Individual 401(k) Plans

There is only one kind of individual 401(k) plan in existence today.

An Individual 401(k) plan is available to self-employed individuals and business owners, including sole proprietors, corporations, partnerships, and tax-exempt organizations with no employees other than a spouse.

You must have a minimum 5% business share to be eligible.

Self-employed 401(k) Plan

If you are self-employed or own a business of one of the types described above and would like to make a substantial contribution for your retirement, then this plan is for you.

In 2020, you can make an elective salary deferral of up to $19,500 and then make an employer-funded contribution of 20% of your self-employment income up to $57,000 for a total of $76,500.

If you are age 50 or above, then you can make an additional catch-up contribution of $6,500 to bring your total contributions to $83,000. And these numbers are expected to rise as time passes.

Self-employed 401(k) Contribution Limit

In order to figure out the amount of money that you can put into your self-employed 401(k) plan in a given year, you must first determine the total amount of your “earned income” for that year.

This figure is equal to your net earnings from self-employment minus half of your self-employment tax and the contributions to the plan that you made for yourself.

Use the rate table or worksheets in Chapter 5 of IRS Publication 560, Retirement Plans for Small Business, for figuring your allowable contribution rate and tax deduction for your 401(k) plan contributions.

Individual 401(k) Investments

You can invest your plan in a wide range of investment options, including mutual funds, annuities, stocks, bonds, CDs, guaranteed investment contracts, and other assorted vehicles designed to grow in value over time.

Virtually all investment firms, brokers, banks and insurance companies can help you to administrate this type of plan and keep record-keeping and other paperwork to a minimum.

The investment firm or bank that you choose to help you administrate your plan will also act as your plan’s custodian and thus invest your contributions according to your specifications.

The investment firm will also hold your contributions for safekeeping.

Individual 401(k) Plan Requirements

You are not required to contribute to the plan every year; if your income is low in a given year, then you can pass on your contributions for that year if necessary.

If you hire any employees who qualify to participate in the 401(k) plan, you must make this available to them.

But the plan will then have to meet the top-heavy and nondiscrimination tests that apply to all 401(k) plans with more than one participant.

Individual 401(k) Plans FAQs

A 401(k) plan is a retirement plan offered by an employer designed to help employees save for retirement.
An Individual 401(k) plan is available to self-employed individuals and business owners, including sole proprietors, corporations, partnerships, and tax-exempt organizations with no employees other than a spouse.
With a Roth 401(k), taxes are paid as money is put into the retirement account. With a traditional 401(k), taxes are paid as money is taken out.
Alternatives to 401(k) plans include traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pension plans (if your employer offers one), and 403(b) retirement plans for employees of non-profit organizations.

What is a 401(k) Plan?

401(k) Meaning

The 401(k) retirement savings account got its name from the Revenue Act of 1978, where an addition to the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) code was added in section 401(k).

Consequently, 401(k) does not stand for anything except for the section of IRS tax code it was created in.

Traditional 401(k) vs Roth 401(k)

There are two types of 401(k) plans: Traditional and Roth 401(k)s.

The traditional 401(k), named after the relevant section of the IRS code, has been around since 1978.

With this plan, any contributions you make to the 401(k) account will reduce your income taxes for that year and will be taxed when they are withdrawn.

Roth 401(k)s, named after former senator William Roth of Delaware, were introduced in 2006.

Unlike a traditional 401(k), all contributions are made with after-tax dollars and the funds in the Roth 401(k) account accrue tax free.

Typically, employees can take advantage of both plans at the same time, which is recommended among financial advisors to maximize retirement savings.

Because of the way the contribution limits work, it is possible to invest different amounts into each account, even year-to-year, so long as the total contribution does not exceed the set limit.

Contributing to Your 401(k) Retirement Plan

Contributing to a 401(k) plan is traditionally done through one’s employer.

Typically, the employer will automatically enroll you in a 401(k) that you may contribute to at your discretion.

If you are self-employed, you may enroll in a 401(k) plan through an online broker, such as TD Ameritrade.

If your employer offers both types of 401(k) accounts, then you will most likely be able to contribute to either or both at your discretion.

To reiterate, with a traditional 401(k), making a contribution reduces your income taxes for that year, saving you money in the short term, but the funds will be taxed when they are withdrawn.

With a Roth 401(k), your contributions can be made only after taxation, which costs more in the short term, but the funds will be tax free when you withdraw them.

Because of this, deciding which plan will benefit you more involves figuring out in what tax bracket you will be when you retire.

If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket upon retirement, then a traditional 401(k) may help you more in the long term.

You will be able to take advantage of the immediate tax break while your taxes are higher, while minimizing the portion taken out of your withdrawal once you move to a lower tax bracket.

On the other hand, a Roth 401(k) may be more advantageous if you expect the opposite to be true.

In that case, you can opt to bite the bullet on heavy taxation today, but avoid a higher tax burden if your tax bracket moves up.

Check out this article from Forbes to see the IRS tax rate tables for 2020, but remember that they are subject to change.

A smart move may be to hedge your bets and divide your contributions between the two types of IRAs.

If your employer allows you to add funds to both a traditional and Roth 401(k), then doing so reduces the potential risks of each.

In this case, you will also have the ability to decide what proportion of your income goes into each account, meaning that as you near retirement and have a clearer idea of what position you will be in, you can put more into one or the other.

When you do decide which avenue to take, make sure to thoroughly evaluate your decision.

Moving funds from one account to another, such as from a traditional to a Roth 401(k), is time consuming and expensive, if even possible.

Likewise, transferring a 401(k) from one employer to another in the event of a job change is also tricky.

You want to make sure that when you put money into your plan, it will be able to sit undisturbed for a very long time.

Pension vs 401(k)


Pensions are similar to a 401(k), but are a liability to a company.

If an employer offers an employee a pension, it means that they are promising to pay out a set amount of money to the employee at the time of their retirement.

There is typically no option to grow this amount, but it also does not require any financial investment from the employee.

Pensions, also referred to as defined-benefit plans, are becoming increasingly rare because it puts the financial burden of offering a retirement fund for employees entirely on the employer.

401(k)s, which are also called defined-contribution plans, take some of the financial pressure off of an employer, while also allowing employees to potentially earn a larger retirement package than they would have with a pension.

How Much Should I Contribute To My 401(k)?

Most financial experts say you should contribute around 10%-15% of your monthly gross income to a retirement savings account, including but not limited to a 401(k).

There are limits on how much you can contribute to it that are outlined in detail below.

There are two methods of contributing funds to your 401(k).

The main way of adding new funds to your account is to contribute a portion of your own income directly.

This is usually done through automatic payroll withholding (i.e. the amount that you wish to contribute, counting all adjustments for taxation, is simply withheld when receiving payment and automatically put into a 401(k)).

The system mandates that the majority of direct financial contributions will come from your own pocket.

It is essential that, when making contributions, you consider the trajectory of the specific investments you are making to increase the likelihood of a positive return.

The second method comes from deposits that an employer matches.

Usually employers will match a deposit based on a set formula, such as 50 cents per dollar contributed by the employee.

However, employers are only able to contribute to a traditional 401(k), not a Roth 401(k) plan.

This is especially important to keep in mind if you want to utilize both types of plans.

A key variable to keep in mind is that there are set limits for how much you can add to a 401(k) in a single year.

For employees under 50 years of age, this amount is $19,500, as of 2020. For employees over 50 years of age, the amount is $25,000.

If you have a traditional 401(k), you can also elect to make non-deductible after-tax contributions.

The absolute limit, counting this choice and all employer contributions, is $57,000 for employees under 50, and $63,000 for those over 50 as of 2019.

401(k) Plan FAQs