Roth IRAs offer an excellent means of diversifying your retirement investments – not only for tax reasons, but because IRAs are Individual Retirement Accounts and you control the who, what, when, where, and why of your investment. Not being limited to a small segment of funds like you are in a 401k plan gives you the freedom to invest how and where you see fit.
How to Start a Roth IRA
Opening a Roth IRA is an easy process that only takes a few minutes. You will need to use an IRA custodian, which is an approved institution or individual that ensures your paperwork is correctly with the IRS. To open a Roth IRA, you only need to fill out a simple form and make an initial investment. If you already have an account and funds with the company, you can complete an IRA contribution in 5 minutes. It may take a little longer if you need to open an account with the financial institution, but the process is still easy. The following tips should help you find the best custodian for your Roth or Traditional IRA.
Which IRA is the best for you? Take a look at the IRA comparison tool from Mint.com to compare types of IRAs and brokerage firms. Get Started here.
What you should look for when opening a Roth IRA
Before opening a Roth IRA you will need to research the financial institution to determine which firm best meets your needs. After determining your investing style and your brokerage needs, you should look for a few other key features to ensure you get the best value and service for your investments:
- Minimum initial investment and ongoing contributions. Some firms require a minimum investment to open an IRA, and others require a minimum purchase for continuing contributions. Make sure you can afford these minimums.
- Commissions and account fees. Some large brokerage firms do not charge fees or commissions on their in house mutual funds, though they may charge more than discount brokerage firms for individual stock trades or mutual funds outside their family of funds. Larger firms may also charge a custodial IRA fee if certain account minimums are not met. Online discount brokerage firms often have cheaper individual stock and ETF trades, and most do not charge a custodial IRA fee.
- Fund options – variety and affordability. Make sure the brokerage firm that you use has a wide variety of mutual funds, ETFs, or other investment options to fit your investment needs. Be sure they charge a reasonable expense ratio.
- Automatic contributions. Unless you can afford to max out your IRA with one contribution, you will probably want the option to set up automatic contributions so you can more easily invest. Most firms offer, and even encourage, automatic contributions.
Now that you have some criteria to look at, we can examine the most common types of financial institutions where you can open a Roth IRA account.
Selecting a Roth IRA Custodian
Many financial institutions are eligible to act as the custodian for your Roth IRA, including banks, mutual fund companies, and discount brokerage firms. You will want to open an account with the firm that best meets your investment needs. The details below offer more information about which types of investment opportunities you will find at these locations.
Banks. I don’t recommend using your bank to open an IRA account unless it bank offers a full brokerage service. This is because banks generally offer fewer investment options, which are usually limited to CDs, money market funds, and cash equivalents. Some banks offer other investment options, but usually with higher fees than you can find at a brokerage firm like Fidelity or Vanguard, or a discount online brokerage like Scottrade, E*Trade, or TradeKing. A bank is convenient, but rarely has the best investment options.
Full service mutual fund firms. Mutual fund firms typically have a wide variety of funds with low expense ratios, and are often the best place to purchase index funds, target date retirement funds, mutual funds and similar investments. Fidelity, Vanguard, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price are good places to check out if you need to open an investment account. All of these companies offer Traditional and Roth IRAs along with many other investment options.
The downside is that many of these companies have higher minimums to invest in their funds and usually charge more for individual stock trades. However, some of these brokerage firms will waive the minimums for IRAs if you can commit to a minimum monthly investment. The same goes for IRA custodial fees, which may be waived with recurring investments or a minimum account balance.
Online discount brokerages. If you like to dabble in individual stocks or prefer a more hands on approach, then I recommend looking into discount online brokerages. Discount brokerages give you access to stock trades, options trades, Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), mutual funds and other investments. You can also make individual stock trades in the $2 – $10 range, which is usually much cheaper than making stock trades at the mutual fund firms listed above. While you may find that discount brokerages offer fewer mutual funds than the large brokerage houses, you can usually find a comparable ETF with similar or lower expense ratios.
Now that you know what you are looking for when opening a Roth IRA, you can go find the best brokerage for your needs. Or, stay tuned for tomorrow’s article which features a list of the best mutual fund firms and discount brokerages to open a Roth IRA.
*Note: The same criteria apply when opening a Traditional IRA, just be sure to verify your income against the contribution limits as mentioned above.