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Best Ways for the Self-Employed to Save for Retirement

If you work for yourself, the two best choices are a solo 401(k) and a simplified employee pension.

I’m self-employed and want to set up a retirement-savings account. Which type of account should I open? What’s the deadline for 2013?

Two of the best retirement-savings options for self-employed people are a solo 401(k) and a simplified employee pension (SEP). Contributions to either type of account are tax-deductible and grow tax-deferred until you tap the money in retirement.

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The deadline depends on the type of account you choose. You must set up a solo 401(k) by December 31, 2013, if you don’t already have an account, but then you have until April 15, 2014, to make your 2013 contributions. You have until April 15, 2014, to open a SEP account and make your 2013 contributions.

In a solo 401(k), you can contribute up to $17,500 plus up to 20% of your net self-employment income (business income minus half of your self-employment tax), for a maximum contribution of $51,000 for 2013. Your total contributions cannot exceed your self-employment income for the year. If you’re 50 or older in 2013, you can make catch-up contributions to a solo 401(k) of up to $5,500, for a maximum contribution of $56,500. Some solo 401(k)s also let you take out loans.

The maximum contribution for a SEP is the same as for a solo 401(k) -- $51,000 for 2013 -- but you are limited to contributing up to 20% of your net self-employment income. SEPs are usually easier to set up. You can open one at most brokerage firms, mutual fund companies or banks that offer IRAs, and you can usually invest in any mutual funds, stocks, bonds or other investments available in the firm’s IRAs. You can’t take loans from a SEP account.

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Most people can set aside more money in a solo 401(k) plan than in a SEP. Say, for example, you earn $15,000 in net self-employment income from a freelance job for the year. You can contribute the full $15,000 to a solo 401(k), but you can only contribute $3,000 to a SEP (20% of $15,000).

You need to be careful with solo 401(k) limits if you have a 401(k) through an employer and also have some freelance earnings. In that case, your total employee deferrals to your employer’s plan and your solo 401(k) are limited to $17,500 for the year. But you can still contribute up to 20% of your net self-employment income to a solo 401(k).

For a list of solo 401(k) plan administrators, see the 401khelpcenter.com vendor list. When choosing the administrator, compare the investment choices and fees. Fidelity, Schwab and TD Ameritrade, for example, have no set-up or maintenance fees and let people choose most investments that are available to brokerage customers.

For more information about your options, see IRS Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business.

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