SIMPLE IRA vs Traditional IRA

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

Reviewed by Subject Matter Experts

Updated on June 06, 2024

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SIMPLE IRA vs Traditional IRA: Overview

Saving for retirement is an important part of managing your money, and the type of Individual Retirement Account (IRA) you choose can make a big difference. Two common types of IRAs are SIMPLE IRAs and Traditional IRAs, each with unique benefits.

SIMPLE IRAs, or Savings Incentive Match Plans for Employees, are a good fit for small businesses and their workers because they provide a simple way to save for the future.

On the other hand, Traditional IRAs are accessible to anyone who earns income, regardless of their employer. These IRAs offer flexibility and tax advantages to help you save for retirement.

Key Features of SIMPLE IRA


SIMPLE IRAs are intended to assist small businesses and their employees in saving for retirement with a straightforward and easy-to-manage plan.

Unlike more complex options, SIMPLE IRAs are simpler to administer, making them attractive to small business owners who wish to provide retirement benefits without dealing with intricate regulations and high administrative costs.

These plans encourage employees to save for the future and benefit from employer contributions, supporting financial well-being and long-term financial planning.

Eligibility Criteria

Employees usually qualify for a SIMPLE IRA if they have earned at least $5,000 in any two previous years and expect to earn at least $5,000 in the current year. This requirement ensures that employees with consistent earnings can participate in the plan.

Employers have some flexibility in setting eligibility requirements, as they can opt for less stringent rules, such as including employees who have not met the $5,000 threshold. However, they cannot impose stricter rules than those established by the IRS.

Contribution Limits and Deadlines

In 2024, employees can contribute a maximum of $16,000 to a SIMPLE IRA, with an extra catch-up contribution of $3,500 available for individuals aged 50 and above. This provision enables older employees to enhance their retirement savings as they approach retirement.

Employers must also contribute to their employees' SIMPLE IRAs. They can match employee contributions dollar-for-dollar up to 3% of the employee's compensation, encouraging employees to contribute by providing additional employer funds.

Alternatively, employers can make non-elective contributions of 2% of each eligible employee's compensation (up to an annual limit of $345,000 in base compensation for 2024), regardless of whether the employee contributes.

This approach ensures all eligible employees receive a contribution, promoting a basic level of retirement savings.

Timely contributions are essential. Employee contributions must be deposited into the SIMPLE IRA plan as soon as possible, but no later than 30 days after the end of the month in which they were withheld from the employee's paycheck.

Employer contributions are due by the employer's tax return deadline, including extensions.

Tax Treatment of Contributions and Withdrawals

Contributions to a SIMPLE IRA are made on a pre-tax basis, reducing the participant's taxable income for the year. This immediate tax deduction can lower overall tax liability, providing a financial incentive to contribute to the plan.

Earnings on investments within a SIMPLE IRA grow tax-deferred, meaning no taxes are paid on investment gains, dividends, or interest until the funds are withdrawn.

This tax deferral allows investments to compound more effectively over time, potentially resulting in a larger retirement fund.

Withdrawals from a SIMPLE IRA are taxed as ordinary income in the year they are taken. It's important to plan for the tax implications of these withdrawals, especially in retirement when they serve as a source of income.

Early withdrawals before age 59½ typically incur a 10% penalty in addition to regular income tax. However, if the withdrawal occurs within the first two years of participation, the penalty increases to 25%.

There are exceptions to these penalties for specific situations, such as qualified higher education expenses, first-time home purchases, and certain medical expenses.

Key Features of SIMPLE IRA

Key Features of Traditional IRA


A Traditional IRA offers a tax-efficient method for individuals to save for retirement, aiming to foster long-term savings through tax benefits that can boost the growth of retirement funds.

Unlike employer-sponsored plans, anyone with earned income can open a Traditional IRA, making it a versatile choice for different savers, including the self-employed or those without access to an employer's retirement plan.

The ability to customize contributions and investment options allows individuals to adapt their retirement savings approach to their specific financial needs and objectives.

Eligibility Criteria

A Traditional IRA is accessible to a wide range of individuals due to its broad eligibility criteria. Anyone with earned income, regardless of age, can contribute to a Traditional IRA. This inclusivity is particularly beneficial for those without employer-sponsored retirement plans.

However, the ability to deduct contributions on your tax return is influenced by factors such as your income level and whether you or your spouse participates in a workplace retirement plan.

If neither you nor your spouse has a retirement plan at work, you can fully deduct your contribution to a Traditional IRA, regardless of your income.

If either you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan, the deductibility of your contributions gradually decreases based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI).

Contribution Limits and Deadlines

For 2024, the contribution limit for a Traditional IRA is $7,000, with an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000 for individuals aged 50 and older.

The annual contribution limit applies to the total contributions made to your Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs combined. It's essential to remember this to avoid exceeding the contribution limits, which could result in penalties.

Contributions to a Traditional IRA for a given tax year can be made until the tax filing deadline, typically April 15th of the following year.

This extended contribution window provides flexibility, allowing individuals to make contributions after the end of the calendar year if they have not yet reached the contribution limit.

Tax Treatment of Contributions and Withdrawals

Contributions to a Traditional IRA can be tax-deductible, thereby lowering your taxable income for the year the contributions are made. As noted earlier, the deductibility depends on your income and whether you or your spouse have a workplace retirement plan.

Investments within a Traditional IRA grow tax-deferred, meaning you don't pay taxes on gains, dividends, or interest until withdrawal. This tax deferral can enhance the compounding effect of your investments, potentially increasing your retirement savings.

Similar to SIMPLE IRAs, withdrawals from a Traditional IRA are taxed as ordinary income in the year they are taken. Additionally, early withdrawals before age 59½ typically incur a 10% penalty along with regular income tax.

Key Features of Traditional IRA

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between SIMPLE or Traditional IRA

Current and Projected Income Levels

For individuals in higher income brackets, the tax-deductible contributions of Traditional IRAs can provide immediate tax relief, making them particularly appealing.

On the other hand, those in lower income brackets or employed by small businesses might find the employer contribution benefits of a SIMPLE IRA more advantageous, especially if they anticipate their income will grow over time.

Retirement Timeline

If you plan to retire early, it's important to consider the penalty structures: Traditional IRAs generally impose a 10% penalty on withdrawals before age 59½, with certain exceptions, while SIMPLE IRAs have a higher 25% penalty for withdrawals within the first two years.

For those with a longer investment horizon, the cumulative impact of employer contributions in a SIMPLE IRA can result in significant growth, particularly given the higher annual contribution limits compared to Traditional IRAs.

Employer Contributions

For employees of small businesses, the potential for employer contributions under a SIMPLE IRA is a compelling advantage. These contributions can significantly boost retirement savings without additional personal outlay.

However, the traditional IRA's independence from employer involvement could be more fitting for self-employed individuals or those without access from employer-sponsored plans.

Investment Options

SIMPLE IRAs typically offer a range of investment options chosen by the employer or plan provider. Although this selection can be comprehensive, it is generally limited to what the employer or plan administrator has selected.

In contrast, Traditional IRAs often provide greater flexibility and a broader variety of investment choices. Individuals can choose from a wide range of investments, such as individual stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and even real estate in some cases.

This flexibility allows for more personalized investment strategies tailored to an individual's risk tolerance, financial goals, and market outlook.

The increased control over investment choices in a Traditional IRA can be particularly beneficial for those who prefer to actively manage their retirement portfolio.

Tax Situation

Finally, your current and future tax situation determines your choice between a SIMPLE and a traditional IRA. If you anticipate being in a lower tax bracket in retirement, the traditional IRA’s tax-deferral feature can be advantageous.

Alternatively, if you expect your income to increase, leading to a higher tax bracket in retirement, the upfront tax benefits of the SIMPLE IRA might be more beneficial.

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between SIMPLE or Traditional IRA

Final Thoughts

The choice between a SIMPLE IRA and a traditional IRA hinges on individual financial circumstances, retirement timelines, and employer involvement.

SIMPLE IRAs are ideal for small business employees, offering higher contribution limits and mandatory employer contributions.

Traditional IRAs, on the other hand, cater to a broader audience with their tax-deductible contributions and a wide range of investment options.

Understanding your current and projected income, retirement timeline, and tax situation is crucial in selecting the right IRA.

Both IRAs provide valuable paths to achieving retirement goals, but their effectiveness depends on aligning their features with your specific financial needs and retirement strategy.

SIMPLE IRA vs Traditional IRA FAQs

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website or view his author profiles on Amazon, Nasdaq and Forbes.

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