What is an IRA and How Many Types of IRAs are There?

IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account

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Not to be mistaken for the Irish Republican Army, IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account. 

Contributing to an IRA is all about putting money aside for your future so you will have some money to fall back on when you retire.

Funds that you deposit inside of an IRA have tax advantages over funds that you deposit in a regular bank or investment account.

Is an IRA an Investment?

People frequently ask how to find the best interest rates on an IRA, but an IRA is not an investment. It is a type of account. Inside that account you can invest in many different types of things.

You can open an IRA account at a bank, brokerage firm, mutual fund company, insurance company and at various other types of financial institutions. You can use the money you deposit into your IRA to invest in CDs, government bonds, mutual funds, stocks, and almost any other type of financial investment you can think of.

There are two main types of IRAs:

  1. Traditional IRAs
  2. Roth IRAs

The two categories above refer to the tax rules that regulate that type of IRA.

  • As a sub category of Traditional IRAs, you can have non-deductibles, spousal IRA contributions, SEP IRAS and SIMPLE IRAs.
  • As a sub category of Roth IRAs you can have Roth spousal IRA contributions. There is also a Roth 401(k) option called a Designated Roth account.

What is a Traditional IRA?

Traditional IRAs were introduced by Congress in 1974 through the Employee Retirement Income Security Act as a way to encourage people to save for retirement by offering special tax treatment for funds that you put into IRAs.

Tax Treatment of a Traditional IRA

Contributions to a Traditional IRA may be tax deductible if you meet certain eligibility requirements. If you are not eligible to make a tax-deductible IRA contribution you may still make a non-deductible IRA contribution.

You have to have earned income to contribute to any type of IRA - with one exception. If you are married as long as you have enough earned income you can contribute to a spousal IRA for a spouse even if they have no earned income.​

Traditional IRA Quick Facts

What is a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs are a new type of IRA introduced through the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Roth IRAs have different tax rules than Traditional IRAs.

Tax Treatment of a Roth IRA

Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible, but funds inside of a Roth IRA grow tax free. This means you will never pay income taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains on funds that accumulate inside of a Roth IRA as long as you follow the Roth IRA withdrawal rules.​

Roth IRA Quick Facts

  • Funds inside of an Roth IRA grow tax free. This means you do not pay income taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains earned - ever (assuming you follow the rules).
  • You can withdraw amounts contributed to a Roth right back out with no penalty taxes owed. This means a Roth IRA can double as your emergency fund.
  • Roth IRAs do not have required minimum distributions at any age.
  • You can convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth. Note: rules on conversions are different than rules on contributions.

IRAs for Self-Employed Persons or Business Owners

If you own a business or work as a self-employed independent contractor you may be eligible to establish either a SEP IRA (best for those with no employees) or a SIMPLE IRA (which may work better if you have employees.)

Either of the above plans may allow you to make a larger contribution than what you could make to a traditional or Roth IRA.