investment options.

Answer: Good for you for being so diligent about saving for retirement. Your early start should give you a lot of options when you’re older.

For now, your question has an easy answer. Typically, you can’t roll a 401(k) account into an IRA while you’re still working for the employer that provides the 401(k).

There are a few exceptions. Once you turn 59½, some plans do allow such rollovers. Also, a few plans offer “mega backdoor Roths” that allow you to contribute after-tax money to a 401(k) and then do an “in service” conversion to a Roth IRA. This option helps high-income people get around the income limitation that would otherwise prevent them from contributing to a Roth IRA.

You will have the option of rolling your money into an IRA once you leave your job, but don’t assume such a rollover is always the right choice.

Most 401(k)s offer enough options to give you plenty of diversification, plus you may have access to low-cost institutional funds that wouldn’t be available in an IRA. You’re also protected by federal law that requires the companies offering 401(k)s to act as fiduciaries — in other words, they must put your best interests first. You often have the option of rolling your 401(k) balance into a new employer’s plan, which means you would be able to take loans from the plan. That’s not an option with an IRA.

There are no tax implications for rolling over a 401(k), by the way. Only if you convert the money to a Roth IRA will you owe taxes. A conversion may make sense, but you’ll want to talk to a tax pro first.

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