Each has its advantages as a retirement-savings vehicle, but by asking several questions, you can make the best decision for your financial circumstances.
By Dana Dratch, Bankrate.com
In a perfect world, you’d max out your company 401k and your IRA.
But if you’re like a lot of people, “perfect” might not describe your money situation at the moment. So if you have to choose, which retirement account should get first dibs on your money?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But asking a few more questions will help you arrive at the right decision. It pays to consider these 10.
Do you get an employer match?
The first question you want to ask is whether your employer matches funds, says Ed Slott, the author of “The Retirement Savings Time Bomb … and How to Defuse It.”
“It’s free money, so you don’t want to give that up,” he says.
The typical match today: 50 cents on the dollar up to 6% of your income, says Craig Copeland, a senior research associate at the Employee Benefits Research Institute.
So if you earn $50,000 and bank $3,000 in your retirement account this year, you get an additional $1,500 from your employer as a reward.
Do you plan to stay with your employer?
Your 401k is like your briefcase: You can take it with you when you leave your job. But there could be limits on whether your employer’s matching money goes, too.
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Some companies pay out their matches in a lump sum at the end of the year, says David Bendix, the president of the Bendix Financial Group. If you’re not there when they dole it out, you’re out of luck.
Others have what’s called a “vesting schedule,” he says. While the employer puts money in your account, it becomes yours in increments over time. You get to keep the entire matching contribution after you’ve been with your employer for a predetermined length of time, typically five years, says Bendix.
Bottom line: “In any short-term employment, you’re probably not going to get much from the match,” says Bendix.
Some 401k plans also levy back-end and surrender fees if you remove your money from the plan. (How much will your 401k provide? Use MSN Money’s calculator to find out.)
So how do you inquire about exit costs without sending up a red flag? Ask the plan administrator to provide a comprehensive list of fees and expenses, says Bendix.
Will you really save on your own?
“If you don’t put that money in your 401k, do you have the resolve and willpower to save it somewhere else?” asks Ted Benna, the president of Malvern Benefits and the consultant whose innovative interpretation of part of the 1978 Tax Revenue Act launched the 401k industry.
“Most people, myself included, don’t have the discipline to do it on their own,” he says.
But with a payroll deduction, Benna says, “it happens, it’s systematized, you don’t have to think about it.”
How much do you want to save?
“In favor of a 401k, you can put a lot more away,” says Karen Altfest, principal adviser and executive vice president of client relations for Altfest Personal Wealth Management, a fee-only financial planning firm based in New York City.
With a 401k, you can save up to $16,500 in 2011. And you can go up to $22,000 if you’re 50 or older. With an IRA this year, you can save up to $5,000, or $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.
“So if you’ve got that money to put away, you’re going to be able to put away a lot more” in a 401k, says Altfest.
If you’ve already maxed out your 401k and still have income to save, “you might want to consider whether a traditional or Roth IRA might be right for you,” she says. (Should you convert to a Roth IRA? Run the numbers with this MSN Money calculator.)
Which option offers the investments you want?
With an IRA, “there are a lot more investment options,” says Bendix. “With a 401k, you’re limited to your employer’s selections. And they may not be in tune with what your objectives are.”
But some experts give the 401k extra points for its flexibility.
One option you’ll often see in a 401k that is not offered in IRAs: stable-value funds. And since they traditionally offer a higher return than money market funds, they can be a great place to park cash for your upcoming retirement, says Wayne Bogosian, the president of the PFE Group and co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 401k Plans.”
The average annual return: 3.26%, according to recent numbers from the Stable Value Investment Association, an industry group based in Washington, D.C.
What are the costs?
As is the case with most retail products, investment costs vary, depending on where you buy. Even the experts disagree as to which savings vehicle offers the best bang for your buck.
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“A lot of 401ks are very expensive; there are a lot of hidden fees,” says Bendix. “The IRAs should be significantly less expensive than investments in a 401k.”
But Bogosian sees the group-buying power of 401ks and the management fees associated with some IRAs as a good reason to keep your money in a 401k or similar employer-sponsored plan.
“Many IRA custodians offer a limited — and expensive — investment menu,” says Bogosian. “They may also charge minimum account fees or trading fees. Most 401k plans have no such charges.”
Price it out before you invest. And get a breakdown on how much of your money is going to the investment and how much is going to fees and management costs.
Which offers better protection?
When you owe more than you own, “creditors come a-calling,” says Bogosian. “Both 401k and IRA assets are protected for the most part from creditors and from personal bankruptcy,” he says, adding that “401k plans do offer a more comprehensive level of protection, because IRAs are still subject to certain state laws.”
“If you are in over your head, research your state’s creditor and bankruptcy laws to better understand if there are conditions and limits to the amount of protection afforded to IRAs,” says Bogosian. “When in doubt, leave your money in your 401k.”
Are you planning to retire early?
A 401k could make withdrawals for early retirement a little simpler. With 401k plans and traditional IRAs (though not Roth IRAs), the standard retirement age is 59½, says Bogosian. For certain withdrawals before that age, you may owe a 10% tax penalty, plus any applicable state and federal income taxes, he notes.
With a 401k, people who leave employment after age 55 (even those who later rejoin the workforce) “can take a taxable distribution with no 10% penalty,” says Bogosian. “IRAs have no such ‘age 55’ option, unless someone wants to take substantially equal payments, which is also an option in 401k plans.”
Will you want to borrow from your savings?
With a traditional IRA, you can withdraw money penalty-free for certain life events, such as buying a house, getting an education, medical expenses or to pay health insurance premiums after a job loss, says Bendix.
On the other hand, you generally can’t borrow from a traditional IRA, though most 401k plans allow participants to take a loan, says Bendix.
But if you can’t repay the 401k account on time, or if you lose your job and can’t repay it immediately, it’s considered an early distribution. You’ll owe a 10% penalty plus taxes.
Borrowing from your 401k is “one of the worst financial moves to make,” says Slott.
Bogosian recommends a compromise: Stash money in a 401k for retirement and in a Roth IRA for your emergency fund.
“You can’t beat the Roth for savings flexibility,” he says. “Put it in, take it out as you need, just don’t touch the earnings. And after five years, up to $10,000 in earnings can be used tax-free to buy your first home.”
Are you (or your spouse) not working?
If you want to build retirement savings for a nonworking spouse, you have a couple of options.
“If you have a spouse who has no earned income, you are probably saving for their retirement in addition to yours,” says Bogosian. And in that case, “a 401k’s higher saving limits provide greater opportunity.”
But an unemployed spouse can also earmark personal money for retirement in a spousal IRA, says Altfest.
The working spouse must have enough income to cover the spousal IRA contribution. However, if the working spouse is covered by an employer retirement plan, the deduction may be limited, depending on income and filing status, according to the Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 590 (.pdf file).
A spousal IRA allows an unemployed spouse to build an independent retirement account under his or her own name using the family’s earned income.
And, says Altfest, “I think it’s really a great thing.”