Apart from life insurance, the most concrete long-term financial planning move many people make today is to open an individual retirement account (IRA). Sometimes called ''the best present Congress ever gave the American people,'' IRAs have had two periods of spectacular growth since they became available to all wage earners on New Year's Day, 1982. The first came immediately after that holiday, helped by heavy advertising, high interest rates, and extravagant claims that IRAs could turn ordinary Americans into millionaires.
The second came earlier this year, when taxpayers beat the April 15 deadline and opened new IRAs or substantially added to existing accounts.
Between those periods, a few places have emerged as the best bets for IRAs. In most cases, these options are for people who like to take an active role in their financial affairs. Whether you become a millionaire depends partly on you (how much you can save and how good you are at finding the best yields) and partly on the overall economy (how high interest rates and inflation are).
The IRA itself, by demanding a habit of regularly socking away money in an account that is not expected to be tapped for years, requires a more active role than most people are used to. Yet, the idea that up to $2,000 can be put in this account every year and be taken off taxable income on Form 1040 certainly seems to have an appeal, as does the idea that interest on that money builds up tax-free until retirement.
One of the most popular choices for keeping up with changing economic and investing trends is the mutual fund. By keeping the IRA with a large mutual fund group that has several funds covering a variety of investments - including stocks of fast-growing young companies, established ''blue chip'' corporations, municipal bonds, corporate bonds, and money markets - the investor can move money from one fund to another as the times and individual financial goals change. The move, or ''switch,'' can be done over the telephone, usually at no charge.
Many people, however, want the security of federal deposit insurance protecting their IRA. Even if they are willing to put other money in fairly risky investments, they do not want to fool around with the retirement nest egg. For them, banks or savings and loans are the answer.
One of the better strategies for going this route is to find a bank that will let you lock in a yield for up to 48 months, then let you add to the account at the promised rate any time during that period, says Robert Krughoff, president of the Center for the Study of Services. The center is a Washington-based nonprofit consumer group that publishes consumer magazines and special booklets.
One of its booklets is ''The IRA Book.'' ($5.95. The Center for the Study of Services, 1518 K Street NW, Suite 406, Washington, D.C. 20005.) It gives ratings , addresses, and phone numbers of several hundred banks, S&Ls, mutual funds, brokers, and insurance companies and describes many of the most efficient IRA statregies.
The fixed-yield strategy, Mr. Krughoff says, can be done even if the bank offering it is in another part of the country. So if a customer can't find a bank in his or her area that offers this approach, the investor can write or call the distant bank to get the paperwork started. Last year, Mr. Krughoff says , he opened a 48-month IRA with a fixed yield of 15 percent. On April 15 of this year, he added to his IRA. Both the ''old'' and ''new'' money will earn 15 percent until the end of the 48 months.
If someone wants to take a cautious approach to this idea, Mr. Krughoff says, they can open one of these accounts with a small amount of money, say $100, until they see which way interest rates are going. If rates go down, more money can be put into the account; but if rates go up, it's only $100 getting shortchanged.
Another method that can be used with some banks and S&Ls is to find one with a variable rate account that guarantees to keep IRA yields one or two percentage points above a certain index. The index is often the six-month Treasury bill rate. ''Some banks are promising to pay 2 to 21/2 percent more than the T-bill rate,'' Mr. Krughoff says.
''Be sure to get a bank that gives you a definite benchmark,'' he cautions. ''Do not put money in a variable-rate account that is not by contract tied to some outside measure.''
Even though it is too late to open a 1982 IRA unless you filed for an extension before April 15, investors can now take the time to shop around for places to make 1983 deposits.
''Look in your newspaper ads and find some good interest rates,'' he advises. ''Ask them to send you a contract and then take the time to read it and compare with other banks.''
People considering mutual funds, he says, should look for funds that let customers open IRAs with little or no fees.