Roth IRA vs. Traditional IRA: Key Differences for Savvy Investors

Anders Skagerberg CFP, EA
Roth IRA vs. Traditional IRA: Key Differences for Savvy Investors

When planning for retirement, it’s critical to evaluate the key differences between Roth and traditional IRAs.

Both types of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) offer unique benefits, but understanding their differences can help you make informed decisions about your long-term financial goals. This blog post will explore the main differences between Roth and traditional IRAs, exploring topics such as pre-tax contributions versus tax-free withdrawals and eligibility requirements.

For those with higher incomes, we'll look at strategies to get around the Roth IRA income limit using a unique tactic called the backdoor Roth strategy.

Lastly, we'll examine withdrawal rules associated with each account type – including qualified distributions versus nonqualified distributions – and penalties for early withdrawals from traditional IRAs compared to those from Roth IRAs. We will then provide guidance on balancing contributions between these two powerful accounts to effectively diversify your retirement portfolio.

Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA: Understanding the Basics

Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs offer tax advantages but differ in how taxes are applied.

First, a traditional IRA allows for pre-tax contributions, offering a tax deduction today while guaranteeing a tax bill in retirement. Alternatively, a Roth IRA provides no tax deduction today but guarantees tax-free distributions in retirement. These contributions are often referred to as after-tax.

Both accounts can be used to save for retirement and maximize potential earnings. In addition, both accounts are limited to a maximum contribution limit of $6,500 per year for 2023 ($7,500 if age 50 or over). Notably, that is a combined contribution limit across all of your traditional and Roth IRA accounts and the limits are updated periodically to keep pace with inflation.

Pre-tax contributions in traditional IRAs

With a traditional IRA, you contribute pre-tax dollars, and investments grow tax-deferred until withdrawal. Then, all withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income during retirement.

Tax-free withdrawals from Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs work differently—contributions are made using after-tax income, grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals during retirement are tax-free.

When it comes to deciding between the two, consider that utilizing both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA can provide a host of tax benefits. However, many will choose one over the other during certain times based on their tax situation, which we will explore in more detail.

For more information on retirement savings strategies and investment vehicles, check out this article from our blog.

Eligibility Requirements for Contributing to an IRA

When considering an IRA, you must understand the eligibility requirements. 

First, you or your spouse must have taxable compensation and your contribution limit is the lesser of $6,500 ($7,500 if age 50 or over) or your taxable compensation for the year.

In addition, to deduct your contributions to a traditional IRA and receive the pre-tax benefits, your income must be below certain limits. And for Roth IRAs, your income must be below a certain limit to contribute, although there is a way around this limitation using the backdoor Roth strategy.

Income Limitations Specific to Deducting Traditional IRA Contributions

To be eligible to deduct your traditional IRA contributions and receive the pre-tax benefits, your income must meet certain limits.

Interestingly, those limits vary based on whether you or your spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work and your specific tax filing status. Income limits are updated periodically, so be sure to check the IRS website for the most current limits.

Income Limitations Specific to Contributing Directly to a Roth

Roth IRAs also have specific income limitations based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) and filing status. For tax year 2023:

  • If you're single or head of household: The ability to contribute begins phasing out at $138k MAGI; no contribution allowed beyond $153k MAGI.

  • If married filing jointly: The phase-out range starts at $218k MAGI; no contribution is allowed beyond $228k MAGI.

  • If married filing separately (and lived with a spouse): No direct contributions allowed if your MAGI exceeds $10k.

Pro Tip: Always check current IRS guidelines when planning your retirement investments.

The Backdoor Roth Strategy for High-Income Earners

If you make more than the IRS limit, you can still access a Roth IRA by executing a backdoor Roth strategy.

Converting non-Roth assets into backdoor Roths

To execute a backdoor Roth strategy, you contribute to a traditional IRA without taking a deduction and then convert those funds directly to a Roth IRA. Because there are no income limits on non-deductible Traditional IRA contributions and Roth conversions, anyone can use this strategy. However, there are some key pitfalls to be aware of with this strategy, such as the pro-rata rule for IRA conversions, so be sure to do your research and consider consulting a trusted professional before employing this strategy. 

Additional Strategies For High-Income Earners Planning Retirement Investments

  • Diversify: Consider a blend of traditional and Roth IRAs while also using a blend of investments within those accounts—stocks, bonds, and more.

  • Tax Planning: Consult with a financial advisor or tax professional to optimize savings based on current and projected future tax rates.

  • Risk Management: Evaluate risk tolerance and adjust investment strategies accordingly—conservative approaches may include a higher allocation to bonds, while aggressive investors may focus on a higher allocation to stocks.

Withdrawal Rules and Penalties Associated with Each Account Type

When using IRAs to save for retirement, it’s essential to understand the withdrawal rules and plan accordingly. 

Qualified Distributions versus Nonqualified Distributions Explained

In an effort to help savers keep their funds in their accounts until retirement age, the government has certain restrictions, rules, and penalties they can impose on early or nonqualified distributions. Alternatively, qualified distributions are those that have met all the necessary rules and restrictions. 

Age Requirements and Early Withdrawal Penalties for Traditional IRAs

  • Withdraw penalty-free at age 59½.

  • Withdraw earlier and face a 10% penalty plus income taxes (unless you qualify for an exception).

  • Exceptions include higher education expenses, first-time home purchases, medical expenses, or disability.

Roth IRA Withdrawal Rules, Including the Five-Year Rule

  • Withdraw your contributions tax-free at any time.

  • Earnings withdrawals are tax-free if you're over 59½ and have had the account open for at least five years.

  • Early earnings withdrawals may be taxed and penalized (with some exceptions).

For more information, check out and Investopedia.

Understanding Required Minimum Distributions

Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are the minimum amounts of money that you must withdraw from your traditional IRA each year after you reach a certain age. Roth IRAs do not have RMDs because they are funded with after-tax dollars. This gives Roth IRAs an added flexibility advantage over traditional IRAs.

Balancing Contributions Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

But why choose between pre-tax contributions and tax-free withdrawals when you can have a little of both? 

By contributing to both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, you can enjoy the best of both worlds, but remember, your contribution limits are across all your IRA accounts.

Diversify Your Retirement Investments for Maximum Benefits

  • Tax advantages: Combining the two account types allows you to take advantage of their unique tax benefits, potentially reducing your taxable income during retirement.

  • Diversification: Diversification helps spread risk across different investment vehicles and account types, protecting your nest egg from market forces.

  • Flexibility: Having access to both pre-tax and post-tax funds gives you more options when it comes time to withdraw money in retirement, allowing for better financial planning.

Factors to Consider When Balancing Your Contributions

Your ideal contribution balance will depend on your income level, expected future earnings, age, and personal preferences. Some key considerations include:

  1. Evaluating your current marginal tax rate versus what it might be in the future - if you expect higher taxes in the future, prioritize Roth contributions now; alternatively, if you expect a lower tax rate in retirement, consider prioritizing traditional contributions now.

  2. Consider your retirement income needs and how much you'll need to withdraw from each account type to meet those needs.

  3. Consult a professional to assess the best plan for you while considering your future tax rate and retirement income requirements.

For additional information on how traditional and Roth IRAs can help you meet your retirement income needs, consult a trusted financial advisor.


Roth IRA vs. Traditional: Choosing between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA depends on your financial goals and current situation. Traditional IRAs offer pre-tax contributions and Roth IRAs provide tax-free withdrawals in retirement.

Eligibility requirements for contributing to an IRA vary based on your income. Still, high-income earners can consider using the backdoor strategy to access a Roth IRA even if their income is too high.

Withdrawal rules and penalties also differ between account types, with age requirements and early withdrawal penalties for traditional IRAs versus the five-year rule for Roth IRAs.

In the end, you may consider balancing contributions between both account types to provide the flexibility of different tax advantaged accounts, but consider your current tax bracket when deciding how much to contribute to each account type.

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Anders Skagerberg CFP, EA Personal Finance Writer

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