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Find the Right IRA in Three Easy Steps

Even if you’re already convinced that saving in an IRA is a sensible thing to do, there’s still a little bit of research to conduct. There are two main types of IRA accounts, and selecting the one that’s best for you can be a daunting process. You can figure this out in relatively short order by following these three steps.

1) Know the Basics: Understanding the difference between the two types of IRAs—Roth IRAs and traditional IRAs—is the key first step in determining which is suitable for you.

Both vehicles let you sock away money and enjoy a tax benefit. With a traditional IRA, you won’t have to pay taxes on your IRA’s investment earnings until you begin taking distributions from it during retirement; thus, your money enjoys the benefit of tax-deferred compounding. (That means you’ll have to pay taxes on your earnings when you begin withdrawing money, but not as you go along.) The Roth, however, has a couple of huge advantages over a traditional IRA. Whereas traditional IRAs carry restrictions governing when you have to begin taking distributions, the Roth carries no such restrictions; you won’t be forced to take distributions at any age. And perhaps even more significantly, qualified distributions from a Roth will be tax-free, not tax-deferred as is the case with a traditional IRA.

With that information, the choice might seem clear: Roth IRA all the way. But there are a few other issues to consider. For those who qualify (consult a tax professional or the IRS’ site to determine if that’s you), a traditional IRA provides up-front tax savings. All of your contribution to a traditional IRA plan could be tax-deductible. Contributions are not tax-deductible with a Roth IRA.

2) Determine Your Eligibility: Okay, you’ve now identified the account type that suits you, but there are eligibility hurdles you’ll have to clear in order to use a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

Let’s start with the most sweeping limits first. For 2014, according to IRS Publication 590, if you are covered by a retirement plan at work, your deduction for contributions to a traditional IRA is reduced (phased out) if your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) is: more than $96,000 but less than $116,000 for a married couple filing a joint return or a qualifying widow(er); more than $60,000 but less than $70,000 for a single individual or head of household; or less than $10,000 for a married individual filing a separate return.

For 2014, according to Publication 590, you cannot make a Roth IRA contribution if your modified AGI is $191,000 or more if your filing status is married filing jointly; $129,000 or more filing single, head of household, or married filing separately, and you did not live with your spouse at any time in 2014; or $10,000 or more if your filing status is married filing separately and you lived with your spouse at any time during the year.

3) Weigh Your Options: You may find that certain IRA types are automatically off limits to you because of your income level. But what if you establish that you’re eligible to make more than one type of IRA contribution—for example, you can contribute to a Roth and make a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA? You may decide to do both if you have the money to do so, but if you have a limited sum of money to invest, the decision becomes a bit tougher. For a situation like this, as well as to keep abreast of the latest rules and regulations pertaining to IRAs, it would be in your best interest to consult with your financial advisor/tax professional.

Funds in a traditional IRA grow tax-deferred and are taxed at ordinary income tax rates when withdrawn. Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible, but funds grow tax-free, and can be withdrawn tax free if assets are held for five years. A 10% federal tax penalty may apply for withdrawals prior to age 59 1/2.

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