Retirement Plans for Self-Employed Workers

Even freelancers doing work on the side can contribute to a solo 401(k) or a Simplifed Employee Pension.

I started doing freelance work a few months ago and am wondering if I can contribute to a self-employed retirement account. If so, can I contribute to a Roth IRA at the same time?

Yes to both questions. You can stash money in a retirement-savings plan if you have income from self-employment, even if you have a full-time job, too.

The two best retirement-savings options for most self-employed workers are a solo 401(k) and a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP). You can make tax-deductible contributions to either plan, and the money grows tax-deferred until retirement (you usually have to pay a 10% penalty for withdrawals before age 59½). You may be able to contribute more to the solo 401(k), but it may be easier for you to find a SEP administrator.

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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 solo 401(k) contribution of $52,000 in 2014. If you’re 50 or older this year, you can contribute up to $23,000 plus up to 20% of your net self-employment income, with a total contribution limit of $57,500. Your total contributions cannot exceed your self-employment income for the year. You have to open a solo 401(k) by December 31, but you have until April 15, 2015, to make contributions for 2014. You can find a list of solo 401(k) administrators at Look for an administrator with plenty of investing options and low fees. Fidelity, Schwab and TD Ameritrade, for example, have no setup or maintenance fees.

If you have a 401(k) through an employer and some freelance earnings, your total employee deferrals to your employer’s plan plus your solo 401(k) are limited to $17,500 for the year (or $23,000 if you’re 50 or older). But you can still contribute up to 20% of your net self-employment income to the solo 401(k), regardless of your other contributions.

Contributions to an employer’s 401(k) don’t affect SEP limits. You can contribute up to 20% of your net self-employment income to a SEP, with a total contribution limit of $52,000 for 2014. You can open a SEP at most brokerages, fund companies and banks, where you usually have the same investing options as for IRAs. You have until April 15, 2015, to open an account and make contributions for 2014.

Now is a perfect time to start thinking about your contributions for 2014 -- especially if you’re about to pay quarterly taxes on September 15 and are estimating your self-employment income so far for the year. “The limits are substantial, and it’s hard for self-employed people to come up with that at the end of the year,” says Scott Tiras, an Ameriprise Financial Wealth Advisor in Houston. “Now is a good time to start setting aside that money.”

Even if you have a SEP or a solo 401(k), you can contribute up to $5,500 to a Roth IRA for 2014 (or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older this year), as long as your total modified adjusted gross income is less than $129,000 for the year if you’re single, or $191,000 if married filing jointly. The amount you can contribute starts to phase out for singles earning more than $114,000 or married couples earning more than $181,000.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.