No 401(k)? How to save for retirement

Don't worry—there are tax-advantaged options for people without a 401(k).

  • Facebook.
  • Twitter.
  • LinkedIn.
  • Print

Key takeaway

  • Freelancers and independent contractors have some of the same retirement plan options as small-business owners, including the IRA, SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA, and self-employed 401(k).

If you are one of the millions of freelancers, entrepreneurs, workers with a side gig—or an employee with no workplace retirement plan—you can still save for retirement. As long as you have some earnings, you have some tax-advantaged saving options.

IRA

You've probably heard of IRAs, short for individual retirement accounts. Anyone with earned income (including those who do not work themselves but have a working spouse) can open an IRA. There are a few different options, Roth and traditional. Each offers a tax benefit.

To find out more about IRAs, read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: Traditional or Roth account? 2 tips to choose and Traditional or Roth IRA, or both?

SEP IRA

If you are self-employed or have income from freelancing, you can open a Simplified Employee Pension plan—more commonly known as a SEP IRA.

Who can open one?
The SEP IRA is available to sole proprietors, partnerships, C-corporations, and S-corporations.

How it works
Contributions to a SEP IRA may potentially be tax-deductible. The amount you can put in varies based on your income. The most an employer can contribute to an employee's SEP IRA is either 25% of eligible compensation or $57,000 for 2020 ($56,000 for 2019), whichever is lower. (Note that the rules on determining eligible compensation, which are different for self-employed and employee SEP participants, can be complex. Consult a tax expert or the IRS website for details.)

If you have employees, you have to set up accounts for those who are eligible, and you have to contribute the same percentage to their accounts that you contribute for yourself. Employees cannot contribute to the account; the employer makes all the contributions.

Who it may help
This account works well for freelancers and sole entrepreneurs, and for businesses with employees (as long as the owners don't mind making the same percentage contribution for the employees that they make for themselves). The SEP IRA is generally easy and inexpensive to set up and maintain. Plus, there are typically no tax forms to file.

Things to keep in mind
The deadline to set up the account is the federal income tax filing deadline.

Self-employed 401(k)

A self-employed 401(k), also known as a solo 401(k), can be an option for maximizing retirement savings even if you're not making a ton of money.

Who can open one?
If you are self-employed or own a business or partnership with no employees you can open a self-employed 401(k). A spouse who works in the business can participate as well.

How it works
You get 2 opportunities for contributing to a self-employed 401(k)—first as the employee, and again as the employer.

As the employee, you can choose to make a tax-deductible or Roth contribution of up to 100% of your compensation, with a maximum of $19,500 in 2020 ($19,000 in 2019). Once you're over age 50, you can also make catch-up contributions—for 2020 you can save an extra $6,500, for a total of $26,000 ($25,000 in 2019).

As the employer, you can contribute up to 25% of your eligible earnings. The employer contribution is always made before tax. (Again, consult a tax expert or the IRS website for details on computing eligible earnings.)

Who it may help
These accounts give small business owners the opportunity to save a significant amount of money each year. The total that can be contributed for employee and employer is $57,000 in 2020 ($56,000 in 2019), plus an additional $6,500 ($6,000 in 2019) for people age 50 and over.

Things to keep in mind
After the plan assets hit $250,000, you have to file Form 5500 with the IRS.

The deadline for setting up the plan is the end of the fiscal year, generally the last business day of the year. You can make employer contributions to the account until your tax-filing deadline for the year, including extensions.

SIMPLE IRA

Like a 401(k), this account offers tax-deferral and pretax contributions, plus an employee contribution and an employer match.

Who can open one?
Anyone who is self-employed or a small-business owner can open a SIMPLE IRA. Small businesses with 100 employees or fewer can also open a SIMPLE IRA plan.

How it works
Like the self-employed 401(k), you get 2 chances to contribute.

  • As the employee, you can contribute up to 100% of your compensation, up to $13,500 in 2020 ($13,000 in 2019).
  • As the employer, you must either put in a 3% matching contribution or a 2% non-elective contribution. The latter is not contingent on the employee contribution, the way a matching contribution to a 401(k) typically is.

But be aware that a SIMPLE IRA can require the employer to make contributions to the plan even if the business has no profits.

Who it may help
The SIMPLE IRA is an inexpensive plan for businesses with fewer than 100 employees. It also allows for salary deferrals by employees and there are no tax forms to file.

The SIMPLE IRA also allows those age 50 and over to save an additional $3,000 a year.

Things to keep in mind
The deadline to set up the plan is October 1. You can make matching and nonelective contributions until the company's tax filing deadline—including extensions.

Consider a health savings account

Another option to consider is a health savings account (HSA). If you have an HSA-eligible health plan, these accounts offer a number of benefits, including a tax deduction, tax-free growth potential, and tax-free withdrawals to pay for qualified medical expenses—either now or in retirement.*

After age 65, if you don’t need the money for health care costs, you can take withdrawals from the account penalty-free. But, similar to a traditional IRA, taxes on contributions and earnings will be due. HSA withdrawals are not subject to federal tax, provided you use the money for qualified medical expenses.

Pick a plan and start saving

Time is one of the most important factors when it comes to building up your retirement fund. While you're young, time is on your side. Don't let the absence of a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k) stand in your way. There are plenty of other retirement savings options—pick a plan and start saving and investing.

Next steps to consider

Self-employed or own a small business? There's a retirement plan for you.

Design an investment strategy for your goals in the Planning & Guidance Center.

Four easy guidelines to help you reach your retirement goals.

  • Facebook.
  • Twitter.
  • LinkedIn.
  • Print
close
Please enter a valid e-mail address
Please enter a valid e-mail address
Important legal information about the e-mail you will be sending. By using this service, you agree to input your real e-mail address and only send it to people you know. It is a violation of law in some jurisdictions to falsely identify yourself in an e-mail. All information you provide will be used by Fidelity solely for the purpose of sending the e-mail on your behalf.The subject line of the e-mail you send will be "Fidelity.com: "

Your e-mail has been sent.
close

Your e-mail has been sent.

Sign up for Fidelity Viewpoints®

Get a weekly email of our pros' current thinking about financial markets, investing strategies, and personal finance.