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I have a question that I hope one of you can answer. Is it better for me to maximize my contributions to my 403b plan before I contribute $2,000 to a Roth IRA?

Usually it is best to contribute to the employer's plan at least up to the matched amount--the employer match is like either "free money" or "instant return on investment", either of which is hard to find in a typical investment.

After the emplyer match, the real answer is it depends!

Are your 403(b) investment choices decent, low expense funds or low-cost variable annuities (after considering both the "investment advisory fees" and "M&E fees")? If the expenses are high, the Roth IRA may be better.

Do you expect your retirement taxes to be higher (favors Roth IRA), lower (favors 403(b)), or about the same (both would produce equivalent retirement after-tax dollars per dollar salary, assuming equivalent investments and equivalent expenses) than your current wage-earning taxes?

Would reducing your 403(b) contributions move you into a higher marginal tax rate? If so, it may make sense to not reduce your contributions.

If your retirement taxes are expected to be less or about the same as your wage earning taxes and you are happy with the choices offered in your 403(b) plan, it may be simplier to invest as much as you can in your 403(b) and, if that doesn't leave enough for the Roth IRA, skip the Roth IRA at this time.

On the other hand, there may be a special feature of the 403(b) or Roth IRA that you may want to make use of some day. For example, you could take your regular contributions out at any time for any reason, no taxes, no penalty, which may be nice if you are faced with a cash emergency that your emergency fund cannot handle. (You still cannot touch the earnings without tax or penalty. Also, if you take contributions out of the Roth IRA for longer than 60 days you cannot replace them.) One can also take money out after having the Roth IRA for at least 5 years for qualified first-time home purchase, but I think you would pay income tax on any earnings withdrawn, but not penalty under that circumstance. On the other hand, some 403(b) plans allow loans, which may be useful in some circumstances and not suffer from being unable to replace that money (unless you separate from service and cannot repay the loan, and then you would be hit with tax and penalty on the loan balance).

If you want the usual rule of thumb, it is:

1. Contribute to your employer plan (403(b), 401(k), or equivalent) up to the matched amount--that is like "free money".

2. Contribute to a Roth IRA up to your legal limit. You can usually find better or a wider variety of investment choices in a Roth IRA at a custodian of your choice than you can in your employer's plan.

3. If your employer' s plan is reasonable (fees or expenses aren't excessive), it probably makes sense to contribute up to your legal limit.

One may elect to have some money in 403(b) and some in a Roth IRA because of diversification purposes (e.g., if one's 403(b) plan lacks small caps, one may want to use the Roth IRA to pick up small cap exposure), or for tax treatment diversification (no one really knows if in 10 to 40 years if the Roth IRA's "tax free" status would make sense if, as some people had suggested, the income tax is replaced by a national sales tax).
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