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3 Dumb IRA Moves

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

Though not all working Americans have access to an employer-sponsored 401(k), anyone who earns an income can contribute to an IRA. Opening an IRA is a great way to save for the future, but if you're careless about how you manage that account, you'll negate an otherwise smart move. With that in mind, here are three IRA mistakes that can really hurt your retirement in the long run -- so you'll want to avoid them at all costs.

1. Not maxing out your yearly contributions

The annual contribution limits for IRAs are much lower than those of 401(k)s, so if you have an account and aren't maxing out, or at least coming close, you're putting your retirement at risk -- especially if you're in your 40s or 50s and have only recently started saving. In fact, if you're in your 20s or 30s, you can get away with a lower contribution rate because you'll have plenty of time to grow your savings. But if you're mostly starting out later in life, you'll want to save enough to hit the annual limit, which is currently $5,500 for workers under 50, and $6,500 for those 50 and over.

Coin being inserted into piggy bank in front of a chalk board reading "retirement"

Here's a table that illustrates the importance of saving early, and why you'll need to start maxing out your IRA later on if you don't:

If You Start Saving $250 a Month at Age...

Here's What You'll Have by Age 65 (Assuming a 7% Average Annual Return)...

25

$599,000

30

$415,000

35

$283,000

40

$190,000

45

$123,000

50

$75,000

TABLE AND CALCULATIONS BY AUTHOR.

If you begin funding your IRA at age 25 with $250 a month, you'll have nearly $600,000 by your mid-60s, which is a respectable sum to retire with. But if you wait until age 40 to fund an IRA with $250 a month, you'll have less than one-third as much. And, at that point, even if you start maxing out your contributions, you'll still only amass $373,000 by the time you turn 65. That's why if you didn't start funding an IRA when you first began working, or shortly thereafter, you'll need to contribute as much as possible if you want a shot at a comfortable retirement.

2. Taking early withdrawals

One major benefit of saving in an IRA is that contributions are tax-deductible, assuming you open a traditional account. (Note that this isn't your only option, but we'll get to that in a minute.) But in exchange for that tax break, you're expected to leave that money untouched until you retire, and if you withdraw from your IRA before reaching 59 1/2, you'll be penalized to the tune of 10% of your distribution.

Now, there are some exceptions to this rule. For example, you can take an early distribution to pay for college, or withdraw up to $10,000 to purchase a first-time home. But if you tap your IRA simply because you want the money or you need to cover an unplanned bill, you can kiss 10% of your withdrawal goodbye.

But that's not the only problem with taking an early withdrawal. Any time you remove funds from an IRA before retirement, that's money that won't be available during your golden years. And not only will you lose out on that principal withdrawal amount, but you'll also be losing out on its growth -- so that if your investments typically earn an average yearly 7% return, and you withdraw $15,000 at age 40 to cover a home repair, by age 65, your account will have $81,000 less than what it could've had if you'd just left that money alone. And that could end up spelling the difference between a comfortable and financially stressful retirement.

3. Forgetting about the Roth option

Many savers are drawn to the traditional IRA because it offers an immediate tax break. But while the Roth IRA doesn't offer that same benefit (contributions aren't deductible), it does offer some even greater perks. For one thing, Roth IRA contributions get to grow tax-free so that when retirement arrives, your withdrawals are yours to keep in full. With a traditional IRA, you'll pay taxes on the money you remove during retirement. Another benefit of Roth IRAs is that unlike their traditional counterparts, they don't impose required minimum distributions. This means that you can leave your money to sit and grow indefinitely, on a tax-free basis, if you don't need it during retirement.

While some workers don't fund a Roth IRA because they don't want to miss out on that up-front tax deduction, others neglect this option because they assume they aren't eligible. And they're not totally wrong.

Though traditional IRAs don't have income limits, if you earn more than $132,000 as a single tax filer, or more than $194,000 as a couple filing jointly, you won't be eligible to make direct contributions to a Roth IRA. But that doesn't mean a Roth account is off the table. Rather, you can take what's known as the backdoor route and convert a traditional IRA to a Roth after the fact. You'll pay taxes on the sum you move over, but then you'll reap the above benefits. If you expect your tax rate to be higher in retirement than it is today, then it pays to put some money into a Roth, even if you need to do so circuitously.

The more thought and effort you put into your IRA, the better it'll serve you once retirement rolls around. And if you don't have an IRA to begin with, and aren't saving elsewhere, now's the time to open one -- before you miss out on even more years of savings and put your financial future at risk.

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