Personal Finance

Is an IRA for Me?

Middle-aged man at desk thinking in front of a computer screen

There are many different choices out there when it comes to saving for retirement, and it can be tricky to know which avenue to pursue. You might, in fact, be thinking about joining the 33% of Americans who already have an IRA. To see whether an IRA is right for you, ask yourself these three questions.

1. Do I enjoy getting tax breaks?

You don't need to save for the future with a dedicated retirement account, but if you're looking to get a tax break in the process, then it pays to consider an IRA. Traditional IRAs are funded with pre-tax dollars, so there's an immediate tax benefit to contributing. Roth IRAs, on the other hand, are funded with after-tax dollars, but whereas traditional IRA distributions are taxed in retirement, Roth withdrawals are not.

Middle-aged man at desk thinking in front of a computer screen


Both IRA types, however, offer the benefit of tax-deferred growth on your investments, which means that when you make money year after year, you won't have to worry about losing a portion to taxes along the way. If you have a traditional IRA, you'll simply pay taxes on whatever eventual sum you withdraw, and if you have a Roth, you'll never pay taxes on your investment gains.

When you consider the alternative -- saving in a regular brokerage account and paying taxes every year as your investments make money -- an IRA seems like a no-brainer. And while traditional IRAs are more restrictive than standard brokerage accounts (you'll face penalties for withdrawing funds prior to age 59-1/2), those rules might prevent you from prematurely tapping those funds, which is actually a good thing for your retirement.

2. Do I have the option to participate in a 401(k)?

Employer-sponsored 401(k) plans aren't necessarily better than IRAs, but they offer a couple of key benefits. First, the annual contribution limits are significantly higher than those of an IRA. Currently, workers under 50 can put up to $18,000 into a 401(k), while those 50 and older get a $6,000 catch-up that raises this limit to $24,000. The current IRA limits, meanwhile, are $5,500 for workers under 50 and $6,500 for those 50 and older.

Now for workers who don't have much money to save, these limits aren't restrictive at all. But if you're hoping to save more, you may feel constrained with an IRA.

Another advantage of 401(k)s is that many come with employer matching incentives. It's estimated that 92% of companies offering a 401(k) plan also match employee contributions to a certain degree. While not all participants contribute enough to fully capitalize on this perk, if you're a strong saver who's likely to snag a match, then it pays to prioritize your 401(k) over an IRA.

That said, not everyone gets the option to participate in a 401(k). A good 41% of Americans don't have access to employer-sponsored plans. Furthermore, 401(k)s have their drawbacks, like high fees and limited investment choices.

If you have more than $5,500 ($6,500 if you're 50 or older) to save for retirement each year and your company offers a generous match, then it pays to go with a 401(k). But if you're not worried about hitting those contribution limits and aren't being offered a match, then an IRA might be your best bet -- especially if you're eligible for a Roth, which comes with its own unique tax benefits .

Also keep in mind that it's possible to contribute to an IRA in addition to a 401(k). The only catch is that you may be not eligible for the immediate tax savings involved (though you'll still get that tax-deferred growth).

3. Do I want a comfortable retirement?

For most people, the answer to this question is obvious. The way to get there, however, isn't as clear. Many people mistakenly think that if they stick a bit of money in a savings account here and there, it'll somehow magically accumulate over time and grow into a large enough sum to live off. In reality, the only way to grow a relatively small amount of money into a relatively large sum is to invest it wisely and tax-efficiently. And that's where IRAs come in.

IRAs are known to offer a wide range of investment choices, and if you stick to a stock-heavy strategy, you can bring in an average yearly return of 7% or even more. And, because you won't be paying taxes on your gains along the way, you'll get to reinvent them year after year, thus adding to your total.

To get a sense of how an IRA can help you build your nest egg, imagine you're looking to contribute $300 every month over a period of 30 years. If your investments generate an average annual 7% return, you'll have a grand total of $340,000.

Now let's compare that to a regular old savings account paying 1% interest. Heck, let's even be optimistic and say that over the course of 30 years, that account will give you an average annual 2.5% return. At the end of the day, you'd be looking at $158,000 if you were to take taxes out of the equation. But because you'd pay taxes on your interest income along the way, in reality, you'd have much less.

If your goal is to seamlessly accumulate enough wealth to sustain yourself in retirement, then an IRA is a good bet. Whether you're new to the workforce or a seasoned member thereof, it pays to explore your options for opening an IRA as soon as you possibly can. The more time you give your money to grow, the more financial flexibility you'll have down the road.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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