Types of individual retirement accounts: Your guide to traditional, Roth, SEP, and SIMPLE plans

An IRA crash course.
Miranda Marquit
Miranda MarquitFinancial Writer

Miranda is an award-winning freelancer who has covered various financial markets and topics since 2006. In addition to writing about personal finance, investing, college planning, student loans, insurance, and other money-related topics, Miranda is an avid podcaster and co-hosts the Money Talks News podcast.

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We all have our favorite type.
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An individual retirement account (IRA) is a tax-advantaged way to boost your retirement savings. As an extra benefit, your investment choices might be more varied than what you’d find in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan. There are different types of IRAs, though. Some are available to anyone with earned income. Others are accessible only to small business owners and their employees.

Here’s an overview of the different types of IRAs, who can contribute, the contribution limits for 2023, required minimum distribution (RMD) rules, and more.

Key Points

  • Traditional and Roth IRAs can be started by any person who has earned income.
  • SEP IRAs can help self-employed or small business owners plan for retirement.
  • SIMPLE IRAs are sometimes offered by a small business instead of a 401(k).

Traditional IRA

  • Tax treatment: Contribute with pre-tax dollars; money grows tax-deferred, taxed at your marginal rate when you withdraw
  • Who can contribute: Anyone with earned income
  • Contribution limits (2023): $6,500 or $7,500 if you’re older than 50
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs): Yes, starting at age 73

With the plain-vanilla IRA, it’s possible to sock away a little extra for retirement even if you have a retirement account at work. In general, your contributions to a traditional IRA are tax deductible. However, if you or your spouse make more than a certain amount, or have access to other retirement accounts at work, the deduction might be reduced or eliminated.

With few exceptions, you can’t begin withdrawing money penalty free until you’re 59 1/2. If you take early withdrawals, unless you qualify for an exception, you’re subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty, on top of paying taxes at your regular rate.

Roth IRA

  • Tax treatment: Contribute with after-tax dollars; money grows tax-free and isn’t taxed when you withdraw
  • Who can contribute: Anyone with earned income below the annual income threshold
  • Contribution limits (2023): $6,500 or $7,500 if you’re older than 50
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs): No

The Roth version of the IRA is designed to let individuals pay taxes now and reduce them in the future. For those who believe their taxes will be higher down the road, a Roth can provide some protection. The money invested grows tax free over time and isn’t taxed on withdrawal. Another feature of the Roth IRA is that it’s possible to withdraw your contributions (not the investment earnings) early without penalty. With few exceptions, to access earnings without penalty, you must be at least 59 1/2.

For example, if your total contributions over the years equaled $30,000, and after 10 years those savings grew to $50,000, you could withdraw up to $30,000 early without incurring a penalty. If you wish to access any of the remaining $20,000, be prepared to pay that 10% kicker if you’re under age 59 1/2.

Got Roth envy? Consider converting.

Even if you can’t (or didn’t know how to) contribute directly to a Roth IRA, it’s possible to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth. However, you’ll have to pay taxes on the conversion. The good news is that you don’t have to convert the entire amount all at once. You can choose to convert a portion of your portfolio at a time, reducing the tax hit in a single year and spreading it out.

Here are the pros and cons, along with other Roth conversion info.

The main limitation of the Roth IRA is that not everyone can contribute, even if they have earned income. For 2023, you must make less than $153,000 as a single filer or $228,000 as joint filers to make contributions.

Finally, it’s important to realize that you can make contributions to both a traditional and a Roth IRA, but your total contributions across all accounts must conform to the limits.

Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA

  • Tax treatment: Contribute with pre-tax dollars; money grows tax-deferred, taxed at your marginal rate when you withdraw
  • Who can contribute: Business owners and self-employed people
  • Contribution limits (2023): The lesser of 25% of the business’s net income or $66,000
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs): Yes, starting at age 73

A SEP IRA is designed for those who are self-employed or small business owners. It’s a relatively easy way to prepare for retirement or provide a retirement plan for employees. Those with smaller businesses might find them useful for helping employees prepare for retirement, as they are often easier to administer than a 401(k) plan.

The maximum SEP contribution is 25% of your business’s net income (after deducting half of your self-employment tax and contributions to your own SEP), up to $66,000 for 2023. However, it’s important for business owners to realize that they must contribute the same percentage to their employees that they do to their own SEP IRA. For example, if you contribute 15% of your business’s net income to your own SEP IRA as a business owner, you must also contribute the same percentage to each of your employees’ retirement accounts.

The good news is that a SEP IRA is considered different from a traditional or Roth IRA, so you can max out your SEP contribution even if you’ve already maxed out your other IRA contributions.

New for 2023: The Roth SEP and Roth SIMPLE IRA

The SECURE 2.0 Act created a Roth version of the SEP IRA as well as the SIMPLE IRA. Starting in 2023, SEP owners who wish to make Roth contributions can do so. With the SEP Roth IRA, it’s possible to make after-tax contributions and avoid RMDs, while enjoying tax-free withdrawals in retirement.

Learn more about the SECURE 2.0 Act here.


  • Tax treatment: Contribute with pre-tax dollars; money grows tax-deferred, taxed at your marginal rate when you withdraw
  • Who can contribute: An employee of a small business with a SIMPLE plan; the employer will also contribute—in some cases, even if the employee does not contribute
  • Contribution limits (2023): Employee salary contributions are limited to $15,500, or $19,000 for those above age 50
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs): Yes, starting at age 73

The SIMPLE IRA is designed for small businesses to provide a retirement plan to their employees. In general, a small business usually has 100 or fewer employees. The employer can choose to match up to 3% of employees’ contributions dollar for dollar, or make nonelective contributions of up to 2% of the employees’ income, without the requirement that the employees also contribute.

For employees, it’s important to note that if they make contributions to multiple employer-sponsored retirement accounts including 401(k)s, the total contribution across all accounts is limited to $22,500 in 2023.

Like SEP IRAs, there are now Roth contributions available for SIMPLE IRAs, thanks to the SECURE 2.0 Act.

The bottom line

There are several choices when it comes to IRAs. When you’re deciding how to contribute, consider whether you prefer a tax break today or one during retirement; how much you want to be able to sock away; whether you have your own business; and other aspects of your unique situation.

With the right approach, it’s possible to combine different types of IRAs into one overall retirement effort that will give you the best possible results in the future.

This article is intended for educational purposes only and not as an endorsement of a particular financial strategy. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., does not provide legal, tax, or investment advice.