One of the biggest advantages IRAs have over employer sponsored retirement plans is that IRAs generally offer far more choices in terms of what's available for you to buy. Of course, that advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage if analysis paralysis  sets in and keeps you from making a decent decision in a timely manner.

A good way to get past that risk is to first think about what your strategy is and then find low-cost ETFs that align with your strategy. ETFs generally offer a collection of companies to help mitigate single-company risk while still seeking to deliver on their stated objectives. That feature, along with low overhead costs, make these three ETFs perfect to consider to grow your IRA over time.

investor looking at a rising stack of coins.

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Buy the Market

Why get fancy? A straightforward investing approach of buying a passively managed fund that seeks to match the index it tracks has consistently beaten investing in most actively managed mutual funds over time. That's what makes the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index ETF (NYSEMKT:VTI) an attractive ETF to consider. The fund seeks to match the performance of the total U.S. stock market  while only charging a mere 0.03% expense ratio.

That low expense ratio is a key to how the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index ETF has a legitimate chance of beating actively managed funds over time. After all, from an investor's point of view, a fund has to beat its benchmark by enough to cover its costs before that investor sees additional returns from that investment. Since the market's performance as a whole is made up of the performance of all its participants, it's structurally difficult for the majority of actively managed funds to beat the average.

While there are no absolute guarantees that passive indexing will continue to beat active fund management, that structural cost component is a difficult hurdle to overcome. That provides a good reason to believe the trend can continue over time.

They're not making more land

As the old saying goes, they're not making any more land. That has been one of the most consistent refrains of real estate investors for quite some time. If you've been bitten by the real estate bug, why not invest in a low-cost real-estate-focused index ETF? The Vanguard Real Estate Index ETF (NYSEMKT:VNQ) fits that bill. The Vanguard Real Estate Index ETF carries with it a pretty small 0.12% expense ratio and seeks to track an index of U.S.-based investable market real estate. 

In addition to the potential for growth, real estate tends to be an income-focused investment. On that front, the Vanguard Real Estate Index ETF does not disappoint, currently offering investors a decent 3.5% yield. In normal times, that may not seem like all that much, but in an era when even 30-year Treasury bonds yield less than 2.3%, that's around 55% more potential income per dollar invested.

Add the possibility of long-term growth to the income, and the total return potential looks decent. Remember that since this is an investment inside your IRA, the money will compound tax-deferred until you withdraw it in retirement. As a result, whether your return comes from growth or from dividends, that return will compound tax deferred until you withdraw it in retirement.

Compound it all that much faster

One strategy that people follow when it comes to planning for their retirement is to try to build up passive income until it covers their costs of living. When it comes to dividend-paying stocks, there are two ways to get there: Look to own more shares of them, or focus on owning ones that have the potential of increasing their dividends over time.

It's that quest for a rising income stream that makes the Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF (NYSEMKT:VIG) such a compelling potential investment. The Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF seeks to replicate an index of companies that have track records of increasing their dividends over time. If you buy that ETF inside your IRA and set your dividends to reinvest, you'll potentially have the chance to benefit from both sources of compounding -- owning more shares and getting higher dividends over time.

The Vanguard Dividend Appreciation ETF offers that potential with a mere 0.06% expense ratio. That means investors get virtually all the benefits of owning the underlying companies, with almost no overhead. Of course, dividends are never guaranteed payments, but companies with long histories of increasing their dividends often try to keep that streak going. That gives a reason to believe the trend could continue.

Make your choice and get investing

Whether you're looking to essentially match the market over time, try your hand at real estate, or seek out a rising income stream, these ETFs offer you a low-cost opportunity to follow those strategies. No matter how you choose to invest your money, having a low-cost, decent strategy that you can keep investing in for the long haul is a great formula for long term success. So get started now, and improve your IRA's chances of providing a great financial foundation for your retirement.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.