A 401(k) is a retirement savings plan sponsored by an employer. It lets workers save and invest a piece of their paycheck before taxes are taken out. Taxes aren't paid until the money is withdrawn from the account.
401(k) plans, named for the section of the tax code that governs them, arose during the 1980s as a supplement to pensions. Most employers used to offer pension funds. Pension funds were managed by the employer and they paid out a steady income over the course of the retirement. (If you have a government job or a strong union, you may might still be eligible for a pension.) But as the cost of running pensions escalated, employers started replacing them with 401(k)s.
Most plans offer a selection of mutual funds composed of stocks, bonds, and money market investments. The most popular option tends to be target-date funds, a combination of stocks and bonds that gradually become more conservative as you reach retirement. You decide how much money you want deducted from your paycheck and deposited to the plan based on limits imposed by plan provisions and IRS rules. Your employer may also choose to make contributions to the plan, but this is optional. Employees can contribute as much as $18,000 per year (in 2016) and $24,000 if age 50 or over.
An IRA is an account set up at a financial institution that allows an individual to save for retirement with tax-free growth or on a tax-deferred basis. You can contribute a meximum of $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or older) to an IRA account in 2016. The three main types of IRAs each have different advantages:
Traditional IRA - You make contributions with money you may be able to deduct on your tax return, and any earnings can potentially grow tax-deferred until you withdraw them in retirement. Many retirees also find themselves in a lower tax bracket than they were in pre-retirement, so the tax-deferral means the money may be taxed at a lower rate.
Roth IRA - You make contributions with money you’ve already paid taxes on (after-tax), and your money may potentially grow tax-free, with tax-free withdrawals in retirement, provided that certain conditions are met.
Rollover IRA - A Traditional IRA intended for money "rolled over" from a qualified retirement plan. Rollovers involve moving eligible assets from an employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), into an IRA.
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