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A Good Reason to Tap Your Roth IRA Early

Apr 14, 2015

The Roth IRA is a great tool for retirement savings. But here's something not as well-known: It's great for developing your career as well.

Many of my young clients in their 20s and 30s struggle to balance current spending, saving for the next 10 years, and stowing away money for retirement. With so many life changes to deal with (weddings, home purchases, children, new jobs), their financial environment is anything but stable. And their retirement will look completely different than it does for today's retirees.

To my clients, separating themselves from their current cash flow for the next 30 years feels like sentencing their innocent income to a long prison term.

They ask, "Why should we save our hard-earned money for retirement when we have no idea what our financial circumstances will be in 15 years, never mind 30? What if we want to go back to school or pay for additional training to improve our careers? We might also decide to start a business. How can we plan for these potential life changes and still be responsible about our future?"

The answers to those questions are simple. Start investing in a Roth IRA — the earlier you do it, the better.

There is a stigma that says anyone who touches retirement money before retirement is making a mistake, but this is what we call blanket advice: Although it's safe and may be correct for many people, each situation is different.

The Roth IRA has very unique features that allow it to be used as a flexible tool for specific life stages.

Unlike contributions to a traditional IRA, which are locked up except for certain circumstances, money that you add to a Roth IRA can be removed at any time. Yes, it's true. The contributions themselves can be taken out of the account and used for anything at all at any time in your life with no penalty. And, like the traditional IRA, you can also take a distribution of the earnings in the account without penalty for certain reasons, one of which is paying for higher education for you or a family member. (Some fine print: You'll pay a penalty on withdrawing a contribution that was a rollover from a traditional IRA within the past five years. And you'll have to pay ordinary income taxes on an early Roth IRA withdrawal for higher education.)

Although you shouldn't pull money from your retirement account for just any reason, sometimes it's a smart move.

Let's say you graduate from college and choose a job based on your major. This first job is great and helps you get your feet wet in the professional world. You're able to gain some valuable real-world experience and support yourself while you enjoy life after school. And this works for a while...until one day, 10 or 15 years into this career, you wake up and begin to question your choices.

You wonder if this career trajectory is truly putting you where you want to be in life. You think about changing careers or starting a business, but you need your income and have no real savings outside of your retirement accounts.

Now, let's also say that you were tipped off to the magic of a Roth IRA while you were in college and you contributed to the account each year for the past 15 years. You have $75,000 sitting in the account, $66,000 of which are your yearly contributions from 2000 through 2014. It's for retirement, though, so you can't touch it, right? Well, this may be the perfect time to do so.

I recently spoke to a someone who did just this. Actually, his wife did it, but he was part of the decisionmaking process.

The wife has been working for years as a massage therapist for the husband's company. Things were going quite well, but she had other ideas for her future. She wanted to go back to school to get her degree as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist. The challenge was that this education was going to cost $30,000, and they did not have that kind of money saved.

So, they brainstormed the various options, one being to tap into his Roth IRA money. They determined that this would be a good investment for their future. Once the wife became a CRNA, her annual earnings would rise an estimated $20,000 — money they could easily use to recoup the Roth IRA withdrawal (though the 2015 Roth IRA contribution limit is $5,500 for those under 50 years old).

This decision gave them a sense of freedom. The flexibility of the Roth allowed them to choose an unconventional funding option for their future and gave the couple a new level of satisfaction in their lives.

And, that's what it's all about. We have one life to live, and it's our responsibility to make decisions that will help us live happily today, while still maintaining responsibility for tomorrow.

Whether your savings is in a bank account or a retirement account, it's your money. Although many advisers will tell you otherwise, you need to make decisions based on what is best for you at various stages of your life. The one-size-fits-all rule just doesn't work when it come to financial planning. There is no need to rule out a possible solution because society says it's a mistake.

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Eric Roberge, CFP, is the founder of Beyond Your Hammock, where he works virtually with professionals in their 20s and 30s, helping them use money as a tool to live a life they love. Through personalized coaching, Eric helps clients organize their finances, set goals, and invest for the future.

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