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How does a Roth IRA work?

Key takeaways

  • Roth IRAs let you save and invest money you've already paid taxes on. In retirement, you can make tax-free withdrawals.
  • Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs have income limits that may exclude some savers, though high earners still have a couple options.
  • While contributions to Roth IRAs aren't tax-deductible, you can withdraw contributions you made at any time without penalty.

If federally tax-free retirement income sounds too good to be true, you'll want to learn about Roth IRAs. With a Roth IRA, you save and invest post-tax dollars and can enjoy federal tax-free withdrawals—including investment earnings—when you reach 59½ and the account has been open at least 5 years.

If you like the sound of that, here's what you need to know about how Roth IRAs work, plus their rules, benefits, and how to open one if you qualify.

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How does a Roth IRA work?

A Roth individual retirement account (IRA) gives you a chance to grow your money over time by investing already-taxed dollars in a range of different securities, from stocks and bonds to mutual funds, to exchange-traded funds (ETFs). The exact investment mix available will depend on your investing style and preference and what investment options are available through the financial institution where you opened the Roth IRA.

How does a Roth IRA work?

In retirement, your withdrawals are tax-free—provided you satisfy a few basic rules.

Roth IRA rules

The tax-free retirement income from a Roth IRA comes with a few strings attached. Before you invest, you'll need to know about 3 main topics: contribution, income, and withdrawal limits.

Roth IRA contribution limits

On paper, Roth IRAs and traditional IRAs share the same contribution limits in 2023: $6,500, or $7,500 for those 50 or older. However, how much you earn a year may reduce or eliminate your ability to contribute that amount to the Roth IRA.

Roth IRA income limits

Unlike a traditional IRA, which anyone with taxable compensation can contribute to, your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA depends on how much you earn, as shown by your modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI. MAGI is your adjusted gross income (aka your total income minus tax credits, adjustments, and deductions), with some of those credits, adjustments, and deductions added back in. Your MAGI and tax-filing status work together to determine whether you can make a full, partial, or no contribution to a Roth IRA for the tax year.

2023 income (MAGI) and contribution limits for Roth IRAs
Filing status MAGI Your Roth IRA contribution limit
Single, head-of-household, or married filing separately less than $138,000 $6,500 ($7,500 if age 50+)
Single, head-of-household, or married filing separately more than $138,000 but less than $153,000 partial contribution
Single, head-of-household, or married filing separately $153,000 or more $0
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) less than $218,000 $6,500 ($7,500 if age 50+) per taxpayer
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) more than $218,000 but less than $228,000 partial contribution per taxpayer
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) $228,000 or more $0

Source: IRS Publication 590-A

These annual MAGI limits only apply to new contributions to a Roth IRA. So if you opened a Roth IRA in the past, you can keep the account open and still invest the balance. You just won't be able to make any additional contributions in years when your MAGI exceeds the IRS limits.

Another important thing to keep in mind: IRA contribution limits apply across all IRA types, so if you have both a traditional and Roth IRA, you can only contribute up to the annual maximum across both accounts each year, not the annual maximum in each. That means, for instance, that if your income limits you to a partial Roth IRA contribution, you could make up the difference using a traditional IRA up to the total IRA contribution limit for the year.

If you earn too much to save using a Roth IRA, you could have other ways to access the same tax-free growth potential. For instance, if your employer offers a Roth 401(k) option, you can get all the benefits of a Roth IRA without the income restrictions. Or you could use a strategy called a backdoor Roth IRA, a technique that lets high earners convert nondeductible contributions made to a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA.

Roth IRA withdrawal rules

Since you contribute after-tax money to a Roth IRA, you can withdraw your contributions at any time without taxes or penalties, even before retirement. For your investment gains, however, it's a different story.

How Roth IRA withdrawals work
If you are… And you've held your Roth IRA for… You can withdraw…
Under age 59½ Any amount of time
  • Contributions without taxes or penalty
  • Earnings are subject to tax and a 10% penalty
59½ and older 5 years or more
  • Contributions and earnings without taxes or penalty

Under certain circumstances, the IRS makes some exceptions. You can withdraw earnings penalty-free before 59½ and only be subject to income taxes on money that's never been taxed before if you use funds for:

  • Qualified education expenses, such as college tuition
  • Up to $5,000 for expenses for a birth or adoption
  • For medical expenses or to pay for health insurance when you're unemployed
  • Up to $10,000 to buy your first home

Your beneficiaries can also withdraw gains without penalty when you die.

Roth IRA versus traditional IRA

The type of IRA you use to save for retirement often comes down to a question of whether you want to benefit from a tax break now (traditional IRAs) or later (Roth IRAs). To help you decide which one fits your retirement savings goals and tax situation, here are some of the ways a Roth IRA may help you achieve those goals.

Tax-free retirement income

If your current income sets you up to be taxed at a lower rate than you expect you'll pay in retirement, or you simply value the certainty of knowing what you'll owe the government, it may make sense to lock in tax-free future withdrawals now with a Roth IRA. While you won't get to deduct your contributions from your taxes today, like you would with a traditional IRA, you are eliminating the risk you have to pay more later on your contributions—plus any amount they've grown.

Flexible withdrawal rules

While it's generally intended to be a retirement account, a Roth IRA's withdrawal rules can help you access cash in a pinch. You're subject to taxes and penalties on traditional IRA withdrawals before age 59½ . But Roth IRAs let you tap your contributions tax- and penalty-free at any time. There are no required minimum distributions (RMDs)

With traditional IRAs and other retirement accounts, the government forces you to begin withdrawals after you reach age 73—whether you need the money or not—through a mechanism called required minimum distributions (RMDs). If you don't take out the required amount, you could face a tax penalty. But Roth IRAs aren't subject to RMDs—if you're the original account owner and not an inheritor—which means you can stay invested as long as you'd like and continue to potentially grow your savings.

Create a legacy

If you want to leave your retirement savings behind, Roth IRAs offer a powerful way to transfer wealth tax-free. For instance, spousal beneficiaries receive the same beneficial tax treatment—tax-free growth and withdrawals—as the original account owner, as long as the Roth IRA is at least 5 years old when your heirs begin withdrawals. This is especially important to consider as inherited IRAs now must be liquidated within 10 years for most nonspouse recipients, which can create a tricky tax situation for those receiving traditional, untaxed retirement accounts who then must pay taxes on their inheritance.

How to open a Roth IRA

If you're ready to start saving for retirement with a Roth account, opening a Roth IRA only takes a few simple steps.

1. Choose a broker-dealer or investment company

You can compare fees and available securities at a wide range of broker-dealers or financial institutions offering Roth IRAs. Most brokerages even let you open a Roth IRA online.

2. Fund your Roth IRA

Funding your Roth IRA starts with contributing to it. But before contributing, it is important to ensure that you are eligible. Although the most common way to fund a Roth IRA is by contributing cash from your bank account, wire transfer, or ACH as an eligible yearly contribution, there are also ways to contribute via rollovers from other retirement accounts—these contributions may be treated as a conversion which is subject to immediate taxation. Financial maneuvers like these can be complicated, and it's best to consult a financial professional if considering.

3. Invest the money

Once the funds in your new Roth IRA are available, you can invest the money into any securities available at your broker-dealer or investment company. But remember—you don't have to go it alone. From online guides that can help you pick investments and free online financial planning tools to working with a financial professional, there's help on hand to empower you each step of the way.

Is an IRA right for you?

We can help you decide whether you might want a traditional, Roth, or rollover IRA.

More to explore

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For a distribution to be considered qualified, the 5-year aging requirement has to be satisfied, and you must be age 59½ or older or meet one of several exemptions (disability, qualified first-time home purchase, or death among them).

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