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First off, an IRA (Individual Retirement Arrangement) is NOT an investment.
An IRA is a shelter for investments. A tax shelter.
In an IRA, you have the options to buy stocks, bonds, mutual funds, money market accounts, CDs and, in some cases, real estate.
The purpose of using an IRA as an investment account to hold all of these securities is simple; the tax breaks. However, you are responsible for a 10% fee when you don’t follow the rules. The main rule to know is that, in typical circumstances, you should not begin pulling money out of an IRA until your are at least 59 1/2; otherwise, you could be hit with penalties and fees for the withdraw.
Note: You will not incur fees or penalties for withdrawing money that you put into an IRA, you will only incur fees or penalties from your earnings.
There are 2 common types of IRAs: a Traditional IRA and a Roth Ira. What’s the difference?
Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA
Basically there is one main difference. Traditional IRAs allow you to contribute pre-tax income. This means that you can put money in a Traditional IRA before Uncle Sam has the chance to touch it.
With a Roth IRA, you contribute taxed income. Here’s the catch: when you go to withdraw your money, in retirement, the withdrawals from a Traditional IRA are taxed and the withdrawals from a Roth IRA are tax free (since you already paid tax on the money you put in). So in a Roth IRA, you do not pay taxes on the capital gains you earn over the life of the account.
Isn’t the Choice Obvious?
The choice seems obvious, right? If you know anything about compound interest, then you know a Roth IRA would save you a lot more tax dollars than a Traditional IRA, because you will generally make way more money, through capital gains, than you would contribute. Well, unfortunately, the government knows that too, so they put certain restrictions on Roth IRAs.
Example: if your income is too high ($191,000/year as of 2014), then you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA at all. You can still contribute to a Traditional IRA, no matter how high your income, but the tax benefits decrease as your income increase.
Limits and Catching Up
You can “catch-up” on your investing into an IRA, if you are 50 or older, because you are allowed to invest an additional $1000 on top of the regular annual limit.
What annual limit, you say?
There is a maximum annual contribution limit, in both types of IRAs, of $5500 (as of 2014). This amount increases periodically, but many people believe it may be at $5500 for a while.
Where to Open an IRA
You can open them at most financial institutions. This includes banks, investment companies and many website. Watch out though, because some banks limit the types of investments that you can put in your IRA. Personally, I use USAA, but you do need to have military affiliation to use them. USAA is an amazing company. I like their customer service and the ease of opening accounts with them.
Sharebuilder.com is a great website to use for IRAs. Pretty much any major investment firm can set you up with an IRA. The important thing is that you just go do it! Start investing now. Even a small amount every month is better than nothing and you may be pleasantly surprised at what your small monthly contribution can turn into.
Did you know that Roth IRAs aren’t just for retirement?
Open an IRA in 15 minutes or less with TD Ameritrade.