Can a Roth IRA Lose Money?

By Austin Kilham · February 27, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Can a Roth IRA Lose Money?

It is possible to lose money when you invest in a traditional or Roth IRA (Individual Retirement Account), depending on what investments you choose for your Roth. All investments can lose money — including those within any type of retirement account.

That’s why it’s important to invest your Roth in assets that reflect your risk tolerance. If you invest mostly in stocks, you are at a higher risk for losses in your account. If you invest in less volatile assets (e.g. bond funds), you may be at a lower risk for losses.

Are Roth IRAs safe? No investment account is ever 100% safe, but because retirement accounts are generally long-term investments, they offer the possibility of growth over time. Also, the more years you invest in a traditional or Roth IRA, the more time that retirement account may have to recover from any losses.

Key Points

•   It is possible to lose money in a Roth IRA depending on the investments chosen.

•   Roth IRAs are not 100% safe, but they offer the potential for growth over time.

•   Market fluctuations and early withdrawal penalties can cause a Roth IRA to lose money.

•   Investing late or contributing too much can also result in potential losses.

•   Diversification and considering time horizon can help mitigate risks in a Roth IRA.

Understanding IRAs

An IRA is a type of tax-advantaged account that may help individuals plan and save for retirement. IRAs can offer investors specific tax advantages that could be beneficial when compared with traditional brokerage accounts (which can be taxed as income).

There are also a few types of IRAs, with the most popular or well-known being the traditional IRA and Roth IRA account.

With a traditional IRA your contributions are pre-tax, meaning the amount you deposit in an IRA is deducted from your taxable income and is therefore not taxed until you withdraw the funds.

The key distinction is that contributions to Roth IRAs involve money that’s already been taxed, so it grows tax free, and withdrawals are also tax free. More on the differences between them below.

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Can You Lose Money in a Roth IRA?

Now, to the main question: Can a Roth IRA lose money? The answer is yes, it can. This is one of the main differences between a Roth IRA vs. savings: Investing involves risk, whereas parking your money in the bank usually does not (with the exception of inflation risk).

There are several reasons that your Roth IRA may lose money.

Market Fluctuations

Given that the money in retirement accounts, including IRAs, is typically invested, the overall value of the account is subject to the whims of the market. That means that if the market experiences a downturn or correction, your Roth IRA balance is likely to decline as well.

That’s not a certainty, however, as IRAs are generally invested in a range of assets, not all of which may be affected by larger market conditions.

Early Withdrawal Penalties

Your Roth IRA can also lose money if you withdraw funds from it prematurely, and thus, are forced to pay early withdrawal penalties. Roth IRAs are complicated, however, in that your contributions can be withdrawn at any time. But you have to be careful with earnings.

If you withdraw earnings from your Roth IRA before age 59 ½ , you’ll likely be assessed a 10% penalty by the IRS.

Depending on the type of IRA you have, you may also need to pay ordinary income taxes, too.

You may want to consult a tax professional to make sure you understand Roth IRA rules that can trigger penalties.

Investing Late

It’s also possible to “lose money” in the sense that you miss out on market gains over time by investing in your Roth IRA too late. Time is an important factor in investing and saving for retirement, and if you start relatively young, time will work for you as the markets tend to rise over the years.

But if you’re about to hit retirement age and have only been investing in your Roth IRA for, say, a few years, you likely missed out on many years’ of appreciation by investing too late. This is why it’s generally a good idea to start funding an IRA as soon as possible.

Contributing Too Much

It’s possible to contribute too much to your Roth IRA, which may end up costing you. There are limits to how much you can contribute each year. For tax year 2023, the Roth IRA contribution maxes out at $6,500, or $7,500 if you’re over the age of 50. If you blow past that maximum, you must withdraw the excess amount or it can trigger a 6% tax penalty from the IRS.

Note that if your modified adjusted gross income exceeds a certain amount — $138,000 for single filers in tax year 2023, $218,000 for those married and filing jointly — you cannot contribute the maximum amount to a Roth IRA.

Allowable contributions are gradually reduced up to $153,000 in income for single filers, and up to $228,000 for married filing jointly. Above those caps, you cannot contribute to a Roth IRA at all.

Custodial Fees

There are also fees to consider. Someone manages your Roth IRA, and they don’t do it for free. As such, you may incur managerial or custodial fees that can affect your account’s overall balance, in addition to the cost of the investments themselves.

Can You Lose Your Entire Roth IRA?

It’s unlikely that you’d lose your entire Roth IRA’s value. Most fees, penalties, and taxes are levied as a percentage of that value, so they would not be able to fully drain the account. Perhaps the closest you could get to losing all of the money in your Roth IRA is if the market sees an all-out collapse, and most assets see their values reduced to zero.

Again — that’s very unlikely, but not impossible. If it were to happen, too, you’d probably have bigger problems to worry about other than the value of your investments!

With all of this in mind, it’s fair to ask, Are Roth IRAs safe to invest your money in?

The answer is that IRAs in general can provide less risk exposure than, say, day trading, although there are still risks to take into consideration. A Roth IRA that’s 100% invested in equities could be quite risky compared with a Roth invested in other assets (e.g. bonds or bond funds, mutual funds, and so on).

Also, the assets in a Roth IRA are usually long-term investments, which tend to help mitigate the risk of losses over time, as your money may have a chance to recover from any market downturns.

Limiting Risk in IRAs

One thing all of the IRAs above have in common is they offer the individuals who hold them a lot of flexibility in investment choices — including mutual funds, property, stocks, bonds, ETFs, annuities, and more. As a result, IRA investors can have a big say in what their retirement portfolio will look like.

And while it is possible that their portfolio may lose money, there are ways to manage that risk. By contrast, 401(k) retirement plans often offer limited investment options, such as a handful of mutual funds or target date funds.

Diversification

Diversification is chief among an investor’s risk management tools. A diversification strategy means spreading money across multiple asset classes, such as stocks and bonds. A portfolio can be further diversified within each asset class. For example, diverse stock holdings might include stocks from companies of different sizes, sectors, and geographical locations.

Diversification helps minimize the effects market risk can have on an investor’s portfolio. There are two main types: market risk, also called systematic risk, and specific or unsystematic risk.

Systematic risk is caused by factors that have a broad impact on the market as a whole, such as inflation or a global pandemic. Unfortunately, there’s not much an investor can do about this sort of risk, unless you’re an active investor familiar with hedging strategies.

The second type of market risk, unsystematic risk, is limited to individual companies, industries, or geographies. For instance, a workers’ strike at a factory could halt production and drag down an automaker’s stock price.

Diversification helps mitigate unsystematic risk. So, if an individual holds stocks in hundreds of different companies, one poorly performing company may have minimal negative impact on their portfolio’s performance. While diversification cannot prevent the risk of loss entirely, it may help individuals’ portfolios less vulnerable to market volatility.

How Safe Are Roth IRAs Considered to Be?

It depends how you define “safe.” If you’re thinking 100% free from loss, there are no safe investments. That said, Roth IRAs, and many other retirement account types, are generally considered to provide investors with lower risk exposure. They’re generally safer than investing in, say, penny stocks or cryptocurrencies, which are usually referred to as “speculative” investments.

Roth IRAs are usually managed and diversified, and as such, have some degrees of safety built into them to keep investors’ money relatively safe. That said, they aren’t completely risk-free. As mentioned, there are things that can lower a Roth IRA’s overall value — some of which investors can attempt to mitigate.

Time Horizon for Investments

Some investors might want to consider their time horizon in an effort to minimize portfolio losses that can occur at inopportune times. A time horizon is the amount of time an investor anticipates holding an investment until they want the money back.

When an investor is young, they may choose to hold riskier investments, such as stocks in their portfolio. Stocks can offer more opportunity for growth, but — on the flip side — stocks can also suffer big drops in value.

Investors who are many years away from a financial goal, such as retirement, may opt to hold more stocks to take advantage of their growth potential. With many years to go before they need to tap their investments, these investors have time to ride out the market’s swings.

The Takeaway

It’s possible to lose money in a Roth IRA, or any retirement or investment account — it really depends what types of investments are in the Roth.

The market may take a dip, for example, which can have an effect on your Roth IRA’s overall value. You can also see some of that value eaten up by custodial fees or penalties, if you decide to withdraw money. In a broader sense, if you start investing too late, you can miss out on market gains over many years — likewise costing you money.

It’s unlikely you would see your entire Roth IRA’s value fall to zero. But it’s also important to remember that retirement accounts are not risk-free investment vehicles. And depending on the type of IRA you have (traditional or Roth, SEP or SIMPLE), there will be different considerations you’ll need to make about how, when, and why you’re investing.

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FAQ

What happens to my Roth IRA if the stock market crashes?

It’s likely that you would see the overall value of your Roth IRA diminish in the event of a stock market crash. That doesn’t mean that it would have no value or you’d lose all of your money, but fluctuations in the market do affect the values of the investments in IRAs.

What are the risks of investing in a Roth IRA?

Risks of investing in a Roth IRA involve potentially incurring penalties for early withdrawals, seeing values decline due to market fluctuations, and even the potential of being assessed tax penalties for contributing too much money during a given year, among other things.


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