What Is a Roth IRA Basis?

Woman working on laptop while looking at documents
•••

Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

DEFINITION
A Roth IRA basis is the total amount of money you’ve contributed to your Roth IRA since opening the account. Knowing your Roth IRA basis can help you figure out if you’ll owe penalties on any distributions you take before age 59 ½.

A Roth IRA basis is the total amount of money you’ve contributed to your Roth IRA since opening the account. Knowing your Roth IRA basis can help you figure out if you’ll owe penalties on any distributions you take before age 59 ½. 

Here’s a closer look at how the Roth IRA basis works, how its calculated and why its useful.

Definition and Examples of a Roth IRA Basis

Your Roth IRA basis is the sum of all your Roth IRA contributions. It’s called your “basis” because all of these contributions are nondeductible since you fund your Roth IRA with after-tax money.

So, say your Roth IRA balance is $100,000. If you’ve contributed exactly $90,000 to your account since opening it, this would be your Roth IRA basis. 

Knowing your Roth IRA basis comes in handy in a number of situations, especially, to figure out how much money you’ve put into the account and how much money your contributions have earned.

How Does a Roth IRA Basis Work?

One major benefit of a Roth IRA is that you can withdraw your basis (aka, your contributions) at any time without penalty or taxes — as long as your account is at least five years old or you meet certain other criteria.

The reason such withdrawals get complicated is, as your account grows and starts earning interest, it can be difficult to know exactly how much you’ve contributed versus how much interest you’ve earned. This is where the Roth IRA basis comes in. 

By tracking your Roth IRA basis, you can know exactly how much money you can withdraw penalty-free before age 59 ½. It will also help you avoid over- or underreporting contributions when you start taking distributions.

For example, say you’ve saved $6,000 in your Roth IRA for the past five years, for a total basis of $30,000. Based on Roth IRA rules, you could withdraw this amount at any time without incurring a penalty from the IRS.

How To Calculate Your Roth IRA Basis

Calculating your Roth IRA basis is fairly simple and can be done in two steps: 

  1. Add up all the contributions you’ve made since opening your account.
  2. Subtract any distributions you’ve taken.

The math may not be tough but getting the accurate information may prove challenging.It may require some digging if you’ve had your account open for a long time. 

You should receive Form 5498 each year from your IRA provider. This form details how much you’ve contributed to your Roth IRA for that tax year. This information is helpful to get your Roth IRA basis.

Doing these calculations for the first time may take a bit of time. But once you’ve done it, you should be able to update it fairly quickly throughout the year.

As an example, say you’ve had your Roth IRA open for 10 years. Your contributions and distributions are as follows: 

Year 1: $500 contribution

Year 2: $2,500 contribution

Year 3: $1,000 contribution

Year 4: $3,000 contribution

Year 5: $3,000 contribution

Year 6: $4,000 contribution

Year 7: $1,000 contribution; $3,000 distribution

Year 8: $2,000 contribution

Year 9: $6,000 contribution

Year 10: $6,000 contribution

Your total contributions would be $29,000 and your total distributions would be $3,000. So, your Roth IRA basis would be $26,000.

How To Calculate Roth IRA Basis of Conversions

Before we talk about how to calculate your basis in a Roth conversion, let’s talk about how traditional and Roth IRAs are taxed in general. 

  • Money in a traditional IRA isn’t taxed until retirement. So, any time you make a contribution, it sits in your account tax-free until you withdraw. 
  • Money in a Roth IRA is taxed upfront. So, you’ve already paid taxes on the money you put in your account. 

This means that any time you make a Roth IRA conversion — which is where you transfer money from a 401(k) or traditional IRA to a Roth IRA — you have to pay taxes on the full amount. 

Now, think back to the definition of a Roth IRA Basis: it’s the sum of money in your account that’s already been taxed. 

Because of this, your Roth IRA basis of conversion is equal to the full amount you convert. So, if you do a Roth IRA conversion for $20,000, your Roth IRA basis is $20,000, plus whatever contributions you already had in the account. 

What Roth IRA Basis Means for Individual Investors

There are a few reasons why you should know your Roth IRA basis: 

Your Roth IRA Basis Helps You Track Penalty-Free Withdrawals

The biggest benefit of tracking your Roth IRA basis is that it takes the guesswork out of knowing if a withdrawal is qualified (read: penalty-free) or not. 

Need help figuring out if you’ll get taxed for a Roth IRA withdrawal? This IRS Roth distribution tool can help you find out.  

The last thing you want to do is take $10,000 out of your Roth IRA, just to find out you exceeded your basis and now have to pay taxes and penalties. 

You Need To Know Your Roth IRA Basis For Tax Purposes

You're required to fill out IRS Form 8606 in the years you make a Roth IRA distribution or Roth conversion. Line 22 of this form asks for your Roth IRA basis.

Failure to accurately report your Roth IRA basis can result in penalties from the IRS.

The IRS also recommends keeping Form 5498 for your records, in case you get audited or need to verify nontaxable parts of your IRA distributions. 

Your Roth IRA Basis Can Help With Retirement Planning

Understanding your Roth IRA basis can help you plan out a solid income strategy for retirement. So, if you’re trying to figure out which types of retirement accounts you need to pull from and when to stay in a lower income tax bracket, your Roth IRA basis can help with that.

Key Takeaways

  • A Roth IRA basis is the total amount of money you’ve contributed to your Roth IRA since opening the account
  • Calculating Roth IRA basis helps distinguish between your contributions and growth of that money in your Roth account.
  • Calculate your Roth IRA basis by adding up all your contributions and subtracting any distributions you’ve made.
  • Roth IRA basis comes into play when you make withdrawals from your account that may be subject to taxes or penalties.

Want to read more content like this? Sign up for The Balance’s newsletter for daily insights, analysis, and financial tips, all delivered straight to your inbox every morning!

Article Sources