Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and annuities both provide the opportunity to grow money on a tax-deferred basis, but there are differences between the two. An IRA can be thought of as an individual savings account with tax benefits. You open an IRA for yourself (that's why it's called an individual retirement account) and if you have a spouse, you'll have to open separate accounts. An important distinction to make is that an IRA is not an investment itself; rather, it is an account where you keep investments such as stocks, bonds and mutual funds. You get to choose the investments in the account, and can change the investments if you wish. Your return depends on the performance of the investments held in the IRA. An IRA continues to accumulate contributions and interest until you reach retirement age, meaning you could have an IRA for decades before making any withdrawals.

IRAs are defined and regulated by the IRS, which sets eligibility requirements, limits on how and when you can make contributions, take distributions, and determines the tax treatment for various the various types of IRAs. For example, for 2014 the maximum you can contribute to your traditional or Roth IRA is the smaller of $5,500 ($6,500 if you're age 50 or older) or your taxable income for the year. Traditional IRA regulations allow you to take early withdrawals under certain circumstances, and if you have a Roth, you can withdraw contributions at any time, but will pay a penalty if you withdraw any interest earnings.

Conversely, annuities are insurance products that provide a source of monthly, quarterly, annual or lump sum income during retirement. An annuity makes periodic payments for a certain amount of time, or until a specified event occurs (for example, the death of the person who receives the payments). Unlike an IRA, which can have only one owner, an annuity can be jointly owned. Annuities do not have the annual contribution limits and income restrictions that IRAs have.

You can “fund” an annuity all at once – known as a single premium – or you can pay over time. With an immediate annuity (also called an income annuity), fixed payments begin as soon as the investment is made. If you invest in a deferred annuity, the principal you invest grows for a specific period of time until you begin taking withdrawals – typically during retirement. Annuities typically have higher expenses than IRAs, and if you take early withdrawals you'll owe a penalty.

  1. Is it wise to put an IRA account into a fixed or variable annuity?

    The answer to this depends on an individual's investment goals, requirements and risk tolerance. During the 1990s, the majority ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. What is an annuity?

    An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company in which you make a lump sum payment or series of payments ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. If I roll my annuity into an IRA and receive after-tax distributions, will this be ...

    Distributions of after-tax amounts (amounts already taxed) will not be taxable when distributed to you. However, you will ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. I want to purchase a five-year period certain single premium immediate annuity (SPIA) ...

    The income from a SPIA IRA is subject to the early distribution penalty unless an exception applies. As you may know, the ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Are catch-up contributions included in the 415 limit?

    Unlike regular employee deferrals, catch-up contributions are not included in the 415 limit. While there is an annual limit ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Can catch-up contributions be matched?

    Depending on the terms of your plan, catch-up contributions you make to 401(k)s or other qualified retirement savings plans ... Read Full Answer >>
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