What is a traditional IRA?
A traditional IRA is an individual retirement account in which contributions can be tax-deductible and investments grow tax-deferred. In retirement, the owner pays income tax on withdrawals from a traditional IRA.
How does a traditional IRA work?
Here are the key characteristics of traditional IRAs and general concepts.
You open a traditional IRA at a brokerage, robo-advisor or bank. If you get one from a broker, you’ll be able to invest in stocks and bonds; IRAs from banks generally offer Certificates of Deposit and savings accounts.
You invest the money in your account. You can invest in stocks, bonds and other assets. How much your account grows per year and whether you lose money depends on how you invest. For a long-term goal like retirement, stocks and bonds can be a sensible choice because of their higher historical returns. (See how to invest your IRA for simple investment tips.)
Contribution limits. You can add $6,000 per year in 2020 ($7,000 if you’re 50 or older), even if you’re also contributing to a 401(k) or other workplace savings plan. Generally, you (or your spouse) must have earned income to contribute to an IRA. You can also add to your IRA by rolling over money from another retirement account.
Contributions may be tax-deductible. For example, if your income is $60,000 and you contribute $6,000 to a traditional IRA, then your taxable income that year will drop to $54,000, assuming you qualify for the tax deduction (more on that below).
Withdrawal rules. You're not taxed on gains until you withdraw them. Early withdrawals may be taxed as income and assessed a 10% penalty.
Traditional IRAs aren't the same as Roth IRAs. With Roth IRAs there’s no tax deduction when you make contributions, but your withdrawals come out tax-free in retirement. You never pay taxes on your investment earnings, as long as you follow the Roth IRA rules.
» Compare Roth IRAs vs. traditional IRAs
Here's how to open a traditional IRA account
Two popular ways to get an IRA are through brokers and robo-advisors.
Brokers. If you want to choose investments for yourself, an online broker can be a good way to go. With a broker, you’ll select from investments accessible through that provider, including stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Review our best IRA accounts to compare.
Robo-advisors. If choosing your own investments sounds too daunting, consider a robo-advisor. These providers, which now include many of the most recognizable names in investing, use automated technology to choose investments based on your goals and investing horizon, all for a fraction of what a traditional investment manager might charge. See our list of best robo-advisors for help choosing the right one for you.
Here are some of NerdWallet’s top picks for IRA accounts:
» See our full roundup of the best IRA providers
What is the benefit of a traditional IRA?
These accounts have more benefits than drawbacks. Here are some of the pros and cons:
Traditional IRA distributions and withdrawals
Here's the basic overview:
Generally, you can start taking distributions from a traditional IRA when you reach age 59 1/2.
You pay regular income tax on distributions from your traditional IRA. (See what tax bracket you're in.)
If you take money out of your traditional IRA before age 59 1/2, you may have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. There are some exceptions to this early withdrawal penalty, such as needing the money for college, buying a house or other reasons.
You don't have to start taking distributions from your traditional IRA just because you reached your 59 1/2 birthday. You can wait. However, you can't wait forever; you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) when you reach age 70 1/2 or 72, depending on your birthday.
Qualifying for a traditional IRA when you have a 401(k) or other employer plan
The good news: Everyone can open and contribute to a traditional IRA.
The bad news: Not everyone is eligible to deduct contributions to a traditional IRA.
If you or your spouse has a retirement plan at work, the amount of your traditional IRA contribution that you can deduct is reduced, or eliminated altogether, once you hit a certain income. You can still make contributions, but they won’t be tax-deductible.
If you, and your spouse if you're married, don't have retirement plans at work, then you can deduct your IRA contribution no matter how much your income.
Note: The income limits apply to your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), which is your adjusted gross income with some deductions and exclusions added back in. See IRS Publication 590-A, Worksheet 1-1, for complete instructions on figuring MAGI for traditional IRAs.
Traditional IRA income limits in 2020
These income limits apply only if you (or your spouse) have a retirement plan at work.
Single or head of household
$64,000 or less
$65,000 or less
More than $64,000 but less than $74,000
More than $65,000 but less than $75,000
$74,000 or more
$75,000 or more
Married filing jointly
$103,000 or less
$104,000 or less
More than $103,000 but less than $123,000
More than $104,000 but less than $124,000
$123,000 or more
$124,000 or more
Married filing jointly (spouse covered by retirement plan at work)
$193,000 or less
$196,000 or less
More than $193,000 but less than $203,000
More than $196,000 but less than $206,000
$203,000 or more
$206,000 or more
Married filing separately (you or spouse covered by retirement plan at work)
Less than $10,000
Less than $10,000
$10,000 or more
$10,000 or more
Should I contribute to a traditional IRA if I can’t deduct it?
Nondeductible IRA contributions can still be valuable: Money for retirement is money for retirement, and your investment earnings will still grow tax-deferred. But this can also be a headache: You are responsible for keeping track of after-tax contributions by filing IRS Form 8606 each year so you’re not taxed again on that money when you take retirement distributions.
In short, there are better options you should max out before going down the nondeductible IRA road. They are:
A Roth IRA, if you’re eligible. These accounts have income eligibility rules, but they are higher than the limits to deduct traditional IRA contributions. See our IRA limits page.
Your employer-sponsored retirement plan. Consider maxing that account out before making nondeductible IRA contributions. That could actually make your eligible for an IRA deduction because your contributions to the workplace plan lower your taxable income for the year.
If after exhausting both of those options, you still want to consider the nondeductible route, see our page on nondeductible IRAs.
Other types of IRAs
The are other popular types of IRAs out there, such as Roth, SEP and SIMPLE. But there are also these types of IRAs: backdoor Roth, spousal, self-directed, inherited and rollover. You can learn more about each of these IRAs and more in our IRA guide.