Individual retirement accounts are tax-advantaged retirement accounts. A typical IRA will have investment options like individual stocks, mutual funds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
In recent years, many investors have looked to expand the investments in their IRAs beyond these traditional options and hold alternative investments such as cryptocurrencies, real estate investments, investments in startups, livestock, and a host of others. With a self-directed IRA platform such as Alto, investors can invest in these and other types of alternative assets inside of their IRA.
Learn what Alto has to offer (such as holding crypto in an IRA), how it works, and whether it makes sense for your retirement portfolio, in this review.
What is Alto?
Alto is an alternative IRA fintech platform that allows investors to invest their IRA accounts in a variety of alternative assets including cryptocurrencies. The team is led by founder and CEO Eric Satz and has a number of investors behind it, including Moment Ventures and Franklin Templeton.
Alto is based in Nashville, Tennessee. Alto launched in the fall of 2018.
Alto also offers startups the opportunity to raise capital for their ventures from IRA investors on the Alto platform. This can be beneficial not only to the startup, but also to investors looking to invest in this type of alternative investment option for their IRAs. As with any investment, it’s critical to do your due diligence in evaluating investment opportunities with startups. It’s especially important here because it doesn’t appear that Alto conducts any sort of pre-screening of these startups prior to offering them.
In fact, Alto, also known as Alto Solutions, Inc., is clear in its disclaimer that it’s not a broker or broker-dealer or an investment advisor, and that it doesn’t provide investment advice. In other words, you’re fully responsible for the investing choices you make using the platform.
What is a self-directed IRA?
A self-directed IRA is a type of IRA that is held by a custodian (financial institution) that allows investments in a broader range of investments than might be permitted by most IRA custodians. These custodians allow investors to include alternative and non-traditional assets in their IRA accounts.
Alternative self-directed IRA investment options can include:
- Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies
- Real estate
- Gold and precious metals subject to certain rules for IRAs
- Investments in startup businesses (venture capital)
- Securitized artwork
Depending on the self-directed custodian, they may offer both traditional and Roth IRA accounts. In addition, some self-directed custodians offer other retirement accounts such as a self-directed SEP IRA, a Solo 401(k), or a SIMPLE IRA.
All rules regarding prohibited transactions that would apply to a conventional IRA account would also apply to a self-directed IRA. For example, if an investor were to hold rental real estate inside their IRA account, all funds used to repair or improve the property must come from within their IRA account. Using outside funds could result in some or all of the assets in the account becoming subject to taxes and possibly a penalty.
Self-directed IRAs and other retirement savings accounts can be a viable place for investment in many alternative assets. Often these investment vehicles are not as liquid as investments in vehicles such as stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs. In many cases, the largest pool of investable money for many investors is inside their IRA. This is also, in many cases, money that will not be needed for a number of years. This timing coincides with the lack of liquidity of these alternative assets in many cases.
How does Alto work?
Alto offers two types of IRAs: the Alto IRA and the Alto CryptoIRA
The Alto IRA is a self-directed IRA designed to allow account holders to own a variety of alternative assets inside of their accounts. The Alto IRA is available as a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA, or as a SEP IRA. The annual contribution limits for IRA accounts, both Roth and traditional, are $6,000 plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those 50 or older. These limits are unchanged for 2022.
The contribution limit for a SEP IRA is 25% of compensation for a self-employed individual or business owner up to a limit of $58,000 for 2021. This limit increases to $61,000 for 2022.
Additionally, money from outside IRAs and other retirement accounts can be transferred into an Alto IRA or an Alto Crypto IRA.
The fees are quite low. The Alto IRA has a pro option with a $25 monthly fee, whereas the starter option has a $10 per month fee. The main difference is that with the pro option, investors are not restricted to the partner investments offered on the platform. You can “bring in your own deal.” For example, you could buy a real estate property you intend to rent out within your Alto IRA if you have the pro membership.
With the starter option, you can work only with Alto IRA partners. The good news is that Alto has a range of partners, including:
- Masterworks, an art investment platform
- EquityZen, which offers investment opportunities in private companies that are pre-IPO
- Republic, which is a startup crowdfunding platform
- AcreTrader, a farmland investment company
- AngelList, which offers investment opportunities with startups
- FarmTogether, another farmland investment company
Want to invest some of your retirement funds in crypto? The Alto CryptoIRA offers IRA investors access to more than 100 cryptocurrencies online via Coinbase, which is an outside vendor to Alto.
IRA account holders who wish to use the Alto CryptoIRA first need to fund their Alto IRA account. They can invest in over 100 types of cryptocurrencies offered on the Coinbase platform. The Alto investment platform indicates that it maintains sufficient liquidity in its overall Coinbase account to ensure there are no liquidity issues with any trades an individual account holder might execute.
Alto has a direct connection with Coinbase, so individual account holders do not need to establish their own Coinbase account. Coinbase offers 24/7 trading with as little as $10 to start. Alto offers a free concierge service to help IRA account holders in getting started.
The advantage of this arrangement when using Alto’s Crypto IRA is that you don’t have to worry about minimums or having your own Coinbase account. Additionally, the issue of having a crypto wallet and storage is taken care of for you. This is a huge consideration when investing in crypto whether inside of an IRA or on a taxable basis.
One big advantage to investing in crypto via an IRA account is the fact that you don’t have to worry about taxes each year. The tax issues surrounding crypto investing are complex at best, but these issues go away if the crypto is held in a tax-advantaged account such as an IRA.
The Alto CryptoIRA has no account fee and a fee of 1.5% of the value of the transaction for crypto trades. There are fees for account closure and for outgoing wires.
How much can you earn with an Alto IRA?
As with any type of investment, whether made in a retirement account like an IRA or on a taxable basis, there are no guarantees. Your investment gains or losses will depend upon the investments you choose and how the financial markets and the economy do over time. Other factors will include how long you hold the investments in the account and the amount of risk that you take.
Specifically regarding an Alto IRA or Alto CryptoIRA, alternative investments, including cryptocurrencies, involve a number of risks. Investments such as real estate, shares of a privately held startup, and other alternatives often have limited liquidity. This means if you need to withdraw cash quickly, you typically can’t with these investments. It takes time to sell real estate, for example. If the investor needs or wants to get their cash out of the investment, their options may be a bit limited.
Cryptocurrencies can be volatile and experience price fluctuations.
On the flip side of this, many alternative investments offer the opportunity for solid long-term gains. It's important for an investor considering an investment in an Alto IRA or any self-directed retirement account to understand both the risks of crypto and alternative investments as well as the potential rewards.
How to sign up for an Alto IRA
Both the Alto IRA and the Alto CryptoIRA are fairly straightforward to open online.
- Visit www.altoira.com.
- Complete your account application online.
- Select the type of account you will open: traditional IRA, Roth IRA, or SEP IRA.
- Decide whether the account is a regular IRA or CryptoIRA.
- Fund the account either via a direct contribution or a transfer from an IRA account at another custodian.
From there you can start investing in alternative assets and crypto.
What’s the difference between a Roth IRA and a self-directed IRA?
A Roth IRA is a type of IRA account that is available from regular IRA custodians and by many self-directed IRA providers such as Alto. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made on an after-tax basis and can offer tax-free distributions if certain rules are followed. These characteristics are the same whether the Roth IRA is of the “conventional” type or is opened on a self-directed IRA platform.
A self-directed IRA is not a type of IRA, but rather is offered on a platform that supports investment in a variety of alternative assets such as real estate, crypto, and a host of others.
What are some advantages of a Roth IRA?
Whether a Roth IRA is advantageous to you will depend on your particular situation. One of the advantages is that withdrawals are potentially tax-free if certain conditions are met such as having the Roth for at least five years and being at least 59 1/2 years of age. A Roth IRA can offer tax-free distributions to use in retirement.
Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions, which means this money can continue to grow until needed. It also avoids the taxes on RMDs that are an issue with traditional IRA accounts.
Is a bitcoin IRA safe?
There are two potential issues here that determine whether a bitcoin IRA might be safe. First, from an investment standpoint, investing in bitcoin in an IRA will involve the investment risks inherent in investing in bitcoin regardless of the type of account it is held in. One risk that holding bitcoin in an IRA does reduce or eliminate is the risk of incurring taxes you may trigger unintentionally. The tax situation surrounding bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is complex.
The other safety issue surrounds the storage of your bitcoin. Before investing in bitcoin or any cryptocurrency inside of an IRA (or anywhere else) be sure to check out how the crypto is stored, what security features are in place, and how your ownership of the crypto works in the event you want to transfer this crypto to another account elsewhere.
Other investing options to consider
As far as simply investing in crypto, there are many brokers that offer it, including Robinhood. It should be noted, however, that Robinhood does not offer IRA accounts so this would not be the place to go if you want to own crypto inside of an IRA account.
IRAs are widely available at conventional brokers and custodians including Schwab, Vanguard, and Fidelity.
There are a growing number of self-directed IRA platforms as well. Two that have been around for several years include Strata Trust Company and Rocket Dollar. It is always important to check out any firm that you are considering investing your money with, whether in an IRA or any other type of account. Given that self-directed IRAs are a bit more complex and many of the firms in this space are not as well known, performing your due diligence is perhaps even more important here.
Self-directed IRAs and retirement accounts can be a good option for some investors. The Alto platform looks like an interesting option for holding alternatives, including crypto, in an IRA. If this is an option that you are considering, be sure to perform thorough due diligence on the platform to understand all the pros and cons. To learn more, check out our guide on buying bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in an IRA.