February 10, 2010


Talk about control. In addition to managing themselves, self-employed workers have their own options for retirement saving, too. Two of the best options: solo 401(k)s and solo Roth 401(k)s.

Both have been around a few years but are more common now as accountants with entrepreneurial clients have become more fluent with them, says Rick Meigs, president of Portland, Ore.-based 401khelpcenter.com, a 401(k) research firm.

Their biggest benefit is they often allow for higher retirement-savings contributions than other plans. They also have less-complicated contribution rules than a Keogh, which offers high contribution potential but may require the expense of an actuary and extra paperwork.

Salt Away

Solo 401(k)s let you put away more than a Simple IRA, which allows a maximum contribution of $11,500 a year for those under 50 and $14,000 for those older, plus up to 3% of income (after adjusting for self-employment tax). More than Roth IRAs, too, which set a ceiling of $5,000 for those 49 and under, and $6,000 for those older. Unlike a Roth IRA, solo 401(k) plans also place no income limits on who can participate.

Regular solo and Roth solo 401(k)s also can allow for higher contributions than a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA at the same income level. In a SEP IRA for 2009 and 2010, entrepreneurs may contribute as much as 20% of their net business profit (up to a maximum of $49,000) if they are sole proprietors, or 25% of their salary if their company is a corporation. (Net business profit is defined as the income of the business after expenses, and minus half of the self-employment tax.)

But with a solo 401(k) or solo Roth 401(k), for 2009 and 2010 you can put into the plan 100% of your first $16,500 in income from the business (or $22,000, if 50 or older), plus 20% of net profit, until you max out contributions at $49,000 (or $54,500, if you are 50 or older).

How can an entrepreneur sock away more with a solo 401(k) than with a SEP IRA? Clint Gharib, director of managed products and insurance at J.P. Turner & Co. in Atlanta, uses the example of a 51-year-old sole proprietor whose business income was $100,000. If the proprietor used a SEP IRA, he or she could invest only 20% of $92,936 ($100,000 minus $7,064, half the self-employment tax), or about $18,600.

Serge Bloch

But the same proprietor could put $22,000 in a solo 401(k), plus 20% of $92,936, for a total of about $40,600. Under some accounting rules and business structures (if incorporated, for instance), this same entrepreneur might be able to put as much as 25% of his or her salary in a SEP IRA—but that amount would still be far less than a solo 401(k) allows.

Numerous mutual-fund, brokerage and discount-brokerage firms offer solo 401(k) plans. Among fund families that sell them through financial advisers: Invesco Aim, Pioneer Investments and OppenheimerFunds. Self-directed investors can open such plans at T. Rowe Price Group, Charles Schwab Corp., Fidelity Investments and Vanguard Group. The Roth versions are also available from fund companies and securities firms such as Invesco Aim, Pioneer, T. Rowe Price, Vanguard, ING Direct’s ShareBuilder unit and E*Trade Financial Corp.

Fees vary, and can include a setup fee, annual administration fee, and routine mutual-fund fees—in addition to adviser fees. The highest fees are for those solo 401(k)s sold through insurance companies, Mr. Meigs says.

Among adviser-sold plans, Pioneer charges no setup fee but has a $25 annual fee that is waived on accounts over $25,000. Invesco Aim charges no setup fee and offers two administration options: a self-service option with a $10 annual fee or a full-service option, in which advisers choose a third-party administrator that aids with plan compliance. Fees for the latter vary but average less than $100 per year.


OppenheimerFunds charges no setup fee and annual administration fees of $10 for accounts over $50,000, and $15 for accounts under $50,000.

ShareBuilder’s solo 401(k) products cost $195 to set up, and are assessed a $15 monthly fee, waived on accounts over $250,000; start-up costs are $125 for Costco members.

Russell Lowry, a certified financial planner with Sagemark Consulting Private Wealth Services in Windsor, Conn., says he has opened plans for clients at Plan Administrators Inc., a third-party administrator in De Pere, Wis., which offers adviser-sold plans featuring funds from companies such as American Funds and OppenheimerFunds. At Plan Administrators, setup costs $50, and annual fees are $150 (for balances below $250,000) or $250 (for balances $250,000 and above). Mr. Lowry also charges a fee on the plans; he says it’s about 1.5% of assets annually, or less as balances rise.

Solo 401(k)s do in some cases have higher administration fees than SEP IRAs or other plans. Investors need to weigh whether they save aggressively enough to justify those fees. Another detail: With solo 401(k) plans, once accounts hit $250,000, investors are required to file annual paperwork on them to the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Reyes, a certified financial planner in Orlando, Fla., says to help his clients decide which plan is right for them, he asks them: “How much money are you going to put away yourself? If he/she tells me less than $10,000 to $15,000, then I will always lean toward the SEP and Simple arena. If the owner says a lot more, then one is almost automatically thrown into the solo 401(k) arena.”

Mr. Reyes advises that when an investor can reliably contribute at least $15,000 a year, solo 401(k) plans often make more sense than SEP IRAs.

Other Considerations

Investing benefits aside, the ability to borrow is a plus, too. The decision also involves age considerations and guesswork about future tax rules. Investors or their advisers must figure whether it’s wiser to contribute after-tax now–to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)–or reduce taxable income now and pay tax on retirement income later–with a SEP IRA or solo 401(k).

Mr. Lowry, the financial planner, says that for entrepreneurs under 40 who want to maximize their retirement investment, he generally recommends a solo Roth 401(k) because of likely future tax increases.

The bottom line? As more workers start businesses, work as contractors or opt for self-employment, higher earners should strongly consider a solo 401(k). Even among adviser-sold plans, it’s possible to find reasonably priced options.

—Ms. Hodges is a writer in Seattle. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.