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Retirement Plans for Self Employed Americans

Updated: Dec. 14, 2020, 4:30 p.m.

A number of retirement plans are available to business owners, independent contractors, and people who work for themselves outside of traditional employment. These plans include:

  • Simplified Employee Pensions (SEP-IRA plans)
  • Solo 401(k) plans
  • Saving Incentive Match Plans for Employees (SIMPLE IRA plans)
  • Traditional or Roth IRAs
  • Profit-sharing plans
  • Money purchase plans

These plans provide tax advantages for contributions, but each has different rules, requirements, and contribution limits. It’s important for the self-employed and those working in the gig economy to choose the type (or types) most suitable for their needs and follow IRS rules for contributions.

Self-employed people can also contribute to a taxable brokerage account, but such accounts don’t give you the same tax advantages as these plans.

1. SEP-IRAs

SEP-IRAs, or Simplified Employee Pension IRAs, offer a low administrative burden and high contribution limits. Because of those high limits, they have mostly replaced Keogh plans, which were common before 2001 but are now referred to as qualified plans and have largely fallen out of favor.

Self-employed individuals can contribute to SEP-IRA plans, as can business owners -- however, business owners must make contributions for all employees at the same fixed percentage of employee pay. You can make deductible contributions equaling the lesser of:

  • 25% of net self-employment earnings (net profit minus your SEP contribution and half of self-employment taxes)
  • Up to $57,000 in 2020 and $58,000 in 2021

SEP-IRAs do not allow any additional catch-up contributions.

2. Solo 401(k)s

Solo 401(k)s are similar to employer-provided plans and offer high contribution limits, but there’s also a relatively high administrative burden, and some brokerage firms charge fees for solo 401(k)s. You cannot contribute to these accounts if you have employees other than your spouse. However, you can choose whether to opt for a traditional 401(k) that you contribute to with pre-tax dollars or a Roth IRA that you contribute to with after-tax dollars (but which allows tax-free withdrawals in retirement).

You can make contributions as both employee and employer, with the total equaling $57,000 in 2020 and $58,000 in 2021. Those aged 50 or over are eligible for an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution, bringing the total contribution limit to $63,500 in 2020 and $64,500 in 2021. The contributions break down as follows:

  • Up to $19,500 as an employee. Catch-up contributions are also made as an employee. These are the limits for both 2020 and 2021.
  • As an employer, up to 25% of net self-employment earnings or the maximum of $57,000 in 2020 and $58,000 in 2021. Net self-employment earnings are equal to net profit minus your SEP contribution (excluding any catch-up contribution) and half of self-employment taxes.

If you have a spouse who is employed by and earns income from this business in some capacity, you can make the same contributions for each of you.

3. SIMPLE IRAs

SIMPLE IRAs provide a low administrative burden, a larger contribution limit than traditional or Roth IRAs, and the ability to contribute more money to your own retirement account than to those of your employees. You are eligible for a SIMPLE IRA as a self-employed worker or if you have a business with up to 100 employees.

Both employees and employers can contribute to an individual’s SIMPLE IRA:

  • Employees can make up to to $13,500 in contributions. Those aged 50 or over can make an additional catch-up contribution of up to $3,000. These are the limits for both 2020 and 2021.
  • Employers may choose one method: fixed contributions of 2% of employee compensation on earnings of up to $285,000 in 2020 or $290,000 in 2021, or matching contributions of up to 3% of employee compensation.

4. Traditional or Roth IRAs

Traditional and Roth IRAs aren’t exclusively for the self-employed, but people who work independently or who own their own business can contribute to these plans. Traditional IRAs allow you to make tax-deductible contributions, and Roth IRAs allow for after-tax contributions, with money growing tax-free. There is low administrative burden, you contribute to the accounts as an individual rather than as your own employer, and there’s a combined contribution limit for traditional and Roth IRAs of $6,000 in both 2020 and 2021. If you’re 50 or over, you’re eligible for an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution, bringing your total contribution limit to $7000 for both 2020 and 2021.

If you or your spouse has access to another workplace retirement plan, there are income limits. If you exceed them, you will not be eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA at all, or to make tax-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA.

5. Profit-Sharing Plans

Profit-sharing plans give workers a share of company profits based on either quarterly earnings or annual earnings. Businesses of any size can create a profit-sharing plan, and these plans can be created in addition to other retirement plans -- but there is a high administrative burden.

As a business owner, you can choose whether to contribute to employee profit-sharing plans, but cannot discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. These plans are often linked with 401(k) plans, but only employers contribute to profit-sharing plans. You can make contributions based on a set formula that you establish, with maximum contributions up to whichever of the following is lowest:

  • 25% of compensation
  • $57,000 (in 2020) or $58,000 (in 2021) for those under 50. Anyone older than 50 is eligible for catch-up contributions, increasing these limits to $63,500 (in 2020) or $64,500 (in 2021).

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6. Money Purchase Plans

Money purchase plans differ from profit-sharing plans because employers are required to contribute for plan participants and contributions are not variable from year to year based on company profitability. When you establish this plan, you must establish the contribution rate. Money purchase plans have a high administrative burden, but a pre-approved plan can be easier to establish. You can contribute as an employer with maximum contributions equaling whichever of the following is lowest:

  • 25% of compensation
  • $57,000 (in 2020) or $58,000 (in 2021) for those under 50. Anyone 50 or older is eligible for catch-up contributions, increasing these limits to $63,500 (in 2020) or $64,500 (in 2021).

Pick the best self-employed retirement plan for you

The best self-employed retirement plan depends upon your needs. Key factors to consider include:

  • Whether you wish to contribute as an employer, employee, or both
  • The amount you wish to contribute
  • Whether you have other employees working for you and, if so, if you wish to contribute to their retirement plans as well
  • Whether you want to make contributions for both you and your spouse
  • Whether you’d prefer to make tax-deductible contributions or tax-free withdrawals
  • The level of administrative burden you wish to assume when establishing and maintaining your plan

The chart below will help you to determine which plan may be best for you.

Plan Type Who Contributes 2020 Contribution Limit Administrative Burden
SEP-IRA Employers only 25% of net self-employment earnings up to $57,000 (as an employer) Medium
Solo 401(k) Employers and employees $19,500 as an employee (or $26,000 if you’re 50 or over)25% of net self-employment earnings up to $57,000 as an employer High
SIMPLE IRA Employers and employees $13,500 as an employee (or $16,000 if you’re 50 or over)2% of salary up to $285,000 or matching contributions of up to 3% of salary as an employer Medium
Traditional or Roth IRA Individuals $6,000 (or $7,000 if you’re 50 or over) as an employee Low
Profit-sharing plan Employers only The lesser of 25% of compensation or $57,000 (or $63,500 including catch-up contributions) as an employer High
Money purchase plan Employers only The lesser of 25% of compensation or $57,000 (or $63,500 including catch-up contributions) as an employer High