What Is an IRA?


An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is a tax-advantaged investment account designed to help individuals save for retirement. Unlike a 401(k) offered by employers, IRAs offer a flexible way to save through various methods such as savings accounts and online investment apps.

IRA nest egg

There is no shortage of ways to invest for your retirement. However, despite all these options, many people have yet to save a penny for their retirement.

As of 2024, the landscape of retirement savings in the United States reveals some challenges. Recent reports indicate that the average American retiree has about $170,726 saved for retirement, a decrease from the previous year and only about a third of the $556,400 recommended by experts.

This shortfall is even more pronounced considering that nearly 37% of retirees have no retirement savings. These figures underscore the importance of proactive retirement planning and illustrate the varied savings levels across different generations, as evidenced by the average IRA balance in the second quarter of 2023 was $113,800.

Some experts recommend that by the time you retire, you should have ten times your annual salary saved for retirement. Unfortunately, there is currently a considerable disparity in what we as a nation are saving and what we’re going to need when we’re older. So, how do you bridge the gap? One option is with an IRA.

Fundamentals of Individual Retirement Accounts

An individual retirement account (IRA) is an account that gives you a tax break to invest in your future. It is one of the most effective ways to save for your retirement.

Depending on which type of IRA you choose, the money you deposit into the account is either tax-free or tax-deferred. There are many restrictions and rules, but the general idea is that you deposit money and avoid paying income tax. The catch, however, is that you’re unable to withdraw the money without penalty until you reach a certain age.

IRA Contribution Rules

There is a limit to the amount you can invest per year, so you should consider investing the maximum annual contribution limit. After all, once the money is invested, there’s no limit to how much it can grow. There are reports of IRAs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

These grew mainly out of stocks that grew or split and are a direct result of equity growth within the account. While there are no guarantees of your account’s growth, the golden rule of retirement planning still applies: the earlier you start, the better.

IRA Contribution Limits for 2024

The contribution limit for 2024 is $7,000 or $8,000 if you are 50 years old or over. A brokerage firm sets up the IRA for you, and a custodian manages it for you. Once the money is in your IRA, you can direct the custodian to make investments on your behalf, again with several restrictions.

There are several types of IRAs, with the most common being a traditional, Roth, and SEP IRA. There are numerous similarities between them, but also some significant differences. The one you choose depends on your current situation and future goals.

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What is a traditional IRA?

One of the primary benefits of a Traditional IRA is that contributions are tax-deductible, meaning they can be subtracted from your gross income, thereby reducing the amount of income subject to tax. This immediate tax benefit provides an incentive for early and consistent retirement savings. The degree of deductibility depends on your income, filing status, and whether you or your spouse have a retirement plan through an employer.

Withdrawal Rules and Penalties

Traditional IRAs come with specific rules regarding withdrawals. If you withdraw funds before reaching age 59 1/2, you typically face a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to paying income tax on the amount withdrawn. However, there are exceptions, such as using the funds for qualified higher education expenses. Once you reach age 72, you are required to start taking minimum distributions, known as RMDs, from your IRA.

Contribution Considerations

For 2024, you can contribute up to $7,000, or $8,000 if you’re 50 or older. It’s important to note that if you or your spouse have a retirement plan at work, the deductibility of your traditional IRA contributions may be reduced or phased out at higher income levels.

What is a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs invert the traditional tax structure: you make contributions with after-tax dollars, meaning you get no immediate tax break. The significant advantage, however, is that withdrawals, including earnings, are tax-free in retirement, provided certain conditions are met. This can be particularly beneficial if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket during your retirement years.

Withdrawal Flexibility

Roth IRAs offer greater flexibility in terms of withdrawals. You can withdraw your IRA contributions (but not earnings) at any time without penalty, making it a versatile option for unforeseen financial needs. Additionally, Roth IRAs do not require minimum distributions during your lifetime, giving you more control over your retirement funds.

Contribution Limits and Income Restrictions

The annual contribution limits for a Roth IRA are the same as those for a Traditional IRA. However, the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is subject to income limits. For higher earners, the ability to contribute begins to phase out, with limits varying based on filing status and income.

coins in glass jars

These rules don’t apply to a traditional IRA. Anyone is eligible to invest the maximum amount into a traditional IRA because you’re taxed on the entire amount when you withdraw.

If you are a high earner and want to maintain the benefits of a Roth IRA, there are some tricks you can pull to retain the tax benefits without the IRA contribution limits. This is referred to, rather ineloquently, as a Backdoor IRA.

How to Use a Backdoor IRA

In 2010, the federal government eliminated income limits on transferring from one IRA account to another. This now means that you can open a traditional IRA and then open a Roth IRA and transfer money from one to the other. You’ll have to pay some taxes when you transfer, but you won’t be taxed on the money earned within the new account, and there are no limits to how much you earn.

There are restrictions with any IRA on what and with whom you can invest. For example, you can invest in most stocks and bonds and even invest in real estate and other ventures. However, you cannot invest if you are a direct beneficiary of that real estate.

For instance, you may not live in the residence, and there are restrictions on family members as well. The brokerage may have its own restrictions as well. It’s a good idea to talk to your financial advisor about your options or discuss options with multiple brokers that offer IRAs before investing.

Understanding Different Types of IRAs

As we’ve seen, Traditional and Roth IRAs are the most common types, each with unique tax advantages. Traditional IRAs offer tax-deductible contributions and tax-deferred growth, while Roth IRAs provide tax-free growth and withdrawals. Choosing between them depends largely on your current tax bracket, expected tax bracket in retirement, and specific retirement goals.

SEP and SIMPLE IRAs: For Small Businesses and Self-Employed

  • SEP IRA (Simplified Employee Pension): SEP IRAs are ideal for self-employed individuals or small business owners. Contributions are tax-deductible, and earnings grow tax-deferred. Only employers contribute, and contributions can be a significant percentage of income.
  • SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees): SIMPLE IRAs are suitable for small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Both employers and employees can contribute, and it functions similarly to a 401(k) but with simpler administration.

SEP and SIMPLE IRA Contribution Limits

Each type of IRA has specific contribution limits, which are subject to annual adjustments. SEP and SIMPLE IRAs have higher contribution limits than Traditional and Roth IRAs, reflecting their nature as small business retirement plans.

How to Open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

Choosing the right IRA depends on your financial circumstances, tax situation, and retirement goals. Traditional IRAs are great for immediate tax deductions, Roth IRAs offer tax-free income in retirement, and SEP and SIMPLE IRAs are ideal for small business owners or self-employed individuals.

Selecting a Financial Institution or Broker

IRAs can be opened at banks, brokerage firms, or online investment platforms. Each offers different investment choices, fees, and services. Compare these to find the best match for your investment strategy and retirement planning.

The Process of Opening an IRA

To open an IRA, you’ll need to fill out an application with your personal and financial details. After setting up your IRA, you can fund it through direct transfers, rollovers from other retirement accounts, or regular contributions.

Investment Options and Management

Your IRA can be invested in various assets like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and ETFs. Some investors choose to self-manage their investments, while others opt for professional management services or automated investment strategies like robo-advisors.

Self-Directed IRAs

Self-directed IRAs allow for a broader range of investment options, including real estate, private placements, and other alternative investments not typically offered in traditional IRAs. This type of IRA requires a more hands-on approach to investment management and a good understanding of different asset classes.

Monitoring and Adjusting Your IRA

Regularly review your IRA’s performance and make adjustments to your investment choices as necessary, especially as you approach retirement. Stay informed about annual contribution limits and any changes to IRA regulations to make the most of your retirement savings.

Additional Considerations for IRAs

While this guide covers the fundamental aspects of IRAs, there’s a myriad of more intricate rules and options to consider. Understanding these nuances is vital to maximizing your IRA’s potential. For example, you can roll over funds from a 401(k) or other retirement plans into an IRA, a move that could offer more investment options and potentially lower fees.

Changing Contribution Limits and Investment Rules

Be aware that IRA contribution limits are subject to annual adjustments, often increasing to account for inflation and cost-of-living changes. Additionally, the IRS sets specific regulations on the types of investments permitted in IRAs, and these rules can evolve. Staying informed about these changes is crucial for effective retirement planning.

The Power of Diversification

An IRA is a powerful tool in your retirement savings arsenal, but it’s most effective when used as part of a diversified investment strategy. Combining an IRA with other investment vehicles can provide a more robust retirement portfolio, better equipped to weather market fluctuations and economic changes.

The Importance of Professional Advice

Understanding the intricacies of IRA investment can be challenging. It’s highly recommended to consult with a tax advisor or financial planner. These professionals can provide personalized advice based on your individual financial situation, helping you make informed decisions about your retirement planning.

Embracing the Retirement Journey

Investing in an IRA is an excellent first step towards securing a financially stable retirement. However, it’s just the beginning of a journey. Regularly reviewing and adjusting your retirement strategy is essential as your financial situation and retirement goals evolve. With careful planning and informed decision-making, an IRA can be a cornerstone of a fulfilling and secure retirement.

Lauren Ward
Meet the author

Lauren is a personal finance writer who strives to equip readers with the knowledge to achieve their financial objectives. She has over a decade of experience and a Bachelor's degree in Japanese from Georgetown University.