Guide to IRAs

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When you think about your retirement, you might picture yourself on a beach or driving cross-country in an RV, with no worries in sight.

Whatever your retirement dreams may be, you’re going to need to set aside a chunk of money beforehand to help make them a reality. This is where individual retirement accounts – or IRAs – could help.

There are several types of IRAs to consider, and here we focus on three: Traditional, Roth and SEP. While each comes with different rules, they all exist to help you save money for retirement.

This guide walks through their key differences and things to keep in mind when you’re ready to open one. (But remember, IRA rules can be complicated, so it’s a good idea to consult with a tax professional if you have any specific questions.) 

Good to know: Already contributing to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, like a 401(k)? Keep reading – you may be able open an IRA, too.

What is a Traditional IRA?

With a Traditional IRA, you can contribute money on a pre-tax basis, and your savings can grow tax-deferred. This type of retirement account has a few specific rules different from other types of IRAs, like Roth IRAs.

Contributions and taxes

One perk of these plans is that you may be able to deduct your pre-tax contributions from your taxable income.

How much can you write off? That’ll depend on several factors, such as your income and whether you have access to a retirement plan at work. If you have questions, your tax advisor will be able to help you out.

The caveat: Even if you can deduct your contributions now, you might still be on the hook for taxes later. In most cases, you'll be required to pay taxes on money you withdraw from your Traditional IRA account in retirement.

Traditional IRA withdrawal rules

So you’ve squirreled away a nice chunk of money and you’re ready to climb into the driver’s seat of that RV. Can you dip into that Traditional IRA account right away? It depends.

You can start taking out money from a Traditional IRA once you’re 59½ years old. When you make a withdrawal, you’ll have to pay income tax on it. Of course, you could take funds out earlier – but you’ll likely get hit with a tax bill plus a 10% penalty. (Remember to consult a tax professional if you have questions.)

Good to know: Required minimum distributions (“RMDs”) are withdrawals that you must make from Traditional IRAs starting at age 73 (or age 72 if you turned 72 on or before December 31, 2022). RMDs are required by the IRS, and failure to take RMDs may result in penalties. The IRS can provide more details on your options and obligations.

What is the contribution limit for a Traditional IRA?

In 2023, the annual contribution limit is $6,500 (or $7,500 for those age 50 and older). For 2024, the annual contribution limit is $7,000 ($8,000 for those age 50 and older). See IRS’s “IRA Contribution Limits” or consult a tax professional for more information.

How do you open a Traditional IRA?

You can open a Traditional IRA through a bank, brokerage or an IRA provider. Note that some firms require a minimum investment amount to open an account, so you’ll want to do a little research beforehand to compare your options.

What is a Roth IRA?

Fun fact: This type of retirement account was named after former Senator William V. Roth, Jr., from Delaware.

Contributions and taxes

When you have a Roth IRA, the money you put in is taxed before it goes into the account. While that might seem like a missed opportunity to save on taxes up front, the benefit could come later: When you retire, you can withdraw your money tax-free (as long as you meet certain requirements).

Roth IRA withdrawal rules

Unlike Traditional IRAs, you can usually withdraw your Roth IRA contributions (i.e., the money you deposited, not the money you’ve earned) at any time, for any reason, tax- and penalty-free. So, if you like the idea of being able to access the money without having to hit a certain age, this feature could make a Roth IRA appealing.

Still, consider speaking to a tax professional before dipping into your funds early. You may have to pay taxes and penalties on your earnings (the money you’ve made on your contributions). However, there are several tax exceptions, which you can find on the IRS website.

Are there contribution limits for a Roth IRA?

Roth IRAs and Traditional IRAs have the same contribution limits. See IRS's "IRA Contribution Limits" for more details.

Good to know: Once your income hits certain levels, the amount you'll be able to contribute to a Roth IRA may decrease or even be eliminated. See "Roth IRA Contribution Limit" or consult a tax professional for more information.

How do you open a Roth IRA? 

Again, it’s usually straightforward. As long as you’re eligible, you can open a Roth IRA just as you would a Traditional IRA – through a bank or brokerage that offers this type of plan. If you have a Traditional IRA with a specific provider, you’ll likely be able to open a Roth with them as well.

There's a lot to know about Traditional and Roth IRAs, and we're just getting started. If you want to learn more about the benefits and differences, check out this article.


A SEP IRA is similar to a Traditional IRA in that your money grows tax-deferred until retirement, and contributions are tax-deductible up to a certain amount.


What is a SEP IRA?

If you’re self-employed or a small business owner, you may be eligible to open another type of retirement account. It’s called the Simplified Employee Pension plan, or SEP IRA.

If you own a business in addition to having a regular job, you may still be able to open this type of retirement account. One benefit is that these plans usually come with higher contribution limits.

A SEP IRA is similar to a Traditional IRA in that your money grows tax-deferred until retirement, and contributions are tax-deductible up to a certain amount.

What are the contribution limits for a SEP IRA?

You may be able to put more money into a SEP IRA than a Traditional or Roth IRA.

For the 2023 tax year, you can contribute up to $66,000 ($69,000 for 2024) or 25% of compensation (whichever is less). You can choose how much you want to contribute, and once you start, you're not required to contribute every year.

What’s more, as a business owner, you can make these pre-tax contributions for yourself. But there's one caveat if you have employees: The IRS says employers must also contribute the same percentage on behalf of all eligible employees.

That means if you want to put 20% of your own salary into a SEP IRA, you must contribute 20% of any eligible employee’s salary to their SEP IRA, too. For this reason, these plans are usually recommended for smaller businesses with no or few employees.

Visit the IRS's SEP FAQ page for more details.

How do you open a SEP IRA?

Do your research to find a SEP IRA provider that will work best for you. Once you've decided where you'll open your account, the IRS requires you to take several steps. You can learn more about the details here.

Once SEP IRA accounts are established, each account owner (aka, employee) will own and control their accounts, including investment decisions.

SEP IRA withdrawal rules

Withdrawal rules for SEPs are a lot like the ones for Traditional IRAs. So, our tip about checking in with your financial advisor is the same – keep in touch to know how and if the rules are changing.

In general, though, these are the rules:

  • Penalty-free withdrawals (that you may have to pay income tax on) start after age 59 ½.
  • Possible tax bill and a 10% penalty if you make withdrawals before you turn 59 ½.

Good to know: Required minimum distributions (RMDs) are withdrawals that you must make from SEP IRAs starting at age 73 (or age 72 if you turned 72 on or before December 31, 2022). RMDs are required by the IRS, and failure to take RMDs may result in penalties. Visit the IRS website for details. 

Can you have more than one type of IRA?

Now that you know more about the different IRA plans available, you may be wondering if you can open more than one account.

The good news: Yes, you can fund more than one. So, if you want to open a Traditional and Roth IRA, you can do that. But the contribution limits we mentioned above refer to the total amount you can contribute across your IRAs in a year. See IRS's "IRA Contribution Limits" webpage for more information.

Is it ever too late to open an IRA?

If you're nearing retirement age, you might be wondering if you missed your opportunity to get an IRA account. But the saying "better late than never" certainly applies here. So if you’re behind on saving for retirement, you may be able to catch up through an IRA.

Here’s how it works: People over the age of 50 can begin making “catch-up contributions” on Traditional and Roth IRAs, which allow you to exceed the standard maximums. The same can’t be said for SEPs, since they can only be funded with employer contributions, according to the IRS. See IRS's "Catch-Up Contributions" to learn more.

It's almost never too early, either

In fact, a minor or young adult can have and fund a Traditional or Roth IRA provided they’ve earned income during the year. If your child is a minor, the account can be set up in their name, but it will require a custodian or guardian to manage it until they reach the legal age of consent in your state (usually 18 or 21).

Parents or other family members can also help contribute to a child’s IRA by gifting an amount to the child, up to the amount of income the child has earned.

So, if 16-year-old Molly earns $3,000 at a summer job and does not invest the money in an IRA, her grandmother can gift her savings by providing Molly up to $3,000 to contribute to an IRA. Now, that's the gift that keeps on giving!

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