The Best Alternatives to a 401(k)

Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and Investment Accounts Are Options

Established in 1978, the 401(k) plan has become the most popular employer-sponsored retirement plan in the U.S. However, not everyone has access to a 401(k) plan, but there are other options to maximize your retirement savings.

Key Takeaways

  • Not all workers have access to a 401(k), a popular employer-sponsored retirement plan.
  • Some alternatives include IRAs and qualified investment accounts.
  • IRAs, like 401(k)s, offer tax advantages for retirement savers.
  • If you qualify for the Roth option, consider your current and future tax situation to decide between a traditional IRA and a Roth.

Understanding 401(k) Plans

With a 401(k), you contribute pretax money from your paycheck. The money is automatically deducted from your pay and invested in the investments you choose from the plan's options. Many employers match a percentage of your contributions, and you benefit from this investment when you retire.

In 2024, the 401(k) contribution limit is $23,000. For those aged 50 and older, an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500 is allowed. Beginning in the tax year 2025, the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022 substantially increases catch-up limits for 401(k) plan participants aged 60 to 63 to the greater of $10,000 or 50% of the standard catch-up amount for that year.

Contributions to a 401(k) can be revised as needed if your salary or circumstances change. Some employers allow a percentage of income withdrawn from an employee's pay period, which can help to increase savings as your salary increases.

Individual Retirement Accounts

If your employer doesn't offer a 401(k) or you are self-employed or a small business owner, you can open an individual retirement account (IRA). These accounts also offer tax advantages, which differ depending on whether you choose a traditional or Roth IRA.

You can also choose an IRA in addition to a 401(k), but your income and the type of account you choose will determine if your contributions may be tax-deductible. The money in all of your accounts will still grow tax-free until retirement.

IRA and 401(k) contribution limits differ. With an IRA, the most you can contribute in 2024 is $7,000 or $8,000 if you are 50 or older. Beginning in 2024, the $1,000 catch-up contribution for savers age 50 and above will be indexed to the IRS cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) to account for inflation.

Both 401(k)s and IRAs have an early withdrawal penalty if you take distributions before age 59?, but there are exceptions to this rule.

With an IRA, you can invest in various security or financial instruments. "The IRA is a great investment vehicle. However, more than 85% of investors aren't aware of all the benefits that an IRA provides. It allows you to invest in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, but it also allows you to invest in real estate, horses, private company stock, tax liens, farmland, cryptocurrency, franchises, physical gold, and more," says Kirk Chisholm, wealth manager at Innovative Advisory Group in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA

Like 401(k)s, IRAs have both traditional and Roth versions and vary based on taxes paid now or taxes deferred. When deciding between a traditional or Roth IRA, investors often consider whether they will be in a higher tax bracket once they retire and if the tax brackets in the future mimic their bracket today.

A traditional IRA deducts the contributions from your taxes today, and you only pay income taxes when you begin distributions after age 59? or later. Traditional IRAs require required minimum distributions (RMDs) beginning at age 73, with the age requirement increasing to 75 in 2033.

With a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax money now, but once you start withdrawing, your retirement income, both earnings and your investment are tax-free. Roth IRAs do not have a provision for required minimum distributions.


If you are self-employed or a small business owner, you may have the option to open a simplified employee pension (SEP-IRA). SEP-IRAs operate like traditional IRAs in terms of tax advantages and investment options. They have the additional benefit of higher contribution limits. Contributions cannot exceed 25% of compensation for the year or $66,000 for 2023, whichever is less.

Additional Retirement Saving Options

Cash-Balance Defined-Benefit Plan

A cash-balance defined-benefit plan implements a type of retirement catch-up for employers. Like a traditional pension plan, a cash balance plan provides workers with the option of a lifetime annuity. However, cash balance plans create an individual account for each covered employee with a specified lump sum. For 2023, the annual benefit allowed under a defined benefit plan is $265,000.

The Investment Account

You can open an account at your preferred financial institution and contribute as much as you want to save for retirement. If choosing security or bond instruments, any gains from appreciation or dividends will be taxed as long-term capital gains if investments are held for more than one year. Supplementing a retirement account with a taxable account invested in a stock fund or bond fund allocation may add to your financial plan but will require planning and self-management.

What Retirement Accounts Have RMDs?

Required minimum distributions apply to a traditional IRA, SEP IRA, or a retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), and is taxed as ordinary income.?Roth IRAs?do not have RMDs.

What Is the Difference Between a 401(k) and a 403(b)?

A 401(k) plan?is a defined contribution plan offered by an employer such as a private or publicly traded company. A 403(b) Plan?is a retirement plan offered by public schools and certain tax-exempt organizations.

Do Employers Have to Offer 401(k) Plans to Employees?

Beginning in 2025, employers will be required to automatically enroll eligible employees in new 401(k) or 403(b) plans with a participation amount of at least 3% but no more than 10%. The contribution escalates at the rate of 1% per year up to a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 15%.

The Bottom Line

The 401(k) plan has become the most popular employer-sponsored retirement plan in the U.S. While not all employers offer access to a 401(k) plan, there are other options to maximize retirement savings, such as traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and personal investment accounts.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Congress. “Public Law 95-600 Revenue Act of 1978."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) Plan Overview."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “401(k) Limit Increases to $23,000 for 2024, IRA Limit Rises to $7,000.”

  4. U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. “SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022: Title I – Expanding Coverage and Increasing Retirement Savings,” Page 2.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Traditional and Roth IRAs."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics — Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Simplified Employee Pension Plan (SEP)."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "SEP Contribution Limits (Including Grandfathered SARSEPs)."

  10. Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics - Defined Benefit Plan Benefit Limits."

  11. Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs."

  12. Internal Revenue Service. "IRC 403(b) Tax-Sheltered Annuity Plans."

  13. U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. “SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022: Title I – Expanding Coverage and Increasing Retirement Savings,” Page 1.

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