Q&A: Roth IRA or traditional IRA? Here’s why one might be a better choice for young workers

Dear Liz: My mid-20s nephews and I discussed financial planning for them. After recommending they check with their employers for a 401(k) or equivalent program, we spoke about traditional versus Roth IRAs. Would younger investors benefit more from a Roth IRA because the length of time the money would be invested is so long that the eventual tax-free withdrawal of the earnings outweighs the initial tax benefits of a traditional IRA? At this time, we cannot determine if my nephews will have a higher tax rate post-retirement than now (even assuming income tax rates stay the same).

Answer: The usual advice has been that people should contribute to a Roth IRA rather than a traditional IRA if they expect to be in the same or higher tax brackets in retirement. (Contributions to Roths are not tax-deductible but withdrawals in retirement are tax-free. By contrast, contributions to traditional IRAs are often deductible, but withdrawals are taxed as income in retirement.)

Of course, you can’t predict future tax rates with any certainty. But it’s a pretty good bet that 20-somethings who are at the beginning of their careers will earn more — and thus face higher tax rates — down the road. In other words, your nephews’ current tax rates may be the lowest they’ll ever be. Your nephews may not get much benefit from a tax deduction now but could get huge benefits from tax-free withdrawals in the future.

Also, premature withdrawals from traditional IRAs are usually taxed and penalized, but you can always withdraw the amount you contribute to a Roth without paying taxes or penalties. That flexibility often appeals to young people who worry about “locking up” their money or who don’t yet have a substantial emergency fund.

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