5 Secrets You Didn't Know About Traditional IRAs

If you don’t have an IRA, you probably should. Contribute to your 401(k) or similar retirement plan at work, if you have access to one, especially if your employer is matching the funds, but an IRA gives you complete control of of your contributions. Adding an IRA to your company retirement vehicle will boost your retirement savings options.

Individual taxpayers can open either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Only the traditional kind lets you take a tax deduction when you open it and has no income restrictions limiting who can open one. See Roth Vs. Traditional IRA: Which is Right For You? (However, if you or your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work, your deduction may be limited if your income exceeds certain levels.)

Finding information on the traditional IRA isn’t difficult but there are a few important factors that aren’t overly apparent. Here are five.

1. You Don’t Invest in an IRA

Let’s not get picky with verbiage, but an IRA isn’t something you invest in. An IRA is a type of investment vehicle that allows you to earn money tax-free until you withdraw the funds. Think of it as the bucket that holds your investments – not the investment itself. If you simply deposit money into your IRA, you won’t make much of anything. Once you deposit the money, go in and invest with the help of a financial professional if needed.

2. You Need to Complete the Beneficiary Form

If you weren’t asked to do it when you opened your IRA, you need to do it immediately. The beneficiary form tells the custodian what to do with the funds should you pass away. Without the form, your loved ones run the risk of not receiving the money.

If you did complete the form, keep it updated – especially if you go through a divorce or other major life change. 

3. You Have to Withdraw the Money

Maybe you won’t have to rely on your IRA for living expenses once you retire. Wouldn’t it be great if you could leave the IRA to your children once you pass away? Unfortunately, a traditional IRA doesn’t work that way. Because of required minimum distributions (RMDs), you have to begin taking money from the account generally "by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn age 70½."  If you don’t, expect some hefty tax penalties. 

If you don’t want the confines of the RMD, look at the Roth IRA. There are no RMDs until you pass away.

4. You Can’t Borrow from your IRA (Usually)

Don’t fall for this common misconception. There are some retirement plans that allow you to take short-term loans, but the IRA isn’t one of them. If you “borrow” from an IRA, it’s no longer an IRA. You will pay taxes and penalties on the value of the entire IRA.

What you can do is withdraw money from an IRA and roll it over into a new IRA within 60 days. For details, see Can I borrow from an IRA without penalty? This is not considered a loan; it's a distribution and rollover and you can only do it once a year and need to be very careful about deadlines. For more information on raising money from your retirement funds, see 401(k) Loan Vs. IRA Withdrawal.

You also can’t pledge your IRA as collateral. If you do, the part of the IRA that is pledged is considered distributed. In other words, you have to pay taxes and penalties on it.

5. You Can Invest in Real Estate

Your IRA doesn’t have to hold only equities, bonds and other Wall Street-type investments. You can own real estate, too. The catch is that the real estate has to be a business property of some sort. You can’t purchase a second home or pay off your current home. But you can buy and flip a house as an investment property.

The IRS has strict rules regarding real estate in your IRA. Because of the higher dollar value and the less liquid nature of real estate, this option is only for the more sophisticated investor. Talk to the appropriate experts before considering adding real estate. See Qualifying Assets For Your IRA.

The Bottom Line

Statistics show that most people are behind in their retirement savings. An IRA is a perfect way to supplement your retirement vehicle at work. You can only deposit $5,500 per year ($6,500 if you are age 50 or older), but since you have control of the funds, that money can grow fast. Don’t feel qualified to invest on your own? There are plenty of fee-only advisors that are willing to help.

Once you've opened an IRA (it needs to be by December 31, the end of the tax year), you have until the year's tax filing deadline (usually April 15) to make your annual contribution.