Which Is Better — a Traditional or Roth Retirement Plan?

A reader named Carole once asked me a very straightforward question:

Should I convert my TSP traditional to a Roth TSP?

That question echoes a more general query that is practically as old as the Roth retirement plan: When it comes to retirement plans, which is better — Roth or regular?

If you’re confused about “TSP,” that stands for Thrift Savings Plan, a federal government plan that functions much like a private company 401(k) or the nonprofit version, the 403(b). For the purposes of this discussion, they’re all interchangeable. But if you’re curious about TSPs, you can read about them at the Thrift Savings Plan website.

Now, let’s explore the differences between Roth and regular retirement plans.

The difference between regular and Roth

Both Roth and regular retirement plans provide tax deferral on investment earnings. But when it comes to contributions and withdrawals, there are key differences.

  • Traditional retirement plan. You do not have to pay taxes on the money you put into the plan during the year you make the contribution. However, you pay taxes on withdrawals as ordinary income when you take the money out in retirement.
  • Roth retirement plan. You don’t get a deduction during the year you make the contribution. However, when you take the money out, it comes out tax-free.

So, when you’re asking whether a traditional or Roth is better, what you’re really asking is whether it’s better to get a deduction now or get tax-free income after retirement.

Which is better?

While many financial writers sing the praises of the Roth and recommend it almost universally, it isn’t really that cut and dried.

That’s because the answer ultimately depends on factors you can’t know. For example, if you’re in a high tax bracket now but expect to be in a zero tax bracket when you retire, you’d be better off avoiding the Roth and deducting your retirement contributions now with a regular plan.

If you’re going to be in the same tax bracket when you retire — or a higher one — it would be best to use a Roth and pay no taxes when you take the money out.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what the tax tables will look like when you retire, especially if it’s far in the future. And as one of my tax professors was fond of saying, “In the long term, we’re all dead.”

In other words, some might argue that today’s bird in hand — a deduction on contributions — is better than tax-free withdrawals at some future date. After all, while it’s unlikely, Congress theoretically could change the rules and start taxing Roth IRA withdrawals. Then, of course, there’s also the possibility you may not live to see your golden years.

There are calculators online that are supposed to help you decide. But all require you to know the unknowable: how much you’re going to earn on your investments, and your tax bracket after retirement.

After fooling around with a few calculators, you’ll probably decide that a Roth is the way to go, especially if you believe taxes will be higher in your golden years. But here’s the answer I most often give: Since you’re not required to fund only one type or the other, why not have both? That way, you can get some deductions now, and you’ll have a tax-free source of retirement income, too.

Doing a Roth rollover

Many employers allow plan participants to convert existing 401(k) balances from regular to Roth. The basics are simple. You simply designate all or part of your existing 401(k) to a Roth and pay the income taxes on the amount you convert.

As for TSPs, according to the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, you can’t convert existing TSP balances to Roth. You can, however, designate future contributions as Roth, either in whole or in part.

Got a question you’d like answered?

I answer reader questions three times a week in my “Ask Stacy” column. If you have a question of your own, ask it by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter, just as you would with any email in your inbox. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here. It’s free, only takes a few seconds, and will get you valuable information every day!

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

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