What Self-Employed People Need to Know About SEP IRAs and Solo 401ks – Real Simple

If you’re self-employed and looking to turbocharge your retirement savings, you may have more options than you realize. 

While employer-based retirement accounts have maximum annual contribution limits of $19,500 this year, several types of self-employed retirement plans allow investors to save more than $50,000 a year—enough to make your F.I.R.E. (Financial Independence Retire Early) dreams a reality in a fraction of the time. 

Of course, you don’t have to be in such a rush, especially if your goal isn’t to retire early and spend your time relaxing on some of the world’s finest beaches. For entrepreneurs especially, there can be real value in padding a savings account or investing through brokerage accounts that allow for easier access to cash, explains Amy Richardson, a financial planner with Charles Schwab. 

That can be especially true for anyone working in a volatile industry or bootstrapping a dream small business in a tough economy. “I’ve been self-employed for eight out of my 20+ years of being a working person out of grad school,” says Samantha Vient, a financial planner at Ellevest. “There are years where you just don’t think you can save for retirement.”

Vient recommends entrepreneurs start by saving whatever they can afford to set aside, knowing that their contributions may fluctuate from year to year and that every little bit can help, especially over time. “There might be a few years when all you can do is contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA,” she said. “Anything you can save early and often results in getting you closer to that retirement goal.”

The most popular and widely applicable retirement accounts available to self-employed people allow for contributions of up to $6,000 or $64,500 a year, depending on age, income, and the type of account you choose. Here’s what you need to know to know about them. 

Retirement plan types

Traditional and Roth IRAs

These individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, are a path for saving money, not just for retirement but also on your taxes. Investors can choose to make pre-tax contributions through a traditional IRA or to make post-tax contributions to a Roth account whose future distributions won’t be taxable when retirement does come around. 

Traditional and Roth IRAs can be set up online with brokerages like Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, and Etrade. They do, however, have one major drawback: Contributions are capped at $6,000 a year, or $7,000 for people 50 and older—limits that could delay your F.I.R.E. dreams. 


These Simplified Employee Pension accounts are similar to IRAs but come with higher contribution limits that are tied to earnings. Self-employed workers can set aside up to 25 percent of their income for retirement in these accounts, a number that can add up to a maximum of $58,000 a year

They’re meant for sole proprietors who can afford to stash a significant chunk of their income and can be especially beneficial for FIRE investors, according to Vient: “If you’re one of the people who has that goal, you’re going to have to save ambitiously and early on, and funnel most of that money into that SEP,” she said. 

Simple IRAs

These accounts are designed to cover small business owners and their employees. If you’ve got under 100 employees and want to provide retirement benefits to your team, this might be the option for you. But beware: As an employer, you’ll be required to chip in to your employees’ accounts. You’re also likely to face higher management fees than you would with most other types of retirement accounts, Vient said. 

Solo 401(k)

A solo or individual 401(k) is similar to the kind of 401(k) a traditional employer may offer with a few key differences. These accounts are available to sole proprietors as well as to individuals operating as S-Corps or as Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) and allow freelancers, artists, and others who work independently to make larger—potentially tax-deductible—contributions to their retirement accounts.

Instead of receiving an employer match, self-employed people make contributions to these accounts on behalf of themselves and as their employers—an amount that can add up to a limit of $58,000 a year in 2021

Unlike with SEP IRAs, investors can borrow against solo 401(k)s. People 50 and older also can make larger contributions—up to a combined $64,500 a year, a cap meant to help them “catch up” on saving the closer they inch to retirement. Investors in solo 401(k) accounts also can elect to make after-tax Roth contributions, allowing them to skip tax deductions now in exchange for significant savings on future taxes. 

But you’ll have to plan ahead. Unlike IRAs, which can be funded until the following year’s tax filing deadline, solo 401(k)s must be set up and funded before the end of the calendar year. 

Have money to burn?

IRAs and solo 401(k)s tend to be “the best for the realities of many self-employed people,” Schwab’s Richardson said. For some exceptionally high earners, however, a defined benefit plan may be worth the investment.

Defined benefit plans are the most complicated and expensive retirement account options available to self-employed people, but high earners with consistent incomes and a F.I.R.E. mindset may be especially interested in them because of their outsized contribution limits. These plans are similar to pensions, except they’re self-funded.

Defined benefit plans require large annual contributions and come with higher management fees, two things that limit their popularity, even among established corporations. For a sole proprietor, being unable to meet minimum contribution requirements would require plan amendments that would, as you might imagine, incur additional costs that could be significant. Charles Schwab recommends an annual salary of more than $250,000 a year before considering this type of retirement plan. 

But if you’re looking to save a $1 million nest egg for an early retirement, a defined benefit plan could help you get you there in just a few years.