If you have self-employment income, SEP IRAs (SEP stands for “Simplified Employee Pension”) are a great vehicle for turbo-charging your retirement savings while simultaneously reducing your tax obligation.
The only downside to SEP IRAs is that they aren’t the most intuitive. But don’t let that dissuade you – becoming familiar with a few basics goes a long ways.
When you make a contribution to an SEP IRA that you manage, you have the option to contribute as an employer or an individual. That prompted a 20somethingfinance reader to recently ask me the following question.
“When contributing to my SEP IRA, I noticed the option to contribute as an employer and an individual. That left me wondering, should you contribute as an employer or an individual to an SEP IRA?”
This is kind of a tricky one!
Contributing to an SEP IRA as an Employer Versus Individual
See the screenshot from my Vanguard account here to see exactly what the reader is talking about.
On the surface, this is confusing (and the IRS does not cover this well on their site), but the short answer to the question is, you can contribute to an SEP IRA both as an employer and an individual (with some caveats).
As a self-employed individual (i.e. a contractor, fully self-employed, or someone who earns a side-income), think of an SEP IRA as a Traditional IRA with the added ability to contribute additional funds as the “employer” of yourself. Once you understand that, it makes things easier.
If contributing as an “employer”, with self-employment income, you can contribute the lesser of:
- 25% of your self-employed compensation, or
- the maximum employer contribution: $56,000 (2019) or $57,000 (2020)
I won’t go into all of the details in this post, but the tax deductible amount is less than 25% (maximum of 20%) and requires a bit of calculation. I have a list of SEP IRA calculators here, or check out IRS IRS Publication 560 if you want to find out more.
If contributing as an “individual”, the standard maximum IRA contributions combined for all of your Traditional, Roth, and SEP IRAs are capped at $6,000 in 2019 and 2020 (aside from the additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if age 50+).
It makes sense to make the full “employer” contribution before even considering the separate “individual” contribution. But, there is nothing stopping you from contributing to an SEP IRA both as an “employer” and an “individual” – you just want to make sure that, similar to a Traditional IRA, you are under the IRA income limits to be able to deduct contributions for the “individual” contribution, since technically an SEP IRA is an employer retirement plan (similar to a 401K, 403B, etc.).
Combined, this can add up to a lot of retirement savings and tax deductions.
If you have an SEP IRA (or are interested in one), you may also want to look into the Solo 401K, as they can offer even more retirement and tax savings.
Also, if you have an SEP IRA run by an employer other than yourself, you cannot contribute as an “employee” like you can with a 401K, for example. However, if your plan allows it, you can contribute as an “individual”, as you would through a Traditional IRA.