What's the Difference Between a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA?

Money Girl explains the main differences between a Roth 401k and Roth IRA, and who can have them.

Laura Adams, MBA
2-minute read

What’s the Difference Between a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA?Q: I was at a recent retirement seminar at work where they said I could contribute a total of $30,500 to a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA. Can you explain how that works and what is the difference between a Roth 401k and a Roth IRA?

A: A 401k is a type of retirement plan that’s managed by an employer or created by someone who is self-employed. An Individual Retirement Arrangement or IRA is a plan that’s created and managed by an individual.

Here are the total amounts you can contribute to both types of retirement plans for 2015:

  • 401k (traditional or Roth): $18,000 (or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older) 
  • IRA (traditional or Roth): $5,500 (or $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older)

You’ll notice that if you’re age 50 or older, you can contribute a total of $30,500 ($24,000 + $6,500). If you’re younger, you can contribute a total of $23,500 to a 401k and an IRA.

Now, let’s cover what it means to have a Roth account. The major difference between a traditional and a Roth account is how your money is taxed. When you put money into a traditional retirement account, your contributions are made on a pre-tax basis. Later on, your contributions and any earnings are taxed when you take withdrawals.

With any kind of Roth account, your contributions are made on an after-tax basis. But neither your contributions nor earnings are taxed when you take withdrawals in the future.

See also: How to Get a Roth IRA?


You can contribute to a traditional account, a Roth account, or a combination of both, up to the annual allowable limits. For instance, you could contribute $2,000 to a traditional IRA and $3,500 to a Roth IRA in the same year, if you’re under age 50.

However, a Roth IRA has a special rule that limits or prohibits high earners from making contributions. For instance, if you’re a single taxpayer you can’t participate in a Roth IRA once your modified adjusted gross income reaches $131,000 for 2015.

But what’s terrific about a Roth 401k is that there are no income restrictions! So, you can max out a Roth 401k every year, no matter how much you earn. On the other hand, whether you can max out a Roth IRA depends on your income and tax filing status.

Other Links You Might Like:

7 Pros and Cons of Investing in a Retirement Account at Work

Your Guide to the Roth IRA, Part 1

The Rules for Using a Spousal IRA

25+ Best Financial and Productivity Tools

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About the Author

Laura Adams, MBA

Laura Adams received an MBA from the University of Florida. She's an award-winning personal finance author, speaker, and consumer advocate who is a frequent, trusted source for the national media. Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlers is her newest title. Laura's previous book, Debt-Free Blueprint: How to Get Out of Debt and Build a Financial Life You Love, was an Amazon #1 New Release. Do you have a money question? Call the Money Girl listener line at 302-364-0308. Your question could be featured on the show.