Retirement saving options abound. Which one’s right for you?

Each of the four main possibilities comes with pros and cons regarding contribution limits, tax considerations and employing others. Discuss the finer points with a tax professional before deciding what’s best for your situation.

Individual 401(k)

As the name implies, Individual 401(k)s work much like the 401(k) plans employers offer. The difference, says Robert Aruldoss, a senior research analyst at the Schwab Center for Financial Research, is that the individual is considered both the employer and employee—and can contribute more as a result.. As an employer, you can contribute as much as 25% of your salary. As an employee, you can also put away up to $18,000 a year—plus an additional $6,000 if you’re over age 50 (a so-called catch-up contribution)—for a total tax-advantaged contribution of up to $54,000 a year.

Another benefit is that you can make employee contributions post-tax—as with a Roth 401(k)—so that withdrawals in retirement are tax-free.

Individual 401(k)s are generally best if you’re self-employed and working alone. If you have employees, your own retirement contributions are limited by how much you set aside for your workers.


The setup and administration of a SIMPLE IRA lives up to its acronym (if not its official name, Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees Individual Retirement Account). This is an easy way for a small-business owner to set up a retirement plan that can be used to match employee contributions dollar for dollar up to 3%. Alternatively, you could make a 2% minimum contribution to each employee earning at least $5,000 a year. A SIMPLE IRA is most appropriate for small businesses with up to 100 employees. That said, employee contribution limits are relatively low ($12,500 a year, plus another $3,000 in catch-up contributions for those age 50 and over); you’re required to make contributions every year; and penalties may be more severe for withdrawals from SIMPLE IRAs before age 59½ than those for 401(k)s or SEP IRAs (see below).1


A Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Arrangement (SEP IRA) is easy to set up, and the tax-advantaged contribution limit is the lesser of 25% of your earnings or $54,000 a year. You’re not required to contribute to a SEP IRA every year, which can be helpful if you happen to hit a dry patch. However, if you’re using a SEP IRA to provide employees with retirement benefits, only the employer can contribute; there’s no provision for employee contributions.

Personal Defined Benefit Plan

Although somewhat anachronistic, it’s possible to set up a defined benefit pension plan. This option entails higher administrative costs and greater responsibilities, but it can be a boon to older, self-employed workers with a stable cash flow who want to contribute considerable sums toward retirement. You set the benefit you want in retirement—up to $215,000 a year—and then hire an actuary to determine your annual contributions based on age and expected investment returns. Unlike Individual 401(k)s, however, which give the self-employed the flexibility to contribute more in a good year and less in a bad year, a Personal Defined Benefit Plan establishes a set schedule of predetermined contributions, from which you cannot vary.

1Early withdrawals from 401(k)s and SEP IRAs are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty. Early withdrawals from SIMPLE IRAs are also subject to income tax and a 10% penalty—unless the withdrawal is made within the first two years of participation in the plan, in which case the penalty is 25%.

Source: Charles Schwab, On Investing, Fall 2017