Rise in self-employed boosting solo 401(k), SEP IRA usage

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As the number of self-employed workers in this country grows, so does the demand for more versatile retirement savings options.

Many people don’t realize they can still have a retirement savings plan if they work for themselves. Contractors and freelancers can set up a Simplified Employee Pension IRA or a self-employed 401(k) plan for low or no setup fees.

According to the latest employment report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, freelance contractors account for 35% of the U.S. workforce. That’s a huge amount of people who are not participating in a traditional workplace retirement plan.

“The penetration among small business retirement plans is low, especially in the less than 25 employee market. The self-employed marketplace is worse,” says Stuart Robertson, president of Capital One Advisors’ 401(k) services. “There’s a misperception; they don’t think they can have access to a 401(k) plan.”

See also: 6 New Year’s resolutions for 401(k) plan sponsors

Robertson, who leads Capitol One’s ShareBuilder 401k and Spark 401k programs, says that putting a solo 401(k) in place is a “really cool way to stock a way a lot for retirement and get big tax advantages.”

One way they can do that is take advantage of the $54,000 savings limit for employers. Employees can put a maximum of $18,000 in their 401(k) every year but a self-employed individual can profit share back into their solo 401(k) plan up to a $54,000 limit, he says.

Capitol One’s solo 401(k) option is a fully administered option. That means it has a focused fund lineup rather than relying on the business owner to choose their own investment options. Most solo 401(k)s are self-directed.

Fidelity Investments offers a self-directed solo 401(k) option that costs nothing to set up and gives the business owner the option to choose from any of Fidelity’s many investment options, from mutual funds and bond funds to exchange-traded funds.

Maura Cassidy, vice president of retirement at Fidelity Investments, says that her firm offers many small business retirement options. The most popular are the SEP IRA and the self-employed 401(k) plan.

The SEP IRA only allows the self-employed person to contribute to the account but the self-employed 401(k) will accept employee and employer contributions.

“The nice thing about the SEP IRA is that it is very easy to set up because an IRA doesn’t have as much paperwork,” says Cassidy. Contributions to the SEP IRA are made pre-tax, which lowers a person’s taxable income.

When a solo 401(k) reaches $250,000 in assets, it might be subject to means testing and the individual would have to file a form 5500, she says.

“The good thing about these plans, as a self-employed person, is you can make a contribution for yourself in a lump sum and it can reflect how your year is going,” she says. Realtors like the self-employed 401(k) because they may have a lot of sales one year and not much the next.

Neither Fidelity’s SEP IRA or its self-employed 401(k) have a setup fee. The only fee participants pay is on their trades.

“Especially if you are a small business and you’re really trying to save as much as possible, it is nice to not have it eaten away by fees,” Cassidy says.

A self-employed person can put away up to 25% of their compensation into a SEP IRA up to a maximum of $54,000 in 2017. With a SEP IRA, the employer is required to give the same percentage contribution to any eligible employees; not the same amount of money, but the same percentage, Cassidy says.

A contractor could also have both types of plans but use the SEP IRA as a profit-sharing contribution.

“People have lots of different opportunities to make money in the new kind of economy,” she says. Uber drivers, teachers who do tutoring in the summer and independent consultants, can take advantage of these types of accounts.

Cassidy says that Fidelity has definitely seen an uptick in the number of individuals opening these types of accounts since the Great Recession and now that the economy is recovering, they already have accounts and are able to contribute more to them if their businesses are doing well.

Robertson says he likes the solo 401(k) option best because it does allow the owner to take loans in an emergency.

“We don’t recommend it,” he says. But the solo 401(k) is “a great way to save a lot for retirement and get on track pretty darn fast.”

Capitol One does charge a $150 setup fee unless you are a Capitol One customer and then the fee is only $100. The cost is then $15 per month for the fully administered 401(k) plan.

“We think it is a real value for folks who are not experts in how they invest. That’s why they want a fully administered offering,” Robertson says.

The biggest benefit to the solo 401(k) is the amount you can put away. A traditional IRA has a contribution limit of $5,500 or $6,500 if you are over 50. The solo 401(k) follows the same rules as an employer-sponsored 401(k) in that an individual can contribute $18,000 annually or $24,000 if they are over 50 and the employer can make non-elective contributions up to 25% of compensation, not to exceed $54,000 in total annual contributions.

The other thing to note is that the spouse of the 401(k) owner can also participate in the plan. It has the same limits. Anyone who owns 5% of the business can participate in the plan. Once an individual has employees, the law requires them to move to an employer-based plan.

So how do you choose which type of retirement plan you want to start? Robertson says that the best way to decide between an IRA and a solo 401(k) is to determine how much you think you can put into savings every year. His advice for the self-employed is to get started saving, no matter which vehicle they choose.

“Look for things that are digital. If you are not an investment expert and are not looking to jump into that, look at a full-service offering,” he says.

Cassidy says that she thinks everyone should reevaluate their retirement savings and what opportunities exist for them.

“If they are doing something with a side business or are full-time self-employed, they should look into these types of accounts for themselves. I’m a firm believer in retirement savings,” she adds.

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