Being self-employed means having more freedom when it comes to things like setting your own hours and taking control of your income but you’ll miss out certain perks that go along with punching a time clock each day. At the top of the list of is the ability to save for retirement through a 401(k) or a similar plan through your employer. If you’re starting up a small business or striking out on your own as a freelancer, you do have some options for building up a nice nest egg but how do you know where the best place is to park your savings?
The most common retirement accounts for self-employed workers include solo 401(k)s, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE Plans. A solo 401(k) works like a traditional 401(k) since you can make contributions out of your pre-tax income but you also have the advantage of being able to make contributions as an employer. SEP and SIMPLE IRAs are similar to traditional IRAs, although there are some differences when it comes to hat you can contribute and how much of it is tax-deductible.
Making sense of the different tax benefits, contribution limits and eligibility rules for each one can be confusing but knowing what questions to ask can help you decide which of the retirement options for freelancers is the right one for your situation. Here’s a rundown of the most important things you’ll want to consider.
1. Tax bracket: high or low?
If you’re subject to the highest tax rate, that usually means you’ll owe more taxes unless you’ve got some deductions to offset what you earn. For freelancers who are on the threshold between two tax brackets, the retirement plan you choose can make a big difference.
For instance, let’s say you’re single and you’re making $50,000 from your freelance efforts. That would put you in the 25 percent tax bracket for 2015. Now, assume that you made $14,000 in deductible contributions to a tax-advantaged retirement account. You’d knock your income down to $36,000, which would drop your tax rate to just 15 percent instead.
Best choice for high earners:
If you’re going to be bringing in a decent amount of money through self-employment, either a solo 401(k) or SEP IRA is the way to go. You can put up to $53,000 in a solo 401(k) versus the $12,500 allowed for a SIMPLE IRA, which means a bigger tax break.
2. Single savers vs. married freelancers
When you’re flying solo as a freelancer, coming up with the cash to meet the higher contribution limits for a SIMPLE or SEP plan might not be feasible if your business hasn’t taken off yet. If you can only afford to save a few thousand dollars a year, you might benefit more from opening a traditional IRA, which still offers a deduction but is easier to set up and maintain than other self-employed retirement plans.
On the other hand, if you’re married and you’re both pulling in a sizable income, a solo 401(k) or SEP is definitely worth a second look. Aside from pushing you into a lower tax bracket, being able to deduct a big chunk of your earnings may help you to qualify for certain credits, deductions and benefits that you might not otherwise be eligible for. These include things like the student loan interest deduction and personal exemptions, all of which can lower your tax bill.
Best choice for singles:
This one really comes down to how much you’re making and what you can reasonably afford to save. The limit for a traditional IRA is set at $5,500 for 2015, so if you think you’ll be able to stash away a little more than that, a SIMPLE IRA might be the smarter option.
3. Tax savings now or later?
Solo 401(k)s, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs are designed to give you a tax benefit now while you’re actively contributing to them. Once you start taking the money out, you’ll have to pay taxes on it based on whatever bracket you’re in at the time. If you expect your income to go down as you get older, it’s usually not an issue but if you plan to continue freelancing full-time into your golden years, that could be a problem.
For instance, let’s go back to the previous example of a single freelancer earning $50,000. If you manage to double your income to $100,000 by the time you turn 59 1/2, which is the age when you can start making qualified withdrawals from your retirement account, you’re going to be in a higher tax bracket. In that case, you’d be better off with a retirement account that lets you take money out tax-free.
Best choice for future savings:
If you’re worried about taking a tax hit down the road, you can minimize the damage by saving in a Roth solo 401(k). Like a regular Roth IRA, your contributions aren’t deductible but you won’t pay taxes on your qualified withdrawals later on.
4. Accessing the money
Pulling money out of your retirement plan early is a bad idea for a couple of reasons. One, when you make withdrawals ahead of schedule you’re missing out on the potential growth you could have gotten if you’d just left the cash alone. The other issue is how it can affect your taxes. Not only will you have to pay regular income taxes on the money but you’ll also get hit with a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty if you’re under 59 1/2 at the time.
You also have to keep in mind what the rules are about required minimum distributions. If you’ve got a solo 401(k), SEP or SIMPLE IRA, you have to start taking money out of your account once you turn 70 1/2. The only retirement plan that allows you to sidestep this requirement is a Roth IRA, but you can’t put as much money into these accounts.
Best choice if you need to tap your account early:
A solo 401(k) is the right pick if you want more flexibility with taking money out of the account. You can make hardship withdrawals without a tax penalty in certain situations and some plans also allow you to take out loans of up to $50,000. Just keep in mind that loans typically need to be repaid within five years, otherwise it ends up being a taxable distribution.