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How Much Should I Contribute to an IRA — and How Often?

Contributing the maximum amount to an IRA early in the year is ideal, but adding what you can with regular automatic payments is a common strategy that works well.
May 7, 2018
Investing, IRA, Roth IRA
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IRAs are a great way to save for retirement, because they give you a tax break for doing so. It’s basically a reward for looking after your future self.

But how do you maximize the benefits of an IRA? Here’s how much and how often to contribute to your IRA.

How much should I contribute?

In a perfect world, the answer is, as much as possible, up to the $5,500 annual maximum ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older).

However, the real world isn’t usually that simple. You may have a limited amount of money, and you may have a retirement plan at work.

The good news? IRAs can complement workplace plans like 401(k)s, or fill in for them if your employer doesn’t offer one. Here’s one way to think about divvying up your money:

  • Contribute enough to your 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan to get the full company match. That’s free money, sometimes dollar for dollar up to a specific percentage of your pay. You don’t want to forfeit it.
  • If your 401(k) offers a good variety of low-cost investments (a mutual fund expense ratio of 1% or more is a red flag), you could put as much money as you can into it. The annual maximum is $18,500 in 2018, plus another $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.
  • But if your 401(k) isn’t great, then focus on maxing out your traditional or Roth IRA.
  • If you have enough money to keep going beyond your preferred account’s limits, then max out your second choice.

This assumes that you’ve already picked between a traditional and a Roth IRA. Traditional IRAs offer tax-deferred growth — you pay taxes when you take the money out. Roth IRAs, into which you contribute after-tax money, offer tax-free growth on investment earnings.

There are income restrictions on IRAs, which may reduce or eliminate the tax deduction you can take for your traditional IRA contributions. They also may reduce or eliminate your ability to make Roth IRA contributions outright.

» Not sure if a Roth or traditional is best for you? Here’s how to decide between the two.

When should I contribute?

If you’ve got the money on hand, then contributing the maximum amount at the beginning of the year means your money has the most time to gain returns.

Contributing the maximum amount at the beginning of the year means your money has the most time to gain returns.

“Chances are you gain a year’s worth of tax-deferred or tax-free growth rather than waiting until the end of the year or April 15,” says Rick Kahler, a certified financial planner and founder of Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, South Dakota.

You can contribute only as much as you earn in any given year (up to the standard contribution limit), but you don’t have to wait until you earn the money, Kahler says.

“Say all your money comes in in December. You can make the contribution in January as long as you have funds to make it. The IRS looks at this on a yearly basis,” he says.

If you’re more of a procrastinator, you can contribute to an IRA as late as the tax filing deadline of the following year. That means your contribution deadline for 2018 is mid-April 2019.

But I don’t have $5,500!

For most people, contributing $5,500 at once is difficult. The next best thing is to set up automatic payments that move money from your bank account to your brokerage account regularly, such as every two weeks or once a month.

Setting up periodic contributions has another benefit, too. You’re embracing the practice of “dollar-cost averaging.” That’s when you buy investments in small periodic payments, rather than in one big lump sum.

Doing that means you buy no matter what the market is doing, and over time the variations average out.

“It’s the opposite of market timing,” says Patrick Meyer, CFP and director of wealth management client services at Unified Trust Company in Lexington, Kentucky.

Market timing is when you try to figure out the best time to buy, that is, when prices are low. The problem with market timing is it’s impossible to know what the market will do tomorrow, so you never know if you’ve timed it right.

If market timing was easy, Meyer says, “everybody would do it.”

Why should I contribute?

You want to save for Future You, and the earlier you start, the more time your money will have to grow. Even if you have debt, that’s no reason to put your retirement savings on hold.

If you’ve got time to let your investments grow, then even just a few years of maxing out that IRA contribution can get you a long way to retirement success.

» Are you on track for retirement? Plug three numbers into our retirement calculator to see.

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