What is a Roth IRA? A short and simple guide

Most of us know we should save for retirement, but sometimes it’s tough to get started. If your employer sponsors a retirement plan — especially if it offers a generous match to your contributions — that’s usually the best place to begin. But even if you don’t have a retirement plan through your job, you can still save for the future. One of the best ways to do so is through a Roth IRA.

What Is a Roth IRA?

An IRA is an individual retirement arrangement, a retirement plan that gives you tax advantages when saving for retirement. There are two types of IRAs:

  • With a traditional IRA, the money you contribute is typically tax-deductible, but the money you pull out at retirement will be taxed at the then-current rate.
  • With a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax dollars, but when you retire, you don’t have to pay taxes on the investment returns.

In other words, money in a traditional IRA is taxed when you pull it out, but the money in a Roth IRA is taxed before you put it in.

You make investments in an IRA through an individual retirement account. You have just one Roth IRA, but you can have many Roth IRA accounts. That may sound confusing, but all you really need to know is that you can have a Roth IRA account at your credit union and a different Roth IRA account at your broker, but they’ll both be part of the same individual retirement arrangement. Clear as mud?

It’s important to understand that an IRA isn’t itself an investment — it’s a place to put investments. When you open an IRA account, it’s like an empty bucket waiting to be filled. You might, for instance, buy stocks to put into your bucket, or maybe bonds. Some people use their IRA accounts to invest in real estate, and some simply let their cash sit there, earning interest on certificates of deposit.

Roth IRA Rules and Requirements

There are some restrictions on who can contribute to Roth IRAs. These arrangements are designed to help ordinary working folks to save for retirement by giving them a significant tax break. They’re not meant for people with really high incomes.

For 2012:

  • If your tax status is single and you earn more than $110,000 but less than $125,000, the amount you can contribute will be limited. If you earn more than $125,000, you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA at all.
  • If you’re married and filing jointly, your contributions are limited if your household income is more than $173,000. If you and your spouse earn more than $183,000, you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA.

These income limits are based on your modified adjusted gross income. (If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it unless you’re close to the limit.) Also note that Roth IRA income limits generally increase every year.

A few other useful facts:

  • If you’re younger than age 50, you can contribute $5,000 to your Roth IRA in 2012. If you’re over 50, you can contribute up to $6,000.
  • To invest in a Roth IRA in a given year, you (or your spouse) need to have earned income. In other words, you can’t fund a Roth IRA if all of the money you received that year came from an inheritance.
  • You can use a Roth IRA even if you have a 401(k) or other retirement plan.
  • You have longer than you might expect to make your Roth IRA contributions each year — you have until the tax deadline. For instance, if you want to contribute to your 2011 Roth IRA, you still can. You have until April 17th!
  • You may be able to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. This gets arcane, though, and is beyond the scope of this article. If you can’t figure out the IRS doc I linked to, consult a professional.
  • You can withdraw your contributions to a Roth IRA at any time without penalty. But if you try to withdraw the earnings (the returns on your contributions) before age 59-1/2, you’ll have to pay taxes and, probably, a 10% early-withdrawal penalty.
  • Lastly — and this is important for many people — if you’ve had your Roth IRA long enough, you can withdraw up to $10,000 in earnings without penalty in order to buy your first home. (You’re still taxed on that money, though.) Check out this article from The Motley Fool for more info.

There are other guidelines and provisions, but these are the basics. If you want more info, check out Publication 590 at the IRS website or contact your friendly neighborhood financial planner.

How to Open a Roth IRA Account

Opening a Roth IRA account is easy. If you’ve ever filled out a job application, applied for a credit card, or opened a bank account, you’ve got what it takes to open a Roth IRA account.

Deciding where to open your Roth IRA account is the toughest part of the process. If you already have an investment advisor, ask her for recommendations, but look for other options, too. Many banks and credit unions offer IRA accounts (though you’ll usually be able to invest only in deposit accounts, like CDs and savings accounts).

If you’re willing to make some decisions on your own, you can open an IRA account through a discount broker or mutual fund company. There are a lot of good options out there, but you might start your search with these firms:

I recommend that you set aside an hour or two some Saturday morning to explore the options over a cup of coffee and a bowl of Lucky Charms. With a little research, you should be able to find a company and program that suit your needs. When you’re shopping around for a place to open an IRA account, ask the following questions:

  • Is there a minimum initial investment?
  • What sorts of fees will be charged to the account?
  • Can you make automatic contributions?
  • What investment options are available?
  • Are electronic statements available?

Search for a company that suits your needs, but don’t fret about finding a perfect match. Remember: The perfect is the enemy of the good. Find a good match, and then set your IRA account in motion. You can move your money to a new IRA account if the first company you choose isn’t a good fit.

Once you pick a place to open your IRA account, it’s time to fill out the application. Some firms want you to download forms and then mail them back. So 1999! Most places should let you apply online, though. To complete the application, you’ll need your Social Security number, bank account info (so you can transfer funds), info about your current employer, money in a bank account (depending on where you open your Roth IRA account, you might need anywhere from $25 to $3000), and about half an hour of free time.

Some applications will ask a few simple questions about your investment plans and goals. Once you complete the application, you’ll transfer money to your new account. (It’ll probably earn interest until you choose an investment.) That’s all there is to it.

I haven’t mentioned Roth IRAs around here much over the past few years. For one thing, I did a series of articles on the Roth when this site was young. I’ve always just pointed back there. For another, as my own income grew, the Roth was no longer an option. Starting next year, though, I’l be back in Roth IRA land. You can be darn sure I’ll max that sucker out every year. And so should you, if it’s an option.

Do you have a Roth IRA? Where do you have your accounts? What sorts of investments do you put in them? Any advice for newbies who want to open a Roth IRA account but don’t know where to start? Share your advice in the comments below!

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