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Investing

Best Online Brokers for Beginner Investors 2019

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

If you’re an investing novice, learning how to put money in the markets can seem overwhelming. There are countless online services at your disposal, which can make it challenging to pick the right one and get started.

Not sure where to begin? Let’s take a closer look at the best online brokers and the best robo-advisors. Both product categories offer low fees, lots of flexibility and functionality that simplifies the investing process. Either can make it simple to take your first steps in the world of investing.

Deciding whether you need a robo-advisor or an online broker is straightforward. If you prefer to actively manage your investments, an online broker is what you’re looking for. A broker’s job is to help you buy and sell securities, and many brokers offer educational and research resources to help beginners learn. Below we’ve included our top online brokers for beginners.

If you prefer a more hands-off approach to your investments, go with a robo-advisor. These automated investing services put your money into diversified portfolios of stocks and bonds that are customized to your needs. Best of all, they charge low annual fees. Since computer algorithms do the hard work, you’re freed from actively managing your investments. See below for our top robo-advisors for beginning investors.

How we chose the best investment platforms for beginners

We regularly review the landscape of investment services. For this review, we began with a selection of brokers and robo-advisors that represent the best in the industry. For the brokers, we evaluated 20 different services in our latest round; for the robo-advisors, we evaluated 19 different services. We then distilled each list down to the top four choices. All of the brokers and robo-advisors listed below are worth considering, with those at the top of each category scoring best.

The things we weighed most heavily when ranking the best online brokers were trading fees, account minimums, the diversity of investment products offered (stocks, bonds, exchange-traded funds or ETFs, and mutual funds), and low account fees (annual fees, transfer fees, and inactivity fees). To determine our list of the best robo-advisors, we focused on management fees and account minimums, and also considered ease of use and customer support.

See our methodology article for a more detailed explanation of how we create our rankings.

The best robo-advisors for beginners

Robo-advisor

Annual Management Fee

Average Expense Ratio (moderate risk portfolio)

Account Minimum to Start

Wealthfront

0.25%

0.09%

$500

Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios

0.00%

0.14%

$5,000

Betterment

0.25% (up to $100,000); 0.40% ($100,000.01 or more)

0.11%

$0

SoFi Automated Investing

0.00%

0.08%

$1

Wealthfront: Low fees, high cash management APY

Wealthfront Advisers LLCWealthfront is one of the most visible names in the robo-advisor space, and its low annual cost and free financial planning tools make it a great fit for beginners. The $500 minimum deposit to open an account is higher than peers, many of whom have no minimum. If you would like to fund your account but also want to keep some money on the sidelines, Wealthfront offers a cash management account with an attractive 1.78% APY. Wealthfront intentionally offers very little opportunity for human interaction on its platform. This keeps fees low, but could be a drawback for those who want personalized attention or who have complicated tax situations.

Wealthfront Highlights:

  • $500 minimum to start investing is beginner-friendly
  • Low fees: 0.25% management fee; 0.09% avg ETF expense ratio
  • 20 portfolios available to fit a variety of investing goals, from conservative to aggressive
Learn moreSecured
on Wealthfront’s secure website

Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios: Backed by a major brokerage

The Charles Schwab CorporationCharles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios is a great choice if you’d like to start with automated investing but anticipate becoming more actively involved in managing your investments over time. Note that Intelligent Portfolios requires a relatively steep $5,000 minimum deposit to start investing. Also, do not be misled by the 0% management fee, as it’s not the only cost involved using this robo-advisor.

Intelligent Portfolios requires users to hold 6% to 30% of deposited funds in a cash management account that offers a 0.67% APY. This requirement will eat into overall returns in years where the market returns above 0.67%. And this is on top of an average 0.14% expense ratio for a moderate-risk portfolio.

That said, this robo-advisor has an exceptionally detailed description of their ETF selection methodology. Intelligent Portfolios users also get access to Charles Schwab’s 300 U.S. branch locations, where you can talk to advisors and handle administrative tasks in person.

Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Highlights:

  • Schwab offers many additional account types and services for investors looking to expand beyond robo-advising down the road
  • 0% management fee, though you do need to hold a portion of your portfolio in cash and an avg 0.14% expense ratio still applies
  • Over 300 physical branch locations for in-person assistance
Learn moreSecured
on Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Premium™’s secure website

Betterment: Great choice for smaller balances

Betterment Holdings Inc.Betterment is another good choice for beginner investors, offering strong features at low cost, with no minimum deposit. Their step-by-step account creation process translates your financial goals into investment recommendations, helping to ensure that your portfolio fits your objectives. The annual management fee for accounts under $100,000 is 0.25%, plus an average 0.11% expense ratio, which is in line with peers. Unfortunately, accounts over $100,000 will see the annual management fee jump to 0.40% — so if you are managing more than $100,000, you may want to consider a different robo-advisor.

Betterment Highlights:

  • $0 minimum to open an account makes it easy
  • Low 0.25% management fee for account balances under $100,000 plus low 0.11% avg ETF expense ratio
  • Premium features available for account balances greater than $100,000, including unlimited access to Betterment’s financial advisors
Learn moreSecured
on Betterment’s secure website

SoFi Automated Investing: Low costs, great perks

SoFi Securities LLCSoFi Automated Investing aims to minimize fees and eliminate investing friction points, and they succeed at both. The firm’s 0% management fee and ultra-low 0.08% average expense ratio makes it one of the most competitively-priced robo-advisors in the market. Beginners will find the free access to SoFi financial advisors as an especially valuable perk. Others include free career counseling and discounts on loans.

The main downside with Automated Investing is that SoFi’s portfolios are less customizable than those of competing services. It offers only five risk levels to choose from, as opposed to at least 10 available with other services. SoFi does not offer tax loss harvesting.

SoFi Automated Investing Highlights:

  • Rock-bottom fees: 0% management fee, plus 0.08% avg expense ratio
  • Free access to financial advisors
  • SoFi also offers brokerage accounts for investors looking to trade individual stocks or ETFs
Learn moreSecured
on SoFi Automated Investing’s secure website

Best online brokers for beginners

Broker

Fee per trade

Commission-free ETFs

No-transaction-fee Mutual Funds

Charles Schwab

$0.00

514

3,457

Fidelity

$0.00

503

3,636

TD Ameritrade

$0.00

571

3,887

E-Trade

$0.00

277

4,222

Charles Schwab: Full-featured offering

The Charles Schwab CorporationCharles Schwab can support your investing journey from your first steps as a novice through to advanced trading strategies. Schwab has no account minimum, charges only $0.00 per trade in commissions, and allows you to trade many products commission free. Accounts come equipped with a suite of tools to help you construct your portfolio and pick the correct mutual funds, ETFs and stocks. Schwab also offers 24/7 phone support and has over 350 branches if you need in-person help.

Charles Schwab Highlights:

  • Affordable trading with $0.00 per trade commissions and no minimum deposit to open an account
  • More than 500 commission-free ETFs and over 3,000 no-transaction-fee mutual funds
  • Robust research tools for beginners include analyst reports and screeners for stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs
Learn moreSecured
on Charles Schwab’s secure website

Fidelity: Strong mutual funds options

Fidelity Brokerage Services LLCFidelity is well known for its retirement offerings and has a lot to offer beginners. Their $0 minimum to open an account, low $0.00 per trade commission and excellent selection of commission-free ETFs and mutual funds make this service a great choice for new investors. Beginners looking to learn about investing will appreciate Fidelity’s stock screening tools, library of analyst reports and portfolio selection tools. Fidelity also offers clients exclusive access to several proprietary mutual funds that have no transaction fees and 0.00% expense ratios.

Fidelity offers strong customer support with representatives available by phone 24/7 and at over 190 branch locations if you need in-person help. Some reviews on their site suggest that response times can lag for support though. Low fees, no minimum to start and a large menu of investments to choose from make Fidelity a compelling option for beginners.

Fidelity Highlights:

  • $0 minimum to open an account and no fees on account transfers
  • Tons of low-fee options: Over 500 commission-free ETFs and more than 3,600 no-transaction fee mutual funds
  • Stock screening tools, analyst reports, and portfolio selection tools will be helpful for beginners
Learn moreSecured
on Fidelity’s secure website

TD Ameritrade: Broad offering of investments

TD AmeritradeTD Ameritrade’s long-standing commitment to helping clients access financial markets make it a strong choice for beginners. TD Ameritrade offers a wide assortment of commission-free mutual funds and ETFs, helpful customer service and educational tools. Beginners starting with stocks and bonds will appreciate TD Ameritrade’s analyst reports, charting tools and watch lists. Another upshot is that there is no minimum deposit required to open an account.

TD Ameritrade’s high $0.00 per trade commission is a drawback, though beginners are unlikely to be placing enough trades for this to have a large impact. With 24/7 phone support and branches spread across the country for in-person help TD Ameritrade is solid broker choice for beginners.

TD Ameritrade Highlights:

  • Keep fees low with nearly 4,000 no-transaction-fee mutual funds and over 550 commission-free ETFs
  • $0 minimum to open an account
  • Current TD Bank account holders may qualify for special promotions based on amount deposited including free trades and account rebates
Learn moreSecured
on TD Ameritrade’s secure website

E-Trade: Good research options

E-Trade Securities LLCE-Trade is a well-known online broker and offers a wide assortment of available investments for beginners. The $500 minimum to open an account and high $0.00 trading fees could deter folks with a small amount to invest, though. E-Trade’s breadth of no-commission ETFs and mutual funds offers a wealth of choices for first-time investors step into the market. E-Trade’s mobile tools stand out for dynamic charting and easy access to research materials. For investors seeking to automate a portion of their portfolio E-Trade also offers their Core Portfolios robo-advisor product for a 0.30% management fee.

E-Trade Highlights:

  • Respectable selection of low-fee options with over 250 commission-free ETFs and more than 4,000 no-transaction-fee mutual funds
  • Mobile tools feature beginner-friendly charting, research, and trading
  • E-Trade’s robo-advisor, E-Trade Core Portfolios, is available for users who’d like to automate a portion of their portfolio
Learn moreSecured
on E-Trade’s secure website

FAQs about online brokers

A robo-advisor is an automated service that selects investments for you utilizing sophisticated computer algorithms. Robo-advisors help investors take advantage of the best parts of wealth advising — like diversification and asset allocation — without incurring the cost of hiring a human advisor to manage your accounts.

Most robo-advisors begin the investing process by asking you a series of questions about your assets, investing history and investing goals to help establish the right balance in your investment portfolio. Then the robo-advisor automatically manages your money and sets you on the path to achieve your financial objectives.

When considering which robo-advisor to choose, you should evaluate several different things:

  • Minimum Balance: The minimum amount you need to invest can help you narrow the field of robo-advisors. A number of newer robo-advisors have no minimum to start, while the ones offered by the traditional large brokerage houses will typically require an initial deposit of several thousand dollars.
  • Fees: Even small fees can add up to thousands of dollars of lost returns over time. The top-rated robo-advisors in our ranking typically charge a flat yearly management fee of 0.00% to 0.50% of your deposited balance. In addition to the management fee, robo-advisors also charge investors an expense ratio to cover fees that ETF companies charge for the funds that make up your portfolio. Average expense ratios typically range from 0.08% to 0.15%.
  • Ease of use: When you create your account, ask yourself: Do I understand what the robo-advisor is telling me? Can I easily figure out how to deposit and withdraw money? Do their planning tools help me understand how much I need to invest and when? If the answer is no to any of these, you might be better off going with another option.

Online brokers help you purchase and trade investments on your own, without the need for an advisor or investment manager. Online brokers put you in the driver’s seat. Instead of relying on a particular firm’s recommendations, you can select the stocks, mutual funds and bonds that work best for you. Online trading is also convenient; you can manage your assets from anywhere, without having to wait on anyone else. Even better, online brokerage accounts tend to be more cost-effective than traditional brokerage accounts because they often have fewer fees.

Keep in mind that the earlier you get started with investing in markets, the more your money can grow. Even if you have only a small amount to invest, investing with an online broker can help you lay a strong foundation to build wealth. Start with what you can afford and contribute regularly to begin boosting your returns. Before you start investing, be sure that you’ve paid down high-interest debt and saved enough money for an emergency fund. This will ensure that you can avoid potential losses from having to withdraw your investments early in case of big, sudden expenses.

While there’s always risk with investing, online brokerages are typically quite safe. Most brokerage sites will have a section on their website that details their security measures. Your accounts are also often protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), which helps safeguard you against the loss of your investments if the brokerage closes.

When shopping for an online broker, there are a few factors to keep in mind before making a decision:

  • Fees: While you can’t control the returns on your investments, you can control what you pay in fees. Look for an online brokerage that offers low trading fees; some even offer free trades on select investments or if you meet certain account usage criteria.
  • Investment advisory services: While online brokerage companies give you flexibility, it can be helpful to check in with a professional once in a while. Some give you the option to connect with an investment advisor to help you stay on track.
  • Research tools: Access to research tools can help you choose the right investments. Look for an online broker that offers research tools to help you analyze and choose investments based on past performance and professional recommendations.
  • Investment mix: You want to be able to invest in a wide range of investments, including stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and bonds.
  • Customer service: Customer service can be key, especially if you have trouble with your account. You want an online broker with easy-to-use customer service tools so you can get the help you need quickly.

Many online brokers allow you to invest in a wide range of investments, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs. Online brokerage accounts offer you a great deal of flexibility, so you can invest in what makes sense for you.

To begin investing and trading online, you have to open an account with an online brokerage firm. To do so, click on the company’s website and select “open an account” or “apply now.” The site will prompt you to enter your personal information, such as your name, address, employment details, Social Security number and proof of identity. Next, you’ll be asked to enter your bank details so you can make an initial investment and set up recurring deposits if desired. Verifying your account can take a few days, but then your account will be in effect and you can begin investing your money.

About our ranking

Please see the full lists below of brokers and robo-advisors that we considered for this ranking.

All brokers considered:

Ally Invest
Charles Schwab
Fidelity
Firstrade
Interactive Brokers
J.P. Morgan You Invest
Just2Trade
Lightspeed
Merrill Edge
Robinhood
E-Trade
eOption
SogoTrade
Stash
T. Rowe Price
TD Ameritrade
TradeStation
USAA Investments
Vanguard
Zacks Trade

All robo-advisors considered:

Acorns
Ally Invest Managed Portfolios
Betterment
Charles Schwab Intelligent Portfolios
E-Trade Core Portfolios
Ellevest
Fidelity Go
Folio Investing
FutureAdvisor
Merrill Guided Investing
Motif
Personal Capital
SigFig
SoFi Automated Investing
TD Ameritrade
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services
Wealthfront
Wealthsimple
WiseBanyan

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Joshua Rowe-Heupler
Joshua Rowe-Heupler |

Joshua Rowe-Heupler is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Joshua here

Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina |

Kat Tretina is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kat here

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Investing

How to Trade Stocks for Beginners

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Learning to trade stocks can be an excellent way to build long-term wealth. There’s a reason why the news reports on the stock market all the time — after all, it’s one of the most important parts of the economy. But if you’ve never traded stocks before, all this information can seem confusing and overwhelming. How do you even get started?

This beginner’s guide provides the basics on how to trade stocks. Whether you’re investing for the very first time or just need a refresher of the key concepts, we’ve covered them here.

What is a share of stock?

A share of stock represents a small ownership stake in the business. When a company such as Amazon or Nike needs money but doesn’t want to take out a loan, they can sell stock to investors.

When you buy a share of stock, you become a shareholder of a company — a part owner, in other words — and are entitled to a cut of the company’s profits. Some companies send cash directly to their stockholders, called a dividend payment, giving them their share of the year’s earnings.

Investors also make money by buying stocks, waiting for them to become more valuable, and then selling them. While you can buy shares of stock from a company directly, the most common way to buy and sell stocks from other investors on a stock market — also called a secondary market — like the S&P 500 or Nasdaq. When investors buy and sell shares on the stock market, it’s called trading stocks.

The price of a stock changes every day based on how people think the company will do. If its future prospects look good, the price will likely go up. If a company gets bad news, its stock price could go down.

How do you trade stocks?

  • Brokerage account: A brokerage account lets you buy and sell stocks and other investments. You can open one with online stock brokers, transfer money to your brokerage account and figure out which trades you’d like to make. This is the most do-it-yourself approach to trade stocks.
  • Mutual funds/ETFs: Rather than buying individual stocks, you could also buy mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs). These are portfolios of stocks managed by a professional investor. When you buy in, you automatically get a share of a large, diverse portfolio so you don’t have to plan it together yourself.

Peter Creedon, a CFP and the CEO of Crystal Brook Advisors in New York, thinks this is a solid approach for beginners or investors with limited funds. “A person can get exposure to the 500 largest companies on the NYSE with just one fund,” said Creedon. He also recommended that beginning investors build exposure to many companies and possible sectors of the market, before going after an individual stock.

  • Financial advisor: If you’d like more help, you can also hire a financial advisor to suggest stocks or even manage the portfolio on your behalf. You’d need to pay them an additional fee for this advice. Some charge by the hour while others could charge a percentage of your portfolio, like 1% of your account balance each year.
  • Robo-advisor: Combining aspects of conventional financial advisors and brokerages, robo-advisors use computer algorithms to recommend stock portfolios based on your goals and preferences. They charge management fees, but they’re usually less expensive than hiring a financial advisor.

How do you invest with stocks?

Before you start putting money in the stock market, you need to figure out your investment goals. Some of the main factors to consider include:

  • Time horizon: How soon will you need your money back? If retirement is decades away, you can afford to take more risks with your stocks, perhaps buying stocks of smaller companies with more growth potential. But if you need money in a few years, you’d likely want to play it safer by purchasing stocks of more established companies, known as blue chips.
  • Risk tolerance: Imagine your stock portfolio lost a bunch of money today — 10%, 20%, even 50%. How would you feel? If losing money would really rattle you, it may be better to use safer stocks and even keep more money in cash or bonds. On the other hand, if you are OK dealing with short-term losses in exchange for higher future gains, you could be a better fit for riskier strategies like day trading.
  • Target return: How much do you hope to grow your money year after year? Investing is a trade-off between risk and return. If you want to earn more, you may need to take more risks and buy stocks with more growth potential, rather than proven blue chip companies. Just know that aiming for a higher return increases your chance of losing money.
  • Income needs: Do you need cash coming in from your stocks right away? Consider high-dividend stocks that pay out more now. In exchange, their price likely won’t gain value as quickly as growth stocks, which reinvest profits so the company hopefully earns even more in the future.
  • Amount to invest: What is your investment budget per year? Some brokerage accounts, funds and financial advisors require at least a minimum investment, for example, you may need at least $10,000. Your budget could determine your investment options.
  • Other investments: What are you doing with the rest of your savings? If it’s in safe places like cash or bonds, you could potentially afford to take more risk with your stock portfolio. On the other hand, if your money is in gold, real estate and other potentially riskier investments, you may want to be more conservative with your stocks.

How do you decide which stocks to buy?

With your goals in-mind, you can start reaching which stocks to buy. Now, without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to know ahead of-time which stocks will earn a great return. But there are strategies that can help you chances.

Bill Harris, a CFP® and financial advisor based in Massachusetts, recommends that you keep it simple. “Invest in companies that you know and that a third grader can understand.”

A different strategy would be to target sectors where you have specialized knowledge, because this can give you an edge versus the average investor. For example, if you have a science or medical background, you could focus on pharmaceutical stocks.

Research companies before you buy their stock

Putting in the proper research is also important as you figure out which companies will succeed in the long-haul. The internet and TV are full of financial news but Harris says don’t overlook your local library. “Most library systems have access to Valueline, CFRA and Morningstar. These companies do not make markets in securities, so their research is pure.”

Another useful strategy is to focus on diversification, also called asset allocation. This means you buy a mix of stocks and other assets so you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. For example, let’s say you buy both car and oil stocks. If the price of oil goes down, that might be bad for oil profits but could lead to customers buying more cars. As a result, your car stocks go up and balance off your oil stock losses.

Finally, you could use a stock market simulator to test your strategy without taking any risk. These tools let you virtually invest in stocks with play money, so you can see whether your ideas would be successful before you commit your actual savings.

What’s the difference between day trading and investing?

As you figure out your strategy, you need to decide whether you’d like to day trade or invest for the long-term. Day trading means you’re buying and selling stocks frequently throughout the day based on the most recent news. Investing in stocks takes a longer-term horizon and you’re buying stocks and holding them for months, even years.

While day trading may seem more interesting, it does have its downsides. Each time you buy or sell a stock, you need to pay trading fees. You could also owe higher income taxes on your stocks, as the IRS charges a higher tax rate on short-term gains, stocks that you sell within a year of buying. Not to mention, you’re also trying to outmaneuver all of Wall Street. As a result, making money with day trading can be stressful and challenging.

Investing may be a better strategy

The financial advisors we spoke with for this article all came out in favor of investing as a more profitable strategy. “Too many people hear a hot tip, jump in, and check the stock every five minutes. My mantra is ‘Become the owner of a company, not a trader’,” said Harris.

Harris also recommends patience with your picks and that you shouldn’t sell at the first hint of bad news. “I commit to staying invested in each position for at least one year. One year from now before I even look at the stock performance, I will make the decision if I still feel the same way about industry and that company.  At that point, I will either sell or buy more.”

Where can you get help buying stocks?

If investing in the stock market for the first time seems intimidating, well that’s because it can be. There’s a ton of information to learn, especially if you try to do everything by yourself. As a beginner, consider getting some help with your first trades. Whether it’s working with a live financial advisor, a professionally mutual fund/ETF or even a robo-advisor, all these methods would get you started on the right foot.

“For beginners, I would recommend they hire a certified financial planner to prepare a financial plan, understand their risk profile and set up an overall target allocation,” suggests Clark Randall, CFP and founder of Financial Enlightenment based in Texas.  “After the planning phase, they can either invest themselves or hire the planner to implement the recommendations.”

Learning how to trade stocks takes some work, but the returns could be well worth it. Between the information in this guide and the support of a professional advisor, you can feel confident about investing in stocks, even as a beginner.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

David Rodeck
David Rodeck |

David Rodeck is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email David here

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Investing

Everything You Need to Know about Spousal IRAs

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone and is not intended to be a source of investment advice. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

A spousal IRA is an investment strategy used by married couples to save for retirement. There is no separate type of individual retirement account called a “spousal IRA” — rather, it’s just a traditional IRA for a married person who isn’t earning an income. IRS rules allow spouses who aren’t earning income, for whatever reason, to still use the tax advantages of saving and investing money in an IRA to accumulate a nest egg for retirement.

What is a spousal IRA?

The IRS requires individuals to report annual income in order to fund an IRA — with the exception of a spouse who isn’t earning an income, but is married to someone who is. If both partners in the marriage file taxes jointly, the IRS lets each partner have their own IRA. Married couples who file taxes separately are not eligible for the spousal IRAs approach.

According to Janice M. Cackowski, a financial advisor with providence Wealth Partners in Ohio, the IRS looks at married couples who file jointly as one entity, and their combined income as one figure, so spousal IRAs allow them to put away twice as much.

“Spousal IRAs are terrific tools when one spouse is employed and the other is not,” said Cackowski. “It allows the spouse who is earning wages to deposit them an IRA for the benefit of the non-working spouse, essentially allowing each spouse to maximize their retirement savings.”

Basic spousal IRA rules

  • The tax filing status of the couple must be “married filing jointly”
  • The married couple does not co-own a spousal IRA — it is owned by and held in the name of the non-working spouse
  • Spousal IRA can be a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA
  • There is no longer an age limit for making contributions to a Traditional IRA, so you may keep adding money after age 70 ½, as has always been the case with a Roth IRA

Like any other IRA, married people making use of a spousal IRA strategy contribute funds to their separate accounts and invest the funds in stocks, bonds, CDs and other assets. Interest accumulates over the years, and the account grows either tax-free or tax-deferred (more on this in a bit).

For example, if you contribute $6,000 a year to your IRA starting at age 30 until you retire at age 65, the sum would grow to more than $700,000, assuming a 6% annual rate of return. This figure doesn’t account for taxes (so it’s not entirely exact), but it does show how the power of compound interest can work in your favor over time.

What are your spousal IRAs options?

Your spousal IRA can be either a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. The rules and contribution limits for spousal IRAs are no different than conventional versions of either account. Remember, the difference between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA comes down to when you can reap the tax benefits of each option, and Traditional IRAs may provide tax deduction benefits.

  • Traditional IRA: Contributions to a Traditional IRA are made before you pay income tax. As such, you end up paying income taxes on all withdrawals — principal and interest earned — when you withdraw funds in retirement.
  • Roth IRA: Contributions to a Roth IRA are made after you pay income taxes. Since you’ve already paid taxes upfront, money you withdraw in retirement is tax free.

Which should you choose? In general, if you’re in a lower tax bracket now than you expect to be when you retire, then a Roth IRA may be more beneficial, as you may save money on taxes down the road. This decision is unique in each situation.

Spousal IRA contribution and income limits

For 2020, the annual contribution limits for both Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. This is the core benefit of a spousal IRA: A married couple can potentially sock away a total of $12,000 into their IRAs.

There is no income threshold for contributing to a traditional IRA, while the limit for contributing to Roth IRAs is $206,000 for married couples filing jointly. Also, In addition, for both Roth IRAs and Traditional IRAs, the married couple must have taxable income that is equal to or greater than the total amount contributed to their IRAs.

Spousal IRA tax deductions

Couples can deduct their contributions to a Traditional IRA from their taxes, depending on two factors. The income tax deduction is reduced or eliminated entirely depending on the couple’s total income, or the earning spouse’s participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

If the spouse who works is covered by their employer’s retirement plan, the Traditional IRA income tax deduction is phased out when the couple’s income falls between $104,000 and $124,000. Incomes above $124,000 get no tax deduction.

However, if the spouse does not participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, the deduction phases out at an income level of $196,000, and is eliminated after income hits $206,000. There are also tax credits available — the Saver’s Credit — for married couples filing jointly who earn less than $65,000 a year.

Spousal IRA withdrawals

Because IRA funds are intended for use in retirement, withdrawing them before that time often comes with a penalty. For traditional IRAs, there’s a 10% penalty if you withdraw funds before age 59 ½, and you also must pay taxes on the money you withdraw. For Roth IRAs, you can withdraw the funds you contributed at any time penalty free, since you already paid taxes on them up front, but you’ll pay a 10% penalty on any earnings if you with withdraw them sooner than five years after the account was opened or before age 59 ½ (whichever is longer).

For both traditional and Roth IRAs, there are some exceptions to early withdrawal penalties for things including death, disabilities and a first-time home purchase.

Who should consider a spousal IRA?

Any family with a non-working spouse and disposal income for long-term savings that is looking to increase their retirement nest egg should consider a spousal IRA as a potential option.

According to Michelle Buonincontri, an Arizona-based certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst, spousal IRAs help protect the non-working spouse in the case their happily ever after doesn’t end quite so happily.

“Let’s face it, with 50% or more of first marriages ending in divorce, spousal IRAs are a great way to level the playing field by having retirement assets in the name of the spouse that does not have access to a retirement plan if a couple ever find themselves in a divorce situation,” she said.

Although retirement assets accumulated during the marriage are usually considered marital assets, Buonincontri suggested that “folks seem less emotional about letting the other spouse keep accounts titled in their own name and less tense during the marital settlement negotiation process.”

Spousal IRAs aren’t for all couples

This doesn’t mean contributing to a spousal IRA is right for every couple, however. While spousal IRAs are generally a positive investment, people need to take a hard look at their financial situation to make sure funds won’t be needed elsewhere.

Diane Pearson, a certified financial planner with Pearson Financial Planning in Pittsburgh, Penn., noted that a spousal IRA isn’t always the first move couples should make with disposable income.

She advised that couples should build their emergency fund and general savings before opting for a spousal IRA. Savers don’t want to set themselves up for additional taxes or early withdrawal tax penalties if they end up needing to pull funds out of an IRA to pay for near-term emergencies or a child’s education before age 59 1/2.

“Every situation is obviously different, but if an employer is offering the working spouse a match to a qualified retirement plan, and the individual instead decides to use their income to fund their non-working spouse’s IRA, they may be missing out on the employer’s matching contribution,” said Pearson.

How to open a spousal IRA

As we noted in the introduction, a spousal IRA is a strategy, not a distinct type of individual retirement account. Whether you choose to set up your spousal IRA as a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, you can do so through most banks, brokerage and wealth management firms, as well as robo-advisors.

For more help determining which might be best for your IRA needs, visit our list of the best IRA account providers, and the best robo-advisors.

How hands-on you want to be when it comes to managing your IRA will help you decide which route to go. While some providers will do all the work for you, you’ll pay for that help in the form of management fees, other brokers give you complete control over your portfolio and you save on fees.

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Julie Ryan Evans
Julie Ryan Evans |

Julie Ryan Evans is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julie here