Retirement Plans for Sole Proprietorships

Retirement Plans for Sole Proprietorships
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Sole proprietors have a number of ways to sock away retirement money and can often make larger contributions than traditional employees. Business retirement plans available for sole proprietors are typically tax-deferred, meaning you can take a tax deduction in the year you make a contribution and won't face income taxes until you withdraw from your account.

The IRS sets the guidelines for all retirement savings plans. With multiple options available, it can take some analysis to determine what is the most appropriate plan for a particular sole proprietor.

General Benefits for Sole Proprietors

As a sole proprietor, you can derive great benefits from using business retirement plans, particularly if you are the only employee of your firm. If you run a one-person sole proprietorship, you won't have to worry about making additional contributions for others to your plan. This can greatly enhance your own retirement savings. Sole proprietors are both employees and employers in the eyes of the law.

With some retirement plans, this means you can make two contributions to your own plan – one as an employee and one as an employer. Whether or not you can make both contributions, your allowable contribution limit is quite often much higher than it would be if you were the employee of another company.

What Is a SEP?

A simplified employee pension allows you to put away ​20 percent​ of your net business earnings after subtracting half of your Social Security and Medicare taxes. Since these are technically employer contributions rather than employee contributions, you'd have to contribute the same percentage for all of your covered employees that you make for yourself.

At the time of publication, the maximum contribution you can make is ​$58,000​, much more than the ​$19,500​ limit that employees can contribute to 401(k) plans. Combined with the maximum ​25 percent​ savings rate, this means that the maximum compensation that can be considered for a SEP plan is ​$290,000​.

What Is a Solo 401(k)?

A Solo 401(k) plan allows you to benefit from both employee and employer contributions. At the time of publication, the maximum employee contribution to a 401(k) plan is ​$19,500​. However, an employer can kick in up to ​25 percent​ of an employee's earned income. The IRS rules for a solo 401(k) are the same as any other 401(k).

In the case of a sole proprietorship, that means you can put in both the elective ​$19,500​ employee contribution and ​25 percent​ of your earned income, up to a maximum total contribution of ​$58,000​. If you're over ​50​, you can contribute an additional ​$6,500​. If you make an employer contribution to your own 401(k) plan, you'll also have to make contributions on behalf of your employees.

If you prefer to take your tax savings at the time of withdrawal rather than when you contribute, you can designate your employee 401(k) contributions as Roth contributions. You don't get a tax deduction right away, but when you withdraw from the account your money comes out tax-free.


A SIMPLE IRA is one of the easiest types of retirement accounts to establish for a sole proprietor. A SIMPLE IRA allows for both employee salary deferral contributions and employer contributions. As with some other types of retirement plans, a SIMPLE IRA requires you to contribute the same percentage for your employees that you contribute to your own plan.

You can defer up to ​$13,500​ per year into a SIMPLE IRA, but your contribution may not be greater than your net earnings from self-employment. Your employer contribution can be in the form of a ​2 percent​ non-elective contribution or a match of your salary deferral contribution, up to ​3 percent​ of your net earnings. At the time of publication, you can make a catch-up contribution of up to ​$3,000​ if you are ​age 50​ or older.

Using a Custom Retirement Plan

If you're willing to put in the extra effort and expense, you may be able to create a custom retirement plan for your business. For example, an accountant or tax attorney can help you set up a defined benefit plan that could help you maximize your contributions.

However, in addition to the extra cost required to establish and maintain such a plan, you'll be required to make annual contributions – even in years when your business doesn't pull in a lot of money. These contributions will also be required for all your employees.