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How to Open a 401(k) for Yourself Without an Employer


Looking for a flexible retirement plan that meets your self-employment needs? A Solo 401(k) account can allow you to contribute both as an employee and employer, therefore increasing your potential savings to help make your retirement sustainable. If you need help deciding on a retirement plan, a financial advisor can walk you through the benefits and drawbacks of different options.

How a 401(k) Works

One popular option for self-directed retirement planning is a 401(k), a tax-advantaged retirement savings plan traditionally sponsored by an employer.

A 401(k) allows employees to save and invest a portion of their paycheck before taxes are taken out. These benefits include potential employer match contributions, tax deductions and the opportunity for tax-deferred compound growth.

Contributions to a traditional 401(k) are made pre-tax, reducing your taxable income for the year. Some employers even match a portion of your contributions, giving you a welcome boost to your retirement savings.

For example, if your employer matches 50% of your contributions up to 5% of your salary, and you earn $60,000 a year, that’s an additional $1,500 in your 401(k).

Predicting how much you can save in a 401(k) over time could be tricky. But a retirement calculator can help you get an estimate based on the size of your contributions and any employer matches.

What Is a Solo 401(k)?

A Solo 401(k), or a one-participant 401(k) plan, is designed for self-employed individuals or those owning businesses with no employees other than their spouse.

This plan offers the same benefits as a standard 401(k), but with a significant difference: Higher contribution limits.

As both the employer and employee, you can contribute more to a Solo 401(k), potentially accelerating your retirement savings.

This plan allows different types of investments such as mutual funds, stocks, bonds and even real estate.

Eligibility Requirements to Open a Solo 401(k)

To qualify for a Solo 401(k), you must be self-employed or own a small business with no employees other than a spouse. But you don’t need to be a full-time freelancer or business owner to qualify.

You can own a Solo 401(k) even with part-time self-employment income, provided that other eligibility requirements are met.

For 2023, you can contribute up to $66,000. And if you are age 50 or older, you can make an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500, which adds up to $73,500.

Take note: If you’re juggling multiple jobs, your employee 401(k) limit gets applied to all the contributions you make across your plans and not each individual plan. Additionally, the IRS will make you pay taxes and penalties on any distributions that you make before age 59 1/2. Though you may qualify for some exceptions.

How to Setup a Solo 401(k)

A man calling a broker to get more information about setting up a Solo 401(k).

Opening a Solo 401(k) plan involves several steps to ensure that you meet IRS regulations. Here are five common steps you can take:

Check your eligibility: Confirm that you qualify to open a Solo 401(k) plan. Typically, you should be a self-employed individual or a small business owner with no full-time employees other than yourself and your spouse.

Obtain an EIN: If you haven’t already, obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. This is used to identify your plan and report contributions and distributions. You are required to have an EIN to open a Solo 401(k) plan.

Choose a provider: Research and select a financial institution or provider that offers Solo 401(k) plans. This can be a bank, brokerage firm, or a specialized retirement plan provider.

Select the type of plan: Decide whether you want a traditional Solo 401(k) or a Roth Solo 401(k). With a traditional plan, you will make pre-tax contributions, which could reduce your taxable income for the year. Roth 401(k) plan contributions, on the other hand, are made with after-tax dollars that can provide tax-free withdrawals for your retirement.

Review your plan agreement: Carefully read the plan agreement that you get from your provider. This document outlines the terms and features of your Solo 401(k) plan. If it’s to your liking, complete and sign it.

Remember that Solo 401(k) plans have specific rules and options that can vary between providers. So it’s important to review and understand the terms of your specific plan.

Alternatives to a Solo 401(k)

While a Solo 401(k) can be a good fit if you are self-employed, it’s not the only option. Other retirement savings alternatives include traditional and Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs.

When compared with IRAs, a Solo 401(k) allows higher contribution limits. And unlike SEP IRAs, a Solo 401(k) permits Roth contributions, which can offer you tax-free withdrawals in retirement.

Bottom Line

A couple meets with a financial advisor to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of opening a Solo 401(k).

Regardless of whether you choose a Solo 401(k) or another retirement savings option, it’s essential to start saving as early and consistently as possible. The optimal retirement plan will depend on your individual circumstances, including your income, tax situation and financial goals.

Tips for Retirement Planning

  • Retirement planning takes a lot of strategizing and an understanding of a variety of investments. This is something that financial advisors can help you with. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • You may want to make sure you’re saving enough money for retirement. SmartAsset’s free retirement calculator can help you estimate whether you’re on track for what you need to retire on time.

Photo credit: © Marjanovic, ©, ©