Do IRAs Lose Money? Market Impact, Investment Choices, Fees

Author: Focus on the User | 6 min read
IRAs Losing Money and Value

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are subject to market dynamics, just like any other investment. They can indeed lose money, but the extent of the loss depends on various factors such as market conditions, investment choices, and management fees. For example, during the 2008 financial crisis, the average IRA account experienced a significant loss of about 40%. Factors influencing IRA performance include economic downturns, inflation rates, interest rate changes, and geopolitical events.

Economic indicators like inflation, averaging around 2-3% annually, and stock market performances, such as the S&P 500’s historical average annual return of approximately 10% before inflation, play crucial roles. The composition and diversification of the IRA portfolio also significantly impact its value. For instance, a portfolio with a 70% stock and 30% bond allocation behaves differently in the market compared to a 50/50 split.

Why Did My IRA Lose Money?

The loss in an IRA’s value can be attributed to several reasons. Market declines, as seen during the 2008 financial crisis, can have a substantial impact. Other contributing factors include the poor performance of selected investments and high management or administrative fees. Economic recessions typically lead to a decrease in the value of various investments like stocks and bonds, commonly found in IRAs.

The alignment of investment choices with market performance is crucial; misaligned or overly risky investments can exacerbate losses. For instance, a technology-focused mutual fund might underperform if the tech sector itself is struggling, irrespective of the broader market’s health. High fees, which can range from 0.25% to 1.5% annually, also play a role in diminishing IRA savings.

What to Do If Your IRA Loses Money

In response to losses in your IRA, several actions can be taken. Firstly, reviewing and possibly adjusting the investment strategy is crucial to ensure alignment with personal risk tolerance and retirement goals. Consulting with a financial advisor is advisable to understand the loss reasons and explore recovery options.

It’s important to avoid panic-driven decisions and maintain a long-term perspective, recognizing that markets naturally fluctuate. Studies suggest that advised assets could outperform non-advised ones by 1.5 to 4% annually. Historically, IRAs have shown recovery within 3-5 years following market downturns, reinforcing the importance of patience and maintaining investments through these periods.

Remain Invested

Staying invested during market downturns can offer long-term benefits. Historically, markets have recovered, and those who remain invested typically see their portfolios bounce back. Continuing contributions during downturns allows for purchasing assets at lower prices, setting up potential gains during market recoveries.

A key strategy in these times is dollar-cost averaging, which involves continual contributions that lower the average cost of investments. Importantly, withdrawing investments or switching to conservative assets during market lows can result in permanent losses. For instance, after a 10% portfolio decline, an 11% return is necessary just to break even.

Diversify IRA Portfolio With Precious Metals

Diversification is a fundamental aspect of managing IRA portfolios, and one way to achieve this is by including precious metals like gold and silver. These metals offer a hedge against inflation and market volatility, often showing low correlation with stocks and bonds. However, it’s important to adhere to IRS rules regarding purity standards and storage for precious metals in IRAs.

Allocating a small portion, say 5-10%, to precious metals can provide a buffer against market fluctuations. For example, gold has shown an average annual return of around 7-8% over the past 20 years, contributing to portfolio diversification. Remember, IRS guidelines require these metals to be of a specific purity and stored in approved depositories.

Find Out How to Invest Gold in Your IRA

How to Minimize Losses in IRA

To reduce losses in an IRA, diversification across different asset classes is key. This includes a mix of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and possibly alternative investments. Regular portfolio review and rebalancing help in maintaining the desired asset allocation and responding to market changes. Employing dollar-cost averaging, where fixed-amount contributions are made regularly, can help mitigate market volatility's impact. For instance, a diversified portfolio with a mix of 50% stocks, 40% bonds, and 10% alternative assets targets a balance between risk reduction and aiming for an average annual return of 5-6%.

How Risky Are IRAs?

The risk associated with an IRA is primarily determined by its underlying investments. Portfolios heavy in stocks are generally riskier compared to those with a higher proportion of bonds or stable value funds. Aggressive growth stocks or sector-specific funds may see higher volatility. However, risks can be managed through diversification, appropriate asset allocation based on age and risk tolerance, and regular portfolio reviews. For example, stock-heavy IRA portfolios might experience annual volatility of 10-15%, whereas bond-heavy portfolios might see 3-5% volatility.

Risks in Different IRA Types

The risk level varies across different types of IRAs, such as Traditional, Roth, SEP, SIMPLE, and Cryptocurrency IRAs.

Traditional IRA Risks

Traditional IRAs are subject to market risks, particularly if the portfolio is heavily invested in stocks or high-risk assets. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) starting at age 72 may necessitate withdrawals during market downturns, potentially leading to locked-in losses. Additionally, the tax-deferred status means that taxes are owed upon withdrawal, which could be a disadvantage if tax rates increase in the future.

Roth IRA Risks

Roth IRAs, while exposed to market risks, offer tax-free withdrawals for qualified distributions, providing a hedge against future tax increases. There are no RMDs, giving more flexibility in withdrawal timing and managing market risks. However, early withdrawal of earnings can incur taxes and penalties, adding to the risk factor.


SEP IRAs, often used by self-employed individuals or small business owners, bear similar market risks to traditional IRAs. Business downturns can affect the ability to contribute, impacting retirement savings. The higher contribution limits mean potentially greater exposure to market volatility.


SIMPLE IRAs carry similar market risks as other IRAs. The investment choices are often determined by the plan provider. Early withdrawal penalties are higher, increasing the risk for early access to funds. Additionally, the lower contribution limits compared to SEP IRAs may limit growth potential.

Cryptocurrency IRA Risks

Cryptocurrency IRAs are characterized by high volatility and the speculative nature of cryptocurrencies, leading to significant value fluctuations. Regulatory uncertainties and cybersecurity risks pose unique challenges. While there's potential for high returns, the risk and potential for substantial losses are also elevated.

Precious Metals IRA Risks

Investing in gold, silver, platinum, and palladium through Precious Metals IRAs offers diversification and a hedge against inflation and market volatility. However, these investments must adhere to IRS purity standards and storage requirements. While they provide diversification, they also carry risks associated with commodity price fluctuations and storage costs. For instance, gold prices can significantly fluctuate, with a 10-year return variance from -2% to 28%.

Impact of Different IRA Investment Choices

The performance and risk of an IRA largely depend on the chosen investments. Stocks offer potential high returns but are subject to market volatility. Bonds are generally safer, providing fixed income but are sensitive to interest rate changes. Mutual funds offer diversification but come with associated fees and expenses that can impact returns. Precious metals like gold provide a hedge against inflation and currency devaluation but are less correlated with stocks and bonds.

How IRA Fees Affect IRA Value Over Time

Administrative, management, and investment advisory fees vary among IRA custodians and significantly impact long-term growth. Expense ratios of mutual funds and ETFs within an IRA contribute to overall costs. A 1% annual fee can reduce an IRA's end balance substantially over 30 years, assuming a 6% annual return rate. Different IRAs have varying fee structures; understanding and minimizing these fees is crucial for maximizing IRA value.

Tax Implications of Losses/Withdrawals in IRA

Losses in an IRA cannot be deducted from taxable income, unlike in taxable investment accounts. Early withdrawals from traditional IRAs are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty if taken before age 59½, barring some exceptions. Roth IRA contributions can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free at any time, but earnings are subject to taxes and penalties if withdrawn prematurely.

Market Volatility's Impact On IRA Investments

Short-term market volatility can cause fluctuations in IRA account values, especially those heavily invested in stocks. However, long-term investment strategies typically mitigate the impact of short-term volatility. It's important for retirement planning to understand and accept market volatility as an inherent part of investing in financial markets. Long-term investments in IRAs generally recover from short-term market downturns.

Economic Factors Affecting IRAs

Economic factors such as inflation, unemployment rates, GDP growth, and interest rate changes directly impact IRA investment returns. Global events can also affect market performance and IRA values. Monitoring economic indicators and adjusting investment strategies accordingly can help manage IRA performance. For instance, inflation can erode purchasing power, and economic recessions can lead to short-term IRA losses.

Is It Normal For My IRA to Fluctuate?

Yes, fluctuations in IRA value are normal and expected due to the inherent volatility in financial markets. The extent of fluctuation depends on the asset allocation and types of investments within the IRA. Understanding that these fluctuations are part of the investment process is crucial for maintaining a long-term perspective. Typically, a balanced portfolio might see annual variances of 10-20%. Market corrections, which are declines of 10% or more, occur on average every two years, impacting IRA values. Despite these fluctuations, long-term investors generally experience overall growth, evidenced by the historic 10% annual growth rate of the S&P 500.

How Often Should I Check My IRA Balance?

While staying informed about your IRA balance is important, frequent checking, such as daily or weekly, can lead to unnecessary stress due to normal market fluctuations. Quarterly or semi-annual reviews are generally sufficient for most investors to track progress and make any necessary adjustments. Regular, but not excessive, monitoring aligns with the long-term nature of retirement investing and aids in making informed decisions.

Can I Change My IRA Investment Strategy If I’m Consistently Losing Money?

Yes, changing investment strategies in response to consistent losses can be a prudent decision. It's important to evaluate the reasons for the losses and consider the investor's risk tolerance and time horizon. A financial advisor can provide valuable guidance on adjusting the investment strategy to align with personal goals and current market conditions. For example, shifting to a more conservative allocation can reduce potential losses and volatility.

How Do Market Downturns Typically Affect IRAs in the Long Term?

Historically, markets have recovered from downturns, and long-term investors have generally seen growth in their IRA values over time. Market downturns can offer opportunities to buy investments at lower prices, benefiting future growth. Maintaining a long-term perspective and staying invested is generally advised, as timing the market is challenging and can lead to missed opportunities. For example, post-recession periods have often seen substantial growth in the following years, emphasizing the importance of a diversified portfolio and continued contributions during downturns.

Should You Have Multiple IRAs?

Having multiple IRAs can be beneficial for different investment strategies and tax treatments, like combining Traditional and Roth IRAs. However, managing multiple IRAs requires careful monitoring to adhere to annual contribution limits. Diversification across different IRAs can reduce risk, but consolidation into fewer accounts may simplify management and reduce fees.

Can An IRA Be Garnished?

Generally, IRAs have some level of protection against creditors in bankruptcy, but the extent varies by state law and federal regulations. IRAs are often protected from garnishment for debt collection but may be subject to legal claims such as divorce settlements or unpaid federal taxes. Federal law offers a substantial bankruptcy exemption for IRAs, but state-specific laws vary, affecting the level of protection.

What Are the Common Mistakes to Avoid With IRA Investing?

Common mistakes in IRA investing include overlooking the impact of fees and expenses on long-term returns, failing to diversify investments, and making emotional or impulsive investment decisions during market volatility. These mistakes can lead to suboptimal performance and potential losses in the IRA.

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Disclaimer: Content on this website is not intended to be used as financial advice. It is not to be used as a recommendation to buy, sell, or trade an asset that requires a licensed broker. Consult a financial advisor.

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