How the Self-Employed Can Save for Retirement With a SEP-IRA

It's easy to set up, and the pre-tax contribution amount is generous

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If you are self-employed or a small business owner and are looking for a retirement plan for you and your employees, a SEP-IRA may be the right choice. SEP stands for simplified employee pension. This type of plan is an individual retirement account, or IRA, into which business owners can make pre-tax retirement contributions for themselves and their employees.

Compared to a 401(k) retirement plan, a SEP-IRA is relatively simple to start and manage. There's far less paperwork, and no annual filing is required, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Plus, annual contribution limits are much higher than you'll find in most other retirement plans.

As with other tax-advantaged retirement plans, contributions to a SEP-IRA can be invested tax-deferred until the money is withdrawn at retirement, beginning at age 59 1/2 and no later than 72. If any money is withdrawn before age 59 1/2, it is subject to income tax plus a 10% penalty tax.

Key Takeaways

  • Self-employed individuals can open a SEP-IRA and make fully tax-deductible contributions.
  • The allowable contribution level is more than double that of a 401(k).
  • Employees must receive the same percentage of contribution as the owner.
  • You can contribute income from a side venture into an SEP-IRA even if you participate in a 401(k) for a full-time job.

Completely Deductible

Business owners can completely deduct SEP-IRA contributions as a business expense. And employees do not have to count contributions in their gross income, so they're considered pre-tax income, like they would be in a 401(k).

As with other types of IRAs, self-employed people usually have until the tax-filing deadline day in mid-April to make contributions to a SEP-IRA for that tax year. If you file an extension, you may have until October 15 to fund a SEP-IRA for the prior year. The same deadlines apply for creating a SEP-IRA.

Contribution Limits

One of the most appealing aspects of a SEP-IRA is its high contribution limits. Contributions for employees can equal as much as 25% of their annual compensation, and contributions for business owners can amount to 25% of their net earnings from self-employment. The maximum amount for both employees and employers is $57,000 for 2020 and $58,000 for 2021.

Compare that to the 401(k), which has a maximum contribution limit of $19,500 in 2020 and 2021 (or $26,000 if you're 50 or older and so qualify for a catch-up contribution), and you can see the obvious benefit for those who are looking to save more tax-deferred dollars.

Even if you participate in another workplace retirement plan, like a 401(k), you can still contribute self-employment income to a SEP-IRA, so it's a great plan for people who earn income from a side business, including freelance or contract work. However, contributions made to a 401(k) or profit-sharing plan—but not to a SIMPLE IRA—must be subtracted from the total amount that can be contributed to your SEP-IRA.

Calculating Self-Employment Income

If you are self-employed, figuring out how much you can contribute each year can be slightly tricky. You can calculate net adjusted self-employment income by taking your gross income, subtracting business expenses, and then subtracting half of the self-employment tax. But you must include your contribution to the SEP-IRA in your business expenses. Consult with an accountant or tax advisor if you have any questions.

You do not have to contribute the same amount each year to a SEP-IRA. And if you want to contribute nothing in a given year, that's OK too.

Contributions to a SEP-IRA are a little less flexible once additional employees enter the picture. That's because employers must contribute the same percentage for every employee. Let's say you're a dentist who wants to contribute 20% of your income to a SEP-IRA. You must also contribute 20% of each of your employees' salaries to a SEP-IRA as well. All employees who are age 21 or older, have worked for you for three of the past five years, and earned at least $600 in compensation for 2020 or $650 for 2021 are eligible for this contribution. (Employees working under union agreements may be excluded.)

Other Options

There are other retirement plans for small businesses and self-employed individuals, such as SIMPLE IRAs, solo or self-employed 401(k)s, Keoghs, or even regular 401(k)s for small businesses (which may go under the terminology Single(K) or Individual(K)). It makes sense to compare them all before deciding which one is right for you.