Understanding Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): A Beginner's Guide

By Pam O’Brien · February 27, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Understanding Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): A Beginner's Guide

An individual retirement account, or IRA, is a retirement savings account that has certain tax advantages. Brian Walsh is a Certified Financial Planner™ at SoFi — he says “The tax advantage part is important because it allows your money to grow a little bit more efficiently, especially over a long period of time.” An IRA allows individuals to save for retirement over the long-term.

There are different types of IRAs, but two of the most common are traditional and Roth IRAs. Both types generally let you contribute the same amount annually (more on that below). One key difference is the way the two accounts are taxed: With traditional IRAs, you deduct your contributions upfront and pay taxes on distributions when you retire. With Roth IRAs, contributions are not tax deductible, but you can withdraw money tax-free in retirement.

For those planning for their future, IRAs are worth learning more about—and potentially investing in. Read on to learn more about the different types of IRAs, which one might be right for you, and how to open an individual retirement account.

Key Points

•   An IRA is a retirement savings account that offers tax advantages and allows individuals to save for retirement over the long-term.

•   There are different types of IRAs, including traditional and Roth IRAs, each with its own tax treatment and contribution limits.

•   Traditional IRAs allow for pre-tax contributions and tax-deferred growth, while Roth IRAs involve after-tax contributions and tax-free withdrawals in retirement.

•   Other types of IRAs include SEP IRAs for small business owners and self-employed individuals, and SIMPLE IRAs for employees and employers of small businesses.

•   Opening an IRA provides individuals with the opportunity to save for retirement, supplement existing retirement plans, and potentially benefit from tax advantages.

What Are the Different Types of IRA Accounts?

There are several types of IRAs, including traditional and Roth IRAs. Since it is possible to have multiple IRAs, an individual who works for themselves or owns a small business might also establish a SEP IRA (Simplified Employee Pension) or SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees). Just be aware that you cannot exceed the total contribution limits across all the IRAs you hold.

Here is an overview of some different types of IRAs:

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Traditional IRA

A traditional IRA is a retirement account that allows individuals to make pre-tax contributions. Money inside a traditional IRA grows tax-deferred, and it’s subject to income tax when it’s withdrawn.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are typically tax-deductible because they can lower an individual’s taxable income in the year they contribute.

Traditional IRAs have contribution limits. In 2024, individuals can contribute up to $7,000 per year, with an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000 for those aged 50 and up. In 2023, the contribution limit was $6,500 annually or $7,500 for those 50 and older.

When individuals reach a certain age, they must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from a traditional IRA. RMDs are generally calculated by taking the IRA account balance and dividing it by a life expectancy factor determined by the IRS.

Saving for retirement with an IRA means that an individual is, essentially, saving money until they reach at least age 59 ½. Withdrawals from a traditional IRA taken before that time are typically subject to income tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty. There are some exemptions to this rule, however — such as using a set amount of IRA funds to buy a first house or pay a medical insurance premium after an individual loses their job.


💡 Quick Tip: Before opening an investment account, know your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance. These fundamentals will help keep your strategy on track and with the aim of meeting your goals.

Roth IRA

Unlike a traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars, and contributions are not tax-deductible. The money can grow tax-free in the Roth IRA account. Withdrawals made after age 59 ½ are tax-free, as long as the account has been open for at least five years.

Roth IRAs are subject to the same contribution limits as traditional IRAs, but the amount an individual can contribute may be limited based on their tax filing status and income levels.

For 2024, married couples filing jointly can contribute only a partial amount to a Roth if their modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is $230,000 or more. If their MAGI is over $240,000, they cannot contribute to a Roth at all. For single filers, those whose MAGI is $146,000 or more can make a reduced contribution to a Roth, and those whose MAGI is more than $161,000 cannot contribute.

Individuals with Roth IRAs are not required to take RMDs. Additionally, Roth withdrawal rules are a bit more flexible than those for a traditional IRA. Individuals can withdraw contributions to their Roth IRAs at any time without having to pay income tax or a penalty fee. However, they may be subject to taxes and a 10% penalty on earnings they withdraw before age 59 ½.

SEP IRA

A simplified employee pension (SEP IRA) provides small business owners and self-employed people with a way to contribute to their employees’ or their own retirement plans. Contribution limits are significantly larger than those for traditional and Roth IRAs.

Only an employer (or self-employed person) can contribute to a SEP IRA. In 2024, employers can contribute up to 25% of their employees’ compensations or $69,000 a year, whichever is less. The amount of employee compensation that can be used to calculate the 25% is limited to $345,000 in 2024.

If an individual is the owner of the business and contributes a certain percentage of their compensation to their own SEP IRA —for example, 15%— the amount they contribute to their employees’ plans must be the same proportion of the employees’ salary (in other words, also 15% or whatever percentage they contributed).

When it comes to RMDs and early withdrawal penalties, SEP IRAs follow the same rules as traditional IRAs. However, in certain situations, the early withdrawal penalty may be waived.

SIMPLE IRA

A Savings Incentive Match Plan for employees, or SIMPLE IRA, is a traditional IRA that both employees and employers can contribute to. These plans are, typically, available to any small business with 100 employees or fewer.

Employers are required to contribute to the plan each year by making a 3% matching contribution, or a 2% nonelective contribution, which must be made even if the employee doesn’t contribute anything to the account. This 2% contribution is calculated on no more than $345,000 of an employee’s compensation in 2024.

Employees can contribute up to $16,000 to their SIMPLE IRA in 2024, and they can also make catch-up contributions of $3,500 at age 50 or older, if their plan allows it.

SIMPLE plans have RMDs, and early withdrawals are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty. The early withdrawal penalty increases to 25% for withdrawals made during the first two years of participation in a plan. (There are, however, certain exemptions recognized by the IRS.)

This article is part of SoFi’s Retirement Planning Guide, our coverage of all the steps you need to create a successful retirement plan.


money management guide for beginners

Benefits of Opening an IRA

The main advantage of opening an IRA is that you are saving money for your future. Investing in retirement is an important financial move at any age. Beyond that, here are some other benefits of opening an IRA:

•   Anyone who earns income can open an IRA. It’s a good option if you don’t have access to an employee-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k) or a 403(b).

•   An IRA can supplement an employee plan. You could open an IRA to supplement your retirement plan at work, especially if you’ve already contributed the annual maximum.

•   An IRA might be a good rollover vehicle. If you’re leaving your job, you could roll over funds from a 401(k) or 403(b) into an IRA. That may give you access to more investment options—not to mention consolidating your accounts in one place.

•   A SEP IRA might be helpful if you’re self-employed. A SEP IRA may allow you to contribute more each year than you could to a Roth or Traditional IRA, depending on how much you earn.

Which Type of IRA Works for You?

There are many different types of IRAs and deciding which one is better for your particular financial situation will depend on your individual circumstances and future plans. Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding between different types of IRAs:

•   Thinking ahead, what do you expect your tax income bracket to look like at retirement? If you think you’ll be in a lower bracket when you retire, it might make more sense to invest in a traditional IRA, since you’ll pay more in taxes today than you would when you withdraw the money later.

•   Will you likely be in a higher tax bracket at retirement? That can easily happen as your career and income grow and if you experience lifestyle inflation. In that case, a Roth IRA might give you the opportunity to save on taxes in the long run.

•   Do you prefer not to take RMDs starting at age 73? If so, a Roth IRA might be a better option for you.

•   Is your income high enough to prevent you from contributing the full amount (or at all) to a Roth IRA? In that case, you may want to consider a traditional IRA.

How Much Should You Contribute to an IRA?

If you can afford it, you could contribute up to the maximum limit to your IRA every year (including catch-up contributions if you qualify). Otherwise, it generally makes sense to contribute as much as you can, on a regular basis, so that it becomes a habit.

Until you’re on track for retirement, many financial professionals recommend prioritizing IRA contributions over other big expenses, like saving for a down payment on a first or second home, or for your kids’ college education.

Any money you put into an IRA has the opportunity to grow over time. Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, so for specifics unique to your situation, it might help to talk to a financial advisor and/or a tax advisor.

How Can You Use IRA Funds?

Early withdrawals of your IRA funds, prior to the age of 59 ½, can trigger a 10% penalty tax. However, there are exceptions that may allow an individual to use their IRA funds before hitting the age of eligibility and without facing the 10% penalty, according to IRS rules. Just keep in mind that early withdrawals are generally considered a last resort after all other options have been exhausted since you don’t want to dip into your retirement funds unless absolutely necessary.

IRA withdrawal exceptions include:

•   Permanent disability

•   Higher education expenses

•   Certain out-of-pocket medical expenses totaling more than 10% of adjusted gross income

•   Qualified first-time homebuyers up to $10,000

•   Health insurance premiums while unemployed

•   IRS levy of the plan

•   Qualified military reservist called to active duty

•   Death of the IRA’s owner

The Takeaway

IRAs offer individuals an opportunity to save money for retirement in a tax-advantaged plan. There are several different IRAs to choose from to help you find an account that suits your needs and goals.

There are multiple options for opening an IRA, including online brokers and robo-advisors. With an online broker, you choose the investment assets for your IRA. A robo-advisor is an automated investment platform that picks investments for you based on your financial goals, risk tolerance, and investing time frame. Whichever option you choose, you decide on a financial institution, pick the type of IRA you want, and set up your account.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Easily manage your retirement savings with a SoFi IRA.

FAQ

How is an IRA different from a 401(k)?

While IRAs and 401(k)s are both tax-advantaged ways to save money for retirement, a 401(k) is an employer-sponsored plan that is offered through the workplace, and an IRA is an account you can open on your own.

What’s the difference between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA?

The biggest difference between a traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA is how and when your money is taxed. With a traditional IRA, you get a tax deduction when you make contributions. Your contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, and when you withdraw money in retirement, the funds are taxed.

With a Roth IRA, you make contributions with after-tax dollars. You don’t get a tax deduction upfront when you contribute, but your money grows tax-free. When you withdraw the money in retirement, you won’t pay taxes on the withdrawals.

When should I make IRA contributions?

One simple way to fund your IRA is to set up automatic contributions at regular intervals that puts money from your bank account directly into your IRA. You could contribute monthly or several times a year—the frequency is up to you. Some people contribute once annually, after they receive a year-end bonus, for example.


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Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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