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By Lynn Asinof
July 21, 2017

Are you leaving the corporate world to freelance, become a consultant, or open a bed and breakfast?

When taking the self-employment plunge, saving for retirement is probably the last thing on your mind. Setting up a retirement account, however, can be vitally important because doing so can help you cut your taxes and accumulate resources for later life.

Retirement plans for the self-employed vary considerably, each with different annual contribution limits, filing deadlines, and rules governing employees. So when selecting which plan is right for, you have to start by considering your goals and priorities. Among them:

If you want to make things easy …

A SEP-IRA — SEP stands for Simplified Employee Pension — is “a good beginner plan,” says Katie Brewer, a virtual financial planner based in the Dallas area. “They are easy to set up, and there isn’t a lot of paperwork.” You can open a SEP and fund it up until your tax filing deadline including extensions. As a one-person business, your contribution is limited to 25% of net income after deductions — effectively 20% — or a 2017 maximum of $54,000, whichever is less.

If you want to maximize contributions …

Bumping up against the SEP contribution limit? Then you might consider a so-called solo 401(k). These plans — which are also referred to as individual 401(k)s or one-participant 401(k)s — often let you tuck away more money, although the paperwork is a bit more complex, says Michael Solari, a financial planner in Bedford, N.H.

With a solo 401(k), you can contribute both as the employer and the employee. In 2017, the basic employee limit for all 401(k)s is $18,000, with a separate employer contribution of up to 25% of compensation. The maximum for the two combined is the lesser of 100% of compensation or $54,000. For those 50 or older, there’s a catchup contribution, bringing the maximum to $60,000.

If you’re thinking about adding employees …

This is where things get trickier. You can’t participate in a solo 401(k) once you hire employees. Independent contractors aren’t considered employees. So if you’re planning to hire an office manager or sales representative, for example, you need to consider retirement plan alternatives.

SEP plans do allow for employees. With a SEP, however, you’ll need to contribute the same percentage for all employees as you contribute for yourself, up to your effective 20% maximum.

The SIMPLE IRA, however, lets the employee decide how much to contribute, with the employer matching up to 3% of compensation. Combined contribution limits for the SIMPLE can’t exceed $12,500, or $15,500 for someone 50 or older. Alternatively, the employer can contribute 2% of compensation to the SIMPLE up to a maximum of $5,400.

If you’re thinking about doubling down on savings …

Consider the impact of contributing to both an individual retirement plan and your business plan, says Grafton “Cap” Willey of CBIZ Tofias in Providence. You could, for example, contribute to an IRA in addition to your SEP or solo 401(k). Once your income starts rising, however, you may bump into caps that limit your ability to contribute to either a traditional deductible IRA or Roth IRA.

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If you want to boost your Roth power …

You’ve no doubt heard of Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s, where contributions aren’t tax deductible, but all growth and qualified withdrawals are income tax free. Well, there are Roth solo 401(k) too.

Only the employee part of the solo 401(k) contributions is eligible for Roth treatment; the employer contribution is treated as a regular solo 401(k).

This hybrid set-up can provide some big advantages. For one thing, Roth 401(k) contribution levels are higher than with a Roth IRA, says Clint Lodise, senior manager of Vanguard’s retail retirement centers. Someone under 50 can tuck away up to $18,000 ($24,000 for someone 50 or older). And unlike the Roth IRA, he says, there are no annual income limits capping eligibility.

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