Updated on 03.25.16

Four Ways to Use a Roth IRA That Have Nothing to Do With Retirement

A Roth IRA is a great retirement savings vehicle, but that's not all you can use it for.

The Roth IRA is one of the most widely touted retirement accounts, and for good reason. It’s one of the only accounts that offers tax-free money in retirement, and who doesn’t love that?

But what most people don’t know is that the benefits of a Roth IRA go far beyond retirement.

In fact, the Roth IRA is one of the most flexible accounts you’ll find, making it a great place to save money no matter what financial goal you’re working towards.

Here are four powerful ways to use your Roth IRA for something other than retirement.

Quick word of caution: While you can use a Roth IRA for ANY of these goals, you can’t use it for ALL of them at once. Every dollar can only be used for one thing, so be careful not to double count this money as available for multiple purposes.

College Savings

I often encourage my clients to max out their Roth IRA before contributing to a college savings account like a 529 plan or Coverdell ESA. Here’s why:

  1. The tax-free growth is similar to what you get within a dedicated college savings account.
  2. With a Roth IRA, you always can withdraw up to the amount you’ve contributed both tax-free and penalty-free, no matter the purpose.
  3. You can also withdraw the earnings without penalty for qualified higher education expenses, though they will be taxed as ordinary income. (Your earnings are the amount above what you’ve contributed.)
  4. Money within a Roth IRA is not counted when considering your child’s financial aid eligibility. (Though any money you withdraw from a Roth IRA for college will be counted as income in the next year’s financial aid application, which can hurt eligibility.)
  5. If you don’t end up needing the money for college, you can simply leave it in your Roth IRA and use it for retirement.

In other words, a Roth IRA is a great way to save money tax-efficiently for college while maintaining the flexibility to use it for retirement if your goals or needs change.

House Down Payment

Your Roth IRA is also available tax-free for use as a down payment on a house, up to a point.

As always, the amount you’ve contributed is available at any time for any purpose, including a down payment.

But you can also withdraw up to $10,000 in earnings both tax-free and penalty-free if it’s used to purchase a home under the following conditions:

  • The Roth IRA has been open for at least five years.
  • You are a first-time home buyer, which according to IRS Publication 590-B means that neither you nor your spouse have owned a home within the last two years.

If you are married, your spouse can do this as well. Which means that you may have an extra $20,000 available to you.

Keep in mind that this is a lifetime limit, so once you’ve used the $10,000 exception, you can’t use it again.

house for sale

You can withdraw up to $10,000 of contributions and earnings from a Roth IRA, tax- and penalty-free, for a down payment on your first home. Photo: House & Hammer

Emergency Fund

Ideally, you should have an emergency fund that’s separate from all your other savings accounts. That way you can use the money if needed without sacrificing your other financial goals.

But what if you simply don’t have enough money to both build an emergency fund and save for retirement?

In that case, a Roth IRA can be a great way to keep the money available for either need. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Contribute to your Roth IRA.
  2. Invest it in something very conservative that won’t lose value, like a money market fund.
  3. If you have an emergency, you can withdraw up to the amount you’ve contributed at any time without tax or penalty. And because it’s invested conservatively, you know the money will be there if you need it.
  4. If you never have an emergency, the money can stay in the Roth IRA and grow for future use.

It’s a great way to make sure the money is available if you need it without losing that valuable Roth IRA space.

Launchpad for Your Child

Here’s a great way to give your child a head start on their own financial freedom:

  1. Encourage her to get a job or even start a mini business.
  2. Agree to match some percentage of her earnings with contributions to her own Roth IRA.
  3. When she’s an adult, she’ll already have some tax-free savings built up and it will be because of her own hard work!

Moral of the Story: Use Your Roth IRA!

The deadlines around contributing to a Roth IRA are strict. You have until April 15 to make your contribution for the prior year, and after that the opportunity is gone.

So the main point here is this: Contribute to your Roth IRA, even if you don’t yet know what you’ll use the money for.

There’s so much flexibility built into the Roth IRA that there will always be a good use for the money. And the tax breaks are so great that you don’t want to miss out.

So, what are you waiting for?

Matt Becker is a fee-only financial planner and the founder of Mom and Dad Money, where he helps new parents take control of their money so they can take care of their families. His free book, The New Family Financial Road Map, guides parents through the all most important financial decisions that come with starting a family.

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