The IRS gets a little grumpy if you contribute to a Roth IRA without what it calls “earned income.” That usually means that you need a paying job Roth IRA contributions, but what if you aren’t punching a time clock every day?

Well, the good news is that you don’t need a formal job to contribute to a Roth IRA. Although not true in all cases, if you’re paying taxes on any type of income from working (freelancing, for example, or a side business), there’s a good chance that you can make Roth IRA contributions.

Here are five situations in which you can still contribute.


You don’t have to work for a company and receive a W2 form. If you’re self-employed, you’re eligible. Of course, you have to first report that income on your tax return. No cheating.

Stock Options

If you exercise non-qualified stock options, you will probably pay income taxes on the difference between the grant price and the price at which you exercised the options. The taxable income counts toward Roth IRA contributions.

Scholarships or Fellowships

Some scholarships and fellowships are taxable—especially those that pay for room and board or include a stipend for living expenses. IRS Publication 970 covers this in detail, but what’s important is that you’re paying income taxes on these funds. When you do so, you can usually use that income to justify Roth IRA contributions. In this case you can do exactly that.

If You’re Married

If your spouse earns income but you don’t, the IRS allows you to have an IRA of your own for which you use family funds to make annual contributions. Often called a spousal IRA, these accounts come with all the same rules as a normal Roth IRA. The only difference is that your spouse’s income is used to qualify for the IRA, rather than your own.

Families often use the spousal IRA to double the amount they can contribute to IRAs each year, but be careful. You can only contribute a certain amount per year without facing a penalty. In 2017 you can contribute up to $5,500 per person; if you’re 50 or over, the limit is $6,500.  That means for a couple: $11,000 to $13,000, depending on who is eligible for catch-up contributions.

Also, to make contributions in the name of your spouse you must file as “married filing jointly” on your tax returns. If the nonworking spouse later goes back to work, he or she can still contribute to an existing spousal IRA. Once the account is set up, it’s an IRA just like any other.

Contributions Without Taxes

You don’t necessarily have to pay taxes to contribute to a Roth IRA. If you receive nontaxable combat pay, which is reported in box 12 of your W2 form, you are eligible. If you’re an exempt student with a part-time job, you may qualify for contributions. Finally, if your income is less than your expenses and deductions, you’re eligible, even if you don’t have taxable income.

Consult a Professional

Yes, IRAs are generally reserved for people earning income, but there are some cases in which no income doesn’t mean no IRA. As with any tax-related questions, sometimes individual situations can make a big difference. Check with a tax expert before making contributions.

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