Saving for retirement is essential, and an IRA can be the best way to invest exactly how you want in order to build your retirement nest egg. The beginning of the year is a good time to assess your IRA options and consider new strategies to maximize their potential. By considering just a few simple moves, you can make sure that your IRA is working as hard as it can for you.
1. Get old 401(k) money into an IRA.
If you have money in a 401(k) with a former employer, it almost always makes sense to roll that money over to an IRA. IRAs give you complete flexibility to choose whatever investments you like, freeing you from the limitations of the set investment menus that most 401(k) plans have. Moreover, many 401(k) investment options have high expenses, and by getting that money into an IRA, you can cut your costs and keep more of your returns for yourself.
The exception to this rule is if your old 401(k) offers a low-cost investing option that you won't have access to outside the plan. For instance, some 401(k)s own institutional share classes of mutual funds that have lower costs than the retail funds available in standard IRAs. Unless that or similar special considerations apply, an IRA rollover is a smart move that can improve your returns.
2. Look at a Roth conversion.
Those who have most or all of their retirement money in traditional IRAs should take a closer look at the opportunity to convert a portion of their savings into a Roth IRA. The benefit of a Roth conversion is that any future appreciation on your investments is tax-free, even when you withdraw money from the account in retirement. The trade-off is that you have to pay taxes on the amount that you convert in the year of the conversion, so doing a Roth conversion now would boost your tax bill for the 2016 tax year.
Stock market corrections are a great time to consider a Roth conversion, because the amount of tax you'll pay is less than it would be at market highs. For example, if you own a stock that has fallen 50% and you think it will get back to where it was, then a partial Roth conversion would let you pay tax based on the current depressed price and then shelter the future rebound from tax entirely. Even if you only convert small amounts of your retirement money to Roth IRAs, having some tax diversification among your retirement assets can make financial planning easier in retirement.
3. Get yourself back in balance.
Like the rest of your investing portfolio, it's important with IRAs to have target allocations to various types of investment assets and then to make sure you stick with them. Over the course of the long bull market, many retirement investors have found that their stocks have risen in value so much that their portfolios are now much more stock-heavy than they had ever intended. That can leave you overexposed to inevitable downturns in the market like the one we've seen recently.
The remedy is to rebalance your IRA periodically by selling portions of the positions that have climbed the most in price and then buying assets that have fallen or not risen as much. You don't have to rebalance all the time, but in an IRA, you don't have to worry about the tax consequences of sales and purchases, and so there's no reason not to rebalance whenever you feel inclined. At a minimum, annual rebalancing is generally advisable to make sure that your asset allocations never get too far out of whack.
An IRA can be the most important weapon in your retirement-saving arsenal, so make sure you use it to its full advantage. These three steps can be a great start to ensuring that your IRA will help you reach all your financial goals in retirement.
Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.