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        What is an IRA Account?

        Updated: Oct. 6, 2020, 2:38 p.m.

        An IRA is an investment account that provides tax breaks for retirement savings. Investing money in an IRA is one of the best ways to prepare for your later years because anyone can open one -- even those without access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

        However, before you contribute to an IRA, you should have a sense of which type is right for your situation, and you should learn the rules for both deductible contributions and penalty-free withdrawals.

        What are IRAs?

        IRA stands for individual retirement account. There are several different types, but each allows you to make tax-advantaged contributions from income you earn to build a nest egg for retirement.

        The different kinds of IRAs have different contribution limits, and some also impose income limits on contributors. For example, the two most commonly used IRAs -- traditional and Roth -- have an aggregate contribution limit in 2020 of $6,000, although those 50 or over can make an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution annually.

        IRAs can be opened with any financial institution, including:

        Once you’ve made a contribution, you can purchase any assets your brokerage allows, including stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

        Once you turn 59 1/2, you can begin withdrawals from this account. If you need the money earlier, you’ll be subject to a 10% penalty fee, unless you qualify for a special early distribution for a specific purpose, such as paying unreimbursed medical expenses.

        Advantages of IRAs

        IRAs have several advantages over other types of retirement accounts:

        • Contributions provide significant tax advantages: Traditional IRAs allow you to contribute to your account with pre-tax dollars, while Roth IRAs allow you to benefit from tax-free gains in retirement. You can choose whether to save on taxes now or in your later years.
        • You do not need an employer to open an IRA for you: Though there are a few types of IRAs that employers can offer for employees, you can set up the most common IRA account types (traditional and Roth) for yourself. You have the option to use an IRA as a supplement to a workplace savings plan, or you can open one to take advantage of tax breaks for retirement savings if your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) or similar plan type.
        • You have more flexibility in investment options: You can choose from a wide variety of financial institutions to hold your IRA, including brokerage accounts, robo-advisors, and banks. These types of accounts also usually offer several different investments to choose from, so you can invest your money in a much broader variety of assets than would be available in a typical workplace 401(k) plan.
        • Most institutions allow you to open an IRA with no fees and no minimum balance: Many brokers and banks make it easy to get started investing, with few or no costs associated with opening or maintaining your account.

        Types of IRAs

        There are several different kinds of IRAs you can choose from. These include:

        Traditional IRAs

        Traditional IRAs allow you to invest pre-tax income toward your retirement. These contributions can grow tax deferred until you withdraw them, and they can be tax deductible, too. While anyone can contribute to this type of IRA (regardless of income), there are some restrictions. You can deduct up to $6,000 in 2020 or $7,000 if you’re 50 or over (this is an aggregate limit for traditional and Roth IRAs). Contributions are also fully tax deductible if neither you nor your spouse has a workplace retirement plan. But tax deduction eligibility begins to phase out at $65,000 in household income for a single filer, $124,000 in combined income for a married joint filer with a workplace plan, and $196,000 for a married joint filer whose spouse has a workplace plan.

        Roth IRAs

        Contributions to a Roth IRAs are made with after-tax dollars. While the tax isn’t deductible in the year contributions are made, this money grows tax-free and withdrawals aren’t taxed in retirement. Roth IRAs are also subject to the same aggregate contribution limit as traditional IRAs: $6,000 in 2020 or $7,000 if over 50. Unlike with traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs have limits on who can contribute to an account. These limits are based on annual income amounts.


        Simplified employee pension IRAs, or SEP-IRAs, can be set up by small business owners or self-employed individuals. Only employers and the self-employed can make contributions to this type of account, and the annual contribution limit is the lesser of $57,000 (in 2020) or 25% of employee compensation. There are no income limits for contributing to a SEP-IRA. Contributions are deductible in the year they are made.

        SIMPLE IRAs

        Just like SEP-IRAs, employers and the self-employed can set up SIMPLE IRAs, but both employers and employees can contribute to this type of account. Employees may contribute up to $13,500 in 2020, with those 50 and over eligible to make catch-up contributions of up to $3,000 if their plan permits it. There are no income limits for contributions to this type of account.

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        Disadvantages of IRAs

        While IRAs can be a good means of saving for retirement, they have some drawbacks. Before you decide how to invest for retirement, consider how much these details matter to you:

        • With traditional and Roth IRAs, you are not provided with any employer matching contributions, unlike with some 401(k)s.
        • Usually you have to manage your IRA yourself, which means you must find a brokerage firm or other financial institution to hold the account, and you must choose your investments for your portfolio. While you can open your IRA with a financial institution that offers investment management, this can get expensive, which may eat into your savings.
        • You must make contributions to a traditional or Roth IRA yourself and report your contributions to the IRS. This is more complicated than simply having your employer withhold money from your paychecks, although most financial institutions offering IRAs allow you to set up automated contributions from your checking account.
        • You cannot withdraw the money from your accounts until age 59 1/2 without incurring penalties, unless you qualify for a special withdrawal, such as to pay for large medical expenses that are not covered by health insurance.