Q&A: Here’s how to pick the best retirement account

Dear Liz: Can you explain the difference between a Roth IRA and a Roth 401(k)? What are the benefits of a Roth 401(k)? My company offers it and I am considering beginning to make deferral contributions there while continuing my 401(k) contributions.

Answer: Contributions to Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s are after tax, which means you don’t get an upfront tax deduction as you do with traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts. But the money grows tax deferred and can be tax free in retirement.

You typically open and contribute to a Roth IRA at a brokerage, which gives you access to a wide range of investment options. Just like traditional 401(k) accounts, Roth 401(k)s are offered by an employer, usually with a limited number of investment choices.

Roth 401(k)s allow people to contribute significantly more than they could to Roth or traditional IRAs. Roth 401(k)s also allow contributions by higher earners, who might be shut out of contributing to a Roth IRA.

Roth IRA contributions are limited to $6,000 with a $1,000 catch-up contribution for people ages 50 and older. Your ability to contribute begins to phase out at certain income limits. This year, the phaseouts start at $125,000 of modified adjusted gross income for single filers and $198,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Roth 401(k)s don’t have income limits and allow you to contribute as much as $19,500 ($26,000 for those age 50 and older). That is the combined limit for elective deferrals from your paycheck. If you’re under 50 and contributing $10,000 to the pretax portion of the 401(k), for example, you could contribute a maximum of $9,500 to the Roth option.

Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s also have different rules for withdrawals. You can remove your contributions from a Roth IRA at any time without paying taxes or penalties. Withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) before age 59½ also can incur taxes and penalties, although you usually do have the option to take loans.

Also, you’re not required to start taking withdrawals at age 72 from a Roth IRA, as you typically are with other retirement accounts, including Roth 401(k)s. You will have the option of rolling a Roth 401(k) into a Roth IRA, typically after you leave your job, so you can avoid minimum required distributions that way.

Q&A: Does a teenager need a Roth IRA?

Dear Liz: Our 16-year-old daughter has been frugal since she started understanding money at about age 6. She works and makes a decent income for a high school student. Her savings are now quite substantial. She wants to open a Roth IRA while she is young and has no income tax liability. My wife and I have pensions and substantial savings but only one IRA. So we have no idea how to help her open a Roth. What should she do? She has enough money to maximize her contributions every year through high school and college and wants to take full advantage of 50 years of tax-free growth.

Answer: Contributing to a Roth IRA is an excellent way for young people to build wealth, and the earlier they can start, the better.

Traditional IRAs typically offer a tax deduction for contributions but withdrawals are taxable. Roth IRAs, by contrast, don’t offer an upfront tax deduction but withdrawals are tax free in retirement. Opting for a Roth over a traditional IRA makes sense when you expect your tax rate to be the same or higher in retirement.

A $6,000 contribution at age 26 can grow to about $105,000 by retirement age, assuming 7% average annual returns. (That’s a reasonable average for a multi-decade investment in a diversified stock portfolio.)

Make the same contribution at age 16, and the money could grow to over $210,000 by age 67. The extra 10 years of compounded gains effectively doubles the total.

To contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA, people must have earned income such as wages, salary or self-employment income.

They’re allowed to contribute 100% of their earnings during the tax year or $6,000, whichever is less. (People 50 and older can make an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution.) If your daughter earned $4,000 this year, for example, that’s the maximum she could contribute to a Roth for 2021.

Your daughter typically can’t open her own account until she’s 18, so you would need to find a brokerage that offers custodial Roth IRAs. She would be the account owner and you would be the custodian until she turns 18. Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard are among the discount brokerages that offer custodial Roth IRAs without requiring minimum investments or charging maintenance fees.