Best retirement plans for the self-employed

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Retirement plans for the self-employed range from the good to the outrageously good, and can allow you to save much more than you ever could with a traditional employer plan. A well-chosen retirement plan can allow entrepreneurs and the self-employed to bankroll a bright retirement.

The self-employed have several plan options, including defined contribution plans such as a solo 401(k), SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA. But they also have some defined benefit options, too.

Here are the details on some of the best retirement plans, how much you can sock away and which plan may be best for you.

Three popular plans for the self-employed

One of the downsides of being self-employed is that you don’t automatically get the perks offered by many employers, such as a 401(k) plan with a company match on your contributions. But in some regards, self-employed retirement plans can vastly exceed those regular options.

Here are three of the most popular defined contribution plans and who could find them useful.

Solo 401(k)

The solo 401(k) gives you all the advantages of a company 401(k) plan and then gives you even more benefits. You can select traditional or Roth 401(k) options, meaning you’ll get the ability to contribute before-tax or after-tax dollars. You can invest in virtually any asset class, too. Pick a broker that offers a free solo 401(k) – Fidelity and Schwab are good choices – and you won’t pay extra fees.

With a solo 401(k), you can make an employee contribution – up to $19,500 in 2021 – as well as an employer contribution up to 25 percent of your company’s profits, up to a total deposit of $58,000 between the two. Those aged 50 and older can add an additional $6,500 as a catch-up contribution.

As you can see, you can quickly go above where a company’s 401(k) plan usually tops out.

Who it may be best for: One-person businesses or those with one person and a spouse. May work well for those with a side gig (see below) as well as those earning a lot of money.

SEP IRA

A SEP IRA allows the self-employed to create a retirement plan for themselves as well as employees. This kind of plan offers a tax-deferred way to save – with the rules of a traditional IRA – but supercharges it, with a $58,000 maximum annual contribution limit in 2021. And using a SEP IRA won’t preclude you from using a traditional or Roth IRA (which you really should do).

A SEP IRA allows the business to make employer contributions to employees, including the self-employed person. The business can contribute the lesser of 25 percent of its profits or the annual maximum. It’s a widely available plan, with many brokers offering access. However, there is no Roth option and all employees must receive the same percentage contribution.

Who it may be best for: Better for the high-earning self-employed, especially those in one-person outfits.

SIMPLE IRA

The SIMPLE IRA is an easy way for small employers, including the self-employed, to offer employees a retirement plan. The SIMPLE IRA can be easier for an employer to set up than many 401(k) plans, which have complex rules. Employers with 100 employees or fewer earning more than $5,000 can set one up.

The SIMPLE IRA uses the rules of a traditional IRA, so it’s tax-deferred and has the same withdrawal requirements at retirement. Employees can have wages deducted from their paychecks and can defer up to $13,500 annually, with those over age 50 allowed a $3,000 catch-up contribution.

Employers must add to the account, and they have a couple choices: (1) They can match contributions up to 3 percent of salary, or (2) They can contribute up to 2 percent of a worker’s salary up to the annual compensation limit of $290,000 in 2021. Employees are fully vested as soon as they receive the money, so any contribution becomes theirs immediately.

Who it may be best for: Better for businesses with at least a few employees and may allow companies to offer lower benefits than other plans do.

Other options for the self-employed

Those three defined contribution plans are among the most popular, but the self-employed should also be aware that they can set up a defined benefit plan. A defined benefit plan can allow you to sock away even larger amounts on a tax-deferred basis, but they’re better suited to consistently higher-earning individuals.

“These are worthwhile to consider if your self-employment income is substantial,” says Dan Sudit, a partner at Crewe Advisors in Salt Lake City. “The contribution limit is based on a variety of factors including age, income, and years in business, but the annual benefit limit can exceed $200,000 a year.”

However, defined benefit plans can be more cumbersome to set up and generally cost more to maintain. But if you contribute enough, those costs may be worth the trade-off.

“In certain circumstances, depending on whether you make consistent contributions versus a large lump-sum contribution, it can be an effective tool in contributing substantially more dollars to your retirement savings than the other standard qualified retirement plans,” Sudit says.

For most individuals, a defined benefit plan is not really a worthwhile option, but that depends on your individual financial situation and especially your income.

Which self-employed retirement plan is best?

The right self-employed retirement plan depends so much on your individual circumstances, but for those who are the company’s sole employee (also including a spouse), the solo 401(k) is a great pick. It allows you all the benefits of a “normal” company-sponsored 401(k) plan and then takes it up a few notches.

Sudit acknowledges the need to fit the plan to your personal circumstances, but says, “I have a preferential bias to the solo 401(k), because it offers the best of all worlds, taking the greatest benefits of all the other retirement deferral options listed above, with the ability to pick and choose what is best for you.”

He explains: “It allows the maximum contribution as an employee, the maximum combined employee/employer contribution, Roth optionality, and generally, tremendous flexibility and other significant advantages allowing self-employed earners to maximize their retirement contributions.”

Let’s unpack those benefits:

  • With a solo 401(k), you’ll get to maximize the amount you put away for retirement by being able to make both an employee and employer contribution to the account.
  • You can access a Roth 401(k) and take advantage of that plan’s attractive tax-free growth.
  • You’ll be able to invest in a variety of asset classes, depending on the broker or sponsor you use, giving you maximum flexibility.
  • A spouse can also participate in the program, and that’s the lone exception to the “one employee” rule for the solo 401(k).

A solo 401(k) may be better than a SEP IRA

The solo 401(k) even has another more subtle benefit that may make it a better pick than the SEP IRA for low earners or those who are using their business as a side gig.

The solo 401(k) allows you to contribute up to 100 percent of your salary, up to the employee’s annual maximum. In other words, in 2021 the first $19,500 that you earn can be stuffed away in the solo 401(k), saving you on taxes. In contrast, the SEP IRA allows you to contribute at a 25 percent rate, so you’d have to earn substantially more to reach the same contribution level.

On top of this benefit, the solo 401(k) allows you to max out the employer contribution, too. Once you hit the employee maximum, you can still contribute at a 25 percent rate from your company’s remaining profits. So in contrast to the SEP IRA, you’re still able to contribute more to your retirement plan at a lower level of income, all else equal.

Those are some of the biggest differences between the solo 401(k) and SEP IRA, but it can be useful to understand the full range of differences between the two popular programs.

Annual 401(k) maximum is capped

It’s worth noting that the annual maximum contribution to all 401(k) plans is capped, and you may not deposit the annual maximum at your main job and then sock away another annual maximum from your side hustle, too. So you get $19,500 (in 2021) across all your 401(k) plans.

That said, if you max out your employee contribution at your main job, a solo 401(k) does allow you to still make an employer contribution at the rate of 25 percent of your company’s earnings. So it’s a perfectly legal way to save even more through the power of a solo 401(k).

This self-employed retirement calculator can help you figure out which plan may be best for you.

IRAs are still an option for the self-employed

Even if you participate in a retirement plan as a self-employed individual – including the SEP IRA or SIMPLE IRA – you still have the ability to participate in a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

So you can max out your contributions in any of the above retirement plans and still take max advantage of your own personal IRA. For 2021, that means you can contribute up to $6,000 each year (plus a bonus $1,000 if you’re over age 50.)

You’ll enjoy all the benefits of an IRA, including tax-deferred growth, and can take advantage of what many experts see as the best retirement account going – the Roth IRA.

Bottom line

The retirement plan that works best for you depends on your situation. While the solo 401(k) is generally a great pick, it’s a non-starter if you employ more than you and your spouse. So to pick the right plan, you’ll want to think carefully about your needs and where your business is going.

“Choosing the right one requires thoughtful planning, because if you rush or are sold on one strategy versus carefully considering your needs and circumstances, you may find yourself feeling short-changed and ill-prepared for your retirement,” Sudit says.

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Written by
James Royal
Senior investing and wealth management reporter
Bankrate senior reporter James F. Royal, Ph.D., covers investing and wealth management. His work has been cited by CNBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times and more.
Edited by
Banking editor
Reviewed by
Robert R. Johnson
Professor of finance, Creighton University