Reader Question: Where to Open an IRA?

Last week I received a great question on where to open an IRA from a reader!  I think this is an important question that doesn’t necessarily get the discussion it deserves in comparison with the question of asset allocation or particular investments.  I’m not a financial advisor, though, so please do your own research as well!


envelope question

Hey Emily,


I’m starting my first “big kid” job at the end of the summer. So this got me thinking about saving for retirement. I haven’t formally started saving for retirement yet, and that’s one of the things i want to do as I transition into my new budget. The school I will be working for will be eligible for 403(b) contributions, but not until after I work there for a year. So I figured, this first year I would start saving in an IRA account to get in the habit of saving for retirement.


My question is – does it matter where I open my IRA account? It seems that several banks (both large and small) offer IRA’s, and I guess I’m just curious about what factors I should consider when picking where to open my IRA.


Thanks for your thoughts!


~ A new PhD


Hi new PhD,


Thanks for your question! I think it’s great that you’re going to start saving for retirement before you’re even eligible for the 403(b) – I’m sure it will help you combat lifestyle inflation! Saving at a good clip from early on is the most impactful factor in building up a great nest egg – the habit of saving is much more important than which institution or exactly which investments you pick. So great job thinking about this early!


I’ll give you some general guidelines and things to think about and then I’ll tell you the conclusion Kyle and I came to on this issue.


It matters a lot what investments you choose for your IRA, and the types of investments available as well as their cost are influenced by the company you buy them through.


Since this wasn’t the subject of your question, I’ll just breeze through the first couple decisions you need to make. 1) What asset allocation do you want? 2) How diversified do you want to be?


A standard asset allocation for a young person saving for retirement (decades away) is that you want to own mostly stocks, perhaps a bit of bonds, and nothing or almost nothing in cash-equivalents. You will also want to be very diversified, so picking a fund (a mutual fund, index fund, or exchange-traded fund) is an easy way to do that even when you don’t have much money to invest.


Many banks offer IRA accounts, but in some cases the only types of investments you may be able to choose are savings accounts, CDs, or money market accounts, so if you want to buy stock funds you won’t be able to consider those particular banks. I would say in general it’s better to invest through a brokerage firm over a bank.


Let’s say that you’ve chosen the asset allocation you want and how diversified you want to be within your various asset classes and you’re ready to choose the institution you want to use. The key factor you need to look at is the expense ratio of the fund(s). (Oh, and you should probably only consider no-load funds.) The expense ratio is a representation of all the costs of the fund. This is a very important consideration because, while you can’t know for sure what return you’ll get with that investment, you do know that the expense ratio will be taken right off the top of your returns. So if you are looking at two funds that you believe should perform similarly, one of which has an expense ratio of 1.5% and the other 0.5%, it’s clear that you should pick the one with the lower expense ratio since you will likely come out with a 1% higher return with that one. (This type of comparison is most valid for passively managed index funds since they are supposed to have the same returns before factoring in the expense ratio. It may not be a useful way to evaluate actively managed funds, but there are good reasons to avoid actively managed funds anyway.)


If you know that you want to buy an index fund following the S&P 500, for example, you can just Google the names of a few brokerage firms with “S&P 500 index fund expense ratio” and you should be able to find them all to directly compare. You have to be a bit careful with this step because brokerage firms often offer two or more versions of the same fund with different minimum investments. The fund classes with higher minimums usually have lower expense ratios, so be sure to pick out the proper expense ratio for the amount of money you’ll have in the account. If you’re trying to buy a very popular fund like one that follows a major index or a target date retirement fund, you can often find articles directly comparing many companies offering that type of fund so most of the legwork is done for you.


But if you don’t know exactly which fund you want to buy from the get-go or you are interested in possibly buying multiple funds or switching from one to another at some point, you probably want to go with the brokerage firm that in general offers the lowest expense ratios. That way even if they don’t offer the rock-bottom expense ratio for the first fund you’re interested in, they will likely be competitive across all the funds you would potentially buy.


The longtime leader in offering the lowest expense ratios in the industry is Vanguard. Again, it may not be the absolute lowest for every fund, but I think it is a great benchmark for comparing similar funds from other firms. Other low-cost brokerage firms to consider are Charles Schwab, Fidelity, T. Rowe Price, and TD Ameritrade.


Here are a few articles on this topic of expense ratios across different brokerage firms:
The Motley Fool
Oblivious Investor


Kyle and I have our IRAs with Vanguard because of these low expense ratios. I won’t go into which fund we chose because that wasn’t your question, but we were looking at types of funds that were offered by many firms. I first opened my IRA with Fidelity because I didn’t have enough money in my IRA to meet Vanguard’s minimums, but I switched as soon as I could.


You don’t have to make the absolute best decision about which institution to invest through or which fund to choose from the get-go, so please don’t let paralysis of analysis (if that affects you – it does us!) keep you from opening an IRA and starting to save into it. Starting is more important than being perfect from the beginning!


Thanks for sending me your question and please follow up if you have any more!




Do you have a different answer for this reader?  How did you choose where to open your IRA and did you consider expense ratios?  Have you switched where your IRA is housed or how it is invested since you opened it?  


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16 Responses to "Reader Question: Where to Open an IRA?"

  1. Yay for Vanguard! That’s where we’ve had our IRAs since opening them and it’s been great to us. Low fees, easy to use, good customer service. =)
    Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..PoP Balance Sheet – June 2013

    1. Emily says:

      I like them too! Although I don’t think I’ve had to use their customer service much, thankfully!

  2. Lucas says:

    Remember there is nothing preventing you from opening multiple IRAs either (this doesn’t increase your maximum yearly contribution limits though). The main hurtle to this is usually a minimum balance to purchase into certain funds (or an automatic investment setup). Vanguard is a very good choice. Between my wife and I we have 3 IRAs at the moment with fidelity, 2 Roths, and one Regular. We chose fidelity mainly becuase company 401k was with fidelity and they do have good choices – just usually slightly more expensive then vanguard.

    I have been looking at with setting up another ROTH with either Vanguard for more indexing, or with LendingClub to hold my peer to peer lending assets. The LendingClub one though looks like it has some additional fees associated with the IRA itself so not quite sure i understand that one yet.

    1. Emily says:

      I don’t really see a compelling reason to have multiple IRA accounts of one type (one Roth and one traditional is understandable, and of course each spouse has to be separate). You should be able to diversify well within one account/company. And the minimums to get to the highest class of funds is a good reason to keep everything you can in one place! We’re just now, after 6 years, reaching the balances we need to consider going up a class.

      I never thought of putting P2P lending in a Roth IRA! But boo to fees.

      1. Lucas says:

        The main reason i see for having more than one traditional IRA is if you want to set up SEPP withdraws. The rules govern each account seperately, so you can effectively choose your SEPP withdraw amount by diving your IRA assets how you choose. Our plan is to contribute to 401k/normal IRA now, and then use either a direct roll over or SEPP strategy to get money out for use or to put back into a ROTH when we are in a lower tax bracket.

        1. Emily says:

          I’ve never heard of SEPP withdrawals so thanks for alerting me!

  3. CashRebel says:

    Great response Emily. I remember searching the internet for just such a post a few years back but I couldn’t find anything. Everyone told me to open an ira but I had no idea what that meant. The specifics are really important for beginners.
    CashRebel recently posted..Financial Update – Q2 2013 (Net Worth +12%)

    1. Emily says:

      I agree, and I don’t want anyone to get stuck before they start!

  4. That’s a great write up and like the first commenter noted, yay Vanguard! Something I learned when switching IRAs is that there are often some transaction fees involved (i.e. – a $50 account closure fee from Fidelity), and your money is (typically) out of the market for a while in the transition. Ideally, you can pick the company you want right from the start, but I agree that it’s good to avoid the paralysis by analysis.
    Done by Forty recently posted..Being Frugal with Time

    1. Emily says:

      The fees and time are real drawbacks to switching companies so you definitely shouldn’t do it frivolously. But it’s better to possibly lose a few hundred bucks down the road in a transition than a whole year of contribution room sitting on your hands!

  5. Agreed on Vanguard! I wish we’d known about them when we started… eventually we’ll move our Etrade stuff over. (Currently invested in vanguard through etrade…)
    nicoleandmaggie recently posted..Marriage: A deliberately controversial post

    1. Emily says:

      What’s preventing you from changing now?

  6. I’ve used Vanguard for thirteen years now, and have had no issues or reasons to change. I think the take home point is to just get started. When I first signed up, I had no clue, but if you pick some index funds with low fees, it’s hard to go wrong.
    Kim@Eyesonthedollar recently posted..Eyes on the Dollar 20/20 Roundup #42- Home and Gone Again

    1. Emily says:

      That’s awesome that you’ve been with Vanguard for so long. I agree that it’s difficult to go wrong with that strategy but you have to know enough to pursue it!

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