retirement

All about IRA accounts for novices

Retirement » All About IRA Accounts For Novices

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Eat more vegetables. Exercise three times per week. Save for retirement.

Unlike ascetic meal plans or torturous yoga positions, saving for retirement can be relatively painless with the use of tax-advantaged individual retirement arrangements, or IRAs.

For many people, retirement planning begins and ends with their employer's retirement plan, often a 401(k). But up to 26 percent of full-time workers aren't covered by an employer's plan and 63 percent of part-time workers have no workplace retirement account, according to the Department of Labor. That leaves many people on their own to save for retirement, and an IRA account is the perfect starting place.

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The annual contribution limit is $5,500 this year and $6,500 for savers over 50 years old.

"If everyone saved $5,500 a year, we wouldn't have the retirement crisis that we have now," says CFP professional Frank Armstrong, founder and principal of Investor Solutions in Miami.

Nearly a third of working-age Americans have no retirement savings or pension -- including 19 percent of people between the ages of 55 and 64, according to an August report from the Federal Reserve.

Who can open an IRA?

Anyone with an income can open an IRA. Nonworking spouses also can open IRAs as long as the household's taxes are filed jointly.

There are three basic types of IRAs available to individuals:

  • A traditional IRA offers a tax deduction for the tax year in which the contribution was made.
  • A Roth IRA gives investors the chance to invest money after taxes and then take the contributions and earnings out tax-free in retirement.
  • A nondeductible IRA is generally the only alternative for very high earners.

Both deductible IRAs and Roth IRAs have income thresholds that govern who can make qualified contributions to the accounts.

"If it is deductible, you take (the amount of the contribution) off your income. The disadvantage is that when it comes out, you have to pay tax on it," says CFP professional Herbert Hopwood, CFA, president of Hopwood Financial Services in Great Falls, Virginia.

Contributions to Roth IRAs are made after taxes are paid, so there is no deduction. Instead the contribution grows tax-free.

"There aren't many things in life that are free, but the idea is that you put money in and as long as you wait until 59 1/2 years, all of the earnings come out tax-free. That is a huge benefit, especially when someone is young, because the money could compound and it could be worth 10 times what they put in or more," Hopwood says.

When should I start?

Start contributing to an IRA in the womb if possible, if you're able to verify income. Failing that, start as soon as you get your first job. If that ship has long sailed, start now.

"If you started at 20, contributing every year -- and the old limit was $2,000 -- and then you stopped at age 30, at 60 you would have more money than someone who started at 30 and contributed regularly for 30 years," Hopwood says.

Where do you get an IRA?

IRAs can be opened at most financial services providers, online or in person. That includes local banks and credit unions, brokerage firms and big mutual fund superstores or discount brokerages.

Though there are advantages and disadvantages to service providers, newbies should look for ample resources made available to investors, such as online educational materials and in-person guidance.

"Leverage that resource to the high heavens," says Xavier Epps, CEO and founder of XNE Financial Advising in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Questions to ask providers:

  • What are the fees for the account?
  • What kind of guidance or advice is available? How much does it cost? How are advisers paid?
  • What types of investments can be held in the account?
  • What are the trading costs?

How should I invest?

Investing is typically a big hurdle for retirement savers. It can be a daunting and bewildering topic and takes a lot of homework to get up to speed.

That being said, it must be done.

"Pick investments. … You have to invest the money," says Hopwood.

Ideally, those with a long time until retirement will invest in the stock market.

"Don't be afraid to take risks early in your career. A lot of younger people are risk-averse and it doesn't work in their best interest," says Armstrong.

Investors with 10 or more years until retirement can afford to put the pedal to the metal and go for the high returns offered by the stock market rather than playing it safe with certificates of deposit and Treasury bonds: You can't lose money in very safe investments, but you can't earn much either.

The easiest solution to the investing dilemma? Go with a total market index fund to get the ball rolling.

A total market index fund offers instant diversity, which mitigates many of the risks inherent in the market such as specific company risk or geographic risk. Those risks crop up when just one or two companies account for most of a portfolio -- or even just one country.

"You still have market risk and you have to suck it up. You'll be paid handsomely for the aggravation of watching your account fluctuate," says Armstrong. "Better off not to watch it: Just have faith."

Consistent saving coupled with a reasonable rate of return over a long period of time could put you in the millionaires' club. At the very least, it will help you pay the bills in retirement.

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