Retirement Planning

Going Solo Doesn't Mean Going Without a 401(k)

Going Solo Doesn't Mean Going Without a 401(k)
Image credit: jauretsi | Flickr

Solopreneurs may have plans to grow their business and hire employees and perhaps eventually sell it. But in the meantime, an individual 401(k) can help an entrepreneur plan for a  retirement and it offers the potential for tax savings along the way.

When it comes to 401(k) plans for the self-employed, known as solo or individual 401(k)s, confusion often abounds. Many business owners might think their companies are too small for a 401(k) or that starting a plan just for their organization is too pricey. The truth is solopreneurs may have real advantages when it comes to capitalizing on the tax-deferred benefits a 401(k) plan can provide.

Related: How Entrepreneurs Can Put Away More Than $200,000 a Year for Retirement -- Tax-Free

Myth #1: Employee participation is needed.

Self-employed entrepreneurs may not realize that Individual 401(k)s are a retirement planning option if they do not have employees. The truth is that the only employee you need to take advantage of a 401(k) plan is yourself. 

In fact, self-employed individuals have some distinct advantages over employees at larger companies. As the IRS put it, “The business owner wears two hats in a [solo] 401(k) plan: employee and employer,” meaning the self-employed have the opportunity to contribute both as an employer and employee -- for a total that’s more than double the amount the IRS allows those who are only an employee.  

Most employees are limited to contributing $17,500 tax-free to a 401(k) in 2014 and $18,000 in 2015, with the limit rising to $23,000 in 2014 and $24,000 in 2015 for people 50 and older.

But solopreneurs can also contribute as much as 25 percent of their income for an employer contribution and defer as much as $52,000 (if they're younger than 50) or $57,500 (if over 50) total each year for both personal and business tax benefits, if they set up their plans correctly.  

While the same holds true in employer plans, company contributions go to all eligible employees so the cost of doing so adds up quicker (versus just paying yourself from company profits). 

Related: 6 Myths About Retirement We Need to Retire

Myth # 2: Setting up a plan is confusing and costly. 

Setting up a 401(k) plan is a lot simpler than most people realize. You may be able to do it over a lunch break.

When weighing options of different plan providers, consider the following questions to help you understand if a solo 401(k) is right for you.

What funds are available for investing in?

What fees are involved?

Can a participant in a plan take a loan if need be?

Is there a Roth 401(k) option?

One reason 401(k) plans are often considered confusing is because most are subject to regulations of the 1973 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (known as ERISA).

The good news is that the Department of Labor regulations state that a plan that covers only partners or a sole proprietor is not covered under Title I of ERISA, making them markedly less complex.    

Myth #3: Solo plans only support the entrepreneur.

Just like musicians who make solo albums don’t necessarily play every instrument, a solo 401(k) allows other players --  spouses who derive income from the company or multiple owners -- to be included, too. 

But as soon as employees who don’t have a stake in the company are added, a plan designed for employees is required for use. 

Like other types of 401(k) offerings, a solo 401(k) can also hold assets accrued at a former job. Some entrepreneurs may roll over their previous 401(k) funds into their individual plan.

To contribute for 2014, an entrepreneur must set up a solo 401(k) plan by Dec. 31. Once it’s up and running, the individual can make contributions on behalf of the business until the tax deadline, which is April 15, 2015, for most companies and March 15 for those set up as corporations. The deadline for making personal contributions is Dec. 31, 2014.  

Remember, while there may be many things you happily left behind when you went into business for yourself, a 401(k) shouldn’t be one of them.