2 under-the-radar tools helped me save more than ever after leaving my job

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Using a SEP IRA, then a Solo 401(k), can let you save a lot for retirement. The author is not pictured.

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Using a SEP IRA, then a Solo 401(k), can let you save a lot for retirement. The author is not pictured.
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Jacob Lund/Shutterstock.com
  • Writer Holly Johnson is self-employed, and she has used a SEP IRA and a Solo 401(k) to save for retirement.
  • If you’re self employed, you can contribute up to $56,000 for retirement in 2019.
  • Contributions to a SEP IRA or a Solo 401(k) are calculated slightly differently, so it’s important to compare both accounts when deciding which one to use.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

When I quit my stable, predictable full-time job to write professionally in 2012, most people we know didn’t think anything of it.

My husband was still working as a mortician, so nobody worried about our income or whether we had health insurance or a retirement plan. As far as anyone knew, I was coming home so I could have more time with my kids and be a greater support for my family.

But the sentiments of our friends changed when my husband also left work to focus on our online business in February of 2014. All of a sudden, people we’ve known for years questioned us openly about how we were getting by, whether we had health insurance, and really, whether we had lost our minds.

The truth was, we made more than enough income, we bought our own health insurance plan, and yes, we still saved for retirement. And since my husband has come home to work online, we save a lot more for retirement than I ever dreamed.

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Our self-employment retirement plans

We had traditional 401(k) plans at our old jobs, and it’s true we were very sad to leave them behind. Not only did our employers offer a “match” of up to 3% of our salaries each year, but they sometimes offered profit-sharing bonuses that went straight to our retirement accounts.

We gave those perks up when we left our jobs for self-employment, but we were still able to carve out our own retirement plans. Initially, we rolled over all our accounts to Vanguard SEP IRA plans.

We’re boring index fund investors anyway, and Vanguard has some of the lowest cost funds available. Through our SEP IRA plans, we mostly invest in Vanguard Target Date Funds that come due in 2035 and 2040 (VTTHX and VFORX) along with Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund Admiral Shares (VTIAX).

SEP IRA plans let you contribute more than an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, up to 25% of compensation or $56,000 in 2019, which let us save more than we had been saving at our old jobs. The calculation to figure out how much you can contribute is not exactly straightforward, but an accountant or online tax software can do it automatically for you.

Eventually though, we changed the structure of our business to an LLC taxed as an S-Corp, which made a Solo 401(k) the more attractive option.We kept our SEP IRA accounts with Vanguard but stopped contributing. Instead, we opened and funded a Solo 401(k) account for each of us in 2017.

With a Solo 401(k), we can each contribute up to $19,000 in 2019 as an employee contribution (the previous limit was $18,500 in 2018). However, we can also contribute up to 25% of our compensation as an employer contribution, since we work for ourselves. The combined total contribution cannot exceed the 2019 limit of $56,000. Note that since we aren’t over 50, we don’t qualify for catch-up retirement contributions, which have higher contribution limits.

What does this mean? We can and do save a whole lot of money – much more than we ever saved when we had regular jobs.

Saving for retirement while self-employed isn’t as hard as it sounds

If you’re under the impression you need a workplace retirement plan to save for the future, I hope my experience makes it clear that you have options. Sure, you’ll miss out on any employer retirement benefits like an employer match if you strike out on your own, but you can open your own retirement account just the same.

Like I mentioned already, the SEP IRA is a good choice. If you think you could save more with a Solo 401(k) and are willing to fill out a little more paperwork, this plan can also be a smart choice.

In addition to those options, you can also contribute up to $6,000 across Roth IRA and traditional IRA accounts – or $1,000 more if you’re age 50 or older.

Note that contributions to a Roth IRA are made in post-tax dollars, so there’s no tax benefit right away, and only individuals with an income of less than $122,000 a year or less than $193,000 a year married filing jointly can contribute the maximum account. However, money in a Roth IRA grows tax-free and you don’t have to pay taxes on qualified distributions.

With a traditional IRA, there are no income limits, but contributions are subject to the same limits and you may be able to deduct your contributions on your taxes if you meet certain income and employment requirements.

Where can you open an account? We chose Vanguard for our retirement funds because they have some of the lowest-cost investments available today, but you could also open a retirement account with Fidelity, Charles Schwab, Ally Invest, Betterment, Wealthsimple, or any other online brokerage firm.

The bottom line: Saving for retirement is easy when you’re self-employed – no matter what anyone says. All it takes is a little research, a few hours of your time, and the desire to save for the future you want.

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