How Much Can I Contribute To My Self-Employed 401k Plan?

A self-employed 401k plan is a great way to save for retirement if you are an entrepreneur or solopreneur. A self-employed 401k plan is also know as a Solo 401k plan. This article will discuss how much you can contribute to your self-employed 401k plan.

For 2020, the IRS says you can contribute up to $57,000 in your self-employed 401k plan. The amount should go up by $500 – $1,000 every one or two years.

If you’re at least age 50, then you can make an additional $6,000 catch-up contribution, which increases your limit to $62,000. 

The $57,000 self-employed 401k plan limit consists of $19,500 from the employe and $37,500 from the employer. Therefore, to contribute the maximum to your self-employed 401k plan, you must pay yourself enough and have high enough operating profits.

In general, you can contribute up to the maximum employee amount to your Solo 401k plan + 20% of operating profits.

Self-Employed 401k Historical Contribution Limits

For those of you who are self-employed or side-hustling with a full-time job, this article will help you figure out how much you can contribute to your tax-deferred Solo 401k with an example.

You can’t just write a check for $57,000 or $62,000 if you’re over 50. There’s a formula you need to follow based off your operating income. I’m personally shooting to contribute $100,000 a year pre-tax in a Solo 401(k) and SEP-IRA given I am an employee and a freelancer.

Remember, if your employer has you in a 401k plan, you can open up a SEP-IRA if you’re side hustling. And if your employer has you in a SEP-IRA, you can open up a self-employed 401k to contribute more pre-tax dollars to your retirement.

If your employer has you in a 401k plan, you can also open up a self-employed 401k. However, it wouldn’t make sense to do it because the total employee contribution is limited to $19,500 across all your 401k plans. The contribution limit goes up by $500 every couple years on average.

self-employed 401(k) solo 401(k) contribution limits

Self-Employed 401k Plan Contribution Calculation

A year after I left my corporate job in 2012 I opened up a self-employed 401k aka Solo 401(k) plan to keep my 401(k) contributions going as a sole proprietor. If you’re an independent contractor with no full time job, no employees, and no company sponsored 401k, I suggest you do the same if you want to defer taxes and save more for your retirement.

Little did I know that contributing the maximum $17,000 in 2012 was not really the maximum. The employee contribution is only one part of the plan. There was also the profit sharing side of the equation from the employer as you see in the chart above and the example below.

Let’s say you make $100,000 in gross income (revenue) as an independent contractor and after $30,000 in expenses, you’re left with $70,000 in operating income before 401k contributions and taxes. Here is how much you can contribute.

Solo 401k Contribution Calculation Example

You can use this example to easily calculate your own contribution amount after you’ve calculated your Operating Profits. Just remember 92.35% X 15.3% X 50% to apply to your operating profits and then multiply by the result by 20% to get your employer profit sharing contribution.

Contributing $31,010 to your self-employed 401k plan is quite a hefty sum that will quickly add up to a large retirement nest egg over time. You are essentially saving 31% of your gross income or a hero worshipping 41% of your operating income.

Doing some simple math, you need to make an operating income of at least $180,000 after the 1/2 Self-Employed tax deduction to be able to contribute $36,000 in profit sharing + $18,000 employee contribution to equal the maximum $54,000 a year. Easier said than done. But an operating profit figure to shoot for all the same.

Self-Employed 401(k) Plan Details

Note: The reason why self-employment tax for a sole proprietor is based on 92.35% of self-employment income instead of the whole amount is this:

1. 92.35% = 100% – 7.65% employer’s portion of SE tax (6.2% social security tax + 1.45% medicare tax)

2. Normally, an employer incurs a 7.65% expense on each dollar paid to an employee.  However, a sole proprietor does not pay himself a salary so he can’t deduct the 7.65% of SE tax on his Schedule C.  The SE tax gets deducted directly on the form 1040 instead of Sch C.  But for the sole proprietor the SE tax is a real expense, so that’s why the formula shows a reduction of 7.65% to the SE income.

Don’t Make These Common Self-Employed 401k Contribution Mistakes

1) Only contributing up to the maximum by the employee. Don’t forget the profit sharing portion in #2 if you have leftover operating profits.

2) Calculating the profit sharing contribution based off gross income before operating expenses instead of operating profits. Otherwise, you will over contribute.

3) Not deducting from operating income the 1/2 SE tax deduction, which also leads to over contributing.

Excess Self-Employed 401k Contribution Withdrawn by April 15

If you over-contribute to your 401k, you have until April 15 of the next year to withdraw the excess amount. Your employer must amend your W-2 to show the returned amount as wages. Thus your gross income will be higher and you’ll pay more taxes.

For example, assuming your 401k portfolio made money in 2020. The earnings from the excess contribution will be taxable income for 2021.

What a pain. This is why I recommend everybody round DOWN the amount they get to contribute to be safe. If the calculations say you can contribute $36,800, just contribute $36,000 to be safe.

Excess Contribution NOT Withdrawn by April 15

Source: IRS Databook 2015
Audit percent by incomee. Source: IRS Databook 2015

So what happens if you don’t notice that you’ve over-contributed to one or more 401k plans until after April 15? In this situation, the excess contribution is taxed twice, once in the year when contributed and again when distributed (the next year).

Also, the earnings from the excess contribution will be taxable income for the following year. If the mistake is not corrected, then the IRS may disqualify the entire 401k plan retroactive to the beginning of year 1. This results in the employee’s entire 401k account balance to become income to the employee which would have massive adverse tax consequences.

But the main reason why you want to be more conservative in your self-employed 401k contribution is not the fine. Th main reason is the stress of getting an IRS audit letter in the mail. It will also take time to amend your tax returns. This process can take hours.

I’d much rather miss out on contributing an extra $1,000 in my self-employd 401k than go through the torture of dealing with the IRS.

Remember, when in doubt, round down your self-employed 401k contribution amount.

Deadline To Contribute To A Self-Employed 401k?

The employee deferral contribution must be elected by December 31 of the year you want to make the contribution. However, some 401k third party administrators (TPA) may allow you to set up your 401k plan now and backdate your election. The actual contribution can be made up to the tax filing deadline including extensions.

Therefore, the contribution for your 2020 self-employed 401k can be made as late as October 15, 2021 if that’s the date you file your tax return. To be safe, after your CPA has calculated your self-employed net income, give your financial advisor one month to work with the TPA to set up the 401k plan.

When Should I Contribute To My Self-Employed 401k?

So long as you have revenue, you can start contributing the employee portion up to the maximum immediately. Contribute the maximum to your self-employed 401k during the same calendar year. It’s up to you whether you’d like to contribute in bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, bi-annually, or random lump sum increments.

For the employer profit sharing portion of your self-employed 401k contribution, you should probably wait until after you do your taxes to figure out your profit and loss. You can always conservatively guesstimate your employer profit sharing contribution if you don’t feel the need to be exact.

Just remember the money you do contribute to your self-employed 401k can’t be touched until age 59.5. You don’t have to contribute the maximum if your liquidity needs are high.

Start Side Hustling Already

I hope everyone now knows how to calculate what they can contribute to their self-employed 401k plan. Go over the example a couple more times if you are still confused. And check with an accountant if you want to be extra sure. Make sure you don’t contribute too much to your self-employed 401k plan. If you do, it can be a pain to unwind the contribution.

Given the benefits of being able to contribute to a self-employed 401k plan, I highly recommend you start your own online business. Not only can you contribute your operating profits to a tax-deferred self-employed 401k plan, you can also deduct business expenses.

If you don’t want to start an online business that can’t be shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, be a rockstar freelancer. Being one allows you to contribute to a solo 401(k) as well.

If you are only a W-2 employee, your 401k contribution is capped at the maximum a a year + any 401k employer match (average is 3% of base salary). Unfortunately, very few employers are generous enough to contribute ~20% of their operating profits to you.

For those who work at startups or money-losing organizations, you are SOL in terms of receiving any profit sharing. You’ll get paid below market rate, have options likely not worth what you hope, and get minimal retirement benefits.

At least you’ll be doing exciting work that you enjoy. Do not underestimate the many benefits of having a steady day job. If you work at a money making organization, you should inquire about your employer’s 401k match and profit sharing plans.

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Updated for the new decade


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