Save and Invest

The biggest mistake you can make when putting money in your IRA

Ramit Sethi, Contributor
Self-made millionaire: This is the easiest way to start investing for retirement
Self-made millionaire: This is the easiest way to start investing for retirement

Imagine that you've been diligently putting money away in your Roth IRA retirement fund for the last 10 years, as any savvy investor would do. Only when it's too late do you discover that you're out $9,000 … and didn't even know it!

It's an investor's worst nightmare, and it happened to one of my readers. She told me that she had been putting money away into a Roth IRA for 10 years but never selected funds to allocate her money toward!

Instead, she treated the IRA as a glorified savings account and missed 10 years of investment growth with compound interest.

The worst part? The $3,000 she "invested" could have been worth more than $12,000 today. That's a difference of $9,000 — and because it's a Roth IRA, those earnings would have been tax-free.

The mistake is not entirely her fault, though. Very few experts are crystal-clear in telling you that you need to actually invest your money when you have a Roth IRA, or will even explain to you the differences between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. (The former allows you to invest pre-tax and the latter is after-tax, so depending on your circumstances it can give you a better deal on your investment.)

The good news is that it's not too hard. You shouldn't have to be a financial expert to have your money do the right thing, just like I shouldn't have to understand how a carburetor works to drive my car.

If you already have an IRA, that's a great first step, but remember that a Roth IRA is just an account. Once your money is in there, you have to start investing in different funds to see your money grow. I love target-date funds for most investors.

You want to invest your money without thinking too much about it.

However, if you don't have one yet for whatever reason, that's a good place to start investing as early as you can. When it comes to an IRA, look for the following:

Low fees and minimums: Many reputable companies, like Vanguard, require a minimum of $1,000 or $3,000 to open an IRA, and you can also find options where you can start with even less. Compare the minimums required before you open the investment account. And look at fees, too: They should generally be minimal and can, under certain circumstances, be waived.

Automation: You want to invest your money without thinking too much about it so that you minimize the pain of investing every month and earn money passively. Most companies allow you to automatically transfer money out of your checking account each month and put it in the appropriate funds.

Helpful features: Consider what's important to you. Maybe you want …

  • 24/7 customer service with reputable fiduciaries that can answer your questions and concerns
  • An easy-to-use modern interface for managing your accounts online

You should absolutely be thinking about these things when choosing where to open your IRA, but the most important thing is that you just pick one and get started.

Don't miss: This 28-year-old unintentionally accrued $50,000 in debt—here's how he's paying it off

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