Getting Started with a Self-Directed IRA When Your Nest Egg is Small

While you might have been initially drawn to a self-directed IRA because of the investment flexibility that this account type offers when compared to IRAs with traditional custodians (e.g., being able to invest in precious metals, and real estate, and private companies), it’s true in all areas of investing that not every investment option is suitable for every investor.

Precious Metals. One way that this quickly becomes apparent is with respect to investing in precious metals. Investing in bullion or investment grade coins can be a great way to diversify and hedge your other investments, but it’s significantly more expensive than more straightforward investments like publically traded stocks. And some of these expenses are baseline fees to get started, regardless of the size of your investment.

Make the Maximum Contributions Every Year. When your self-directed IRA balance is relatively small, it’s vital that you make the maximum contributions to your account each and every year. If you fail to make the maximum contribution in any given tax year (the contribution limit for the 2015 filing period is $5,500, with an additional $1,000 allowed for taxpayers age 50 and over), you won’t be able to make up for that lost opportunity in later years. Once the chance to make the maximum deposit has passed, it’s gone forever.

Consider Maintaining Two Accounts. It’s a common misconception, but taxpayers are not limited to having a single IRA. In fact, it can be good practice to maintain both a traditional self-directed IRA as well as a Roth self-directed IRA, and then decide where to make your deposits each year based on the tax deduction advantages you might be able to get from contributing to the traditional account. The key is to deposit the maximum each year, regardless of the self-directed IRA you choose. And remember that it’s always possible to convert a traditional self-directed IRA to a Roth account whenever you decide that you only want or need a single account.

Does Small Mean Little Investment Experience? If your nest egg is relatively small because you’re just starting out with your retirement savings and don’t have a lot of investing experience, then don’t feel pressured to start investing in the most complicated and advanced investment types right away. Even though the self-directed IRA structure permits investments in a wide range of investments, you’re still free to choose investments that you have more experience and familiarity with.

Use 401(k) Rollovers. Finally, another way to grow your self-directed IRA is through the use of rollovers. Whenever you leave an employer, you’re permitted to roll over the funds you’ve accumulated in your 401(k) to an IRA. Because many individuals are permitted to contribute to both 401(k)s and IRAs, this can be a great technique for building as large of a nest egg as possible.

Why It’s Important To Coordinate Your Taxable Investments With Your Self-Directed IRA Investments

Your self-directed IRA can save you a lot of money in taxes, both in the short term as well as in the long run. If your IRA is set up as a traditional account, then (depending on certain aspects of your financial position) you may be able to take a tax deduction for those contributions. And contributions in traditional IRAs will grow on a tax-deferred basis, while the investment gains within a Roth IRA will never be subject to taxation. Many individuals are well-versed with the various tax implications on this level.

But there’s another perspective from which you may want to consider your self-directed IRA tax analysis, and this is the way that your taxable investment accounts, and investment decisions, can impact your self-directed IRA investments.

Let’s first examine just how valuable your self-directed IRA can be. Consider two hypothetical portfolios of $100,000, one a taxable account and the other a self-directed IRA. Let’s further assume that each portfolio is comprised of stock that pays dividends at a 3% rate annually (with those dividends being reinvested), and that the stock price appreciates 5% annually.

At the end of 25 years, the value of the taxable account would be approximately $525,000, while the self-directed IRA is worth over $630,000. This difference in value is attributable solely to the fact that the owner of the taxable account has to pay taxes on the dividends they receive, even if they choose to reinvest those dividends.

If the self-directed IRA is a traditional account, then you will have to pay taxes on those gains, but they’re likely to be at a lower tax rate (because you’re in retirement and perhaps no longer working full time), and they’ll only be taxed when you take the distribution. If your account is a Roth IRA, then you’ll realize the full value of the investment gains.

So one common tax optimization strategy is for an individual to place income-generating investments that would otherwise incur a tax liability into an IRA in order to avoid that liability.

On the other side of the equation, it’s important to note that there are certain tax advantages that are actually disallowed within an IRA. For example, investment interest (such as borrowing funds to purchase a stock investment, or taking out a mortgage to buy a piece of real estate) can be used to offset gains in a traditional account. But borrowing funds is considered to be outside the scope of permissible activities for self-directed IRAs, and the tax benefit of those expenses will be lost inside the retirement account.

It’s the same situation for investments that have tax advantages built in, such as municipal bonds. Because these investments would already be tax-advantaged outside of an IRA, there’s no reason (and it’s actually a missed financial opportunity) to keep these types of assets inside a retirement account.

Understanding the interplay between your taxable investment accounts and your self-directed IRA will put you in the best position to make the optimal investment decisions.

Increase Your Private Investment Allocation With Your Self-Directed IRA

Individual retirement accounts are perhaps the single most powerful tool you have in your retirement planning arsenal. You have greater control and flexibility over your retirement funds as compared to an employer-sponsored 401(k), and a Roth IRA can provide significant benefits for tax savings and estate planning purposes.

Self-directed IRAs take things a step further. Having an account with a custodian such as Quest Trust Company will allow you to invest in an even wider range of asset types, including a variety of private investments. Here are some ways to increase your portfolio allocation into these investment types by using a self-directed IRA.

Private Mortgages. Regardless of the state of the economy, people are always going to want (or need) to buy and sell homes. The IRS regulations permit you to use a self-directed IRA in order to issue private mortgages. Provided you understand the process fully, follow all legal requirements and evaluate your risks accordingly, you may find this to be a significant boost to your portfolio.

In fact, when prevailing interest rates increase and it becomes more difficult for the average home buyer to get a loan from a bank, you may have even more opportunities for making private mortgages.

Private Equity. Similarly, a self-directed IRA can be used to make private equity investments as well. Depending on the size of your portfolio and your overall financial situation, this can be a way to gain a completely unique risk/reward exposure that wouldn’t be available in any other investment you could make.

Some private equity investments will require that the investor be a so-called “accredited investor”. This is a legal term defined by the SEC to mean a person who either (1) has a net worth of at least $1,000,000 (not including the value of their primary residence), or (2) has an annual income of at least $200,000 over each of the last two years (or has a joint income of $300,000 in each year with their spouse) and a reasonable expectation to achieve the same income this year.

Note that even if you’re looking to invest with your self-directed IRA and your account meets these standards, you’ll still need to meet those standards individually.

Private Partnership Interests. You can use your self-directed IRA to invest in various types of private partnerships. These may include traditional businesses as well as natural resources development opportunities such as those that can be found in the oil and gas industries.

Remember that when you invest your self-directed IRA in a private partnership, you’re prohibited from benefitting from it individually while the investment is still held within your account. So if the partnership invests in vacation real estate properties, neither you nor your family or any other related parties can stay in the property while you’re still invested.

Regardless of the private investments you’re considering making, be sure to do your research and understand all the risks before you commit your account funds.

Does My Level of Retirement Savings Justify a Self-Directed IRA?

A self-directed IRA can form the foundation of anyone’s long-term retirement savings plan. With a self-directed IRA at a custodian such as Quest Trust Company you can invest in a far wider range of asset types and classes than you could with a traditional IRA.

But because some individuals use their self-directed IRAs to purchase investments such as real estate, it leads some to wonder whether having that particular type of account only makes sense for retirement savers who have high levels of savings. In short, the answer is “no.” Just about anyone can benefit from a self-directed IRA – let’s examine the reasons why.

Self-Directed IRAs are Flexible.

As noted above, self-directed IRAs provide you with the greatest number of options in terms of the kinds of investments you can make for retirement. Savers with relatively small account balances can still benefit from this flexibility. It’s true that you can use a self-directed IRA to make large-scale investments in real estate, such as apartment buildings or commercial developments.

But you can also make investments in much smaller properties, including those in the lower price ranges. Furthermore, you can use your funds within a self-directed IRA to gain exposure to the real estate market in other ways as well, including by issuing mortgages or loans to home buyers.

In addition, the fact that there are a wider range of investment options available in a self-directed IRA doesn’t mean that you can only make those types of investments. If your account balance is still relatively small and hasn’t yet grown to the point where you can comfortably make investments in real estate or private equity, you can still invest in stocks, mutual funds, and more traditional asset classes.

Self-Directed IRAs Can Grow With You

Over time, with maximum annual contributions and good investment decisions, the balance in your self-directed IRA will grow. This will open up new investment opportunities to you over time.

A Self-Directed IRA Can Focus Your Saving Strategy

In fact, having a self-directed IRA can give you a focal point for your retirement investing. Rather than allowing your retirement nest egg to be spread out over multiple IRAs, 401(k)s and other accounts, you can make your self-directed IRA the primary account in your retirement savings strategy. You can roll other accounts into your self-directed IRA, and prioritize making maximum annual contributions to it. This helps your account balance grow much more quickly.

Remember that your self-directed IRA exists to help you pay for a retirement that still may be several decades down the road. By its very nature, your account is always looking forward. You should have that same attitude when it comes to your investment strategy and choice of IRA custodian. Small account balances are still appropriate for a self-directed IRA, and they keep you the greatest flexibility as your account balance grows.