If you're self-employed, saving for retirement can be more of a challenge. You don't have certain luxuries some employees take for granted, like a 401(k) plan with employer matching or pension plans. Of course, there are IRA accounts, but the $5,500 annual contribution limit might not be enough on its own.
Fortunately, there are several types of accounts specifically designed for self-employed individuals to save for their retirement. The three most common are the SIMPLE IRA, the SEP-IRA, and the Individual 401(k), all of which have their own unique advantages. Here's a quick overview to determine which is right for you.
The easiest option
As the name implies, the SIMPLE IRA is the most straightforward and easy to understand of the three account types. These are available to both self-employed individuals, as well as to small businesses.
These accounts work similarly to traditional IRAs in that you can deduct contributions, with a few small differences. Most significantly, you can contribute more money. For the 2014 tax year, you can contribute up to $12,000 to a SIMPLE IRA. And, you'll be able to invest in the full range of stocks, mutual funds, bonds, and other investments available to IRA holders.
Some people may be able to set aside more than this amount, but the rules can get a little tricky. For example, the $12,000 limit refers to employee contributions, but the rules allow for "employer matching." Well, if you're self-employed, that's you. So, make sure you check with a professional to determine how much you should put in your account.
The IRS publishes an excellent guide to SIMPLE IRAs and the benefits, and it is definitely worth reading for self-employed individuals.
If you want to save more...
A Simplified Employee Pension, or SEP-IRA, is quite similar to a SIMPLE IRA, but with a few key differences.
A SEP may be the way to go if you earn a high level of income and want to set more money aside. You are allowed to contribute up to 25% of the first $208,000 of income, which means a maximum of $52,000 for the current tax year. And, all allowed contributions are tax-deductible.
And, unlike a SIMPLE IRA, all contributions into a SEP are from the employer, which simplifies the contribution limits.
Both SIMPLE and SEP-IRA accounts have the same distribution requirements as traditional IRAs. Specifically, you cannot "borrow" from your account, nor can you use the assets in the account as collateral for a loan of any kind. And, any distributions taken before 59 and a half years of age are subject to the 10% early withdrawal tax.
If you want 401(k) benefits
There are certain things you can do with a 401(k) that you can't do with an IRA. For example, a 401(k) permits participants to borrow money from their account without any penalty. However, investment options in 401(k) plans can be rather limited, generally restricted to one group of funds.
The contribution limit into a one-participant 401(k) plan (also called an individual 401(k) or a solo 401(k)) is $52,000 for the 2014 tax year, the same as a SEP-IRA.
However, determining the maximum you are allowed to contribute is somewhat more complex, as it comes from a combination of employer and employee contributions. Employees are allowed to defer up to $17,500 of compensation, and employers are allowed to contribute up to 25% of the employee's compensation, as long as this doesn't make the total contributions exceed the limit.
While this sounds complicated, and it is, figure 25% of your net profits plus $17,500 as the max, up to $52,000.
Which is right for you?
When you're self-employed, it can be a challenge figuring out what your "income" is and how much you are allowed to contribute, so fortunately the IRS has a worksheet to help you calculate the income figure you should use for contribution purposes.
The right plan for you depends on how much you are allowed to contribute and how much freedom you want with your investment choices. Any of these plans will help you get a great start on your retirement savings, and will also score you some tax deductions that any self-employed person will love.