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401(k) vs. IRA: What’s the Difference?

Regarding retirement planning, two popular options often come up in discussions are the 401(k) and the IRA. These retirement savings accounts offer tax advantages and the opportunity to grow your money over time. However, there are significant differences between the two. Explore the differences between a 401(k) and an IRA to help you decide which option is best below.

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Employer-Sponsored vs. Individual Account

One of the primary distinctions between a 401(k) and an IRA is how they are established. A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement plan. It is typically offered by companies to their employees as a benefit. Contributions to a 401(k) are made through payroll deductions, and the funds are invested based on the options provided by the plan.

On the other hand, an IRA (Individual Retirement Account) is established and managed by an individual. It is not tied to an employer and can be opened with a financial institution such as a bank or brokerage firm. Individuals make contributions to an IRA directly through regular contributions or lump-sum deposits.

Contribution Limits

Another significant difference between a 401(k) and an IRA is the contribution limits. 401(k) plans generally allow for higher contribution limits than IRAs. As of 2021, the maximum annual contribution limit for a 401(k) is $19,500 for individuals under 50. However, individuals aged 50 and above can make additional catch-up contributions of up to $6,500, bringing their total limit to $26,000.

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For IRAs, the maximum annual contribution limit is lower. In 2021, for instance, individuals under 50 could contribute up to $6,000 per year. Those aged 50 and above can make catch-up contributions of up to $1,000, totaling $7,000. It’s important to note that these contribution limits may change over time, so checking the current limits is always advisable.

Employer Matching Contributions

One of the significant advantages of a 401(k) plan is the potential for employer-matching contributions. Many employers offer a matching program, where they contribute a certain percentage of the employee’s salary into their 401(k) account. The specific matching formula can vary between companies, but the employer will match a portion of the employee’s contributions up to a certain limit.

With an IRA, there are no employer-matching contributions. The entire contribution is made by the individual without any additional contributions from the employer.

Investment Options

401(k) plans typically offer limited investment options chosen by the employer or plan administrator. These options include mutual funds, target-date funds, and sometimes company stock. The investment options within a 401(k) are curated to provide a diversified selection while aligning with the plan’s investment objectives.

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On the other hand, an IRA offers a broader range of investment options. Individuals have more control over their investments and can choose from a wider array of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and other investment vehicles. This flexibility allows individuals to customize their investment strategy to match their risk tolerance and financial goals.


Portability refers to transferring or rolling over funds from one retirement account to another. In this aspect, IRAs have an advantage. When leaving a job, individuals can roll their 401(k) funds into an IRA, providing more control and flexibility over their retirement savings. It allows for consolidating retirement accounts from different employers into a single account, making it easier to manage and monitor.

However, it’s important to note that if an individual changes jobs and wants to transfer funds from a 401(k) to an IRA, they may be subject to certain eligibility criteria and potential tax implications. Before making any decisions, consulting with a financial advisor or tax professional is recommended.

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