Note: I wrote this guide to educate beginners on the basics of different American investment accounts and their intended uses. Because everyone’s situation is unique, be sure to consult a financial advisor before deciding where to put your money.
Choosing an investment account isn’t something you should take lightly. The wrong decision can eat into your nest egg and cause huge headaches when tax season rolls around.
To help you avoid this, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the most common types of investment accounts in America and the scenarios they’re best suited to. Make sure you understand the basics of investing before you proceed; otherwise, a lot of what we’ll be discussing won’t make sense.
One last thing. I cover a lot of accounts in this piece. If you’re looking to learn about one particular option, navigate to it using the table of contents below.
What is an investment account in the United States?
An investment account is a service through which you can buy, hold, and sell assets like stocks, ETFs, bonds, and mutual funds. It connects to your bank account, allowing you to transfer money back and forth as needed. An investment account will also help you keep track of your financial progress through analytical tools and statements.
Several major banks (including Wells Fargo) offer investment accounts. There are also standalone services like Robinhood and Interactive Brokers through which you can get started.
No matter which financial institution you choose, its products will align with government programs tailored toward different financial goals. Each program comes with its own rules concerning taxation, deposits, withdrawals, types of assets you can purchase, and other important factors. It’s these programs that constitute the various ‘types of investment accounts’ we’ll be exploring in this guide.
Types of investment accounts in the United States
There are many, many retirement accounts to choose from. Don’t let that scare you, though; as you’ll see, most of these accounts come with strict regulations that will help narrow down your choice. In fact, your work situation may remove the burden of choice from your shoulders entirely!
A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement account. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), employees can have a portion of their wages directed to their 401k along with any employer match.
Benefits of a 401(k)
An employer-sponsored 401(k) requires very little effort on your part as you can make contributions directly from your wages. This money is deducted from your taxable income, meaning you’ll pay less when you file. Now, you’ll eventually pay taxes on the money when you make withdrawals as a retiree. However, the funds will ideally have experienced several decades of growth by then. You will also typically be in a lower tax bracket once you’re not earning any employment income.
Things to know before opening a 401(K)
A 401(k) is suited towards long-term investing. If you withdraw money before you reach retirement age, you’ll pay taxes along with a penalty unless you meet the very rigid criteria for exception.
If you exceed your contribution limit and don’t withdraw the excess prior to filing your tax return for the year, you’ll end up being double-taxed; once on the income, and then again when you eventually withdraw.
A solo 401(k) (also referred to by the IRS as a “One-Participant 401(k) Plan”) is geared toward self-employed workers. You are not permitted to contribute to this type of plan if you operate a business with employees. When you invest in a solo 401(k), you can contribute both the employee and employer portions for yourself each year, subject to the same limits as a sponsored 401(k).
Benefits of a Solo 401(k)
A solo 401k allows self-employed individuals to benefit from a tax-deferring retirement savings plan. According to Investopedia, that includes people like sole proprietors, freelancers, and independent contractors who would otherwise be at a major disadvantage when it comes to saving for retirement.
Things to know before opening a Solo 401(K)
Having an employer-sponsored 401(k) does not prevent you from opening up a solo account. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people to open up many retirement accounts throughout their lives as they change jobs and pursue different opportunities. That said, the rules surrounding contributions in this scenario are very nuanced. Plan carefully with an expert’s assistance to ensure your combined contributions across all accounts don’t exceed the limit.
A 403(b) functions much like an employer-sponsored 401(k). One key difference is that it’s meant for employees of tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations.
Benefits of a 403(b)
Your 403(b) contributions (up to the annual limit) can be deducted from your taxable income. Additionally, they may be supplemented by an employer match. A 403(b) is also relatively cheap and easy to set up, which is why organizations eligible to offer them often do so instead of opting for 401(k)s.
Things to know before opening a 403(b)
The IRS imposes limitations on what types of assets may be purchased through a 403(b). They include annuity contracts and mutual funds managed by a custodian (like a bank or other financial institution). You can’t purchase stocks directly.
Critics of annuity contracts point out that they are an illiquid investment. Because their purpose is to generate fixed cash flow for you in retirement, attempting to withdraw all of your money at once (say, in the case of an emergency) may incur penalties.
If you believe your expenses during retirement will be difficult to predict, it may be worth discussing other options with your financial advisor. You may, for example, decide to open up another type of retirement account to be used in special circumstances.
A 457(b) is a retirement account geared towards employees of state and local government organizations. That includes police officers, firefighters, etc.
Benefits of a 457(b)
As of writing, a 457(b) offers the same contribution limits as a 401(k). Your deposits can similarly be deducted from your taxable income, lowering the amount you pay.
One major advantage of a 457(b) over 403(b) and 401(k) accounts is that early withdrawals are not subject to a penalty. This allows you to access your money before you reach 59.5 years of age.
Things to know before opening a 457(b)
A 457(b) is legally complex and has many nuanced differences when compared to other types of investment accounts. Speaking with a licensed advisor before opening a 457(b) and then again prior to retirement will help you avoid surprises. If you plan on making early withdrawals from your 457(b), be sure to discuss that as well. Even though you won’t pay a penalty, taking your money out of the market early may not be in your best financial interest.
Individual Retirement Account (IRA)
An individual retirement account (IRA) is an investment plan that some people use to save without an employer’s involvement. You’ll often hear this particular type of account referred to as a “traditional” or “regular” IRA since there are a few other variants.
Benefits of an IRA
If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k), an IRA can provide similar benefits, including deferred taxes on contributions if you meet the requirements. You may also appreciate the ability to choose assets more freely than in a 401(k). While employer-sponsored plans are typically managed by outside professionals, a traditional IRA can hold stocks, bonds, CDs, and funds of your choosing.
Things to know before opening an IRA
While some investors may benefit from the freedom of choice that an IRA offers, those who don’t know how to pick appropriate assets are prone to making mistakes. You should also be aware that there are several other types of IRAs. Some other online resources fail to make the necessary distinctions, which can cause confusion. When you research this type of account, always make sure you’re reading about traditional IRAs.
Before you contribute to an IRA, make sure you know whether you qualify for a full tax deferral on the amount. There may be limitations if you or your spouse have a 401(k) through work or are high earners.
A Roth IRA differs from a traditional IRA in a few key ways, including that the money you contribute does not get deducted from your taxable income. As such, you’ll often hear people referring to contributions in this type of account as being “after-tax.”
Benefits of a Roth IRA
While contributions to a Roth IRA won’t lower your taxable income, their growth inside the account will not be subject to capital gains tax. This is very important to note; depending on your financial situation and how well your investments in a Roth IRA perform, the prospect of never paying taxes on gains could be more lucrative than tax deferral.
Things to know before opening a Roth IRA
While you won’t pay taxes when taking funds from a Roth IRA, the IRS still discourages early withdrawals. If you’ve had the account for fewer than five years, you’ll end up paying taxes plus a penalty unless you meet certain qualifications, which you can learn about here.
A self-directed IRA comes with similar rules concerning tax deferral as a traditional IRA. One major difference between the two accounts is that the self-directed variant allows you to hold a wider range of assets, including:
- Real estate
- Precious metals
- Private equity
Benefits of a Self-Directed IRA
A self-directed IRA may save you lots of money over the course of several decades through its loose restrictions on the types of assets you can hold. Investments like private equity and cryptocurrencies can appreciate substantially, which would incur a major tax burden under normal circumstances.
Things to know before opening a Self-Directed IRA
Just because you can invest in alternative assets like cryptocurrencies through a self-directed IRA doesn’t mean you should. Cryptocurrencies, in particular, may not be suitable for everyone given how speculative and volatile they are.
Some assets, purchased through your self-directed IRA, also require a bit more planning than the traditional stocks, bonds, and ETFs. With real estate, for example, the IRS has strict requirements when it comes to purchasing the property and then declaring income from it. Failure to follow these rules can disqualify your self-directed IRA.
This type of account is also subject to the same mandatory withdrawals past a certain age that you’ll find with traditional IRAs. If the asset you’ve invested in is illiquid (i.e. real estate) and you don’t plan ahead, you may find yourself in hot water. Check out this post from The Balance for more information.
A SIMPLE IRA (no, I’m not shouting; it’s actually an acronym that stands for Savings Incentive Match PLan for Employees) takes us back into the realm of employer-sponsored retirement accounts.
With a SIMPLE IRA, the employer match mechanism is central to the account’s structure as opposed to being an optional feature. Employers offering this type of account are required to match employee contributions up to 3% of their salary. Some companies simply deposit a flat percentage of their employees’ salaries, whether the worker contributes on their own or not.
Benefits of a SIMPLE IRA
The promise of a company match may incentivize you to save more toward retirement than you otherwise would have. SIMPLE IRAs are also advantageous for small business owners because of their relatively easy setup.
Things to know before opening a SIMPLE IRA
A simple IRA is only meant for companies with fewer than 100 workers. Contribution limits are also lower than with a 401(k) plan, which may prevent you from saving as much as you’d like.
While companies offering other retirement accounts have the luxury of pausing employer matches during rough financial times, a SIMPLE IRA does not allow that; it’s much more binding for employers.
If you’re accustomed to the rules of 401(k)s, a SIMPLE IRA may require some additional planning. For example, you’re not allowed to borrow against the account.
Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA
A SEP IRA is geared towards self-employed workers and business owners. Included with the plan are a few perks that make it somewhat of a hybrid between 401(k)s and traditional IRAs.
Benefits of a SEP IRA
A SEP IRA is easier and cheaper to set up than a 401(k), which makes it popular among small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Contribution limits are also much higher than with other retirement accounts. Businesses who set up SEP IRAs for their workers benefit from tax incentives.
Things to know before opening a SEP IRA
As an employee, you cannot contribute to your own SEP IRA; all deposits must be made by your employer. However, if you’re self-employed and set up the account on behalf of your company, you can contribute to your own plan.
While contribution limits are much higher than with other programs, you’re not permitted to take out a loan against your SEP IRA. That’s something you may want to keep in mind before maxing out the account.
Health Savings Account (HSA)
An HSA is intended to help you save for medical expenses you’ll face during retirement. You’ll only qualify for this type of investment account if you have a high-deductible insurance plan. Withdrawals must go towards qualifying medical expenses if you want to avoid paying tax when you withdraw.
Benefits of an HSA
As with many other retirement accounts, contributions you make to your HSA are tax-deductible. You also won’t pay taxes on withdrawals as long as they go towards paying appropriate medical expenses.
Another advantage is that the government doesn’t force you to begin making withdrawals once you reach a certain age, which allows you to keep your money growing for longer. In fact, according to Forbes, it’s possible to roll funds from an IRA into your HSA, avoiding the mandatory withdrawal requirements of the former.
Many HSAs even come with debit cards that allow you to pay using funds directly from the plan without having to go through the withdrawal process on your own.
Things to know before opening an HSA
Not all health-related expenses qualify for tax-free withdrawals from your HSA. See the list of IRS-approved procedures here.
Depending on your situation, having a high-deductible insurance plan may not make financial sense, even with an HSA. If you get sick often, for example, what you pay in deductibles may exceed the tax benefits you receive from the account. Make sure you work with a financial advisor to ensure this won’t be the case.
Education savings accounts
If you plan on saving towards schooling for yourself or your child, there are a few accounts worth considering. Which one you choose will depend on factors like how soon you need the money and what kind of educational expenses you’re saving for.
These accounts generally require you to identify what’s known as a “beneficiary” who will ultimately benefit from the funds when you make withdrawals.
Prepaid tuition plan
A prepaid tuition plan is the first type of two plans that fall under the 529 plan umbrella. With this type of account, you’ll make deposits towards the cost of future studies. When the account’s beneficiary is ready to pursue their education at one of the participating colleges or universities, those deposits will reduce their expenses.
Note: State governments are responsible for overseeing these accounts, which means rules can vary across the country. I’ll make note of when that’s the case; be sure to discuss those accounts in detail with your financial advisor to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Benefits of a prepaid tuition plan
Educational costs in the United States are always rising. A prepaid tuition plan allows you to lock prices in at the current rate, which can be majorly advantageous if your beneficiary won’t be attending school for several years.
Some states offer tax deductions on contributions to a prepaid tuition plan. Most also won’t charge tax on withdrawals as long as the money goes towards tuition as intended.
Things to know before opening a prepaid tuition plan
These types of investment accounts are operated at the state level. If the beneficiary ends up studying in another state, you’ll have to pay a penalty. Of course, you also run the risk of the beneficiary not attending school at all. In this case, you may not receive any gains from your investment.
When you contribute to a prepaid tuition plan, your money gets pooled with that of other investors. The program will then attempt to invest in assets that exceed the expected rise in tuition costs. Depending on your financial situation and investment expertise, you may be able to do this for yourself, which would reduce this account’s usefulness. Further, some states do not guarantee investments made within a prepaid tuition plan. If the plan sponsor goes belly-up, you may lose money.
In most cases, you cannot use prepaid tuition plans to cover room and board; the money must go towards tuition.
When you read about prepaid tuition plans, know that they vary state-by-state in terms of regulations. Make sure you speak with a licensed advisor where you live before making decisions. Things you may want to inquire about include:
- Tax benefits
- Contribution limits
- Withdrawal rules
Education savings plan
An education savings plan is the second type of investment account falling under the 529 savings plan umbrella. Rather than your funds going directly towards paying tuition at a qualifying in-state school, you’re permitted to invest them in a portfolio of your choosing.
Benefits of an education savings plan
Funds in an education savings plan can be used towards tuition at elementary and secondary schools (unlike prepaid tuition plans, which can only be used towards college or university). While prepaid tuition plans can generally only be used at in-state institutions, you may be able to use an education savings plan anywhere, even outside of the United States.
These accounts typically come with the same tax benefits as prepaid tuition plans; the possibility of state tax deductions and completely tax-free withdrawals when funds are used for tuition.
Things to know before opening an education savings plan
As with prepaid tuition plans, rules vary state-by-state. Speaking with your financial advisor before setting up an account can help you avoid confusion down the road.
While you have some freedom in choosing assets for your education savings plan, you’re limited to professionally-managed portfolios. On one hand, this makes education savings plans relatively hands-off. However, you may not appreciate this if you enjoy having tight control over your investments.
UGMA and UTMA custodial accounts
UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act) and UTMA (Uniform Transfer to Minors Act) accounts aren’t specifically designed for educational savings. Rather, they are custodial accounts used to hold assets for a beneficiary (i.e. your children) until they reach the age of majority. At that point, they can use the funds (minus taxes) for anything they want, including their educational expenses.
Benefits of UGMA and UTMA accounts
If you want to transfer a substantial amount of money to a child, some of the aforementioned education-specific accounts may not have high enough contribution limits. A UGMA or UTMA account may better suit your needs.
These accounts will also let your beneficiary spend the money however they’d like. This may be useful if they forgo higher education altogether or otherwise end up spending less on school than expected.
Things to know before opening a UGMA or UTMA account
While these two types of investment accounts are often lumped together, there are a few notable differences. UTMA accounts can hold a wide variety of assets while UGMA accounts are more limited.
These accounts offer the beneficiary free agency as to what they use the money for upon receiving it. You as the account’s ‘donor’ are required to hand the money over regardless. In other words, you won’t be able to force your child to use the funds for college – not legally, anyway.
UTMA and UGMA accounts also require a fair bit of tax planning. Earnings can be taxed at the beneficiary’s rate, which is often much lower than what adults pay. This isn’t automatic, however; failure to file correctly can incur what’s known as a Kiddie Tax, which erodes the advantage you’d otherwise enjoy.
There are also limits on the amount you can transfer tax-free through these accounts each year. Exceeding this limit will incur what’s known as a Gift Tax. Further, the IRS has set lifetime limits on what you can gift. The current limit is upwards of $11 million, though, so if you’re in a position to exceed that, you’ve definitely got rich people problems.
The bottom line? You definitely want to consult with an expert before settling on a UGMA or UTMA account. The rules are very rigid and their implications vary wildly depending on several variables that may be unique to you.
Education Savings Account (ESA)
Despite its confusingly-similar name, an education savings account (ESA) has some notable differences from the education savings plan found under the 529 umbrella. You’ll often hear people refer to this type of account as a “Coverdell ESA” in honor of the U.S. Senator who championed it.
Benefits of an ESA
Funds saved in an ESA can be used towards covering primary and secondary education. You’ll also typically enjoy more freedom to invest in assets of your choosing through an ESA.
Things to know before opening an ESA
If your beneficiary doesn’t use the money in their ESA by the age of 30, they’ll have to transfer it to another family member or risk paying taxes and fees. ESAs are also subject to income restrictions and your contributions are not tax-deductible.
While 529 plans do not have any IRS-set contribution limits (again, refer to your state authorities to be sure they don’t have one either), ESAs do.
You should also note that there has been some discussion in recent years about eliminating ESAs and expanding 529 plans to include some of their features. This hasn’t happened yet but many people assume it has and aren’t even aware that ESAs are still an option.
One last thing. ESAs behave like custodial accounts in that money you deposit must go to the beneficiary. A 529 offers more flexibility in this regard.
Standard/taxable investment account
For many people, the aforementioned types of investment accounts are more than sufficient for saving towards life’s common goals, including buying a house, putting a child through college, and retiring wealthy.
However, there are situations where those accounts’ rigid rules make them unsuitable. That’s where a standard brokerage account can come in handy.
Benefits of a taxable investment account
There are no contribution limits with a standard brokerage account. If you come into a windfall of $100,000 and want to invest it all at once, you can go right ahead. There are also no legal bounds when it comes to what you can and can’t invest in. Whether you’re looking to trade the typical stocks, bonds, and ETFs or more complex assets like options, cryptocurrencies, and commodities futures, the world is your oyster.
Most other types of investment accounts require you to be earning income when you make contributions. However, a standard account has no such stipulation. You can keep investing well into retirement if you’d like.
A standard brokerage account also allows you to make withdrawals as you please. Invested $100,000 only to realize a few months later that you need $50,000 of it? No problem. You can withdraw your funds as soon as you’ve sold off your assets.
All of this may sound a bit like the Wild West. However, there are still regulations for keeping your money safe from fraudsters. In the United States, a body known as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulates markets to ensure fairness. The Securities Investor Protection Commission (SIPC) protects many assets you hold within a brokerage account, including cash, much like the FDIC does for bank deposits.
You also don’t have to go it completely alone. There are money management services (including robo-advisors) that can work with you to ensure smooth sailing. They’re just not mandatory as with some other types of investment accounts.
The bottom line? Standard brokerage accounts in the United States offer a balance between freedom and security that many investors appreciate.
Things to know before opening a standard brokerage account
When you sell assets within a standard brokerage account, the gains or losses will need to be factored into your taxes for the year. For gains, the IRS expects one of two taxes (short-term or long-term) depending on how long you’ve held the assets in question. Claiming capital losses, meanwhile, can work to soften the blow of a failed investment.
Whether or not a standard brokerage account makes sense for you depends heavily on your situation. If you qualify for other types of investment accounts but haven’t maxed them out, for example, you really need to think about whether generating a potentially major tax burden makes sense. To be clear, sometimes it makes total sense. Whether or not yours is one of those cases is for you and your advisor to decide, however.
You should also consider that there are reasons other types of investment accounts limit what assets you can buy. As lucrative as futures, cryptocurrencies, and options can be when used properly, they can also expose you to significant financial downside. Even if you decide a standard brokerage account is right for you, investing conservatively until you’re confident isn’t the worst idea in the world.
One last thing is that the liquidity of assets inside a standard brokerage account can be bad. While the penalties associated with retirement plans may discourage you from pulling your money out of the market to buy a boat, nobody’s going to stop you from doing that with a standard account. You need to have good discipline.
Types of investment accounts: What’s next?
By now, you probably have a decent idea of which category (and perhaps even which particular account) best suits you.
If you’ve settled on an employer-sponsored retirement account, your next stop will be your HR representative. Many companies handle enrolment for their employees. You’ll still have the final say on automatic contributions and whether you’d like to contribute in the first place. You’ll also receive documentation about your plan and the types of investments held within it.
If you’ve chosen one of the other types of investment accounts, you’ll have to find a brokerage firm that offers it. Relax, this isn’t difficult. There are currently four major brokerage firms in the United States:
If you’re looking to trade common investments like stocks, bonds, options, and ETFs, any one of these will do. For more complex assets like futures, visit each brokerage’s website to learn about availability.
Before you make any final decisions, it’s worth discussing your situation (including goals) with a financial advisor. While that can include advisors at one of the above brokerages, you should know that these experts sometimes behave a bit more like salespeople than completely impartial advisors.
An alternative option is to consult a licensed and independent financial planner that doesn’t actually have any investment management services to sell you. Rather, they’ll help you navigate important issues such as risk tolerance and which account best meets your needs. Check out this article for more information about how to find a qualified financial advisor.
Frequently asked questions
Savings accounts produce interest, which you don’t typically get with a checking account. It’s important to note, however, that savings accounts are not ‘investments’ in the sense of helping you grow your wealth. With average interest rates hovering around just 0.09%, a savings account won’t even protect you from inflation.
To open an investment account, simply choose the brokerage you’d like to work with (I mentioned the four largest in America just a few paragraphs ago) and visit their website to fill out an application.
From there, you’ll typically complete the following steps:
1. Submitting your taxpayer identification number.
2. Completing the brokerage’s onboarding process (analyzing your risk tolerance, etc).
3. Depositing funds in your new account.
4. Researching the various assets you can purchase before making your first investment.
The process may look a bit different if you’re going with an employer-sponsored plan. Your HR representative will likely work with you and handle much of the paperwork involved in setting your account up.
When considering the various types of investment accounts mentioned above, you should first look at your goals and what products you’re actually eligible for. This should narrow down your list of options quite substantially.
This can be hard to do if you’re entirely new to investing, which is where an advisor can really come in handy.
Whether you should be saving or investing largely depends on your financial situation. Generally, experts recommend building up an emergency savings fund before you begin investing. While the temptation to cram all your money into investments can be high (especially when you’re new to the practice), building an emergency fund can prevent you from having to pull those funds out of the market at an inopportune time because of an unexpected medical bill.
You’ll also need to consider your timeline. If you’re planning on buying a house within the next two years, for example, keeping your funds in a savings account may make more sense than dumping it into stocks that may plunge in value and not recover in time for your purchase.
There’s no magic number. However, it’s not uncommon for people to have several investment accounts based on their goals. For example, you may have an account for retirement, another for your child’s education, and a third for, say, trading options so you can buy a boat.
Part of what’s so great about investing is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. You can combine different types of investment accounts, strategies, and more to create an ideal solution for you.
Assets like stocks, bonds, and ETFs can’t be simply held in your bank account. You need a brokerage account to facilitate trades, deposits, and withdrawals.
An individual brokerage account is one in which you manage assets for yourself. The alternative would be a joint investment account with your spouse.
You absolutely can. Just remember that different types of investment accounts have different rules concerning taxation and fees associated with removing funds.
Some brokerages have minimums starting at around $1,000. It’s possible to find brokerages that allow you to start with less if you make regular deposits. Others still have no stipulations at all, with your minimum simply being however much the asset you wish to purchase costs.
This all depends on the type of investment account you open. If it’s a ‘standard’ account then yes, you’ll pay taxes when you lock in gains by selling your assets. Other accounts (such as ones geared towards saving for retirement) treat eligible withdrawals as taxable income rather than capital gains tax. With a Roth IRA, you’ll never pay taxes on gains as long as you follow the rules.
For starters, you need to be 18 or older and qualify for the type of account you’re looking to open up. Once you’ve selected an account and a brokerage, you’ll need to submit your taxpayer identification number and possibly complete a risk tolerance assessment. This is all very straightforward and can take just a few business days to get sorted out.