What is an IRA?

May 31, 2022
Looking for a tax-smart way to save for your future? Find out what an individual retirement account (IRA) is, what the basic benefits are, and how the three main types differ.

Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) are personal retirement savings plans that offer tax benefits and a range of investment options. Many investors use IRAs as their main source of saving for retirement. And even those who have access to employer-sponsored plans, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), still tap IRA tax advantages to boost their savings and add flexibility to their portfolio. 

"After you've contributed up to the employer match in your employer-sponsored plan, an IRA may be the next best way to save for retirement," says Rob Williams, managing director of financial planning, retirement income, and wealth management for the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "IRAs may offer a wider range of investment options than your 401(k), such as individual stocks or bonds, if that’s your preference."

Three main types of IRAs

It's important to know there are different types of IRAs, and that each type has different contribution, withdrawal, and tax rules. Rob says, "Which IRA is right for you will depend on a number of things, such as your income, whether you prefer potential tax savings now or in retirement, how required minimum distributions (RMDs) fit into your long-term plan, and whether you expect to be in a higher or lower tax bracket in retirement." 

The three most common types of IRAs are traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and rollover IRAs.   With a traditional IRA, contributions may be tax-deductible, meaning you could get a tax break up front. You’ll have to pay income tax on your traditional IRA savings when you start making withdrawals in retirement, and you’ll be required to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) each year starting at age 72. Anyone with earned income can contribute to a Traditional IRA. 

Roth IRAs treat taxes differently. Instead of receiving an immediate tax benefit, you contribute after-tax dollars (income you’ve already paid taxes on). But your money grows tax-free and qualified withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. Roth IRAs aren't subject to RMDs, so you can leave the money in your account as long as you choose or leave it to your heirs. But your income must fall below a certain limit to contribute.   

A rollover IRA, by contrast, is an account that allows you to move funds from your old employer-sponsored retirement plan into an IRA. "Rolling over" your savings in this way may allow you to preserve the tax-deferred status of your retirement assets without paying current taxes or early withdrawal penalties at the time of transfer. The specific tax benefits, as well as whether you’ll be subject to RMDs, will depend on the type of IRA you roll into—usually a traditional or Roth IRA.

Traditional, Roth, and Rollover IRAs

Traditional, Roth, and Rollover IRAs
Three main types of IRAs--Traditional, Roth, and Rollover
  • IRA Type
  • How much can I contribute?
  • What is taxed?
  • What is the tax benefit?
  • Do RMDs apply?
  • IRA Type
    Traditional 
  • How much can I contribute?
    In 2022, $6,000 per year across all of your IRAs, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older.
  • What is taxed?
    You’ll owe ordinary income tax on withdrawals, including RMDs.
  • What is the tax benefit?
    Contributions are generally tax deductible, but the amount you can deduct depends on your income. 
  • Do RMDs apply?
    Yes, you’ll have to start taking RMDs starting at age 72.
  • IRA Type
    Roth
  • How much can I contribute?
    Same as above. But your income must fall under a certain amount to contribute to a Roth IRA.  
  • What is taxed?
    Contributions are made with after-tax dollars (income you’ve already paid taxes on).
  • What is the tax benefit?
    Withdrawals are tax-free if you meet certain requirements. 
  • Do RMDs apply?
    No, you won’t have to take RMDs.
  • IRA Type
    Rollover
  • How much can I contribute?
    Regular IRA contribution limits apply. But you can roll over all assets in your employer plan one time. 
  • What is taxed?
    Tax and RMD rules depend on the type of IRA you choose for your rollover—for example, a traditional or Roth IRA.
  • What is the tax benefit?
    Tax and RMD rules depend on the type of IRA you choose for your rollover—for example, a traditional or Roth IRA.
  • Do RMDs apply?
    Tax and RMD rules depend on the type of IRA you choose for your rollover—for example, a traditional or Roth IRA.

Other types of IRAs

In addition to the three types of IRAs above, there are others you may have access to: 

  • SIMPLE IRA: A Savings Investment Match Plan for Employees is a low-cost retirement plan for self-employed individuals and small businesses with 100 or fewer employees. Employers can save for their own retirement and make contributions for employees. Employees can also contribute.  
  • SEP IRA: A Simplified Employee Pension plan is another way for self-employed individuals and business owners to set up a retirement savings plan for themselves and their employees. These accounts are funded by the employer, and contribution limits are higher than other types of IRAs. 
  • Inherited IRA: These accounts – also known as Beneficiary IRAs –are opened when someone inherits a traditional or Roth IRA after the death of the original owner.
  • Custodial IRA: Any parent, grandparent, or other custodian can open a traditional IRA or Roth IRA for a minor who has earned income for the year. The minor assumes ownership of the account when they reach the age of adulthood in their state of residency.
  • Spousal IRA: You usually have to have earned income to open and fund an IRA, but not with a spousal IRA. This plan allows the working spouse to fund a traditional IRA or Roth IRA for a spouse who does not have earned income. To qualify, you must file a joint tax return. 

Which IRA is right for you?


 

IRA Rules: 8 Things You Need to Know

When you're ready to choose an IRA, one of your first tasks is to figure out how the rules for each type of IRA line up with your personal situation.

Must-Ask Questions: IRA Contributions

What's the maximum IRA contribution? Are IRA contributions tax deductible? What if you contribute too much? Get answers to these questions and others before you open an account.

What is a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs are individual retirement accounts that you contribute to with after-tax dollars (income you've already paid taxes on). The benefit? Your savings can grow tax-free.

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