By Philip Moeller
February 17, 2015

It happens every year around this time: the rush by investors to make 11th-hour contributions to their IRAs before the April 15 tax deadline.

If you’ve recently managed to send in your contribution, congrats. But next time around, plan ahead—turns out, this beat-the-clock strategy comes at a cost, or a “procrastination penalty,” according to Vanguard.

Over 30 years, a last-minute IRA investor will wind up with $15,500 less than someone who invests at the start of the tax year, assuming identical contributions and returns, Vanguard calculations show. The reason for the procrastinator’s shortfall, of course, is the lost compounding of that money, which has less time to grow.

Granted, missing out on $15,500 over 30 years may not sound like an enormous penalty, though anyone who wants to send me a check for this amount is more than welcome to do so. But lost earnings aren’t the only cost of the IRA rush—last-minute contributions also lead to poor investment decisions, which may further erode your portfolio.

Many hurried IRA investors simply stash their new contributions in money-market funds—a move Vanguard calls a “parking lot” strategy. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of such contributions are still stashed in money funds a full 120 days later, where they have been earning zero returns. So what seems like a reasonable short-term decision often ends up being a bad long-term choice, says Vanguard retirement expert Maria Bruno.

Why are so many people fumbling their IRA strategy? All too often, investors focus mainly on their 401(k) plan, while IRAs are an after-thought. But fact is, most of your money will likely end up in an IRA, when you roll out of your 401(k). Overall, IRAs collectively hold some $7.3 trillion, the Investment Company Institute (ICI) found, fueled by 401(k) rollovers—that’s more than the money held in 401(k)s ($4.5 trillion) and other defined-contribution accounts ($2.2 trillion) combined.

Clearly, having a smart IRA plan can go a long way toward improving your retirement security. To get the most out of your IRA—and avoid mistakes—Bruno lays out five guidelines for investors:

  • Set up your contribution schedule. If you can’t stash away a large amount at the start of the year, establish a dollar-cost averaging program at your brokerage. That way, your money flows into your IRA throughout the year.
  • Invest the max. You can save as much as $5,500 in an IRA account in 2015. But for those 50 and older, you can make an additional tax-deferred “catch up” contribution of $1,000. A survey of IRA account holders by the ICI found that just 14% of investors take advantage of this savings opportunity. (You can find details on IRS contribution limits here.)
  • Select a go-to fund. Skip the money fund, and choose a target-date retirement fund or a balanced fund as the default choice for your IRA contributions. You can always change your investment choice later, but meantime you will get the benefits—and the potential growth—of a diversified portfolio.
  • Invest in a Roth IRA. Unlike traditional IRAs, which hold pre-tax dollars, Roths are designed to hold after tax money, but their investment gains and later payouts escape federal income taxes. With Roths, you also avoid RMDs (required minimum distributions) when you turn 70 ½, which gives you more flexibility. Vanguard says nine out of every 10 dollars contributed to IRAs by its younger customers under age 30 are flowing into Roths. Here are the IRS rules for 2015 Roth contributions.
  • Consider a Roth conversion. High-income earners who do not qualify for tax-deferred Roth contributions can still make post-tax contributions to an IRA and then convert this account to a Roth. The Obama Administration’s proposed 2016 federal budget would end these so-called backdoor Roth conversions, which have become very popular. Of course, it’s far from clear if that proposal will be enacted.

Once you have your IRA set up, resist tapping it until retirement. The longer you can let that money ride, the more growth you’re likely to get. Raiding your IRA for anything less than real emergency would be the worst mistake of all.

Philip Moeller is an expert on retirement, aging, and health. His latest book is “Get What’s Yours: The Secrets to Maxing Out Your Social Security.” Reach him at moeller.philip@gmail.com or @PhilMoeller on Twitter.

Read next: 25 Ways to Get Smarter About Money Right Now

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