Your Retirement Center

IRAs: Your Show

You call the shots on your IRA, so it helps if your goals are clearly in focus.
Since IRAs are designed to be long-term investments, and can play an important part in providing a secure retirement, you'll want to have a plan for building your account. The first rule is to diversify, which means spreading the assets in a variable annuity among several different types of separate account funds. That way you may benefit from owning some investments that are performing well even if other investments are in a slump. And you can protect yourself against the risk of depending too heavily on the return of just one investment category. One strategy is to use some of your IRA to invest in funds that are designed to provide income. Since it's a tax-deferred account, you don't have to worry about increasing your current tax bill. And you can use the income to make additional investments. Another approach is to make riskier investments, for example, in separate account funds that invest in small-company stocks early in your career and gradually shift the emphasis in your IRA to income-producing investments as you get closer to retirement. If equity investments have a long time to grow, they have the potential to increase in value more rapidly than more conservative investments.


Are there any investments to avoid in your IRA? Experts have different points of view on the subject, but many agree that there are good arguments against:

  • Low-paying cash accounts in any type of IRA because they're unlikely to provide enough return for long-term growth
  • Municipal bond funds in a traditional IRA because they lose their tax-free advantage since all withdrawals are taxed at your current tax rate
  • Municipal bond funds in a tax-free Roth IRA because they usually pay less interest than similarly rated bonds


Consolidating your IRA accounts with a single financial institution can save you money, because you generally pay an account fee of between $10 and $50 to maintain each IRA. But if your money is in just one place, there's just one fee. Some institutions waive the fee entirely if your combined account with them is large enough. You can let the financial institution deduct the fee from your account, or you can write a separate, tax-deductible check to cover it. If you write a check, your entire investment can go on growing.


While you can set up a different IRA every year, keeping track of your accounts can be a nightmare long before you begin figuring your withdrawals. That's another argument for using one institution. You can have several different types of investments, but your records will be on one statement that provides all the information you need. Since you might have several different types of IRAs in your lifetime—deductible, nondeductible, and Roth—it's especially important to keep good records. For example, you don't want to end up paying taxes twice on nondeductible contributions you've made, as you might if you didn't have records to show their status. The catch is that you probably need to hold onto the paperwork for as long as you have your IRAs.


As important as it is to keep your records straight, consolidating your accounts isn't always the solution. Your Roth IRAs must be held separately from your traditional IRAs, and your deductible and nondeductible accounts should be separate as well. That's because when it's time to withdraw, figuring the tax you owe can be a problem. For example, if, by the time you retire, you have put $40,000 in IRAs—$16,000 in deductible contributions and $24,000 in nondeductible—and together they've produced $56,000 in earnings, for a current value of $96,000, you must calculate the taxable portion of the lump sum by subtracting the nondeductible contribution from the total value.

$ 96,000 Total value of IRA
- 24,000 Nondeductible contributions
= 72,000 Taxable part of lump sum


Chances are you aren't going to withdraw your IRA money in a lump sum. That means you have to figure out what percentage of the money that has already been taxed is included in each withdrawal, and compute the tax you owe on the balance. Starting with a $96,000 balance, you can figure out the taxable part of a $3,000 withdrawal in three steps.

1. You find the nontaxable percentage by dividing the nondeductible contribution by the total value of the account.

2. Then you calculate the nontaxable withdrawal by multiplying the nontaxable percentage from step 1 times the amount of the withdrawal.

3. Finally, you subtract the nontaxable amount from the total withdrawal to find the taxable amount. It won't work to say you're using up the nondeductible portion of your savings first. The IRS says you must treat withdrawals as if they came from all your traditional IRAs proportionally, even if you have always kept the accounts separate and actually withdraw from just one.

INVENTING IRAS IRAs were created on Labor Day 1974 when President Ford signed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The story is that the committee designing the plan to encourage personal savings struggled to find a name with a pronounceable acronym-and borrowed their solution from Ira Cohen, the IRS actuary who was working with them.
$ 24,000 Nondeductible contributions
÷ 96,000 Total value of IRA
= 25% Nontaxable percentage
Step two:
$ 3,000 Total amount of withdrawal
x 25% Nontaxable percentage
= $750 Nontaxable withdrawal You owe tax on $2,250

Your Planning Tools

Investment earnings from a Roth or Traditional IRA can help fund new investments.

Thinking of transferring your IRA? Transfer your retirement savings with a Rollover IRA. Any interest or investment earnings will continue to grow tax deferred until withdrawn.

Investing in a Traditional IRA can help ease the tax burden.

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Your Retirement Center