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How and Where to Open a Roth IRA

Investing, Retirement Planning, Roth IRA
NerdWallet adheres to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Some of the products we feature are from partners. Here’s how we make money.
We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity. Some of the products we feature are from our partners. Here’s how we make money.
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Opening a Roth IRA can be a smart way to supercharge your retirement savings. The process is easy:

  • Determine what kind of investor you are: hands-on or hands-off
  • Choose a provider and open your Roth IRA
  • Choose the investments that will power your Roth IRA. (If you go with a robo-advisor, they usually do this for you.)

How and Where to Open a Roth IRA
How and Where to Open a Roth IRA

A Roth IRA is a true gift for retirement savers: While there’s no immediate tax benefit, distributions in retirement are completely tax-free. But there are some rules for Roth IRAs, including income limits.

There are two fundamental steps to starting a Roth IRA. First, pick a provider: Either a broker, where you choose investments, or a robo-advisor who handles the investment choices for you. Second, pick your investments: If you go with a broker, look for low-cost mutual funds and ETFs. If you choose a robo-advisor, they’ll pick these for you.

Read on for more details on each of these steps.

» Not sure how a Roth IRA works? Read our complete guide to Roth IRAs

1. Determine what kind of investor you are

  • If you’re a “do-it-yourself” investor, choose a brokerage. You can open a Roth IRA at an online broker and then choose your own investments (this may be simpler than you think — you can build a diversified portfolio with just three or four mutual funds). With the providers detailed below, you generally won’t pay an account fee (though that may require your agreeing to electronic document delivery or maintaining a minimum account balance), so the primary costs you need to watch for are trading commissions and investment fees (which are also called expense ratios).
  • If you’re a “manage it for me” investor, choose a robo-advisor. If you’d rather have someone pick an investment portfolio for you, you can open your Roth IRA at a robo-advisor. Robo-advisors are online investment services that build and maintain a diversified portfolio for you. You pay a small fee for the service, but their fees generally are substantially lower than a human financial advisor — typically 0.25% to 0.50% of the assets under management annually. These services are growing rapidly today: Our top two robo-advisor picks, Wealthfront and Betterment, both have over $10 billion in assets under management.

2. Choose a provider and open your Roth IRA

Best Roth IRA brokers for “do-it-yourself” investors

For people who want to pick their own investments, opening a Roth IRA at an online broker makes a lot of sense. At the best brokers, you’ll find a large list of low-cost investments to choose from, including index mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. The top brokers also offer extensive retirement planning tools, robust customer service and reasonable account minimums and fees. And you maintain complete control over how your retirement funds are invested. Here are three of the favorites from our 2018 analysis:

NerdWallet rating

Fees

$6.95

per trade

Account minimum

$0

Promotion

$100-$600

in cash bonus with a qualifying deposit

The bottom line

Merrill Edge offers high-quality customer service, robust research, low commissions and fees -- all with no account minimum for IRA investors. Customers of parent company Bank of America will love the seamless, thoughtful integration, with a single login to access both accounts.

Show pros & cons

Pros

  • No account minimum to access first-rate customer service.

  • Robust third-party research.

  • Ongoing promotions for opening and funding a qualified IRA account.

Reader favorite

Cons

  • No commission-free ETFs for IRA investors.

  • Minimum balance requirement for day trading platform.

Read full review
NerdWallet rating

Fees

$6.95

per trade

Account minimum

$0

Promotion

Up to $600

in cash bonus with a qualifying deposit

The bottom line

Retirement investors will find a lot to love with E-Trade’s IRA offering, including a large line-up of no-trading-fee mutual funds and an extensive library of retirement advice and tools. Plus, there’s no minimum account balance.

Show pros & cons

Pros

  • No minimum balance for IRAs

  • Extensive research and tools

  • 156 commission-free ETFs

  • 4,400+ no-transaction-fee (NTF) mutual funds

Reader favorite

Cons

  • $19.99 cost for trading non-NTF mutual funds

  • Higher trading fees for low-volume ETF and stock traders

Read full review
» Want more options? Check out our top picks for Roth IRA brokers.

Best Roth IRA robo-advisors for “manage it for me” investors

For people who want to invest for retirement but don’t want to worry about managing their portfolio over time, a robo-advisor is an easy choice. Generally, robo-advisors hire investment pros to develop a handful of portfolios aimed at different types of investors. Some robos offer portfolios that vary based on amount of risk, with “aggressive” ones for people who want a high percentage of their portfolio in stocks and “conservative” for people who seek a less volatile investment account.

As an investor, all you have to do is open your Roth IRA, link your bank account and follow the steps the provider uses to build your portfolio. The robo-advisor then purchases the investments for you and manages the account over time. Many robos also offer services that can help maximize your savings, such as goal-setting tools to get your finances on track, and strategies to reduce your tax bill. (Robo-advisors generally are registered investment advisors, operating under a similar structure to human investment advisors.)

NerdWallet rating

Fees

0.25%

management fee

Account minimum

$500

Promotion

$5,000

amount of assets managed for free

The bottom line

Wealthfront takes the hassle out of IRA investing. The robo-advisor manages accounts by constructing portfolios out of low-cost ETFs, with a flat and low-cost fee structure that appeals to to investors seeking a hands-off approach. What’s more, the company has built client trust by offering free management on the first $5,000 invested (for NerdWallet readers).

Show pros & cons

Pros

  • Low-cost, hassle-free approach to IRA investing.

  • First $5,000 managed free (for NerdWallet readers).

  • Automatic rebalancing.

  • Free automated tax-loss harvesting.

Reader favorite

Cons

  • No large-balance discounts.

  • No access to human advisors.

Read full review
NerdWallet rating

Fees

0.25%

management fee

Account minimum

$0

Promotion

Up to 1 year

of free management with a qualifying deposit

The bottom line

With its low-cost ETFs, automatic rebalancing, extensive tax strategies and retirement advice, Betterment is a strong bet for retirement investors. Betterment’s planning tools include advice on “asset location” — which types of investments are best for different types of accounts — and investors can sync outside accounts, as well.

Show pros & cons

Pros

  • No account minimum

  • Extensive tax strategies

  • Robust goal-based tools

  • Free automated tax-loss harvesting

Reader favorite

Cons

  • Limited investment options

Read full review
» Want more options? Check out our picks for the best robo-advisors.

3. Select your investments

A Roth IRA is an account, not an investment. Contributing is just the first step. If you want to build wealth over time, you need to invest that money.

If you want to try a hands-on approach, you can get that diversification on your own for less by building a portfolio out of index funds and ETFs. To do that, you’ll want to decide how much of your money to put toward riskier investments, like stock funds, and how much you want to keep relatively safe, in bond funds and cash. This mix is called your asset allocation. In general, you’ll want to take more risk when you’re younger, because you have time to weather the market’s ups and downs. As you get closer to retirement age, you may want to tone it down a bit.

IRAs give you access to a large pool of investment options, so once you’ve decided on your allocation, you can select specific funds to meet that. Many brokers have fund screeners to help you, and you can sort by expense ratio, asset class or any number of other features.

And if you get stuck? Use a model: Check out the portfolios used by robo-advisors (often displayed on their websites) and target-date funds, then mimic them, being sure to rebalance as needed since they won’t be doing it for you.

» Dig deeper: Our full guide for how to invest in stocks.

Is that it?

That’s it. Except, a handful of additional considerations:

  • If you have a 401(k) that offers matching dollars and you’re not contributing enough to earn them all, that’s where you should direct your retirement savings first. Read our Roth IRA vs. 401(k) article, which explains how you should prioritize the two accounts.
  • A Roth IRA is the best choice for many folks, but for some a traditional IRA might be better. Check out this story to figure out which is best for you.
  • Once you determine how much you can contribute, we suggest setting up automatic transfers to make sure it happens. Not only do you avoid the process of initiating the transfer each month, but you ensure you’re saving regularly. Many brokers also waive their initial deposit requirements if you agree to smaller automatic transfers each month. (For example: Schwab has a $1,000 account minimum, but you can skirt it by signing up for monthly auto-deposits of $100 or more.)
  • Be sure you don’t contribute too much. Contributing more than the limit may leave you subject to a penalty from the IRS. If your goal is to spread that $5,500 over a year, contribute $458.33 a month or $105.76 a week. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute $541.66 a month or $125 a week. Keep in mind, too, that the contribution limit is for all your IRA accounts combined — if you have a Roth and a traditional, that limit is a total across both accounts.

Got more questions? We have answers

Many brokerages offer competitive Roth IRAs, so choosing one will require careful consideration of your needs and preferences as you shop. NerdWallet’s detailed analysis of the best Roth IRA accounts can help identify providers that align with your needs.

See our Roth IRA rules page, which provides current details on annual contribution limits, income eligibility and distribution requirements.

Our complete Roth IRA guide is home to a wide range of articles and tools, including pages dedicated to how to invest within your IRA and calculating the potential value your Roth contributions at various levels of return.

Yes. Moving your funds from a 401(k) at a former employer to a Roth IRA is a reasonably straightforward process, and most 401(k) and IRA providers are well-equipped to handle it. You can learn how it all works in our 401(k) rollover guide.

There are lots of factors to consider here, including your income, desired retirement age, monthly expenses, health status, future Social Security benefit levels and countless others. Our retirement calculator can help you gauge whether you’re saving enough to ensure a comfortable retirement and develop a plan to get the most from your savings.

Summary: How to open a Roth IRA in 3 steps

  1. Determine what kind of investor you are
  2. Choose a provider and open your Roth IRA
  3. Select your investments

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