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IRA Options for the Self-Employed

By Christy Bieber - Mar 23, 2017 at 3:05PM

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If you're self-employed, you have options for IRAs not available to ordinary wage earners.

Working for yourself has a lot of perks. Being able to save easily for retirement isn't one of them, thanks to the inaccessibility of employer-sponsored 401(k) or pension plans.

Individual Retirement Account poster.

Individual Retirement Account. Image source: Getty Images.

Self-employed individuals currently make up around one-third of the workforce, and this entrepreneurial group is expected to account for 40% of all U.S. workers by 2020. Unfortunately, 61% of workers who've struck out on their own after previously working for an employer report they're more anxious about saving for retirement than when they had a traditional nine to five job. 

Concerns about retirement are justified. A TD Ameritrade survey found self-employed baby boomers were collectively $1.7 trillion short of having $1 million saved for retirement. The individual shortfall: $335,000 per person. 

The good news is, there are Individual Retirement Accounts to provide options for the self-employed to save for retirement and get tax breaks for doing so, even if entrepreneurs don't have access to a traditional 401(k). Consider these options to find the IRA that is right for you. 


SEP-IRA plans have high contribution limits, but require employers to contribute an equal percentage of salary for each employee who is eligible to participate. This option is often best for a business owner, including a sole proprietor, with few employees or no employees. 

Maximum contributions for a SEP-IRA as of 2017 are the lesser of 25% of employee compensation or $54,000. There are no catch-up contributions. Contributions are made with pre-tax dollars and you count as your own employee. 

All contributions to a SEP-IRA are made by an employer. If you have employees, contributing to their SEP-IRAs can become expensive. You do not have to contribute the same dollar amount to employee accounts as you contribute to your own; just the same percentage of income. If you save 15% of your salary in your SEP-IRA, you must make contributions to employee accounts of 15% of each employee's pay. 

Simple IRAs

Simple IRAs are a good option for business owners with fewer than 100 employees and no other workplace retirement plan. Employers can easily establish a Simple IRA using form 5305-SIMPLE with an eligible financial institution, such as a brokerage firm.  

You can open a Simple IRA even if you are your company's only employee and even if you operate as a sole proprietorship.

Employees may contribute pre-tax up to $12,500 in a Simple IRA in 2017, plus an additional $3,000 at age 50 and up. Contributions are made through withholding funds from employee paychecks. Employers are required to match 3% of employee compensation or to make 2% non-elective contributions for each employee, regardless of whether that employee contributes to his or her own account. 

If you have a large number of employees, making elective contributions to their accounts can be costly but is not generally as expensive as making SEP-IRA contributions for staff. Contribution limits are also lower than SEP-IRA limits, which means the maximum you can save for your own retirement in this account is much lower. 

Traditional and Roth IRAs

Self-employed individuals can also contribute to a traditional or Roth-IRA, both of which are open to any workers, even those with traditional wage income.

However, contribution limits are often much lower, at just $5,500 maximum for most workers, plus an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions if you're over 50 as of 2017. Higher-income earners are also disqualified from tax breaks for investing in these accounts if their spouse has access to a workplace retirement plan.  

Still, if you are eligible and you don't want to use a SEP-IRA or Simple IRA because you can't afford to contribute to employee retirement accounts, a traditional or Roth IRA offers you another option. 

Since you typically can put aside more tax-advantaged retirement savings due to your self-employed status, take advantage of this opportunity if you can. Pick the best self-employed retirement account option and start investing soon so you can reach your savings goals. 

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