How to open a Roth IRA

My good friend Kimberlyn and I were talking about personal finance at a party (what else? I am a really fun party guest). Kimberlyn told me that when she was in college she had a professor who told everyone they should open up a Roth IRA immediately. Kimberlyn’s amazing response?

I couldn’t even afford crackers, how was I supposed to save for retirement?

I hear ya, Kimberlyn. Not only is it pretty intimidating to open up a new type of money account for the first time, but you were told to do it when you had no ca$h money at all. I worked two jobs in college and I was still super broke- it’s not an easy time, financially, and it is hard to think about saving long term when you are buying store brand saltines.

But Kimberlyn’s professor was right, starting a Roth IRA as early as possible will pay off hugely in the long run (because of compound interest. Do I sound like a broken record yet?)

I opened my Roth IRA in 2010 when I was living in a double wide trailer making about $1200 a month. If I managed to do it, you can do it, too!

Lots of Roth IRAs have a minimum deposit of $1000-$3000 before you can even open an account. I have (to this day) never had $1000-$3000 sitting around, and you better believe that double wide lifestyle was never going to allow me to save up $1000 to get started. Luckily, I found an easier way to get started.

At the time, ING Direct had a program that allowed you to put in  $50 a month as long as you set up automatic deposits. I had $50 a month, I already loved automatic deposits- boom! Roth IRA was set up and my compound interest makes me happy every day! $50 a month= $600 a year, which is not a ton of money, but that cashola has grown quite a bit! I didn’t have time or the money to muck around with trading stocks and paying fees (“um, I would like to buy 1 share of stock X for $14. Oh the fee to trade is $6 per transaction? Huh.”), so I chose to put all of my money into the 2050 retirement fund and I stick to it. The 2050 retirement fund is a plan already set up by ING Direct that invests my money more aggressively (aka, takes more risks) now, because I am young. When I get closer to retirement (in 2050…the year I will be 65) the money will be moved over to more conservative investments. I don’t have to do anything at all!


The bad news: ING Direct is now Capital One. And they don’t offer the awesome $50/month sign up deal anymore…so you guys can’t copy what I did exactly.

The good news: I will still tell you how to open a Roth IRA without needing $1000-$3000 in your piggy bank.

TD Ameritrade has no minimum and no annual fees (I HATE fees!) and they have a number of funds that you can trade around for free, if you are into that sort of thing. You can still set up automatic $50 (or $5…whatever you can afford) deposits, so it is kind of like you can do exactly what I did four years later!

It is worth it to give it a whirl. Start with an amount you won’t miss. I like to think of the money I invest as “night out equivalents.” If I went out for dinner and to a movie twice a month, that would cost me (more than) $50. I think it is snugglier (and cheaper) to make homemade (or frozen) pizza, buy a 6 pack, and rent a Redbox to watch with friends on the couch twice a month. Look at that! I saved for retirement!

Remember that unlike savings account it is not risk-free. But, you will have access to the original capital you put in at any time without penalty, so it’s like a secret emergency savings account. However, you will not see your money benefit from compound interest if you don’t take risks with it, and it is nearly impossible for the average Joe to retire if he has not invested his ca$h.

There you go! How to open a Roth IRA (relatively) painlessly. It will pay off tenfold when you are ready to retire, so it is worth it to get started now!



Things I just Learned about Taxes

Hi readers!

As you might guess, I filed my taxes this weekend. I also have had some big life changes. I am no longer funemployed! My job was supposed to start today but we are having a good old fashioned snow day instead! Kind of a bummer, but now I get to tell you about some of the things that I just learned about taxes.

Along with my new job comes some new benefits. I had to decide on my benefits this weekend, too, so I now have many more thoughts about that.

The first thing I learned was a little bit about how to work the tax system (thanks, Mom!). You know how I told you all that 401k’s are tax deferred? Meaning, you pay taxes on them when you are ready to retire, but you don’t pay taxes on the money now? Here are a few new things that I just learned.

  1. You pay taxes on the amount in your retirement not based on the amount of money you made the last year you worked (ideally, this will be a gazillion dollars) but on the amount of money you take out of your retirement each year when you are retired (ideally, this will not be a gazillion dollars). Therefore, you will pay taxes during retirement based on the tax bracket of someone with your “retirement income.” Which may or may not be lower than your income is now, but you have control over how much you take out, and therefore you can control which tax bracket you are in when you retire.
  2.  You can LOOK UP tax brackets and do the calculations yourself. This may sound like the most obvious thing in the world to some of you, but taxes have always been a big mystery to me and I didn’t realize it can be simple to estimate your taxes. I’m really smart, I swear! I just don’t like taxes.
  3. Because you don’t pay income tax on tax-deferred savings, you are able to put more money into your investments at the start (and you can look up how much more, depending on your tax bracket). This means more money (like, 25-30% more…not insignificant) will be subjected to compound interest from the get-go. So your end result will be much higher than if you had paid taxes on the same amount at the beginning (like for a Roth IRA). Don’t forget that you have to pay taxes when you withdraw your funds, though. There is no escaping Uncle Sam, but you can decide how and when you want to pay those taxes.
  4. When you put money into tax deferred accounts, you can actually calculate the amount of money you will be saving in taxes, so it is a little easier to choose how much to save. For example:

Say I make $80,000 per year. I am able to invest up to 5% into my 401k ($4000). Not only am I getting compound interest (like a boss), but I also am spending less on taxes! Here is the math (based on the 2014 tax schedule):

Taxable income Amount invested Amount owed in taxes Difference from no investment Summary
Without investing in 401k  $80,000  $-  $15,856  n/a $0 invested, $0 tax savings
Investing 2.5% in 401k  $78,000  $2,000  $15,356  $500 $2k invested, $500 tax savings
Investing 5% in 401k  $76,000  $4,000  $14,856  $1,000 $4k invested, $1k tax savings

It is a bit of a balancing act: if you put more into your 401k, you have less cash to spend today, but you also save on taxes (which you can spend before you retire). If you can afford to contribute the maximum into your 401k, you get compound interest, but you also pay less in taxes.

Hopefully this was obvious to all of you, but I had not thought of tax deferred investments as a tool to decrease your tax load (probably because I have never had benefits before….), but there you are- an added benefit to saving for retirement!

The Power of Compound Interest

A reminder to my readers:

Compound interest is truly amazing. Compound interest is when your interest starts earning interest, and your investments grow like crazy!

In case you didn’t believe me the first time I wrote about it, here is a visual from my investments.

Since March of 2010, I have been investing $50 a month in my Roth IRA. That is $600 a year- not even a month’s rent for me. Four years of investing $600 a year= $2400 invested. Not a whole lot. Less than dinner and a movie once a month.

But…please look at the amount of compound interest I have earned. The gray line is the amount I initially put in, and the green line is the amount I have earned in interest.

Compound Interest at Work!
Compound Interest at Work!

If you eyeball it, you will notice my investment is worth about a third more than I put in out of my own money. See how the green part is growing bigger and bigger and bigger relative to the gray part? That is compound interest! (The dips are just market variations, I don’t worry about those because I don’t need this money for a long time). This picture is only showing one year’s worth of growth- so imagine what the growth will look like when I retire in 37 years!

I’ll send you a picture of my compound interest when I retire from my tropical island.

Saving for Retirement without a 401k

So far in my life, I have had some pretty stellar jobs (one year I wrote “shark wrestler” when describing my job to the IRS on my tax forms).

Stellar jobs, yes…but so far no 401k has come my way. I am very aware that investing early will lead to much more wealth in retirement because of the miracle of compound interest. I don’t want to miss out on that extra giant pot of money, but how are you supposed to save for retirement without a job that gives you benefits?

The answer is a Roth IRA. It is named after Senator William Roth (DE), who led the fight to help create this awesome savings tool. IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account. Not so tricky!

A Roth IRA is the best choice for twentysomethings. A Roth IRA is a diversified set of investments (similar to a 401k in this way), but the biggest difference between a Roth IRA and a 401k is that a 401k is funded with pre-tax money, and then you are taxed when you take the funds out. A Roth IRA is funded with money you have already paid taxes on. You let the ca$h money sit in there for at least 5 years, and when you take the money out (as long as you are older than 59 1/2) YOU DO NOT HAVE TO PAY ANY TAXES ON IT. NONE. You don’t even have to pay taxes on the compound interest that you have earned. This is an awesome deal!

There is also something called a traditional IRA, but if you are young and expect to make a ton in compound interest (which you do)- then go for a Roth IRA. A traditional IRA is funded by money that is not taxed when you put it in, but when you take the money out you pay normal income tax.

I am a full-fledged Roth IRA fan but there are (very few) reasons why you would choose a traditional IRA instead.

  • Roth IRAs have income limits. If you make over $95k individually or $150k as a couple, you can’t get a Roth IRA. So go with traditional.
  • If you are making a lot of ca$h money now, but you expect to be in a lower income bracket when you retire, you can save on your tax bill by not paying taxes on your investment now (in the higher bracket) and paying them later (when you retire). If you are in your 20s, however, your interest should be massive and you will pay a lot of taxes on that interest (and also can you say for certain what kind of money you will be making when you retire? Please. Just go for the Roth IRA)

Are you convinced a Roth IRA is an excellent choice? Me too. Here are some things to know:

  • In 2014, you can contribute up to $5,500 to your Roth IRA each year. The more you invest at an early age, the better your compound interest will treat you!
  • If you are married, both you and your spouse can have a Roth IRA even if you only have one income (which means double the potential for investing!)
  • You can always take out the initial contribution that you had invested without penalty. This makes the Roth IRA kind of like a secret savings account for yourself- except compound interest is so good I do not recommend that you do this except in extreme emergencies (you have already tapped out all of your other savings accounts)
  • You can set up your Roth IRA to automatically reduce the risk in your portfolio as you get closer to retirement, so you don’t even have to worry about anything. I just picked that option when I opened my Roth IRA and I don’t ever have to fiddle with it (unless I want to, of course!). Extremely low maintenance.

If you want to take out more than your initial contribution (the interest that your money has earned) you will pay a 10% penalty if you are not 59 1/2 yet unless you are taking it out for any of the following reasons:

  • Educational expenses
  • Medical expenses that are over 7.5% of your adjusted gross income
  • First time homebuyers can take out up to $10,000
  • Costs of a sudden disability

So you still have access to all of this money in case of a big emergency. However, if you spend your retirement what will you do when you retire? Also, remember that each $1000 you put in today could be worth over $10k when it is time to retire. I don’t want to rob my future self of that easy money! I pretend that the money is GONE and I have promised myself that I am not touching it. It does make me feel better, though, to have a source of backup funds just in case all of my other financial strategies get tapped out.

Stay tuned for next time- we can talk about HOW you actually set one of these suckers up.

The 401k…aka FREE MONEY.

“I would never sign up for a 401k because there is no way I can run that far.”- my hilarious boyfriend

Back in the day, almost all companies provided their employees with a pension. This meant that after they retired, the retirees would get a certain percentage of their former salary (usually 50%) every year until they kicked the bucket. As you can imagine, a pension is a pretty desirable thing to have because you never have to worry about running out of money!

But then. People started living longer. Which meant that it was costing companies a lot more to provide pensions to their employees. So nowadays it is extremely hard to find a job that will give you a pension (except for military, firefighters and policemen and a few other jobs). If you have a pension coming to you, YOU ARE THE RETIREMENT WINNER. DON’T QUIT YOUR JOB.

Everyone else who gets retirement benefits from their company probably have a 401k. The name 401k comes from a tax code, which is boring and kind of confusing (my boyfriend is still lacing up his running shoes), so from now on I will be referring to a 401k as what it really is and that is FREE MONEY (well, it’s a little more complicated but there is free money involved, so let’s just call it that.)

401k FREE MONEY is meant as an alternative to pensions to help you save for retirement. They are investment plans that usually include a broad portfolio of investments including stocks, bonds and money market investments. Here are a few basic pieces of info about 401k FREE MONEY:

  • 401k are called FREE MONEY (by me) because when you invest in a 401k FREE MONEY, most companies will match your contribution up to a certain percentage of your income (usually 3%).  So, if you make $100,000 a year and you invest $3,000 per year in your 401k FREE MONEY, your company will also put $3,000 into your retirement. That means that you now have $6,000 in your retirement (but you only paid for $3,000). Your company is really paying you $103,000 per year instead of $100,000 (you just got a raise even though you can’t access it yet!) This is why it is called free money. Because it is money. That is free. You don’t have to do anything except sign up for it (which you should do IMMEDIATELY).
  • 401k FREE MONEY has an added benefit for those of us who love automation, and that is that your contribution to your 401k FREE MONEY is pre-taxed and it is automatic. You never get the money in  your bank account so you will never be tempted to spend it.
  • You can usually contribute more than your company’s match (this is recommended unless you are drowning in debt or you have super tight finances).
  • If you are paying off high interest debt (most likely credit card debt), deciding whether to contribute to a 401k FREE MONEY or to pay down your debt can be tricky. You should still be putting in enough to take full advantage of your company’s match policy (it’s like earning 100% plus some extra interest on your 401k FREE MONEY, kids! That is a much better rate than whatever your credit card is charging you). You may want to hold off on investing more than the matched amount until your debt is managed.
  • Your 401k  FREE MONEY is earning compound interest. This means that not only are you doubling your investment right away (amazing!) but also, given a little time, your doubled money will start earning interest on its interest (ooh, aaah!) See how it can add up?

Remember the example I gave about investing $1000 for 40 years at 6% interest? Here is what happens to that $1000 if the initial investment was matched by an employer:

Number of years Take your income home and keep it in your mattress Invest it at 6% on your own Invest it at 6% with your employer’s matching program













Each strategy still costs you $1000, but now you can expect to get double the returns! Lovely.

  • 401k FREE MONEY can get complicated. This is because the rules are written by lawyers who want you to be intimated by the confusing language and complicated (boring) paperwork. It is in the company’s best interest to provide you with access to  401k FREE MONEY because that is an incentive for you to come work for them…but they hope you don’t take full advantage of it because then they have to give you FREE MONEY. So the language is written by lawyers to make it confusing, but as part of having a 401k FREE MONEY plan your company will have an administrator whose job it is to help you with that language. So make friends with your administrator.
  • Because of the stupid lawyer language, there are lots of rules about when you can access your FREE MONEY (not till retirement unless you want to pay steep fees). There is also a Federal limit as to how much you can contribute each year to your 401k FREE MONEY (in 2013 it was $17,500). There are different contribution rules if you are over 50.
  • Because you put the money in without paying taxes on it, you are going to have to pay the piper eventually. This means that when you do retire, Uncle Sam will take income taxes out of your withdrawal from your 401k FREE MONEY. If you take the money out before retirement age you will pay taxes PLUS a 10% penalty. Boogers. Try to avoid that.
  • If you are looking at all the different 401k FREE MONEY plans that you can choose from, it can be overwhelming to compare risk vs payoff vs timing…they can become high maintenance! But fortunately for you, there are some easy choices including something called a target-date fund, which invests more conservatively as you get closer to retirement (your “target-date.” Get it?).
  • Don’t forget to name a beneficiary (the person who benefits in case you die early in a freak accident). Otherwise the money gets torn up into little pieces and flushed down the toilet. I’m serious. You can name me as your beneficiary, if you want.
  • Finally, if your company goes belly-up before you retire, never fear! Your 401k  FREE MONEY is safe. Just take the money and roll it over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) so that you don’t have to pay the 10% withdrawal fee. More on IRAs later. They are pretty awesome too.

Here is the take-away: 401ks give you FREE MONEY. No other way of saving will give you free money right off the bat. So, (if you haven’t already) take a deep breath and put on your big-kid panties to prepare yourself for dealing with some complicated rules, call your company’s 401k FREE MONEY administrator to get your 401k FREE MONEY, make the full contribution that will be matched, and get ready for retirement on your own tropical island, you savvy saver you!

Don’t have access to 401k  FREE MONEY through your job? Me neither. (One day, fingers crossed!) That means you can set up your own retirement account so that you can be just as savvy as all those lucky ducks with access to 401k FREE MONEY. I’ll tell you all about it soon.

Compound Interest- a Modern Day Miracle!

Albert Einstein — ‘Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.’

This is my favorite and least favorite topic, depending on whether we are discussing investments or debt. For the sake of keeping this post awesome, my examples will be all about investments, but remember that compound interest works just as effectively against you if it is debt.

Say I am 25 years old, and I invest $1,000 and I get a 6% return each year. The first year, I am going to get $1,060. That’s not really that awesome, but it’s not so bad. $60 is better than $0. But then the next year, $1060 gets invested instead of $1,000, and you end up with $1123. Not too shabby… Your interest starts earning interest. You could almost call it…compounded!
If you leave your $1,000 alone (and if the interest rate is steady at 6%, for the sake of this example) in 40 years you will have $10,285. TEN TIMES AS MUCH MONEY AND YOU DIDN’T DO ANYTHING AT ALL.

Number of years

Keep it in your mattress Keep it in your checking (.25% interest) Keep it in your savings (.8% interest) Invest it at 6%
















The first time I learned about compound interest, the author I read wrote that it didn’t really matter how much money you invest, as long as you invest something.
I thought, “Well, this author obviously doesn’t understand that if you invest more money you get more money at the end.” I felt like I didn’t have enough money to start investing and that investments are for people who already have money and if that isn’t a horrible catch-22 I don’t know what is!
But you know what? He was right and I was completely wrong. Because what I had at 25 (ok, what I still have because I am only 28) is time. If you wait until you are 45 with a higher income to invest, you will be making 1/3 of the money you could have made if you started now. Even though I expect to make more money and to be able to invest more at 45, I will never make as much compound interest on the money invested at 45 as I would have on a lot less money at 25.

Examples like this used to piss me off, because I never had $1,000 to invest, and I still don’t have $1,000 sitting in my bank account just waiting to be invested. When I was 24 I was living in a double wide trailer in rural Alabama (true story). A big activity for me was driving an hour to go to Walmart. I barely had any income at all, but you know what I did have? Fifty bucks. I put $50 into a retirement account every month (automatically! I don’t even miss it!), and I just let it sit. And you know what? Compound interest works on $50 too! If I stick to this schedule, in 40 years I will have put in $24,000 (and hardly noticed it was missing, because I automatically moved it) and I will have $93,206. That first $600 from the first year will be worth $6,171. WHAT? Awesome.

Imagine what I could have done if I had started at 18!
(Actually, the answer to that is that I would have paid $28,200 out of pocket and I would have $144,650 by the time I retire at 65. That extra $4,200 and seven years would be worth $51,400! Learn from my missed opportunities, all you 18 year old readers!)

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