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.

The Basic Relationship Between Social Security Benefits And Your Self-Directed IRA

Regardless of whether you envision Social Security to be a significant component of your retirement income, or simply a helpful supplement to your self-directed IRA, it’s important to understand how the two are related. The timing and nature of distributions you take from a self-directed IRA can impact the size of your Social Security benefits, as well as the income taxes you may have to pay on those benefits.

First things first. Under current law, your eligibility to receive Social Security retirement benefits, and the amount of those benefits, is a function of your prior work experience and earnings, not how much you have saved. In other words, having a large self-directed IRA or taking significant distributions from your account during retirement won’t make you ineligible for Social Security benefits.

However, those distributions may impact the taxability of the Social Security benefits you receive. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind when you’re planning your retirement income strategy that you control when you begin receiving Social Security retirement benefits (anywhere between age 62 and age 70), and you control when you begin taking distributions from your self-directed IRA – with no limit for Roth account, and required minimum withdrawals from a traditional account kicking in at age 70½.

Early Retirement Scenarios.

Individuals who choose to retire early and begin taking their Social Security retirement benefits before their full retirement age can see those benefits reduced if their earned income exceeds a certain amount. (For 2015, this amount is $15,720.) In short, the Social Security Administration withholds one dollar in benefits for every two dollars and earnings above the this amount, and even more for earnings that are significantly higher. Distributions you take from your self-directed IRA are not considered “earned income,” and therefore do not count against this limitation.

However, when the IRS determines whether your Social Security benefits are subject to income tax, they look to your “combined income,” which will include distributions you take from any IRA that’s set up as a traditional account.

Roth Self-Directed IRA Benefits.

Significantly, distributions from your Roth IRA will not affect your Social Security benefits in any way. Just as is the case with traditional IRAs, they are not considered earned income by the Social Security administration for purposes of calculating your benefits in an early retirement scenario. In addition, they are excluded from the definition of “combined income” when considering the taxability of those Social Security benefits.

Distribution Strategies.

Given that your Social Security benefits will be increased the longer you wait to take them (with the deferred retirement credits increasing up to age 70), some individuals can maximize their total retirement income by waiting as long as possible to take Social Security, and taking distributions from their self-directed IRA in order to fund retirement living expenses. The analysis is highly individualized, and you’ll have even more options to consider if you are married and your spouse is also eligible for Social Security benefits.

But remember that you’ll only put yourself in a stronger financial position by maxing out your self-directed IRA contributions each and every year, and trying to build the largest account possible.

Real Estate Alternatives to Consider With Your Self-Directed IRA

Real estate is one of more popular types of investments that retirement savers choose to make with their self-directed IRAs. Custodians who offer self-directed IRAs, such as Quest Trust Company, offer also offer many other legally permissible investment options that other traditional custodians don’t offer, and which allow individuals the greatest ability to apply their investment philosophy to their retirement savings.

But direct investments in real estate might not be suitable for every investor’s portfolio or investment profile. The key to successful investing, whether in the context of retirement planning or even general investing, is to find investments that are suited to your needs and to your investment approach. Fortunately, there are ways to invest in real estate assets without having to meet the administrative challenges of managing direct real estate holdings.

Real Estate Investment Trusts

One option for being able to invest in real estate without having to take on the risk of doing so directly is to purchase shares of a so-called “real estate investment trust” or “REIT.”

A real estate investment trust is an actively managed trust that itself invests in real estate of various types. Shares of a REIT are generally traded like shares of stock on the major exchanges, and are typically structured and operated in order to receive special tax breaks – the most significant of these is that the REIT offers high yield to investors. For investors who are looking for current income, REITs can be a great option.

Most REITs are generally focused on a particular type of property (such as multifamily residential or commercial) or real estate mortgages. But there are some REITs that try to take a hybrid approach by investing in physical properties as well as mortgages.

Investment Partnerships

Another way to invest in real estate without having to hold property is to commit a portion of your portfolio to private investment partnerships that focus on real estate investments. Rather than buying property yourself, you are buying an interest in an investment partnership that has its own administrative structure in place to buy and manage properties for the benefit of the partners. While you’ll likely be able to vote on many of the decisions he investment partnership makes, it’s vitally important that you are comfortable with the partnership management structure that’s in place.

Private Mortgage Lending

When you have a self-directed IRA you can make private loans as another type of investment. You’ll probably want to stick to loans that are secured (meaning that the borrower pledges collateral that you can take possession of if they fail to meet their loan repayment obligations), and this includes private mortgage lending. This is yet another way to invest in real estate alternative investments and not have to hold property directly.

The term “real estate” means a specific type of investment class to many investors. There are in fact a wide range of real estate alternatives that you can invest in with your self-directed IRA without having to hold property directly.