It may not be easy to save for retirement without a 401(k), but it's also not impossible. According to a study by the Aspen Institute, 55 million Americans are tasked with that very challenge. Fifty-five million is the number of individuals who have no access to a 401(k) -- which means that they're saving without the benefit of 401(k) perks like automatic payroll deductions, high contribution limits, or employer-funded contributions.

Those 401(k) perks may automate and expedite savings progress, but they don't make or break your ability to save for retirement. If you know how to maximize the advantages that come with other types of investing accounts, including Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), taxable brokerage accounts, and solo 401(k)s, then you have a great shot at setting up the rich and comfortable retirement of your dreams. Here's what you need to know.

Woman smiling and holding piggy bank.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Contribute to a Roth IRA if you're eligible

Roth IRA contributions cannot be deducted from your taxes in the current year, but earnings from Roth IRAs are tax-deferred and withdrawals after the age of 59 1/2 are not taxed. The tax deferral on your Roth IRA's earnings is valuable because it expedites your savings growth. Without any recurring tax implications, you don't have to pull money out of the account each year to pay Uncle Sam. And the ability to withdraw money tax-free in retirement could save you thousands if you are in a high tax bracket when you leave the workforce.

There's one other advantage of the Roth IRA that you don't get with a 401(k). Since you contribute to your Roth IRA with after-tax money, you can withdraw your contributions at any time without paying a penalty. You are only penalized for withdrawing earnings, until you reach the age of 59 1/2 and at least five years have passed since your first Roth IRA contribution.

The Roth IRA does have two drawbacks. One, the annual contribution limits are fairly low. In 2021, you can contribute up to $6,000 annually, or $7,000 if you're 50 or older. That limit applies to your combined deposits to Roth and traditional IRA accounts. And two, eligibility for contributing to a Roth IRA is based on your income and tax filing status. As the table below shows, you can't put money in a Roth IRA if you have a high income, unless you use a backdoor Roth IRA strategy

Tax Status

Modified Adjusted Gross Income

Contribution Allowed

Single, or married filing separately

Less than $125,000

Full contribution

Single, or married filing separately

$125,000 to $140,000

Partial contribution

Single, or married filing separately

$140,000 or more

No contribution

Married, filing jointly

Less than $198,000

Full contribution

Married, filing jointly

$198,000 to $208,000

Partial contribution

Married, filing jointly

$208,000 or more

No contribution

Data source: IRS.

2. Contribute to a traditional IRA

If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth IRA, then you can contribute to a traditional IRA instead. Those contributions are tax-deductible, unless your spouse has access to a 401(k) and your household income exceeds $208,000.

The tax structure of the traditional IRA mimics the 401(k). Contributions are made with pretax dollars, earnings are tax-deferred, and distributions are taxable.

3. Contribute to a taxable brokerage account

To secure a comfortable retirement solely with IRA contributions, you likely have to start saving in your early 20s because of those low contribution limits. If you've already seen your 25th birthday come and go, that's obviously not an option.

Instead, you can supplement your IRA savings with deposits to a taxable brokerage account. Look to save 15% of your income across the two accounts.

You will have to manage your tax burden as your brokerage account grows. Dividends, interest, realized gains, and capital gains distributions from mutual funds are taxable annually. You can manage your tax bill proactively by investing in tax-efficient mutual funds and buy-and-hold stocks that do not pay dividends.

Your non-dividend-paying stock positions only incur taxes when you sell them and realize profits -- that's one of several good reasons to avoid impulsive trading. Invest in quality stocks that you can hold for long periods of time.

4. Launch a profitable side hustle and open a solo 401(k) or SEP IRA

If you really don't want to save for retirement without a 401(k), then you could open your own. You'd have to start a side hustle and establish a solo 401(k) or
Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA. What's nice about these accounts is that they have very high contribution limits. In 2021, you can contribute up to $58,000 to a SEP IRA or solo 401(k). If you're 50 or older, then you can add an additional $6,500 to the solo 401(k) limit. There are caveats, though:

  • SEP IRA contributions cannot exceed 25% of your income from the business.
  • With a solo 401(k), you can contribute as both the employee and employer. This distinction is important because the contribution rules for each role are different. As an employee of the business, you can contribute up to $19,500 of your compensation. As the employer, you can contribute up to 25% of earned income. Earned income equals your net earnings from self-employment less one-half of the sum of your self-employment tax and contributions to yourself. The contribution cap for a solo 401(k) applies to the total of the combined employee and employer contributions.

The broader takeaway is that your business must be profitable to make contributions to these accounts. You can't, for example, get a business license for a hobby, open a solo 401(k), and then contribute money from your day job.

Save and invest somewhere

A 401(k) may streamline retirement savings, but you can still build wealth without one. The trick is to save and invest somewhere, even if there are tax implications. The slight burden of a higher tax bill today is far easier to manage than the reality of facing your older years with no savings. But you can avoid that fate by tucking money away now and waiting patiently while your wealth grows.