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The past several years has brought about trends of early retirement, the rise of gig-work, and the Great Resignation. It may be safe to say that more people are making major changes to their lives now than ever before.

Even if you aren’t making major changes to your life, it is important to regularly review the contributions you are making to your traditional 401k or Roth 401k. It’s a crucial part of broader investment management.

Your personal situation will determine whether a Roth 401k or traditional 401k is a better retirement vehicle. Because your life is subject to change, your retirement strategy, too, should be regularly monitored and adjusted. At Dechtman Wealth Management, we want to help you understand whether a Roth 401k or traditional 401k is better for your unique needs.

Both vehicles have pros and cons, and much of the discussion will come down to tax implications and strategy. So, let’s dive in on the Roth 401k vs. traditional 401k discussion. We’ll share some key details about which life circumstances and stages might make one of these retirement accounts a better choice than the other.

What Is a Traditional 401K?

The employer-sponsored 401k has long been the go-to retirement savings vehicle for millions of Americans. It was created to help employees save for retirement, offering a tax break on their contributions along the way.

Here’s how it works: You, the employee, choose to have a certain percentage of your paycheck deposited into your 401k account each pay period. This is a pretax contribution. It happens before you see your paycheck and before income taxes are paid.

The money you contribute is set aside in your 401k account. There, you make your investment allocations. In other words, you select the ETF’s, mutual funds, or other assets you want to invest in.

From this point, your investments grow tax-deferred until you’re ready to start making withdrawals in retirement. When you begin taking money out (most likely after age 59 1/2), those withdrawals are taxed as regular income at your marginal tax rate at the time of the withdrawal.

If you choose to take a withdrawal prior to reaching age 59 1/2, you will be taxed and hit with a 10% penalty on the amount withdrawn. There are some circumstances where you will not be penalized, but they are limited.

A Brief History of the Traditional 401k

The traditional 401k came about in 1978 as a spin-off of a similar financial product, the Cash or Deferred Arrangement, or CODA. The goal of the companies that had offered CODAs was to defer compensation. Getting buy-in from the IRS on the idea took time, as these things often do.

In January of 1980, Internal Revenue Code Section 401k became law. It offered a tax-deferred, employer-sponsored program for employees to save for retirement. Before that, most people relied on pensions (which were much more common at the time), Social Security, or a mix of the two.

The 401k allowed employees to take control of their retirement planning. Now, workers with access to these plans can invest their desired amount of money each month. They have access to crucial added benefits, namely employer contributions and deferring taxes.

What Is a Roth 401K?

The Roth 401k is another employer-sponsored retirement vehicle. This variation allows employees to make contributions with after-tax dollars. This is the most foundational difference when comparing a 401k, Roth vs. traditional.

In other words, you don’t get an up-front tax break on your contributions with a Roth 401k. The positive side of this trade-off is you won’t have to pay taxes on qualified withdrawals down the road, either.

Here’s how it works: Similar to the traditional 401k, you, the employee, choose to have a certain percentage of your paycheck deposited into your Roth 401k account each pay period.

The key difference is that you make after-tax contributions. Your funds now go to your 401k after income taxes are paid. From within your 401k account, you’ll select the ETF’s, mutual funds, or other assets in which you want to invest.

From there, your money will grow tax-free until you’re ready to start making withdrawals in retirement. The money will come out tax free if you’ve had the account for over 5 years and are over the age of 59 1/2.

The biggest benefit is that you’ve already paid your taxes on these funds. So, your contributions and gains are yours to keep, tax-free, when you make qualified withdrawals in retirement.

A Brief History of the Roth 401k

The Roth 401k was introduced as an investment option at the beginning of 2006. The concept was to create another retirement savings option for employees, specifically one that would be funded with after-tax dollars. The thinking was that some employees would prefer to pay taxes upfront on their contributions to have tax-free income in retirement.

Traditional vs. Roth 401k: Key Differences and Similarities

A 401k account statement sits on top of several tax forms.Now that we’ve covered the basics of these two distinct 401k accounts, let’s take a closer look at some key differences and similarities.

Access to Funds

One of the key differences between a Roth 401k and a traditional 401k is when you have access to the funds in your account.

Traditional 401k

Accessing funds in a traditional 401k before retirement is difficult and expensive. If you withdraw funds prior to age 59 1/2, you’ll face taxes and a 10% penalty.

There are a handful of exceptions for events such as death, disability, medical expenses, child or spousal support, and military duty, among others. However, the intent is very clearly to discourage early withdrawals. You should plan for any funds invested in your traditional 401k to stay put until retirement.

Some 401k plans allow for participants to take out a loan. Before taking a loan, it is important to understand the costs and implications. If you might need access to this portion of your retirement savings before age 59 1/2, a traditional 401k may not be the best option.

Roth 401k

The Roth 401k is also intended to be a long-term retirement savings vehicle. However, it offers more liquidity than the traditional 401k. Because you’ve already paid taxes on the contributions made to your Roth 401k, you can withdraw your contributions at any time without penalty. This can be helpful if you face an unexpected financial emergency and need access to cash.

It’s important to note that while you can withdraw your contributions without penalty, you will face taxes and a 10% penalty on any earnings withdrawn before age 59 1/2. That’s true unless a qualifying exception applies.

The Verdict: Access to Funds with a Roth vs. Traditional 401k

Retirement funds should be set aside for retirement. If you need funds prior to 59 1/2, money saved in your bank accounts or non-retirement investment accounts would be the best places to pull from first.

However, if you suspect you may need access to your 401k funds before retirement, a Roth 401k offers more liquidity and fewer penalties.

A happy older couple sits in their living room, reviewing retirement account information in a binder.

Contributions to a Roth 401k vs. Traditional 401k

Wondering how much you can contribute to your 401k? The IRS imposes contribution limits each year based on inflation and other economic factors. Let’s explore the contribution limits for a traditional 401k vs. a Roth 401k.

Traditional 401k Contribution Limits

For 2024, the contribution limit is $23,000 for employees under the age of 50. If you’re 50 or older, you can make an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions, totaling $30,500 for the year.

Roth 401k Contribution Limit

The IRS imposes the same contribution limits on the Roth 401k as the Traditional 401k. For 2024, the contribution limit is $23,000 for employees under the age of 50. In addition, if you’re 50 or older, you can make an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions, totaling $30,500 for the year.

Total Annual Contribution Limit

Remember that the contribution limit for both a traditional 401k and Roth 401k is an annual limit, not per account.

This is important because you may ultimately choose to have both types of 401ks. Or, you may have multiple 401ks through multiple current or previous employers. In either case, the $23,000/$30,500 contribution limit applies to the total amount you contribute to all of your 401k accounts in a year. That maximum is not a per-account limit.

For example, if you are age 45, you can add $15,000 to your traditional 401k and $8,000 to your Roth 401k.

The amount your employer puts into your 401k as a match is in addition to your contribution. The total contribution limit (including employer contributions) is $69,000 for those under 50, and $76,500 for those over 50.

The Verdict: Roth 401k vs Traditional 401k Contribution Limits

There’s no difference in the amount you can contribute to a traditional or Roth 401k. The IRS imposes the same contribution limits on each type of account, so there’s no advantage for either type of 401k in this context.

A financial advisor meets with clients to discuss their retirement accounts.

Employer Match: Roth vs Traditional 401k

One of the benefits of 401k plans is that many employers offer to match a portion of employee contributions. This makes the 401k an especially attractive retirement savings option. When it comes to employer contributions and employer matches, there are important differences between Traditional and Roth 401ks to be aware of.

Before we dive in, though, one thing to note is that if your employer offers a 401k match and you have the option of a traditional and/or Roth 401k, you can elect to contribute to one or both. If you elect to contribute to both, employer contributions are generally allocated to the traditional 401k portion.

Traditional 401k

All contributions into a traditional 401k are made with pretax dollars. That includes both your own contributions and those made by your employer. Therefore, both the employee and employer contributions and the earnings on those contributions are subject to taxes when withdrawn in retirement.

Roth 401k

Roth 401ks tout the benefit of tax-free growth and withdrawals. However, a portion of the contributions into the Roth 401k account — any employer contributions — will need to be taxed at withdrawal. So, the Roth election will lower your tax obligation in your retirement years, but it won’t eliminate it entirely.

The Verdict: Employer Matches for Traditional vs Roth 401k

Employer matches are a valuable part of your compensation package. Even with a Roth 401k, the employer contributions will likely go to a traditional 401k. That means the money will be subject to taxes at withdrawal. If your employer allows their match to go into a Roth 401(k), that is likely going to be the best option for you.

A financial advisor reviews retirement account information with a client.

401k Withdrawals: Roth vs Traditional

401k accounts are designed for long-term retirement savings. As such, there are penalties for early withdrawals.

However, life happens. Sometimes you may need access to your 401k funds before you turn 59 1/2. Let’s explore the withdrawal rules and penalties for Traditional 401ks and Roth 401ks.

Traditional 401k

With a traditional 401k, you’ll pay taxes on your contributions and earnings at withdrawal. In addition, if you withdraw funds before you reach age 59 1/2, you’ll also be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

There are some exceptions to the 10% penalty, though, including withdrawals made for certain qualified medical expenses, disability, or to prevent eviction or foreclosure on your home.

Roth 401k

With a Roth 401k, you’ve already paid taxes on your contributions, so no taxes are due at withdrawal. Additionally, you can withdraw your principal contributions without penalty if the account has been established for at least five years.

However, if you withdraw earnings from your Roth 401k before you reach age 59 1/2, you’ll owe taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty on those earnings. That’s true unless you qualify for an exception.

The Verdict: Withdrawals for a Traditional 401k vs Roth 401k

The ability to access your principal contributions without penalty makes the Roth 401k a better choice if you think there’s a possibility you may need to withdraw funds early. However, you do still have a five-year timeframe before being able to access contributions without penalty.

The more lenient withdrawal rules for a Roth 401k may make it a powerful tool to begin building generational wealth by helping your children save for retirement. That versatility gives the Roth 401k the win in this category.

Minimum Distributions: Roth 401k vs Traditional 401k

There comes a time when the IRS says the free ride is over. More specifically, the federal agency requires that you begin taking distributions from your tax-deferred retirement accounts. Let’s explore Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) for both 401k types.

Traditional 401k

RMDs for Traditional 401ks begin at age 72, 73, or 75 depending on the year you were born. Before that, you’re not required to take distributions. Of course, you may begin taking distributions at 59 1/2 without penalty.

The amount of the RMD is based on life expectancy tables and the account balance at the end of the prior year. Additional guidance is made available by the IRS or your tax or financial advisor.

Roth 401k

The reason for RMDs is to ensure that a taxpayer does eventually pay the deferred income tax. With a Roth 401k, you’ve already gotten your tax obligation out of the way. There is never an RMD from a Roth 401k.

The Verdict: RMDs for Roth 401ks and Traditional 401ks

This is another area where the Roth 401k has an apparent advantage over the traditional 401k. If you have a Roth 401k, you are not required to take distributions at any age because you’ve already paid taxes on the contributions.

Penalties: Roth 401k vs. Traditional 401k

As we’ve seen, there are some penalties associated with early withdrawals from a 401k account. Let’s investigate the potential penalties associated with both account types.

Traditional 401k

As we discussed earlier, if you withdraw funds from your traditional 401k before age 59 1/2, you’ll be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. In addition, if you don’t begin taking RMDs by your required age, you’ll be subject to a 25% excise tax on the amount of the RMD.

Roth 401k

If you withdraw funds from your Roth 401k before age 59 1/2, you’ll be subject to taxes and a 10% early withdrawal penalty on any earnings that you withdraw unless you qualify for an exception.

The key word here, earnings, is crucial. With a Roth 401k, you are always free to withdraw your principal contributions without penalty. Without qualifying for an exception, if you withdraw more than the principal amount you’ve contributed before age 59 1/2, you will incur a 10% penalty.

The Verdict: Penalties for a Roth 401k vs. Traditional 401k

If you’re confident you’ll leave your retirement funds alone until retirement, there shouldn’t be any major difference in penalties between the two types of 401ks.

If you think there’s a possibility you’ll need to access your funds early, the Roth 401k may be the better option. This type of 401k account offers the ability to withdraw funds without penalty, provided you only withdraw your principal contributions.

How to Determine Which 401k Is Best for You

Determining which 401k may be best for you depends on several factors. Specifically, your age, tax bracket, where you live, and the amount you can afford to save for retirement will all influence which 401k type may offer the most benefits on an individual level.


Your age will be an important factor when deciding between a Roth 401k or a traditional 401k.

The earlier you begin saving for retirement, the more time your money has to grow. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, a Roth 401k may be the better choice. The post-tax money you contribute will have more time to grow tax-free. Additionally, you’re likely in a lower tax bracket than you will be later in your career.

If you’re closer to retirement, a traditional 401k may be the better choice. Your money will have less time to grow, and you’re likely in a higher tax bracket than you were earlier in your career.

Tax Bracket

This factor can start to feel tricky. You don’t just want to consider your current tax bracket, but what tax bracket you expect to be in in the future, too.

If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket later on in life, a Roth 401k may make the most financial sense. The money you contribute to a Roth 401k will be taxed at your current lower rate. When you retire and begin taking distributions, you’ll be in a higher tax bracket and will pay less in taxes overall.

On the flip side, if you expect you’ll be earning less in retirement than you do now, it may make more sense to go with a traditional 401k.

Where You Live

This factor is a bit less direct, but it’s wise to consider nonetheless. If you live in a state with high taxes, it may be advantageous to go the traditional 401k route.

Contributing to a traditional 401k will lower your taxable income for the year. That has the beneficial side effect of lowering your state tax burden.

On the other hand, if you have a Roth 401k, your contributions are made with after-tax dollars. That means there is no immediate state tax benefit.

It’s important to look at the big picture of financial planning when making decisions about your money and investments. The ultimate goal is to derive the largest financial benefit from your decisions. A qualified financial planner can help you work through these options and find the right choice, based on your unique goals and needs.

The Amount You Can Afford to Save

It’s not always easy to know how much you can afford to save for retirement now, let alone how much you’ll be able to save in the future. However, if you can project your current and future finances with a reasonable level of confidence, it can help you decide which 401k is best for you.

If you work in a role that is on a clear career path with raises and promotions at predictable intervals, it can make financial projections easier. You may be able to more accurately predict your future 401k contributions. That can ultimately help you make an effective choice between a Roth vs. traditional 401k.

The Benefits of Investing in Both 401k Types

Line and bar graphs show a gradual increase over time.

Throughout the article, we’ve commented that one 401k may be better than the other in certain situations. We’ve hinted at another idea, too: You don’t have to limit yourself to one type of 401k or the other.

Assuming both options are available, nothing is preventing you from contributing to both a Roth 401k and a Traditional 401k. We believe this may be the best strategy for many people.

When you have both options and can consider the entirety of your financial situation —all of the factors we’ve shared above — you can make an informed decision that is best for you. Crucially, you can also make adjustments as your life circumstances dictate.

Most 401k administrators allow participants to select a dollar amount to contribute to either type of 401k account or a percentage of their income for each pay period. You can make adjustments over time to effectively allocate to both accounts as your circumstances change.

The Bottom Line: Roth 401k vs Traditional 401k

Both Roth 401ks and traditional 401ks have their own set of pros and cons. Which one is better for you depends on your specific financial situation.

If you’re trying to decide between the two, consider your age, tax bracket, where you live, and how much you can afford to save. You may also find that the best strategy is to contribute to both types of 401ks.

Speaking with a fiduciary financial advisor can provide you with knowledgeable and informed guidance that’s required to always be in your own best interests.

Making a decision about the type or types of 401k account you contribute, along with your contributions and eventual distributions, is complex. Remember that you don’t have to make this decision alone. A fiduciary financial advisor can help.

Explore your options and learn more about which 401k is best for you. Speak with a fiduciary financial advisor at Dechtman Wealth Management today.

Important Disclosure Information

Please remember that past performance may not be indicative of future results.  Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that the future performance of any specific investment, investment strategy, or product (including the investments and/or investment strategies recommended or undertaken by Dechtman Wealth Management, LLC [“DWM”]), or any non-investment related content, made reference to directly or indirectly in this blog will be profitable, equal any corresponding indicated historical performance level(s), be suitable for your portfolio or individual situation, or prove successful.  Due to various factors, including changing market conditions and/or applicable laws, the content may no longer be reflective of current opinions or positions.  Moreover, you should not assume that any discussion or information contained in this blog serves as the receipt of, or as a substitute for, personalized investment advice from DWM. To the extent that a reader has any questions regarding the applicability of any specific issue discussed above to his/her individual situation, he/she is encouraged to consult with the professional advisor of his/her choosing. DWM is neither a law firm nor a certified public accounting firm and no portion of the blog content should be construed as legal or accounting advice. A copy of the DWM’s current written disclosure Brochure discussing our advisory services and fees is available for review upon request or at

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Sam Dechtman

As a wealth advisor at Dechtman Wealth Management, Sam is committed to always doing what is best for the client. Sam began his career working at large international asset manager in Chicago assisting clients with investment analysis, portfolio construction, and retirement income strategies. During that time, Sam would receive the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ designation, signaling mastery in all areas of financial planning.