Understanding a Taxable Brokerage Account vs an IRA

By Michael Flannelly · January 30, 2024 · 11 minute read

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Understanding a Taxable Brokerage Account vs an IRA

Tax-sheltered accounts like the IRA and 401(k) have long been the go-to investment accounts for retirement planning. These types of accounts offer ways to build up tax-advantaged savings for the future. However, investing in taxable brokerage accounts is another common way to grow wealth for the short or long term.

The most notable difference between an IRA and a taxable brokerage account can be seen around tax season. With taxable brokerage accounts, you typically pay taxes on your capital gains and dividends each year. In contrast, tax-sheltered accounts only involve paying taxes when you make your contribution or withdraw your money, depending on the type of account.

Investors should know the similarities and differences between IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts. Learning the ins and outs of these accounts can help you decide which is right for you to build wealth and meet your financial goals.

What Are Taxable Brokerage Accounts?

Think of taxable brokerage accounts as “traditional” investment accounts — brokerage-offered investment accounts with stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and mutual funds. Investors who utilize these accounts invest and trade to build short- or long-term wealth, but not necessarily for retirement.

The investments within a taxable brokerage account are subject to tax on any capital gains, dividends, or interest earned. Brokerage account holders pay taxes each year based on investment income.

It’s also important to note that tax liability can vary based on variables like the types of investments held within the account, the length of time they are held, and an individual’s tax bracket. For example, short-term capital gains, which are gains on investments held for less than a year, are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. In contrast, long-term capital gains, which are gains on investments held for more than a year, are typically taxed at a lower rate.

💡 Recommended: Capital Gains Tax Guide

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What Is an IRA?

An IRA, or individual retirement account, is an investment account designed specifically to save for retirement. Contributions to an IRA may be tax-deductible, and the accounts’ investments can grow tax-free until they are withdrawn at retirement age.

There are several different types of IRAs, including Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP IRAs, which have different rules for contributions, taxes, and withdrawals. An IRA can be a helpful tool for saving for retirement and taking advantage of potential tax benefits.

Taxable Brokerage Accounts vs IRA Accounts

Tax-sheltered, or tax-deferred, investment accounts like IRAs differ from taxable brokerage accounts because they generally offer tax advantages and have restrictions on contributions and withdrawals. The tax advantages make them designed for long-term retirement saving and investing. Besides having money invested for retirement, the most notable benefits of IRAs are no yearly tax burden and, in some cases, tax-deductible contributions.

Here’s a breakdown of what each tax-deferred account may offer compared to a brokerage account.

Traditional IRAs vs Taxable Brokerage Accounts

The traditional IRA has no income limits; as long as someone has a taxable income, they can contribute to a traditional IRA. The gains, dividends, and interest earned in IRAs grow tax-free during contributing years. Contributions to a traditional IRA may be tax-deductible, though the benefits phase out if you have a high enough income.

With a few exceptions, IRA withdrawal rules say account holders will have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if they take a distribution before reaching age 59 ½. Additionally, account holders are required to start making withdrawals the year they turn age 72 that are taxed as income.

These limitations make a traditional IRA different from a taxable brokerage account, as taxable brokerage accounts do not have withdrawal restrictions and penalties.

With a traditional IRA, as with taxable brokerage accounts, account holders will need to manage it independently or with a financial planner’s help.

A traditional IRA might be a good option for investors who think they will be in a lower tax bracket when they retire. In theory, these investors would save money on taxes by paying them in retirement compared to paying taxes now.

For 2024, account holders can contribute up to $7,000 per year (or up to $8,000 if they are over 50 years old). For 2023, the total contributions investors can make to a traditional IRA is up to $6,500 (or up to $7,500 if they are over 50 years old).

💡 Recommended: Important Retirement Contribution Limits

Roth IRAs vs Taxable Brokerage Accounts

Like taxable brokerage accounts, Roth IRA contributions aren’t tax-deductible. Investors contribute with post-tax dollars, but that also means they won’t be subject to taxes when they withdraw funds in retirement.

However, income limits exist for those who can contribute to a Roth IRA account. If you make more than the income limits, then the amount of money you can contribute to a Roth IRA may be reduced; high earners may not be able to contribute to a Roth IRA. For 2024, income limits start at $146,000 per year for single tax filers and $230,000 for married couples filing jointly. For 2023, income limits start at $138,000 per year for single tax filers and $218,000 for married couples filing jointly.

As with brokerage accounts, Roth IRA account holders can contribute to their accounts at any age. Investors who want to make retirement contributions can do so even after they’ve retired.

Rules around Roth IRA withdrawals are less stringent than those for a traditional IRA. Roth account holders can also begin to take the account’s growth starting at age 59 ½ with no penalty as long as the account has been open for five years.

For those eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, these accounts make the most sense if the account holder thinks they will be in a higher tax bracket in retirement. Since account holders pay taxes on the contributions in the year they were made, it makes the most sense to pay income taxes when in a lower tax bracket.

💡 Recommended: Traditional vs Roth IRA: How to Choose the Right Plan

401(k)s vs Taxable Brokerage Accounts

Similar to an IRA, 401(k) accounts are one of the most common tax-sheltered accounts. The big difference between an IRA and a 401(k) account is that the 401(k) is employer-sponsored, and employees and employers can contribute to the account.

Employees can contribute to their 401(k) up to $23,000 per year in 2024 and up to $22,500 in 2023. Employees over 50 can make additional catch-up contributions of $7,500 annually in both 2024 and 2023. Many employers offer employees 401(k) plans, some even matching contributions up to a certain percentage.

The 401(k) is one of the most common ways to grow a retirement nest egg because the contributions are automatic and come out of the employee’s paycheck, so employees may not even notice the money is gone.

Tax Advantages of an IRA vs Taxable Brokerage Account

As noted above, IRAs offer several tax advantages compared to taxable brokerage accounts. Investors generally use IRAs for tax efficient investing.

Here are some of the main differences:

•   Contributions to traditional IRAs may be tax-deductible: Contributions to a traditional IRA may be tax-deductible, depending on your income and whether a retirement plan at work covers you or your spouse. This means that the money you contribute to a traditional IRA can be deducted from your taxable income, reducing the amount of tax you owe.

•   Earnings in an IRA grow tax-free: The money you earn in an IRA, including interest, dividends, and capital gains, grows tax-free until you withdraw it in retirement. In a taxable brokerage account, you would have to pay taxes on any capital gains and dividends you earn each year.

•   Withdrawals from traditional IRAs may be taxed at a lower rate: When you withdraw money from a traditional IRA in retirement, it is taxed as ordinary income at your marginal tax rate. However, if you are in a lower tax bracket in retirement than when you made the contributions, your withdrawals may be taxed at a lower rate.

•   Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible: Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible, but the money you withdraw in retirement is tax-free, provided you meet specific requirements. This can be a good option if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement than you are now.

Which Type of Account Is Best for Me?

Brian Walsh, Certified Financial Planner™ at SoFi, says ultimately, you’ll have a mixture of accounts. However, what’s right for you depends on your situation. “It depends if you have access to a 401(k) and an employer match … it depends on what you’re eligible for.” Here are a few considerations that can help you assess your situation.

Think About Investing in a Traditional IRA If…

•   You want to take advantage of tax-deferred contributions.

•   You expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement.

•   You’ve maxed out your 401(k) contributions and make too much to contribute to a Roth account.

Think About Investing in a Roth IRA If…

•   You expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement.

•   You want the option to pass on the account easily to your heirs.

•   You’ve maxed out your traditional 401(k) and want to offset some of your future tax burden with a Roth IRA.

Think About Investing in a 401(k) If…

•   Your employer offers a plan with a match program.

•   You’re uncertain about your future tax liability, and your employer allows you to split contributions between a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k).

•   You prefer a hands-off approach to investing.

Think About Investing in a Taxable Brokerage Account If…

•   You’ve maxed out all contribution limits to your 401(k) and IRAs.

•   You want to invest in investments not offered in your 401(k) or IRA, like options or cryptocurrency.

•   You want more control over your investments with the opportunity to withdraw funds at your leisure.

Pros and Cons of Taxable Brokerage Accounts

Here are some of advantages and disadvantages of taxable brokerage accounts:

Pros of Taxable Accounts

•   Flexibility: Taxable brokerage accounts allow you to invest in a wide range of assets, such as stocks and bonds, as well as derivatives. This allows you to create a diversified portfolio that meets your investment goals.

•   Growth potential: Taxable brokerage accounts offer the potential for significant growth, as you can earn capital gains on your investments if they increase in value.

•   No contribution limits: Unlike tax-advantaged accounts, taxable brokerage accounts have no contribution limits. This means you can contribute as much as you want to your account, subject to income limits or restrictions.

Cons of Taxable Accounts

•   Taxes: One of the main disadvantages of taxable brokerage accounts is that you will be required to pay taxes on your investment income and capital gains. This can significantly reduce your overall returns.

•   Lack of tax benefits: Taxable brokerage accounts do not offer the same tax benefits as tax-advantaged accounts. For example, 401(k)s and IRA contributions may be tax-deductible, while investments in taxable brokerage accounts are not.

•   Potential for loss: As with any investment, there is a risk of loss in a taxable brokerage account. If your investments decline in value, you could lose some or all of your initial investment.

Is it Smart to Have Both an IRA and a Taxable Brokerage Account?

It may be a consideration to have both an IRA and a taxable brokerage account, as each type has its specific benefits and drawbacks.

An IRA can be a good option if you are looking to save for retirement and want the potential tax benefits of an IRA. On the other hand, a taxable brokerage account can be a good choice if you are looking to invest for goals other than retirement or if you are not eligible for a tax deduction on your contributions to an IRA.

Having both an IRA and a taxable brokerage account can give you more flexibility and diversification in your investments, which can help you manage risk and improve your overall financial situation.

The Takeaway

Every account — from taxable brokerage accounts to IRAs — has advantages and disadvantages, which is why some investors choose to invest in a few. The old cliche, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” is a solid philosophy for financial planning. Investing in several different “baskets” is one way to ensure that your money is working hard for you.

Fortunately, SoFi Invest® offers several accounts that can help you save and invest for retirement or whatever financial goals you have. With SoFi, you can open a retirement account, either a traditional or Roth IRA. For individuals who want to build their own portfolio, SoFi also offers an online brokerage account where investors can trade stocks, ETFs, fractional shares, and more with no commissions.

Take a step toward reaching your financial goals with SoFi Invest.

FAQ

What is the difference between an IRA and a taxable brokerage account?

An IRA is designed specifically to save for retirement. Unlike a taxable brokerage account, which is used for general investing, contributions to an IRA may be tax-deductible, and the investments within the account can grow tax-free until they are withdrawn at retirement age. There are several different types of IRAs, including Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs, which have different rules for contributions, taxes, and withdrawals.

Is it better to contribute to an IRA or a taxable brokerage account?

Whether to contribute to an IRA or a taxable brokerage account depends on your circumstances and financial goals. In general, an IRA can be a good option if you are looking to save for retirement and want the potential tax benefits of an IRA. However, if you are not eligible for a tax deduction on your contributions or looking to invest for goals other than retirement, a taxable brokerage account may be a better choice.

How is a taxable brokerage account taxed?

The investments held within a taxable brokerage account may be subject to tax on any capital gains, dividends, or interest earned. Short-term capital gains, which are gains on investments held for less than a year, are taxed at the same rate as ordinary income. Long-term capital gains, which are gains on investments held for more than a year, are typically taxed at a lower rate. Dividends and interest income earned are also subject to tax.


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