Welcome to IRA season. Here are eight ways of improving the yields you get from your Individual Retirement Account:
* Try to start each year's IRA right from Jan. 1, or as early in the tax year as you possibly can. The sooner you put the money away, the more it will earn.
Right now, you can deposit up to $2,000 in an IRA for 1984 (deductible on your '84 tax return) and another $2,000 for an IRA in 1985. If you don't have the money, think about taking a loan. If you start each year's IRA on Jan. 1, saving $2,000 at 10 percent, in 10 years you could have $4,000 more than if you put off funding your IRA until the day your tax return is due. After 20 years, you'd have around $14,500 more and after 30 years, $41,500 more, according to the U.S. League of Savings Associations.
* Instead of scrambling for a big lump sum at tax time, arrange to make monthly deposits into an IRA, maybe through automatic withdrawals from your checking account every pay day. Many banks and S&Ls now offer this arrangement. You can also send monthly checks to a mutual fund.
* Don't automatically put your IRA money into a local bank. You may be able to find higher yields by seeking out high-paying, federally insured institutions around the country that open IRAs by mail.
Some recent attractive offers: First National Bank, Bellevue, Neb., 12 percent for four years; North Carolina Federal S&L, Albemarle, 11 percent for 18 months; Women's Federal Savings, Cleveland, 10.9 percent for five to 10 years; Pima S&L in Tucson, Ariz., 11.4 percent for five to 10 years; Chase Manhattan in New York, 11 percent for two years.
* Many institutions offer bonus interest rates, such as "15 percent" (in big type in the ad) "for 30 days" (in small type). After that, the rate declines. Pay more attention to the permanent yield, which should also be included in the ad.
Other banks are attracting attention with tax-free gifts -- whose value, under IRS rules, cannot exceed $10 for deposits up to $5,000 and no more than $20 for larger amounts. (Large deposits would come from people rolling over funds from one IRA to another.)
There's nothing wrong with bonuses and gifts. But ask the bank how many dollars your account will earn in a year, and compare it with the dollars earned in other institutions. That's the only way to find out which one really offers you the most.
* If you own both stocks and interest-rate investments (CDs, bonds or money funds), here's how to get the maximum tax advantage: Put the interest-yielding investments into your IRA, and take direct ownership of the stocks. Your capital gains on stocks will then be lightly taxed, while your interest income is tax-deferred. If you own the stocks inside your IRA, the profits will all be taxed as ordinary income and you'll lose the favorable capital-gains rate.
* If your track record shows that you're a successful investor, consider a self-directed IRA that lets you move money from one type of investment to another without a lot of fuss. At mutual fund companies, you can move from one fund to another within the fund family. At brokerage houses, you can buy and sell almost any kind of investment, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds and certificates of deposit, under the same IRA umbrella.
A few pioneering banks, S&Ls and credit unions are also starting self-directed IRAs, Jim Dorsey of the IRA Reporter told my associate, Virginia Wilson. They offer a revolving choice of CD's, money-market accounts, mutual funds and stocks bought through discount brokers.
* Banking institutions are allowed to cancel the early-withdrawal penalty for IRA investors who take money from CDs after they reach age 59 1/2. But a growing number of banks are applying the penalty anyway. Avoid any bank that will hit you for this extra cost.
* Your most lucrative tax-sheltered investment may not be an IRA at all. It may be a tax-deferred 401(k) savings-and-investment plan offered by your company.
These plans are growing rapidly among corporations large and small. You often can put more money into a 401(k) than you can into an IRA. Also, your company may match part of your contribution, which effectively gives you a giant return on your investment. (If have enough money to save, you can start both a 401(k) and an IRA.)
Many employes haven't the faintest idea whether their companies offer such a plan, because they don't read the handouts that appear in their "in" boxes. But before investing in an IRA, call the company benefits office. The best deal of the tax season may be right there, under your nose.