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Aug 11, 2023

How Does a Roth IRA Work?

By Team Stash
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Understanding the inner workings of a Roth IRA isn’t just about crunching numbers—it’s your key to financial planning, paving the way for that cozy retirement you’ve envisioned. Knowing how Roth IRAs work empowers you to make informed decisions that align with long-term goals. 

What is a Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is a type of Individual Retirement Account(IRA) funded with after-tax income. While the money you put into your Roth IRA isn’t tax deductible at the time you contribute it, withdrawals made after age 59½ are tax-free. That means you don’t pay any tax on the earnings in your account, as long as you follow the rules for taking qualified distributions. This is one of the primary differences between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA

Investors who choose Roth IRAs enjoy benefits like no required minimum distributions, no-penalty contribution withdrawals, and tax-free growth. Additionally, you can open a Roth IRA account even if you already have a 401(k), which can help you put more money toward retirement. Especially if you predict that your marginal taxes will be higher in retirement than they are right now, a Roth IRA could be a retirement savings option worth looking into.

In the upcoming sections, we’ll dive into Roth IRA mechanics, eligibility, contribution limits, withdrawal rules, and optimization strategies. Armed with this understanding, we hope you’ll leave this page feeling more confident about the next steps in your retirement journey.

In this article, we’ll cover:

How your money grows in a Roth IRA

So how does a Roth IRA work? A Roth IRA’s purpose revolves around long-term retirement savings. You contribute after-tax funds and have the flexibility to allow your money to grow tax-free for as long as you choose. This growth emanates from two sources: 

  1. The contributions you make 
  2. The returns generated by investments

One of the driving forces behind the popularity of Roth IRAs is their historical average returns, which have ranged between 7% and 10%. This track record has made them an appealing investment account in addition to the tax-free growth. 

However, it’s important to remember that investments inherently carry risks due to market volatility and other variables. Past performance doesn’t ensure future results. This makes portfolio diversification vital to your retirement and investment strategy. 

Diversification is a key strategy to mitigate risk within your Roth IRA. By allocating your investments across a spectrum of assets, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, you can reduce the impact of poor performance in any one area. Diversification isn’t a guarantee against losses, but it can help balance the overall risk in your investment portfolio.

Investment options

The funds you contribute to your Roth IRA can be invested in a wide variety of assets, including: 

  • Stocks: Investing in shares of publicly traded companies.
  • Bonds: Allocating funds into fixed-income securities issued by governments or corporations.
  • Mutual funds: Pooled investments managed by professionals, offering diversification.
  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs): Similar to mutual funds but traded on stock exchanges.
  • Money market funds: Investments in short-term debt securities, often considered low risk.
  • Certificates of deposit (CDs): Time-bound deposits with fixed interest rates.
  • Annuities: Insurance products providing regular payments, ideal for guaranteed income.
  • Real Estate (with restrictions): Holding real estate properties within your Roth IRA, subject to certain limitations.

There are some types of investments that aren’t allowed, such as life insurance, collectibles, and derivative trades with unlimited risk. And while you can hold real estate in your Roth IRA, you can’t benefit directly from the property by living in it or receiving rental income.

Who can open a Roth IRA?

Anyone who has earned income, no matter their age, can contribute to a Roth IRA. However, there are income restrictions and contribution limits to consider. Regardless of your age, you must earn below a certain dollar amount annually, either as an individual or as part of a married couple, to contribute to a Roth IRA. 

The true advantage of beginning a Roth IRA journey early lies in the extended period for potential growth. Even if retirement feels distant, every year contributes to your investment’s growth potential. Starting early allows your contributions more time to compound, potentially resulting in significant financial gains over time. This extended view toward the future can make a difference in your overall retirement savings.

By grasping the flexibility and rewards of starting a Roth IRA sooner rather than later, you set yourself on a path toward maximizing the benefits of this powerful retirement investment tool.

Income limit

The IRS stipulates income limitations for contributing to a Roth IRA. As of 2023, single filers with an annual adjusted gross income (AGI) under $120,000 can contribute the full amount allowed by the IRS. Single filers earning between $138,000 and $153,000 can contribute, but the contribution limit is lower. And those earning $153,000 or more are not eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. If you’re married and filing jointly or a qualifying widower, your combined AGI must fall below $228,000 to contribute; if your AG is over $218,000, the amount you can contribute is lower.  

Income loopholes

There is a loophole that allows high earners to get around the income limit and reap the tax benefits of a Roth IRA by making indirect contributions. This strategy, known as a “backdoor IRA,” involves making a contribution to a traditional IRA and then converting that account to a Roth IRA. The income threshold does not apply to account conversions, and you can repeat the process each year.

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Roth IRA contribution limits

Annual contribution limits apply to every Roth IRA account holder regardless of age or income. Contributions as of 2023 are limited to $6,500 per year until age 50, at which point you can start contributing up to $7,500 annually. If you earn less than the contribution limit, you can only invest up to the amount of your total taxable income for the year. And if your AGI falls into the range that reduces your contribution limit, the IRS provides a worksheet for determining your Roth IRA contribution limit based on income.

Withdrawal rules and penalties

With a Roth IRA, the IRS makes a distinction between the post-tax money you’ve contributed and the money your contributions have earned while invested in the account. You can withdraw your contributions at any time with no penalties. However, the downside of a Roth IRA is that there are strict regulations regarding when you can withdraw your earnings.  

A Roth IRA is a retirement account, and IRS regulations are designed to encourage you to keep your money invested until you reach retirement age. In most cases, withdrawing your earnings before age 59½ will incur a 10% penalty; you’ll also have to pay income tax based on your tax bracket. In addition, you must have had your Roth IRA for five years before you can withdraw earnings without penalty, regardless of your age. That said, there are some exceptions to the early-withdrawal penalties for IRAs, including purchasing your first home or paying for some education expenses.

While there are rules governing qualified distributions, you’re not actually required to withdraw funds from your Roth IRA. Unlike a traditional IRA, which mandates that you must begin taking distributions at age 72, a Roth IRA allows you to keep your money in your account indefinitely. 

What are qualified distributions?

Qualified distributions are the tax-free, penalty-free withdrawals of earnings from your Roth IRA. In practice, this generally means the withdrawals you make after you’re 59½. That said, there are a few situations in which a withdrawal is considered a qualified distribution even if it’s taken early: it qualifies for an exception, you become permanently disabled, or the distribution is made to a beneficiary or your estate after your death. 

How to get the most out of a Roth IRA

Unlocking the full potential of a Roth IRA involves strategic decision-making and a keen understanding of they work. One of the most powerful drivers of growth within a Roth IRA is compounding, a phenomenon where your contributions accrue earnings over time. Let’s explore how you can leverage this effect and optimize your Roth IRA.

The earlier you start building your retirement savings, the more time your money has to grow. Even if you can’t immediately contribute up to the annual limit, starting as early as possible gives your investments more time to compound. This compounding effect magnifies over the years, turning relatively modest contributions into substantial sums later down the road.

Here are some steps that can play a pivotal role in getting more from your Roth IRA:

  • Automate contributions: Set up automatic contributions to your Roth IRA. This habit ensures consistent savings and minimizes the temptation to skip contributions.
  • Rule adherence: Follow Roth IRA rules to avoid unnecessary penalties. Over-contributions and early distributions can erode the benefits of your account. Familiarize yourself with these regulations to ensure your Roth IRA remains a valuable asset.
  • Maximize annual contributions: Strive to contribute the maximum allowable amount each year. As of 2023, this sum is $6,500 (or $7,500 if aged 50 or above). Regular contributions bolster the growth potential of your Roth IRA over time.
  • Stay informed about contribution limits: Be aware that contribution limits can change annually based on inflation. Staying up-to-date ensures you’re taking full advantage of available allowances.

The essence of a Roth IRA lies not just in its tax benefits, but in your proactive efforts to seize its potential and secure your future.

Invest in your retirement today

A Roth IRA can be a valuable way to grow your nest egg for the future. And it doesn’t have to be your only source of retirement savings. You’re allowed to have a traditional IRA, a 401(k), and other investments in conjunction with your Roth account. 

It’s never too early to start saving for the future. With a variety of retirement accounts and investment options, Stash makes planning for the future easier, regardless of your current income level. 

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Written by

Team Stash


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