A Traditional IRA is an IRA that front-loads the tax benefits of using an IRA. Those benefits are:
- Contributions to a Traditional IRA are frequently deductible against income taxes
- Profits in a Traditional IRA accrue tax-free while remaining inside the IRA
When the very last Studebaker rolled off the production line in the early 1960’s, nobody realized that the impending failure of the once-iconic auto manufacturer would result in the creation of the Traditional IRA, one of the most powerful financial tools ever provided to Americans.
The Traditional IRA had some features that were rather innovative for the time:
- The account eliminated pension failure risk because it was connected only to a person and not to an employer
- Americans would be incentivized to contribute to their IRA's and remain invested through aggressive tax benefits
- The account would have special protections against creditors and bankruptcy
- There would be almost no limitations whatsoever on the types of investments that could be made in an IRA
Why Use A Traditional IRA?
Using a Traditional IRA for retirement savings involves 5 primary benefits:
- Income tax deferral for contributions to the plan
- Income tax deferral for profits made in the plan
- Nearly unrestricted choice of asset type (stocks, real estate, precious metals, etc.)
- Protection against many types of creditor actions including bankruptcy
- Very simple bequeathing to future generations
I'll break down each of these benefits in much greater detail for you, but...
In a nutshell, the Traditional IRA enables you to make deposits into an IRA and receive an income tax deduction for that deposit. You may also invest and re-invest that money into virtually any type of asset, and the profits from those investments accrue tax-free…
…Indeed, under practically all circumstances, there’s no tax liability at all with Traditional IRA’s until you begin making withdrawals. Those withdrawals will be taxed as regular income.
Who is Eligible To Contribute To A Traditional IRA?
Traditional IRA eligibility requirements are very simple. If you:
- Have “earned income” – such as wages from a job; and
- You are 70 ½ or younger, then…
…you’re eligible to contribute to a Traditional IRA.
Note that your eligibility to contribute to a Traditional IRA can change fro year to year. For example - assuming you're younger than 70 1/2 - you would be eligible to contribute in year 1 when you earn income from a job, but in year 2 if all of your income comes from passive sources (like rental income), you'll not be eligible to contribute to your IRA for year 2. If you again begin receiving earned income in year 3, you can again make contributions to an IRA for that year.
Minimum and Maximum Contribution Limits
For tax year 2017, the maximum contribution for a Traditional IRA is $5,500, unless you’re 50 or older, in which case the maximum is increased to $6,500.
There is never a minimum contribution imposed by law for your Traditional IRA, though it’s possible your account custodian could impose additional constraints.
Warning: Your Traditional IRA Contributions Aren’t Automatically Deductible
In typical fashion for tax rules, you can’t simply assume that you’re entitled to taking a deduction for contributions to a Traditional IRA.
In addition to qualifying to contribute by earning income and being under age 70 ½, a couple of other factors come into play in determining whether – and how much of – your contributions can be deducted against your income taxes:
- Your income
- Your income tax filing status
- Whether you or a spouse are covered by a retirement plan at work
Here are the latest rules, courtesy of our friends at the IRS:
Rules For Investing Through A Traditional IRA
One of the most common misconceptions about IRA’s in general is that an IRA is itself an investment. “Investing in an IRA” has no meaning by itself because an IRA is just an account, like a saving account or a stock brokerage account.
Here’s how the process of using an IRA works:
- First you deposit money into the IRA
- Then you invest the money held in your IRA
- Then you withdraw you deposits and investment profits from your IRA
An IRA is just an account to hold investments, but is not itself an investment.
That being the case, the right question to ask is: What kinds of investments am I allowed to make with the money I deposit into my IRA?
Surprisingly, the answer is simple, at least conceptually:
- Your IRA can’t buy life insurance or collectibles
- Your IRA can’t invest in precious metals, with a few big exceptions
- Your IRA can’t engage in a handful of prohibited transactions (such as lending money to YOU)
- Your IRA can’t do anything which benefits any “disqualified persons”
Let's take a closer look at each of these few restrictions fro your IRA...
Avoid Prohibited Assets
Under federal law, there are only two asset types that are specifically prohibited for purchase in a Traditional IRA:
- Life insurance
It's generally pretty simple to recognize life insurance when you see it, but the term "collectibles" is far more vague. The IRS has provided this list to "clarify" the definition of collectibles:
- Metals - with exceptions for certain kinds of bullion,
- Coins - (but there are exceptions for certain coins),
- Alcoholic beverages, and
- Certain other tangible personal property
(Did you notice that last item on the list? "Certain other tangible personal property." That sounds like a loophole the IRS has left for themselves to define more things as collectibles in the future, so be careful here. If you have any question whether a particular asset qualifies as a collectible - and is thus disqualified in your IRA - consult an experienced IRA attorney. I recommend Tim Berry.)
The bigger point is that there are only two asset-type prohibitions for your IRA: life insurance and collectibles.
What are your questions about Traditional IRA's?
Enter them here and we'll be glad to assist you:
Bryan Ellis is host of Self Directed Investor Talk, America's #1 podcast and for affluent self-directed investors. He's also an expert in self-directed IRA's, solo 401k's and 1031 exchanges. You can find Bryan's writing in very highly respected publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur and TheStreet. Bryan lives in metro Atlanta, Georgia with Carole Ellis - his wife, business partner and best friend - and his 4 children ranging in age from 2 to 19.