Objective information about financial planning, investments, and retirement plans

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

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One of the best tax deductions for a small business owner is funding a retirement plan.  Beyond any tax deduction you are saving for your own retirement.  As a fellow small business person, I know how hard you work.  You deserve a comfortable retirement.  If you don’t plan for your own retirement who will? Two popular small business retirement plans are the SEP-IRA and Solo 401(k).

Small Business Retirement Plans – SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA vs. Solo 401(k)

SEP-IRA Solo 401(k)
Who can contribute? Employer contributions only. Employer contributions and employee deferrals.
Employer contribution limits The maximum for 2017 is $54,000 and increases to $55,000 for 2018. Contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year. For 2017, employer plus employee combined contribution limit is a maximum of 25% of compensation up to the maximums are $54,000 and $60,000, respectively. For 2018 these limits increase to $55,000 and $61,000. Employer contributions are deductible as a business expense and are not required every year.
Employee contribution limits A SEP-IRA only allows employer contributions. Employees can contribute to an IRA (Traditional, Roth, or Non-Deductible based upon their individual circumstances). $18,000 for 2017. An additional $6,000 for participants 50 and over. In no case can this exceed 100% of their compensation. The limits for 2018 increase to $18,500 and $24,500 respectively.
Eligibility Typically, employees must be allowed to participate if they are over age 21, earn at least $600 annually, and have worked for the same employer in at least three of the past five years. No age or income restrictions. Business owners, partners and spouses working in the business. Common-law employees are not eligible.

Note the Solo 401(k) is also referred to as an Individual 401(k).

  • While a SEP-IRA can be used with employees in reality this can become an expensive proposition as you will need to contribute the same percentage for your employees as you defer for yourself.  I generally consider this a plan for the self-employed.
  • Both plans allow for contributions up your tax filing date, including extensions for the prior tax year. Consult with your tax professional to determine when your employee contributions must be made. The Solo 401(k) plan must be established by the end of the calendar year.
  • The SEP-IRA contribution is calculated as a percentage of compensation.  If your compensation is variable the amount that you can contribute year-to year will vary as well. Even if you have the cash to do so, your contribution will be limited by your income for a given year.
  • By contrast you can defer the lesser of $18,000 ($24,000 if 50 or over) or 100% of your income for 2017 and $18,500/$24,500 for 2018 into a Solo 401(k) plus the profit sharing contribution. This might be the better alternative for those with plenty of cash and a variable income.
  • Loans are possible from Solo 401(k)s, but not with SEP-IRAs.
  • Roth feature is available for a Solo 401(k) if allowed by your plan document. There is no Roth feature for a SEP-IRA.
  • Both plans require minimal administrative work, though once the balance in your Solo 401(k) account tops $250,000, the level of annual government paperwork increases a bit.
  • Both plans can be opened at custodians such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity, Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, and others. For the Solo 401(k) you will generally use a prototype plan. If you want to contribute to a Roth account, for example, ensure that this is possible through the custodian you choose.
  • Investment options for both plans generally run the full gamut of typical investment options available at your custodian such as mutual funds, individual stocks, ETFs, bonds, closed-end funds, etc. There are some statutory restrictions so check with your custodian.

Both plans can offer a great way for you to save for retirement and to realize some tax savings in the process.  Whether you go this route or with some other option I urge to start saving for your retirement today 

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7 Retirement Savings Tips to Help Avoid Regret

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According to TIAA-CREF’s Ready to Retire Survey “…more than half of people approaching retirement (52 percent) say they wish they had started saving for the future sooner.”    Some key findings from the survey include:

  • “Many respondents say they wish they had made smarter financial decisions earlier in their career, including saving more of their paycheck (47 percent) and investing their savings more aggressively (34 percent).
  • Forty-five percent of participants age 55-64 say financial readiness is the most important factor in determining when they will retire, but only 35 percent say they saved in an IRA or met with a financial advisor.
  • By not making the most of these options, many Americans now feel uncertain about their financial futures, with 68 percent of those approaching retirement saying they are not prepared for what’s to come
  • These retirement savings challenges are causing Americans to reconsider their vision of retirement. Forty-two percent of survey respondents age 55-64 say they plan on working in a part-time job, and 39 percent say they’ll be more conservative about how much they spend on entertainment and other luxuries.” 

Here are 7 retirement savings tips to help you avoid regret as you approach retirement. 

Start early 

If you are just starting out in the workplace, enroll in your employer’s 401(k), 403(b), or whatever type of retirement plan they offer.  Contribute as much as you can.  If there is a match try to contribute at least enough to earn the full matching contribution from your employer, this is free money.  There is no greater ally for retirement savers than time and the magic of compounding.  As tough as it may be to save early in your career put away as much as you can reasonably afford as early as you can afford it.

Increase your contributions 

The maximum 401(k) contribution limits for 2015 are $18,000 and $24,000 for those 50 or over at any point in the year.  No matter what you are currently contributing to your plan try to increase it a bit each year.  If you are currently deferring 3% of your salary bump that to 4% or even 5% next year.  Increase a bit more the following year.  You won’t miss the money and every bit can help fund a comfortable retirement.

Start a self-employed retirement plan 

If during the course of your career you become self-employed it is still important that you save for retirement.  Starting a plan such as a SEP or Solo 401(k) can be a great way for you to put away money for retirement.  You work hard at your own business and you deserve a comfortable retirement.

Contribute to an IRA 

Anyone can contribute to an IRA.  Traditional IRAs are subject to income limits as far as the ability to make pre-tax contributions, but anyone can contribute on an after-tax basis with no income limits.  All investment gains grow tax-deferred you do need to keep track of any post-tax contributions however.  Roth IRAs can also be a good alternative; again there are income ceilings that can limit your ability to contribute.

Don’t ignore old retirement accounts 

Today it isn’t uncommon for people to have worked for five or more employers during their career.  It is important that you make an affirmative decision as to what you with your old 401(k) or other retirement account when you leave your employer.  Leave it where it is, roll it to an IRA, or to your new employer’s plan (if allowed) but don’t ignore this money.  Even smaller balances can add up especially if you have several such accounts scattered about.

By the same token make sure that you stay on top of any pensions that you might be eligible for from old employers.  Make sure these companies can find you and be sure to carefully evaluate any pension buyout offers you might receive from old employers.  These can often be a good deal for you.

Beware of toxic rollovers 

Recently I have read a number of accounts about brokers and registered reps looking for employees of large organizations and convincing them to roll their retirement accounts into questionable investments with their brokerage firms.  Certainly rolling your 401(k) into an IRA via a trusted financial advisor is a valid strategy but like anything else you need to vet the person suggesting the rollover and the investment strategy they are suggesting.

Avoid high cost financial products

Many financial advisors who make all or part of their income from the sale of financial products will often suggest high cost financial products to implement their financial recommendations.  These might include annuities, certain mutual funds, non-traded REITs, and others.  Be leery and ask about the costs and fees associated with these products.  There is nothing wrong with annuities, but many of them that are pushed by registered reps carry excessive fees and have onerous surrender charges.

In the case of mutual funds, index funds are not the end all be all.  But you should certainly ask the advisor why the large cap actively managed fund with an expense ratio of 1.25% or more that they are suggesting is a better idea than an index fund with an expense ratio of 0.15% or less.

At the end of the day starting early, investing wisely and consistently, and being careful with your retirement savings are excellent ways to avoid the regrets expressed by many of those surveyed by TIAA-CREF.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Please check out our resources page as well.