What Is a Roth IRA?
A Roth individual retirement account (IRA) is an investment vehicle that helps you save for retirement in a tax-advantaged way. Essentially, Roth IRAs offer the potential for tax-exempt growth of your savings.
At a high level, the process works as follows:
- Contributions are made on an after-tax basis. No tax deductions are provided for the contributions you make.
- Your contributions are invested and allowed to grow free of tax, which can have a powerful compounding effect over the long term.
- In retirement, as you make withdrawals on the contributions and accumulated earnings, no income taxes are ever imposed.
How Do You Open a Roth IRA?
You can open a Roth IRA through a brokerage firm, such as Charles Schwab, E-Trade or Fidelity Investments, or through a banking institution. Generally, you will have many more investment options if you open a Roth IRA with a brokerage firm. Bank offerings are often limited to certificates of deposit and other savings accounts.
If you work with a financial advisor on your retirement planning, they can help guide you through the process. In most cases, the process will involve leveraging your existing brokerage and banking framework.
Per the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), anyone with earned income can open and contribute to a Roth IRA and reap the benefits of tax-exempt growth on earnings. However, the amount of your allowed contributions is reduced or eliminated as your income increases.
The amount you are allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA is based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which takes your adjusted gross income and adds back in a handful of exclusions and deductions, such as tax-exempt interest income and student loan interest you pay.
For the 2023 tax year, the limits set by the IRS for single filers can be summarized as follows: A full Roth IRA contribution is permissible when your MAGI is less than $138,000. A reduced contribution is permissible when your MAGI is $129,000 or more, but less than $153,000. If your MAGI is $153,000 or higher, no Roth IRA contribution is permitted.
Similar limitations apply to married filers, but the MAGI levels depend on whether you’re filing jointly or separately. For detailed information, please refer to the IRS rules for 2023 Roth IRA Income Limits.
What Is a Backdoor Roth IRA?
The MAGI guidelines outlined previously seem to suggest that Roth IRA participation is not permitted for high-income earners. However, the tax code contains a loophole that allows savers to circumvent the restrictions by what’s known as a “backdoor Roth IRA.” This isn’t an official type of IRA. Rather, it’s a reference to an approach that entails funding a traditional IRA with after-tax dollars and, subsequently, converting the contribution into a Roth IRA.
After moving the money around, the outcome is the same as if you were making a direct contribution to a Roth IRA. It’s important to note that not everyone can execute the backdoor method; complicated limitations exist. Please work with a tax professional to assess your particular situation.
How Do Roth IRAs Work?
For 2023, the annual contribution limit to IRAs is $6,500 for people under age 50 and $7,500 for people ages 50 and over. This is an aggregate limit that applies to all IRAs you own. You can continue to make regular contributions to a Roth IRA at any age, but all contributions must come from earned income.
“You don’t need to have significant wealth to invest,” says Marguerita Cheng, Chief Executive Officer of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. “You can start with just $50 per month, but you do need to invest consistently to build significant wealth.”
Per the IRS, a qualified distribution from a Roth IRA is one that is made at least five years since the account was established and on or after the date you reach age 59 1/2. If these conditions are met, all withdrawals from a Roth IRA are exempt from income tax.
However, if the IRS conditions for a qualified distribution are not met, a 10% federal tax penalty could apply and any earnings you withdraw could also be subject to taxation. The financial consequences are most stringent for those who take money out before the age of 59 1/2.
Specific instances can exempt you from these withdrawal guidelines. These include withdrawals made for a first-time home purchase or to pay for college expenses.
For Roth IRAs, the IRS does not have required minimum distributions, which means there is no deadline for making a withdrawal. If the money is not needed yet, you can continue to let it grow tax-exempt. This can result in a significant economic benefit for your heirs.
What Are Your Investment Options?
IRAs can hold a wide variety of assets, including stocks, bonds, alternative investments, cash and fund-style vehicles containing various combinations of assets. As a result of this flexibility, you can use an IRA to achieve virtually any investment objective, whether it’s growth, income, a balance of growth and income or capital preservation.
Though IRAs are flexible in what types of assets they can hold, the IRS specifically prohibits IRAs from holding life insurance contracts, collectibles and certain derivative instruments. Further, if you want to put gold or cryptocurrency inside a Roth IRA, you’ll have to open an account specifically designed to house those assets.
Before making any type of investment, you need to carefully consider your unique circumstances and your tolerance for risk, which is largely determined by your time horizon. If you plan on working for at least another seven to 10 years, your investing horizon is relatively long.
A long investing horizon gives you the ability to withstand more ups and downs in the market than someone who is on the verge of retirement. This means you can seek higher returns to boost the growth potential of your retirement savings.
Accordingly, you should consider investing more of your portfolio in growth-oriented stocks, with less investment in dividend-focused stocks and interest-bearing bonds. Over time and as you transition toward retirement, these allocations should shift, bringing you toward a more traditionally conservative allocation of 60% stocks and 40% bonds.
No matter how you choose to invest your portfolio, you should aim to maintain a high degree of diversification within each of the primary asset classes. An efficient way to do so is via index mutual funds or exchange-traded funds. These low-cost, fund-style vehicles are highly liquid and fairly easy to understand because they track well-known indices, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, also known as the S&P 500 Index, and the Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index.
Learn More: The Best Roth IRA Accounts
Roth IRAs: Pros vs. Cons
Roth IRAs have more advantages than disadvantages. Moreover, the disadvantages can be largely avoided through careful planning and fiscal discipline. The pros and cons provided below illustrate the primary things you should consider about Roth IRAs.
Roth IRAs: Pros vs. Cons
- Auto contributions can facilitate disciplined savings for individuals inclined to spend
- Can house a wide variety of diverse assets, including stocks, bonds, alternative investments and cash
- Can be implemented in a low-cost, passive manner with minimal hands-on effort
- Tax-exemption allows for powerful effect of enhanced compound growth of earnings
- Contributions, but not the earnings on them, can be withdrawn penalty-free anytime as long as 5 years has passed since the IRA was established (unless you qualify for an exception)
- Savings can be used for certain purposes without incurring an early distribution penalty
- Unlike traditional-style retirement vehicles, there are no IRS required minimum distributions
- Annual contributions are limited to only $6,000 for individuals ($7,000, if age 50 or older)
- Eligibility is reduced/eliminated at higher incomes, but a backdoor funding solution exists
- Generally, a 10% penalty applies for distributions of earnings taken prior to age 59 1/2
Roth IRA and Traditional IRA Structures
In addition to the Roth structure, IRAs are available in a traditional structure. As discussed earlier, with a Roth vehicle, there is no upfront tax deduction on your contributions. The contributions are invested and grow during your working years. Then, in retirement, all withdrawals are free from taxation.
Conversely, with a traditional vehicle, contributions are generally tax-deductible in the year in which they are made. The contributions are invested and grow during your working years. Then, in retirement, all withdrawals are taxed at your current income tax rate. For more information, see traditional IRA.
Which Is Better?
When assessing whether it makes more sense to invest in a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA, the most important consideration is whether you expect to be in a higher tax bracket during your working years or during your retirement years. A Roth IRA works best if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket during your retirement years, while a traditional IRA is preferred if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket during your working years.
Unfortunately, given the highly unpredictable nature of economic cycles, geopolitical events and tax legislation, projecting your future tax rate is nearly impossible. With this in mind, it’s generally recommended to assign a portion of your retirement savings to Roth-style vehicles and a portion to traditional-style vehicles.
This framework is fairly easy to manage and, more importantly, will enable you to maintain flexibility with regard to taking your future income distributions in a tax-efficient manner. During low-income years, withdrawing from your traditional account is smart because this money has never been taxed. Conversely, in high income years, it’s better to withdraw from your Roth account because the distributions are tax-exempt.