What Is an IRA? Here's What You Need to Know

Investments
Self-employed businessman working at his laptop in a sunny room: What is an IRA?

If you've been in the workforce for any period, you've likely heard of retirement funds. Not everyone wants to contribute to an employer-sponsored plan. And if you're one of 15 million people who are self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you don't even have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

The good news is there are plenty of options. There's a lot you could do today to save for retirement — starting with looking into individual retirement accounts (IRAs). So, what is an IRA? Before getting into the specifics, let's address the importance of saving for retirement in the first place.

Why Save for Retirement?

Saving is not a strength for Americans. According to a 2017 Employee Benefit Research Institute study, roughly one in four American workers have less than $1,000 in savings and investments — and nearly half of workers have less than $25,000. A shortage of savings could result in problems down the road when people find themselves unable to work. Even a Social Security check may not keep up with the inevitable rise in the cost of living. For this reason, it's important to look into your options for saving for retirement, such as IRAs.

What Is an IRA?

An IRA is a type of retirement savings account you can open on your own. These accounts are designed to help you save for retirement — usually through investment vehicles — while giving you some potential tax advantages along the way. Depending on your financial goals and situation, one type of IRA could be more beneficial to you than another. In some cases, you may even be able to open more than one type of IRA and contribute to both.

Traditional IRAs

You're eligible to open a traditional IRA as long as you have taxable compensation or self-employment income and are not turning 70 1/2 this year. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRA), the maximum amount you can contribute to a traditional IRA each year is $5,500. If you're 50 or older, you can contribute up to $6,500. A traditional IRA lets you contribute now without having to worry about taxes until you withdraw. You can also subtract your contributions from your annual gross income to decrease your tax liability. It's important to keep in mind that withdrawals of taxable amounts before reaching age 59 1/2 are subject to ordinary income tax and a 10 percent IRS penalty.

Roth IRAs

A Roth IRA is similar to a traditional IRA, with one significant difference: You pay taxes now instead of later. Some people prefer to take this route so they don't have to pay income tax later on in life when they withdraw. Roth IRAs also have a maximum annual contribution amount of $5,500 ($6,500 if you're age 50 or older).

Roth Conversion IRAs

A Roth conversion IRA refers to the process of converting a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. Often, those who choose this route do so because they don't want to worry about taxes later in life. To do the conversion, you must report the traditional IRA funds as income and pay taxes on them. (This may put you into a higher tax bracket for the year you report it as income.)

Rollover IRAs

A rollover IRA is when an employee chooses to roll over their former employer-sponsored plan into an IRA when they either change jobs or retire. This rollover is usually done with 401(k)s, 403(b)s or assets from a profit-sharing plan.

Many people choose to do this so their assets can maintain their tax-deferred status. People who open this type of account can also move their rollover IRA funds into a new employer's retirement plan.

SEP IRAs

A simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA is a type of IRA available for self-employed individuals. You're allowed to contribute up to 20 percent of your business profit, and the contributions are tax-deferred until you withdraw them in retirement.

Some business owners decide to do a combination of a Roth IRA and SEP IRA. The Roth IRA handles current taxes, while the SEP IRA allows you to contribute more and deduct those current contributions from your taxes. Those who choose this route are usually either sole proprietors or have only one other employee. Freelancers and consultants may also decide to open a SEP IRA.

SIMPLE IRAs

A savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA allows employers and employees to contribute to traditional IRAs. SIMPLE IRAs are usually used by employers who don't offer an employer-sponsored plan to their employees but want to give them some way to save.

Small-business owners, for example, may choose to offer a SIMPLE IRA. This IRA allows the owners to contribute and get tax advantages while also giving their employees an additional incentive to stick around.

IRAs could be a great way to help you get started with your retirement savings or boost your current contributions. Whether you're employed or run your own business, there are many options to choose from that cater to different needs and situations.

IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES

Information provided is general and educational in nature. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. Western & Southern Financial Group and its member companies (“the Company”) does not provide legal or tax advice. Laws of a specific state or laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. The Company makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by its use. The Company disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or reliance on, the information. Consult an attorney or tax advisor regarding your specific legal or tax situation.

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