Did you know contributions to a Roth IRA may be withdrawn at any time, without penalty? It’s one of the lesser-known Roth IRA early withdrawal rules. It is also one that I do not plan to take advantage of, but knowing it is there makes maxing out Roth IRA contributions a little easier. Here’s why.
Let’s say you are still working to build a fully-funded emergency fund, but only have one month of expenses. You manage to scrape up a few thousand dollars to save near the end of the year (a bonus, an inheritance, whatever), and would like to open a Roth IRA. If you are like I was, the thought of locking that money away in a retirement account terrified me. What if I have a big emergency two months after I open my Roth, and before my emergency fund is fully funded?
Never fear. If you do have a big emergency soon after contributing to your Roth you can simply withdraw your contributions without penalty. The rules here are different from other tax-deferred retirement savings plans because the money you invest in a Roth has already been taxed. However, the earnings in your Roth IRA have not been taxed, and therefore must be left untouched, unless you meet one of a few exceptions for withdrawing earnings tax and penalty free. Here’s the language from the IRS.gov website, Publication 590, related to making early withdrawals of your contributions from a Roth IRA:
Are Distributions Taxable?
You do not include in your gross income qualified distributions or distributions that are a return of your regular contributions from your Roth IRA(s).
So there you have it; straight from the horses mouth. Withdrawals of regular contributions made to your Roth IRA are not counted towards your gross income. Does knowing you can withdraw Roth IRA contributions early without penalty make you more likely to max out your Roth IRA contribution for the current tax year? It did for us. For the first time in our married lives we maxed out my Roth IRA contribution (currently $5,000), as well as my wife’s spousal IRA (another $5,000).
In the event of an emergency larger than our emergency fund could handle, that $10,000 would be available to us (assuming the market doesn’t tank again). And that is something to consider. I would not suggest using a Roth IRA as your only source of emergency funds, because chances are your investments inside the Roth are exposed to more risk than traditional emergency fund savings.
However, Roth IRA funds could certain supplement your emergency savings, or some other savings goal, such as parking money to be used for a down payment on a first home (by the way, this is one of the qualifying events for which you can withdraw Roth IRA earnings tax free, assuming the account is over five years old).
With compound interest being such a close personal finance ally, the sooner you start investing in retirement funds, the better. Remember, you cannot go back and invest in a Roth IRA for previous tax years. It’s now or never. So go ahead and set aside some money in a Roth, and try your best not to withdraw those contributions. But remember Roth IRA withdrawal rules allow withdrawal of contributions, penalty free, if you absolutely need them.