Retirement Planning: Roth 401k vs Traditional 401k

Contributed by: Kali Hassinger, CFP® Kali Hassinger

With our country’s ever-changing tax policies, we are left to hypothesize what taxation will look like in the coming years. Striking the right balance between taxation now and taxation during retirement is complicated, but a recent study has shown that it may not significantly affect our overall savings behaviors. Since 2006, employers have had the option to offer Roth 401ks to employees, and approximately 49% of employers now include this option as part of their incentive package. 

Roth 401ks effectively remove a large portion of the taxation mystery because all employee contributions are made on an after-tax basis. That means that you pay the tax today at the current and stated rate, but, assuming you wait until 59 ½ and have held the account for five years, all withdrawals are tax-free. All employer matches and contributions, however, are still made on a before-tax basis, so there will still be a tax liability for those future withdrawals.

The Harvard Business School study compared the current and previous savings rates of employees who were given the option to contribute to a Roth 401k and a traditional before-tax 401k. Somewhat surprisingly, there were no significant changes or differences between the before-tax 401k and Roth 401k savings rates. It would be easy to assume that Roth 401ks would have a lower contribution rate because current taxes would eat away at the employee’s ability to save. However, it instead appears that employees continued to use the same savings rates as before-tax 401ks, effectively reducing their current cash flow. Although the participant will pay more tax today, they will have greater purchasing power during retirement. 

The study also touched on the significant participation rate differences between 401k plans that automatically enrolled employees and those that didn’t. With an automatic enrollment plan, unless they choose otherwise, the employee will contribute at least the plan’s default deferral percentage. The lowest participation rate in the studied auto-enroll plans was 90%, while the highest participation rate for a non-enrollment plan (meaning the employees had to manually choose to participate) was 64%.

The study itself didn’t address the question of which type of 401k contribution is more beneficial from a tax or long-term standpoint, but a Roth 401k would inarguably have more purchasing power than a traditional 401k with the same balance. Regardless of what your current retirement plan offers, you can feel confident knowing that both before-tax and Roth 401ks can provide a secure retirement when paired with solid and strategic planning.

Kali Hassinger, CFP® is an Associate Financial Planner at Center for Financial Planning, Inc.®

This information has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee that it is accurate or complete, it is not a complete summary or statement of all available data necessary for making an investment decision and does not constitute a recommendation. Opinions expressed are those of Kali Hassinger and are not necessarily those of Raymond James. Investing involves risk, investors may incur a profit or loss regardless of the strategy or strategies employed. Every investor's situation is unique, you should consider your investment goals, risk tolerance and time horizon before making any investment decision. Prior to making an investment decision, please consult with a financial professional about your individual situation.