When it comes to investing, you have two big decisions to make: What to buy, and where to buy it. As for the former, you have all kinds of choices: cash, bonds, stocks, funds, real estate, and a piece of carpet from Elvis' jungle room (yes, I have a piece — at least, that's what the guy who sold it to me said it was). Regarding the latter, most people have just three general options: a traditional retirement account, a Roth retirement account, and a regular investment account. This article is about the second category — how to make the most of your investment accounts.
Stop the Sprawl
If you're like many investors, you have accounts spread throughout the financial services industry: an IRA or two here, a brokerage account there, perhaps a 401(k) still with a former employer. If you're married, your spouse probably has a lineup to match. By consolidating as many of those accounts as you can with a single provider, you'll unclog your mailbox and make tax time easier — and you can even make your portfolio fatter, thanks to these advantages:
- Find a better balance. Determining your asset allocation can be tough when you have to look at lots of statements. Rebalancing across several accounts gets tricky; for example, you can't sell the bonds in your 401(k) to buy stocks in your IRA.
- Move money out of mediocre (or worse) accounts. This is especially true of money left in retirement plans from former employers, which often have limited investment choices at high costs.
- Get extra services and discounts. Financial companies lure big accounts with lower fees, plus planning services such as a portfolio analysis or access to a Certified Financial Planner.
Find the Best Provider
Choosing a company that deserves the honor of holding your nest egg depends on your style of investing. Here are guidelines based on your investments of choice:
- Mutual funds: You can use a single fund family or go with a fund “supermarket” (such as Fidelity, Schwab, or TD Ameritrade) that offers access to thousands of funds from many families. The former is the simplest and possibly the cheapest. The latter offers far more selection.
- Funds and individual stocks: Check out the big brokerages that allow you to buy stocks as well as choose form thousands of funds. Look for reasonable stock commissions and a lineup of no-load funds labeled “NTF,” for “no transaction fee.” The Fool's Broker Center compares the options from several providers.
- Stocks and ETFs: Look for the cheapest trades. Many brokerages, including Fidelity, Schwab, and Vanguard, offer free trades on some ETFs.
To Roth or Not to Roth?
By investing after-tax money in a Roth account, you trade a tax break today for one tomorrow, as your earnings and withdrawals will be tax-free. Here's a rule of thumb: If you'll be in the same or a higher tax bracket when you retire, go with the Roth.
There is no longer an income limit for converting traditional accounts to Roths. The converted amount gets added to your taxable income in the year you make the move, so if your traditional account is down significantly and you're contemplating changing it to a Roth, you may want to convert some while the account is down. (Check out this article to hear from several financial planners about why a Roth conversion might make sense, though the option to spread the tax bill over two years was available only in 2010.)
The Right Investments in the Right Accounts
Don't overlook the art of asset location — deciding which investments to put into which types of accounts. You want to put the most tax-inefficient investments in the accounts that have the most tax advantages. Here's a summary of what should go where:
- Roth accounts: Stocks with a higher potential return (such as small-cap stocks and emerging-marking stocks) and real estate investment trust (REITs).
- Traditional tax-deferred accounts: Slower-growth stocks, commodities funds, Treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS), and bonds (though, given historically low yields, the argument for keeping bonds in an IRA is not as compelling as it used to be).
- Taxable, non-tax-advantaged accounts: Low-yield stocks you plan to hold for several years, low-turnover stock funds (such as many index funds and ETFs), municipal bonds, and savings bonds and I bonds.
Those are general guidelines, and can be affected by several factors, such as when you'll need the money and your ability to pick the stocks that will have the higher return (a difficult task, indeed). For example, keep money that you need before age 59 ½ out of retirement accounts since early withdrawals from an IRA or 401(k) may result in a 10% penalty (though there are exceptions). But they're a good starting point.
Have a Recommendation?
As for which brokerage, fund company, or online bank to choose, I'll leave that to you readers. Have any particularly good or bad experiences? Are you happy with whomever's holding your money? Let us know.