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What is an IRA? How IRAs work, types of IRAs and more

Bankrate logo Bankrate 6/10/2021 Greg McBride, CFA
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What is an individual retirement account (IRA)?

An IRA is a tax-advantaged investment account that you can use to save for retirement. Technically, IRA stands for Individual Retirement Arrangement, but the 'A' in the acronym is colloquially referred to as an account.

IRAs are particularly valuable tools for the 33 percent of private industry workers in the U.S. who do not have access to a workplace-based retirement plan. Too often, that lack of a 401(k) from an employer means that people don't save for retirement, but IRAs give all workers a convenient way to prepare for their golden years.

Bankrate insight
IRAs come in two flavors: traditional and Roth. There are two fundamental differences between them: when you want to receive benefits on your taxes and when you need to withdraw funds from them.

It’s important to note that IRAs can also be ideal for the 67 percent of people who have access to a workplace-based plan. If you're maxing out your contributions there or you simply want another option with more control over your investment, an IRA can present an even bigger win: saving more money for retirement.

How IRAs work

Using an IRA versus a regular taxable brokerage account for retirement feels similar to the difference between speeding through the E-Z Pass lane on the highway or stopping at the toll booth every 20 miles: You're going to get where you want to go a bit faster without having to stop at the tax tollbooth every year as you would with a regular brokerage account.

When you open an IRA, you contribute funds that can then be invested in a wide range of assets - CDs, stocks, bonds and other investments. You're not limited to a menu of investments as you often are in a 401(k). If you're familiar with the complexities of the financial world, that means you can take full control of picking those investments. If you don’t feel comfortably equipped to direct your IRA, it's wise to browse robo-advisors or pick a target retirement fund. These are low-cost ways to get broad-based diversification tailored to your time horizon and your risk tolerance.

No matter when you’re hoping to retire, today's asset allocation - how you split your money between stocks, bonds and other investments - is absolutely critical to tomorrow's earnings. In fact, some studies have shown that asset allocation determines as much as 90 percent of an investor's total return. IRAs offer flexibility in adjusting those investments, too. You can move in and out of them - for example, shifting your money from individual stocks to bonds - without incurring capital gains taxes.

While you can move the money around freely, you can't take it out early. An IRA is designed for retirement, which means that withdrawals before you are 59 1/2 will incur both taxes and a hefty penalty of 10 percent - unless you're using the money for special exceptions such as buying your first home or paying for higher education.

Types of IRAs


Video: Here's how to decide if a Roth or traditional IRA will save you more money (CNBC)

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IRAs come in two flavors: traditional and Roth. There are two fundamental differences between them: when you want to receive benefits on your taxes and when you need to withdraw funds from them.

Traditional IRA

With a traditional IRA, you could be eligible to receive a tax deduction in the year you make the contribution. When you withdraw the funds, you'll pay taxes. Once you turn 72, you have to start making withdrawals.

Roth IRA

A Roth IRA doesn't offer the instant gratification of an immediate tax break. Instead, you'll pay taxes on your income now, contribute it to a Roth IRA and withdraw it - and the earnings - tax-free when you retire. However, there is no requirement to make withdrawals from a Roth IRA.

When comparing traditional and Roth IRAs, it’s fairly common to think about current tax status versus your tax status in retirement with the assumption that you'll be in a lower tax bracket when you are no longer working.

However, I recommend avoiding that debate. Why? Because it's very difficult to predict your tax bracket 30 years from today. Instead, look at this from the perspective of diversifying your tax exposure and giving that money even more time to grow and compound without the headwind of taxes.

How to open an IRA

To open an IRA, you or your spouse need to have earned income from working. You can open an IRA at a wide range of places including brokerage firms, mutual fund companies, banks and credit unions. Pay attention to management fees, commissions and minimum opening requirements to make sure you find a good deal.

And in addition to the basic terms of each IRA, compare educational resources if you plan on being in the driver’s seat of investing decisions. Some firms offer robust tools to help understand the market and make wise choices.

IRA contribution limits

The government places limits on the amount you can contribute to all your IRA accounts, which change every few years based on inflation. If you're under 50, your contributions are capped at $6,000 in 2021. If you're over 50, your limit increases to $7,000.

Before you think about how to maximize your IRA contributions, though, you need to make sure that your annual earnings fall within the government's threshold. Your deduction capability begins to phase out as your income increases. The limits vary based on your filing status, so check the IRS' updated guidelines to verify your eligibility.

Comparing IRA options

The most affordable options for IRAs will be found at no-load mutual fund firms, online brokerages and robo-advisors. Before comparing where to open one, you should consider which kind of IRA is the best fit for your needs. Keep in mind, too, that the decision between a traditional and Roth IRA is not an all-or-nothing choice. You can have both - you'll just want to make sure your annual contributions don't exceed the limits.

Type of IRAAnnual contribution limitCan you deduct the contribution on your taxes?Can you withdraw the money tax-free?When do you have to start withdrawals?
Traditional$6,000 if under 50; $7,000 if over 50Yes (subject to income limitations)NoAge 72
Roth$6,000 if under 50; $7,000 if over 50NoYesNever
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