Brokerage Account vs. IRA: What’s the Difference?

Should you invest in one—or both?

If you’re new to investing, you might want to compare brokerage accounts vs. IRA accounts to decide where to invest. After all, you can invest in stocks and other securities in either account—so what’s the difference? 

Broadly speaking, brokerage accounts are taxable accounts that allow you to buy and sell various investments whenever you want—with no contribution limits and no penalties for withdrawals. On the other hand, IRAs are tax-deferred or tax-free accounts (depending on the type of IRA you choose), but there are strict contribution limits and withdrawals may trigger a penalty. Here’s a closer look at brokerage accounts and IRAs, with tips to help you decide where to put your hard-earned money.

Key Takeaways

  • Brokerage accounts are taxable investment accounts through which you can buy and sell stocks and other securities.
  • IRAs are designed for retirement savers and allow tax-free or tax-deferred growth on the investments you hold in the account. 
  • Unlike brokerage accounts, IRAs have strict contribution limits and withdrawals may trigger a penalty.
  • Brokerage accounts and IRAs are taxed differently, which can be a deciding factor when choosing an account.


Brokerage Account vs. IRA: An Overview

Brokerage accounts and IRAs are investment accounts that allow you to buy and sell stocks, ETFs, bonds, mutual funds, real estate investment trusts (REITs), and other securities. 

In general, investors use brokerage accounts for day trading, long-term investing, and to save for short-term financial goals like buying a house or car. Meanwhile, IRAs offer investors a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement. 

It can be a smart financial move to have both types of accounts. That way you can take advantage of the brokerage account’s flexibility and the IRA’s tax benefits simultaneously. Financial planners often recommend investing in this order:

  1. If you have a 401(k) plan, contribute enough to get the company match first—it’s like getting free money.
  2. Max out your IRAs to take advantage of the tax benefits and the power of compounding
  3. Invest through your brokerage account.

What Is a Brokerage Account?

As noted, a brokerage account is a taxable account that enables you to buy and sell stocks and other securities. You can buy and sell securities freely, with no caps on the amount you invest—and you can sell your investments anytime without penalty. As far as tax treatment goes, you’ll pay taxes on interest, dividend, and capital gain income in the tax year you earn it. 

There are dozens of brokerage firms, and choosing the best broker for you depends on your investing style, preferred investments, and the features you want in a trading platform. Once you decide on a brokerage firm, you can open and fund an account online, usually in a matter of minutes.

What Is an IRA?

An individual retirement account, or IRA, is a tax-advantaged investment account designed for retirement savers. The investment choices are limited compared to brokerage accounts (for example, you can’t hold naked options), but earnings grow tax-free or tax-deferred, depending on whether you have a Roth or traditional IRA.

Unlike brokerage accounts, IRAs have strict contribution limits. For the 2021 and 2022 tax years, you can contribute up to $6,000 to your IRA accounts, or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older. 

Roth IRAs (but not traditional IRAs) also have income limits: For 2021, you can only contribute the full amount if your income is less than $125,000 for single filers or $198,000 if you’re married filing jointly. These limits increase for the 2022 tax year when the phaseout begins at $129,000 for single filers and $204,000 for married couples filing jointly.

In general, withdrawals made before age 59½ can trigger a 10% penalty with either type of IRA, although there are some exceptions to this rule. However, you can withdraw your Roth IRA contributions at any time—for any reason—tax-free and penalty-free. 

You can open an IRA with a bank or brokerage firm. Keep in mind that an IRA is not an investment itself—it’s an account that holds the investments you choose. You can pick from a variety of investments, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, REITs, and even real estate.

How Are Brokerage Accounts and IRAs Taxed?

Nobody would argue that picking profitable investments is a vital part of investing and growing wealth. Still, investing in a tax-efficient manner is equally important since it lets you keep as much of your gains as possible. Depending on the type of account you have, earnings from dividends, interest, and capital gains may or may not be taxable—which brings us to a key difference between brokerage accounts and IRAs.

Brokerage Account Taxes

Brokerage accounts are taxable investment accounts. If you make money because your investments pay interest or dividends, or because your investments increase in value, you’ll owe tax on that income. The tax liability depends on the source of income:

  • Interest. You might earn interest from investments like bonds, certificates of deposit (CDs), or from any uninvested cash you hold in the account. In general, interest income is taxed as ordinary income, with two exceptions: U.S. Treasuries are not subject to state or local income tax, and municipal bonds are usually exempt from federal taxes (and sometimes state and local taxes, too). 
  • Dividends. Dividends are your share of a company’s earnings. There are two types of dividends, and each has a specific tax treatment. Qualified dividends—which represent most dividends paid to shareholders by public companies—are taxed at the lower, long-term capital gains rate. Unqualified dividends—which usually apply to REITs, master limited partnerships (MLPs), and business development companies (BDCs)—are taxed at the higher, ordinary income tax rate. 
  • Capital gains. If you sell an investment for a profit, you will owe tax on that gain—but how much tax depends on how long you held the investment. Gains on investments you held for less than a year are considered short-term capital gains and taxed as ordinary income. On the other hand, gains on investments you held for more than a year are taxed at the more favorable, long-term capital gains rate. 

IRA Account Taxes

Contributions made to a traditional IRA are made with pre-tax dollars and may be tax-deductible, depending on your income and if you or your spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work. Roth IRA contributions are made with after-tax dollars, so there's no tax break the year you make the contribution. Instead, the tax benefit comes in retirement, when your withdrawals are tax-free.

Earnings in IRAs grow tax-free or tax-deferred, depending on the type of IRA you have:

  • Roth IRA. There’s no upfront tax break, so contributions don’t lower your taxable income. But qualified withdrawals in retirement are tax-free, and you can withdraw your contributions at any time—for any reason—without penalty. And, unlike traditional IRAs, there are no required minimum distributions (RMDs) for Roth IRAs. 
  • Traditional IRA. You may be able to deduct traditional IRA contributions the year you make them, which can lower your taxable income (and your tax liability). But withdrawals are subject to income taxes and early withdrawals usually trigger a 10% penalty. You can avoid the penalty (but not the tax) in certain circumstances—like using the money to pay for qualified first-time homebuyer expenses.

Should I Open an IRA at a Bank or Brokerage Firm?

While you can open an IRA at a bank or brokerage firm, you will have more investment options—and higher potential earnings—at the latter. Banks tend to offer very limited, low-yield investment options, such as savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs). These low-risk investments may appeal to some retirement savers, but they won’t allow your nest egg to grow substantially—even over the long haul. You will generally find a much broader selection of investments and greater potential growth if you open an IRA at a brokerage account.

Is There a Minimum To Open a Brokerage Account?

That depends on the brokerage firm. Many brokers today offer very low minimum deposits (e.g., even zero) to get started. Of course, you will need to deposit at least $2,000 if you want to enable margin trading.

Is a Roth or Traditional IRA Better?

With a Roth IRA, contributions are not tax-deductible, but qualified withdrawals in retirement are tax-free (even for earnings). Traditional IRA contributions are tax-deductible, so you could save money at tax time for the year you contribute. But you will owe income taxes on withdrawals in retirement—including on all that growth. In general, you’re better off with a traditional IRA if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket when you retire than you are now. If you think you will be in the same tax bracket or higher when you retire, a Roth may be the better choice because you’ll get your tax bill out of the way at your current, lower tax rate. 

The Bottom Line

Financial planners recommend having both accounts, if possible. You can use a brokerage account for day trading, long-term investing, and to save for short-term financial goals, while an IRA is intended for retirement savings. Brokerage accounts offer more flexibility, and there are no limits on contributions, withdrawals, or income to fund one. IRAs, on the other hand, have lower annual contribution limits, withdrawals may trigger a penalty, and if your income is too high, you might not be able to contribute.

Article Sources
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