Bill, your wife should definitely contribute to something. If you don’t get matching dollars from an employer sponsored 401(k), you have to compare other factors. How much can you afford to contribute a year? In a 401(k), you’re allowed to contribute $17,500 a year, plus another $5,500 if you’re 50 or older. An IRA – whether Roth or Traditional – caps your contributions at $5,500, or $6,500 over age 50. (These numbers are for 2013, but the IRS has announced that in 2014, contribution limits will remain the same).
Then you consider the plan itself. What do you think of the investment options and expenses associated with your 401(k)? IRAs tend to have a wider variety of investments. Do you want the ability to pull out money tax free in retirement? You might consider a Roth.
After you’ve weighed all of these options, you can contribute to a combination of plans. Maybe you start by maxing out a Roth IRA, if you’re eligible — in 2014, that means you have an adjusted gross income of less than $191,000 if you and your wife file jointly. Single filers will need to have an AGI of less than $129,000. (Note, however, that contribution limits start to decline if your AGI is over $181,000 for couples filing jointly and $114,000 for singles). If you’re not eligible for that Roth, you can contribute to a traditional IRA if you like the investment options and fees there better. Once you’ve maxed out your IRA contributions, you can move back to the 401(k) and contribute there, since the limits are higher.
For those lucky readers who do earn 401(k) matching dollars from an employer, you would reverse the system — contribute at least enough to the 401(k) to grab those, since it is literally free money. Then if you’d like you can look at maxing out a Roth or traditional IRA.
Finally, I want to leave you with my general rule of thumb for how you should prioritize your savings. My hierarchy of savings needs looks like this: