For self-employed, retirement saving can be a challenge

September 24, 2014

by Mark Huffman

cons-affPeople who are self-employed, either as business owners or independent contractors, don’t have access to employer pensions or employer matches to retirement accounts. They’re on their own when it comes to saving for retirement.

Michelle Perry Higgins, a financial advisor and Principal of California Financial Advisors in San Ramon, Calif., says that for a number of reasons, the self-employed often find it hard to save for retirement.

Unpredictable income

“A key characteristic of self-employed people, both business owners and independent contractors, is that their income is likely to be more unpredictable than that of employees,” she told ConsumerAffairs. “Business owners may have seasonable income flows or be subject to other market forces. They also tend to invest all their time and spare income in their businesses. Independent contractors may have difficulty lining up jobs consistently. Both practically and psychologically, the situation of both groups makes it difficult for them to save consistently for retirement and this is a huge problem.”

Granted, cash-flow is a major challenge for people who don’t get a paycheck every two weeks. But the consensus of financial experts surveyed by U.S. News recently was that people who work for themselves should be putting way 15% to 20% of their salary for retirement.

But many self-employed might ask, “what salary?” Thomas Goodson, founder and CEO of a financial planning and wealth management firm in Santa Barbara, Calif., told the magazine that most small business owners pay themselves last, especially in the formative years of the business.

Counting their chickens

Higgins says many self-employed put off saving because they expect a windfall before they retire.

“Business owners may believe that they will be bailed out by selling their business,” she said. “The risk is that they don’t get the price they think they should get and are left with little for retirement after years of hard work.”

For business owners and independent contractors who want to get started on a retirement savings plan, the Simplified Employee Pension IRA, or SEP IRA, is a good vehicle. In fact, it is a retirement plan specifically designed for anyone with self-employment income. Contributions are tax deductible so it helps you build up savings while reducing your taxable income.

While you don’t have a boss to match your contributions, your contribution is, in fact, an employer contribution. It doesn’t come directly from your paycheck but from the business’ gross earnings. Since you are not only the owner but an employee, the company is allowed to contribute up to 25% of your salary – up to $52,000 per participant this tax year.


As someone who is self-employed, you are not required to contribute the same percentage of compensation every year. You can vary the percentage or even skip a year. However, if you have employees, you must contribute the same percentage of compensation for each employee who is eligible.

A SEP IRA is a retirement saving option if you are a sole proprietor, in a business partnership, own a business or you are an independent contractor earning self-employment income.

IRS Publication 560 has more information.