Most of us change jobs every few years. When we do, we often need to decide what to do with our 401(k) money -- move it into our new employer's 401(k) plan, roll it over into an IRA, or just leave it alone in the care of our previous employer. Despite the possible drawbacks and alternatives, an IRA rollover can sometimes be your smartest choice.

Just to play devil's advocate…
Whatever you do, don't simply cash out your 401(k) when you leave a job. You'll lose a fat chunk of your accumulated savings to taxes right off the bat. Whatever short-term windfall the remaining cash provides will pale in comparison to the amount that money could yield in retirement if you leave it alone to compound over time.

Rolling your old 401(k) money into your new company's plan can make sense, if the plan offers appealing investment choices and low fees. It can also be a good move if your balance is very low, since you may not be able to diversify just $1,000 or $2,000 well in other accounts.

In addition, a 401(k) plan can better shield your assets from creditor in pursuit. A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted IRA consultant Ed Slott: "While federal law shields the assets in 401(k) plans from a variety of claims, it only safeguards IRA assets in cases involving bankruptcies." Some states add protections for IRAs, but many don't.

Another benefit of staying in a 401(k) plan is that investors 55 or older can often withdraw funds from a 401(k) penalty-free, while IRAs force owners to wait until age 59 1/2 to avoid a 10% penalty for taking money out early.

Protection from creditors and penalty-free withdrawals are worth considering. But for the many of us who don't expect to have creditors dogging us, or who don't anticipate needing to borrow from our accounts, they're ultimately irrelevant.

Why an IRA might work for you
In many, if not most, cases, it's best to go ahead and roll over your money into an IRA. You can do so into a traditional IRA rather effortlessly. Establishing a Roth IRA with that money is tougher, since you'll have to pay taxes on the rollover amount -- but given that Roth withdrawals are designed to ultimately be tax-free, paying the taxes can be well worth it.

A chief benefit of the IRA is its flexibility. Whereas 401(k)s limit your investment options considerably, you can park all kinds of things in your IRA -- such as individual stocks, bonds, and even, in some cases, real estate.

And even when the fees in your current or prospective 401(k) plan are low, chances are that the fees you'll pay for investments in your IRA will be as low or lower. When purchased in an individual brokerage account, many index funds and exchange-traded funds sport expense ratios (annual fees) of just 0.10% or less. It's hard to beat that anywhere.

What kinds of investments should you choose?
Be strategic with your IRA. It's a great place to store hefty dividend payers, the better to shield them from taxes. Those dividends can become a rather reliable source of growth and income. Tobacco giant Altria (NYSE: MO) recently paid a 5.6% yield, while utility specialist National Grid (NYSE: NGG) had a trailing yield of 5.5%. Those rates far surpass most rates on savings, and you can expect stock-price appreciation on top of them over the long haul.

Real estate investment trusts, or REITs, also deserve consideration. Since they pay out 90% or more of their earnings in dividends, they can especially benefit from the tax benefits of IRAs. Chimera Investment (NYSE: CIM) recently yielded more than 14%!

Fast-growing stocks also make great candidates for an IRA, especially a Roth IRA. Our Motley Fool Rule Breakers service studies such companies exclusively. Among others, the service recommends Universal Display (Nasdaq: PANL), with an average annual revenue growth rate of 20% over the past five years, and expected annual earnings growth of 40% over the coming five years. Universal Display supplies organic light emitting diode (OLED) technologies and materials to the flat-panel display industry.

To appreciate how a Roth IRA can bolster high-performing investments, look at Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold (NYSE: FCX). In addition to a bright potential future fueled by growing global demand for minerals, it's enjoyed years of strong growth. Over the last decade, its stock averaged 23.8% annual growth, enough to turn a $10,000 investment into more than $84,000. If that were taxed at 15%, you'd fork over more than $11,000. In a Roth IRA, though, you'd keep that sum.

ETFs rule
Powerful exchange-traded funds make another great IRA holding. The best of them give you instant exposure to wide swaths of the domestic or global economy, all for a low fee. The Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets (NYSE: VWO) ETF, for example, invests you in small and large companies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Vanguard Total Stock Market (NYSE: VTI) is a compelling investment because it parks you in the entire stock market, setting you up to outperform thousands of managed mutual funds.

If you're close to retirement, holding bonds in your IRA can make sense, shielding you from hefty tax rates -- especially if you're in a high income bracket. You can achieve that easily with bond ETFs such as the iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond Index.

Lots of choices
Just as your 401(k) offered you a range of mutual funds, you can invest in funds in your IRA, too, with a much greater variety of choices. Sure, some might charge higher fees than ETFs and other funds -- but sometimes a higher fee can accompany much greater performance. And when a fund engages in frequent trading, that turnover can result in higher taxes -- which your handy IRA can defer or avoid altogether.

In short, if you don't want to roll over your 401(k) into your new employer's plan, look into moving it into an IRA. You may end up very glad you did.

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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.