SEP-IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, and Solo 401(k)s: Retirement Tools for the Self-Employed

Complaining about the higher-ups at your company may be one of America's favorite pastimes, but there are benefits to working for someone else. Being an employee usually means you have someone who is handling your benefits: setting up the insurance, dealing with the arcana of 401(k) accounts, maybe even running a pension plan.

But at the rate we're going, one-third of U.S. workers will be self-employed in the next couple of years, and that means a whole lot of folks will have to fend for themselves. If you're one of them, you should know that on the retirement front, at least, you have quite a few options. In this segment from the Motley Fool Answers podcast's July mailbag show, hosts Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp, along with special guest Ross Anderson, a certified financial planner at Motley Fool Wealth Management -- a sister company of The Motley Fool -- dig into the details of the SIMPLE IRA -- Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees -- the SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA, and the Solo 401(k).

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on July 30, 2019.

Alison Southwick: The next question comes from Dave. "I consider myself pretty well informed when it comes to retirement savings, so it surprised me to learn there was another retirement savings vehicle that I was unaware of: the simplified employee pension. Can you talk about why someone would open one? While doing research, I also learned about the SIMPLE IRA -- Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees. Is this something I'm eligible for as someone who is self-employed? My business is classified as an LLC."

Ross Anderson: First of all, I appreciate that Dave said the name of the acronym because I so often just see the acronym of a SIMPLE or a SEP, which is typically the simplified employee pension. I was going to have to look up what the actual full name of it was again just to talk about it, so thanks, Dave!

Yes, as a self-employed person there are a number of plan options, and I'm going to try and give you some guidance on how to think about it, but I don't know that I've got enough information about your business and what you're trying to accomplish to give you a perfect answer.

The SEP-IRA is really attractive in a number of ways, because No. 1 they are super easy to administer. They're very low cost to set up. There's not a big hurdle. It's pretty much the same as opening a brokerage account.

Robert Brokamp: I think it's literally a one-page form.

Anderson: Yes. We work with them and support them. There's two extra questions from a typical IRA, which is what's the name of the company. What you're allowed to put in there, as a self-employed person, is up to 20% of your earnings or if you're paying it as compensation to employees, it's 25% of the employee's comp. That is a very easy plan to use.

Now, if somebody has been with you as an employee for three out of the last five years, you have to make a contribution for them, as well. For an employer that has a bunch of people working for them, if you're trying to contribute 20% of your compensation to the plan, that can get fairly expensive pretty quickly, so these tend to work really well for small companies where it might just be you. If you don't have any employees, they're a great option. Really easy to use -- or if you're also looking to make a nice contribution for your employees as a retention benefit or whatever you're going to do there.

The SIMPLE is also going to be fairly easy to administer. They're set up for companies with less than 100 employees. You can also put in a lower amount of money than the SEP. So on the SEP-IRA you can put in up to $56,000 for the year. On the SIMPLE, you're going to be capped at $13,000 for 2019 so you've got very different contribution limits there, and the amount that you have to put in for the employees on the SIMPLE is going to be a lot less. It's either 2% that you're immediately doing for them, whether they put anything or not, or it's a dollar-for-dollar match up to 3%. So you've got different kinds of levels that you're going to have to contribute.

Now if your head just started spinning as I went through those numbers, what you really need to step back and think of is what you're trying to do. How much income are you trying to save? How many employees do I have and are you willing to or able to do something for them, as well? And then if you're working with an accountant or somebody for your business already, I would ask them this question, because they're going to know how profitable your business is or how much you're trying to put away, and they should be able to guide you into a correct plan.

The other one that comes up with us when we're talking to clients is the solo 401(k). You can do a 401(k) that's just for a single-person entity. There are reasons that that could be attractive. For example, if you've got a business that you make $20,000 a year on the side, as a 401(k) you can do a salary deferral of up to $19,000 this year with the catch-up.

You could literally defer almost all of your income for the year and put all of that money away; whereas in a SEP-IRA you'd only be able to do the 20%. So the amount that you're trying to save vs. how much you want to maximize those savings gets really hairy pretty quick. Somebody that has an intimate knowledge of your business and how much it's earning, I think, is going to be in the best position to give you a really good answer.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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