Back in the olden days, if you wanted a secure retirement, you needed to rely on Social Security or perhaps a nice, fat pension. But those days are gone. There are not companies out there that are going to stand behind a defined annuity at the end of your career, no matter how long your years of service or how serious your level of dedication. But in 1997, the Roth IRA was conceived and an alternative to the traditional retirement account came into being.

The Roth IRA was named for Senator William Roth, a legislator from Delaware who first proposed the concept along with Senator Bob Packwood in 1989. Roth was a graduate of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, so it was clear that he knew his stuff. For the majority of his Senate career, Roth served as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, so he had enormous knowledge of financial law and held great sway over the creation of new legislation.

The main innovation of the Roth IRA that departs from the traditional IRA is the tax structure and all the mobility of money that the tax structure allows. The Roth IRA is an individual retirement account, like the name indicates, that can be set up by a broker. You can also set up an individual retirement annuity as a Roth IRA, through an insurance company as an endowment contract.

These days, as a single person, you can contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth IRA per year. If you are over 50, you can put in $6,500. The merits of limiting Roth contributions are debatable, but that is for another, more political discussion.

When it was codified into law, in 1997, the Roth IRA was a piece of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Senator Roth wanted to bring back the traditional IRA, which was junked in 1986, along with its upfront tax deduction.

Basically it gives an individual the chance to contribute after-tax dollars to an IRA and then withdraw that money tax-free later in life. The contributions are not tax-deductible, like a traditional IRA, because they are after tax dollars. But the benefits of having that money tax-free in your 60s and 70s are enormous.

The annoying catch to all this is that Congress might end up changing the rules by the time you are 59 and a half. You might end up with a Roth IRA in your golden years, but the tax-free withdrawals may be a thing of the past. If you open a traditional IRA now, you can get the tax benefits right now, by deducting your contributions. If you decide on a Roth IRA, you are waiting years, sometimes decades, to realize the tax benefit, while assuming the risk that the rules around deductions might change in the coming years.

These decisions are always hard to make. Which is why it is essential to learn as much as you can about tax sheltered retirement plans and all the problems that might arise. The onus of education is on your. Might was well get started.

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