Roth IRA vs. Pre-Tax Contribution: What’s The Difference?

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  • The key difference between a Roth IRA and a pre-tax retirement account is when the funds are taxed: at contribution or at withdrawal.
  • To make a $6,000 contribution to a pre-tax retirement account you'll have to contribute $6,000 of earnings. To make that same $6,000 contribution to a Roth IRA, you will have to contribute $6,000 plus the amount you will have been taxed.
  • When it's time to withdraw, the Roth withdrawals are tax-free, and $10,000 withdrawn is $10,000 in tax-free cash to spend. With your pre-tax savings, you will have to withdraw $10,000 plus what you are taxed to get that same $10,000 in spendable cash.

Roth IRAs are retirement accounts that you fund with after-tax dollars in exchange for tax-free distributions later. Distributions from retirement accounts, like a traditional IRA or 401(k), are taxable.

The contribution type that works best for you depends on what plans your employer offers, how much you can contribute, and tax rates.  Here’s how you can compare the two options.

What’s the Difference Between a Roth IRA and a Pre-Tax Contribution Plan?

The difference between Roth IRAs and pre-tax contribution plans is not limited to the tax treatment of contributions and withdrawals.

  Roth IRA Pre-Tax Contribution Plans
Contributions No tax deduction for contributions Contributions are tax-deductible
Distributions Distributions are tax-free Distributions are 100% taxable
Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) None while owner is alive RMDs begin at age 72
Plan Ownership Individually owned Individually owned or employer sponsored

Contributions

Roth IRA contributions are made with money you’ve already paid tax on, which means that you have less money to invest compared to pre-tax contributions, which is untaxed money. 

For example, a $6,000 contribution to a pre-tax retirement plan is an untaxed contribution and, therefore, it's tax-deductible. On the other hand, to make a $6,000 Roth IRA contribution, you’d have to have $6,000 after you paid the tax. Let's say you earn $80,000, which would put in the 24% tax bracket with an effective tax rate of 16.52%. You'd have to earn about $7,187 pre-tax to make that same $6,000 contribution. 

Distributions

Since you’ve already paid tax on the money before you put it in a Roth IRA, plan distributions are tax-free. No tax is paid on your accumulated interest and gains if you meet certain criteria. Distributions that meet Roth IRA criteria are called qualified distributions

On the other hand, distributions from pre-tax contribution plans are 100% taxable. All of your contributions, interest, and gains are tax-deferred, meaning you pay taxes when you withdraw money from your plan.

For example, if you are in that same 24% tax bracket at retirement, with the same 16.52% effective tax rate, you have to withdraw roughly $41,926 from a pre-tax contribution account such as a 401(k) to have $35,000 to spend. A  $35,000 qualified distribution from your Roth IRA, on the other hand, would be tax-free, and you would withdraw $35,000 to have $35,000.

Plan Ownership

A Roth IRA is individually owned.  Other than collectibles and life insurance, you can direct your investments however you like. Pre-tax plans can be individually owned, like a traditional IRA, or they can be sponsored by your employer, like a 401(k).

Employer-sponsored plans have higher contribution limits and limited investment menus. The 2022 annual contribution limit to a 401(k) plan was $20,500 ($22,500 in 2023) compared to the $6,000 contribution limit for Roth IRAs ($6,500 in 2023).

Note

Employers can choose to make Roth as well as traditional pre-tax contribution options available in the plans they offer employees. Unlike a Roth IRA, employer-sponsored Roth plans enforce required minimum distributions after a certain age.

Which Is Better For You?

While there’s no ideal way to anticipate which will be better for you, Roth IRAs would work best when the tax rates during your working years are lower than your tax rates at retirement. Pre-tax plans would work better when tax rates in your working years are higher than tax rates during retirement.

Contributions

Pre- and after-tax contribution strategies can have a significant impact on how much your retirement account can grow. Consider an example of a 30-year-old in the 24% tax bracket (and an effective rate of 16.52%) who contributes $6,000 per year to a Roth IRA and earns 6% interest. The Roth IRA account will have $714,725 at age 65. 

The annual contribution represents $7,187 in earnings, or $6,000 after tax at an effective tax rate of 16.52%. A fair comparison with the 401(k) should include the $1,187 of tax savings in the pre-tax contribution. So consider the same person instead who contributed to a pre-tax 401(k) plan which has a higher contribution limit, and who contributes their tax savings, an additional $1,187 per year.

Simply because you’re investing a higher amount, at age 65 the 401(k) account balance is $856,233. The 401(k) account has $141,508 more than the Roth IRA. 

Note

Other factors remaining constant, you can visualize how your investments could grow over time using a compound interest calculator.

Withdrawals

Now let’s compare the two plans in the context of you withdrawing $50,000 of retirement income at different tax rates. The figures in the table below are based on an assumption that tax rates increase as your income increases with age.

Effective Tax Rate Roth IRA Withdrawal Pre-Tax Plan Withdrawal
15% $50,000 $58,824
24% $50,000 $65,789
30% $50,000 $71,429

If the Roth IRA withdrawals meet the rules, there will be no taxes to be paid on the distributions. On the other hand, from the pre-tax 401(k) plan the withdrawals would be taxed. Therefore, to get $50,000 in hand, the withdrawal from the account would need to be higher depending on the tax bracket.

Here’s what the account balances look like 20 years later at age 85 after annual $50,000 (and $50,000 equivalent) distributions, assuming a 6% rate of return.

Effective Tax Rate Roth IRA Balance At 85 Pre-Tax Plan Balance At 85
15% $245,097 $331,057
24% $147,673 $0 (Depleted at 84)
30% $89,952 $0 (Depleted at 82)

At the lower tax rate in retirement of 15%, the pre-tax plan balance is greater than the Roth plan balance. But at the higher effective tax rates the pre-tax plan is depleted before age 85.

A Best-of-Both Worlds Option

You don’t necessarily have to choose between a Roth IRA or a pre-tax retirement plan. 

Note

Depending on your income, a Roth IRA may be available even if you are already contributing to an employer-sponsored ‘pre-tax’ plan.

If you’re married filing jointly, you can contribute to a Roth IRA if your income is less than $214,000 ($228,000 in 2023). The limit for individuals is $144,000 ($153,000 in 2023). Making both Roth and ‘pre-tax’ contributions may be a good overall strategy for your retirement plan.

The Bottom Line

Predicting future tax rates is unpredictable, especially if retirement is many years away. Besides tax rates, here are some other considerations that may help you decide if you should opt for a Roth IRA, or a pre-tax retirement plan, or perhaps both.

What Does Your Employer Offer?

If your employer offers matching contributions, it makes sense to contribute as much as you can to the plan. If you choose a Roth option, your contributions will be allocated to the Roth plan, however your employer contributions will be allocated to the pre-tax plan.

How Much Can You Contribute?

If you can’t contribute the maximum to your employer sponsored plan, a pre-tax option may be a better choice because you’re investing the tax savings. Regardless of future tax rates, you’ll still have more money in your retirement account.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are 401(k) contributions pre-tax?

Contributions to your employer-provided 401(k) retirement savings plan are pre-tax, that is, your contributions are deducted from your paycheck before state and federal income taxes have been deducted. Note that your contributions aren't tax-free. They are "tax deferred," and you'll have to pay income tax when the funds are withdrawn.

Do you have to pay taxes on Roth IRA withdrawals?

If you are 59-1/2 and opened the account at least five years before, there are no taxes or penalties to pay when you withdraw funds from the account.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. IRS. “Roth Comparison Chart.”

  2. IRS. “IRA FAQs.”

  3. IRS. “Amount of Roth IRA Contributions That You Can Make for 2022.”

  4. IRS. "Amount of Roth IRA Contributions That You Can Make For 2023."

  5. IRS. "401(k) Plan Overview."

  6. IRS. "Required Minimum Distributions: Roth IRAs."

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