An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is one of the most popular ways to invest for retirement. Not only are you saving for your future but you’re also getting a generous tax advantage to do so, courtesy of the U.S. government. If you’re looking to get off to a fast start on your retirement finances, an IRA is a great place to begin and you can complete the whole setup online in just a few minutes.
One of the best opportunities for amassing a nest egg is by investing in the financial markets, and to do that you’ll need a brokerage account or robo-advisor:
- A brokerage account allows you to choose your investments yourself, including individual stocks, stock funds, bonds and more.
- A robo-advisor will build a portfolio for you, picking the funds and allocating your assets based on your risk tolerance and time horizon.
Whether you want to do it yourself or have someone do it for you (or somewhere in between), here are some of the top IRA accounts to open.
Best IRA accounts to open in September 2021
- Charles Schwab
- Fidelity Investments
- Interactive Brokers
- Schwab Intelligent Portfolios
- Merrill Edge
The IRA: What you need to know
With a traditional IRA, you can receive a tax break this year while saving for retirement. You’ll also enjoy tax-deferred growth on your investments until you withdraw the money from the account at retirement, defined as age 59 1/2 or older. You’ll generally be able to avoid taxes on any contribution you put into the account, meaning it’s a good way to reduce your current taxes.
It’s useful to think of the IRA as a “shield” or “wrapper” on a normal account that protects it from the tax man. Many financial companies offer an IRA, including banks, brokerages, insurance companies and robo-advisors, and each may allow you to make various kinds of investments.
These kinds of investments determine what you’ll ultimately earn in your IRA. If you’re invested in historically strong assets such as stocks, you may do better over time than in CDs and bonds. However, there’s a trade-off to keep in mind – higher-performing investments require you to take on more risk, while safer assets generally fluctuate much less, or in some cases (such as CDs) are risk-free.
You’ll want to read the full details on the IRA so that you’re taking maximum advantage of the plan and avoiding the pitfalls. You may quickly see why it’s such a popular retirement vehicle.
Overview: Top IRA accounts in September 2021
Here are some of the best brokers or robo-advisors to use when you’re setting up your IRA.
Charles Schwab does all the core brokerage functions well, and its long-time reputation for investor-friendliness precedes it. If you want stocks, bonds, funds or even CDs in your IRA, Schwab will be able to get the job done. In fact, Schwab offers thousands of mutual funds with no transaction fees. Plus, with commission-free trades and quick customer service, the broker regularly rates among the top in the industry. Of course, if you want to go more active, you can access Schwab’s flagship trading platform, StreetSmart Edge and get your trade on.
A great fit for: Investors who want to actively or passively manage their IRA.
Wealthfront is a top independent robo-advisor, and it can construct your retirement portfolio based on your risk tolerance and when exactly you need the money. Wealthfront automatically rebalances your portfolio so that your allocations stay on target. You can also access a sophisticated goal-based planner (even if you don’t have your IRA here) as well as a fully featured cash management account. The management fee is a reasonable 0.25 percent per year, or $25 for every $10,000 invested, and you’ll pay for ETFs held in your portfolio, as you would anywhere.
A great fit for: Investors who want a professionally managed portfolio at low cost.
Fidelity is one of the best overall brokers, and you can see it across everything they do: friendly and helpful customer service, strong trading platforms for active traders, a policy of not hitting you for every possible nickel and dime for services and a wide selection of investments (including thousands of mutual funds available without a transaction fee). It also doesn’t hurt that the broker offers four mutual funds that charge no management fee, making them great picks for IRA investors. Fidelity does it all at a high level, and you’re not likely to be disappointed.
A great fit for: Investors who want to be active traders or invest passively.
Vanguard is a great choice for its low-cost mutual funds, even if you could buy its funds at another broker. Still, Vanguard makes a great fit if you’re a passive investor, even if, like most major brokers, it has also reduced online trading commissions for stocks and ETFs to zero. Vanguard also offers more than 3,000 mutual funds without a transaction fee. So if those are more your style, you’ll have no problem finding a few funds you’re looking for.
A great fit for: Investors who want to manage their IRA passively, especially with Vanguard’s funds.
If you’re content to let someone else manage your IRA, then Betterment will likely be a good fit. For one low, flat fee of 0.25 percent, this robo-advisor will manage your portfolio from start to finish, and all you’ll need to do is add money. You’ll get valuable features such as tax-loss harvesting and automatic rebalancing for no extra charge. Plus, you can pay a bit higher fee and bring $100,000 or more to the account, and you’ll be able to access human advisors for all your detailed questions.
A great fit for: Investors who want a robo-advisor to manage their IRA for them, or who may want access to a human planner from time to time.
Interactive Brokers is a brokerage that gives you ample access to the world’s markets, so if you want a “go anywhere” outfit, this is for you. Interactive Brokers has long been known as a broker for serious active traders, though of course you needn’t be one to open your IRA here. Opt for the brokerage’s Pro platform, known for its top execution, or go for the Lite platform, where your trades are free. Either way, you’ll be investing with one of the world’s most secure institutions.
A great fit for: Investors who trade actively and want access to all kinds of markets.
Schwab brings its investor-friendly street cred to Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, a robo-advisor that manages your IRA with a personalized portfolio. You’ll enjoy Schwab’s management fee – nothing – and its low-cost ETFs as well as its well-regarded customer service, which is available all day every day. If you want access to financial advisors, you can step up to the premium tier, which costs a flat $30 per month (after a one-time setup fee of $300). You’ll have to bring some money to the robo-advisor in either case: $5,000 for the base service or $25,000 for premium.
A great fit for: Investors looking for low-cost professional management with the option for unlimited access to human advisors.
As a Merrill Edge customer, you’ll benefit from the brokerage’s robust offerings and access to stock research, as well as strong customer service. Plus, Merrill is a great choice if you’re likely to need in-person assistance, because parent company Bank of America offers a Merrill rep at more than 2,000 branches, a true competitive edge. Another edge: if you’re already one of the bank’s customers, it’s just easier to have your financial business all in one place.
A great fit for: Investors who want to trade actively or passively, or may need the help of a human planner.
If you’re looking to do something off the beaten path with your IRA, then Fundrise might be for you. Fundrise lets you use your IRA to invest in real estate, which might fit perfectly in an IRA since it tends to crank out cash that would otherwise be taxable. With Fundrise you’ll be investing in REITs, well-known structures that allow investors to access a diversified real estate portfolio and pass dividends on to investors. At Fundrise you may have to lock in your money for years, so it may not be for everyone. But for those investors looking for an alternative investment such as real estate, Fundrise could be an attractive option.
A great fit for: Investors who want to scope out and invest in real estate.
Like other major brokers, E-Trade offers commission-free trading of stocks and ETFs, but it’s also a great choice for mutual funds, offering more than 4,400 without a transaction fee. E-Trade is another do-it-all broker, great for the active trader (volume discounts on options, the Power E-Trade platform) as well as the passive investor thinking long term (third-party research).
A great fit for: Investors who want to actively or passively invest.
How to open an IRA account
You have multiple options for opening an IRA account, including a brokerage or a robo-advisor. These providers have made it easy to open an account quickly, and you could have your IRA set up in 15 minutes or less. Simply walk through the opening steps on the provider’s site.
Once you’ve selected your brokerage or robo-advisor, you’ll need to provide some personal and financial details, including your legal name, address, Social Security number, your employer and a few other details. Then you can connect your bank to the account and fund your IRA.
Can I switch my IRA?
Don’t like your IRA provider? It’s easy to switch your IRA, and you can do so for any reason and at virtually any time. It’s best to transfer your IRA directly from one broker to another.
The steps to transfer your IRA are straightforward:
- Open a new IRA account, which will receive the transfer of your current IRA.
- Contact your new provider about a transfer. You may be able to transfer your IRA online without any human help, but a customer representative can also help you, if needed.
- Complete the transfer forms, typically online or on paper. You’ll need to provide details such as the old provider and account number. If you have investments in your old IRA, your old provider will likely charge you a fee to move them to the new account.
A few days later, securities and cash in your old account will appear in your new account.
You need to be careful when transferring an IRA, because you could create additional taxes if you switch IRA types between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. In general, you want to keep the same kind of account. That is, you’ll want to transfer funds from a traditional IRA to another or from a Roth IRA to another, rather than from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA or vice versa.
If you’re changing account types, it could create significant tax liabilities, and you need to be fully informed about those before making any transfers.
What is the difference between an IRA and a Roth IRA?
An IRA (or a traditional IRA) and a Roth IRA have many differences, although they are both tax-advantaged accounts that help you save for retirement. Some of the key differences revolve around the specific tax benefits and which account works best in specific circumstances:
- In a traditional IRA, you contribute pre-tax income to your account, allowing you to deduct the contributions from your income (if it’s not too high.) Those contributions can grow tax-deferred until withdrawn during retirement, at which point they become taxable income.
- In a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax income to your account and those contributions can grow tax-free inside the account. It will remain tax-free when withdrawn at retirement. You can take contributions (but not earnings) from your Roth IRA at any time without creating a tax issue. The Roth IRA also offers other benefits and has income limitations.
Retirement experts often recommend the Roth IRA, but it’s not always the better option, depending on your financial situation.
The traditional IRA is a better choice when you’re older or earning more, because you can avoid income taxes at higher rates on today’s income. It’s a good choice when you think tax rates (or your rate) are going to fall in the future, so that you pay lower rates on future withdrawals. However, traditional IRAs become non-deductible at relatively low income levels.
The Roth IRA is typically a better choice when you’re younger or earning less, because you forgo only the small tax break on contributions that you would receive from a traditional IRA. A Roth IRA may also be better if you expect tax rates (or your tax rate) to rise in the future, increasing the value of the Roth’s tax-free withdrawals. The Roth IRA also gives heirs tax-free withdrawals.