Our experts answer readers’ investing questions and write unbiased product reviews (here’s how we assess investing products). Paid non-client promotion: In some cases, we receive a commission from our partners. Our opinions are always our own.
The author, Mallika Mitra.
Ditching my traditional 9-to-5 job for freelancing came with a myriad of worries, including losing health insurance and a stable paycheck. But despite only being 28 years old, my retirement plans were among my top concerns.
I’ve spent the last several years of my journalism career reporting on personal finance and investing. So while retirement may be decades away, it’s often on my mind.
For most of my professional life, I’ve had the privilege of a 401(k) with an employer match. Now that I’m stepping away from an employer-sponsored retirement plan, I need to save for my future on my own. I spoke with experts about what steps I — and other freelancers — should take.
1. Determine what I can contribute
Different types of retirement savings accounts have different contribution limits, so I need to determine how much of my income I can actually invest for retirement. This may be a tough calculation, since my earnings will likely be higher during some months and lower during others. It’s okay to take some time to figure out exactly how much I’ll contribute regularly, according to Anna Sergunina, president and CEO at MainStreet Financial Planning.
“At least initially, maybe you need to give it a year or two until you see some pattern,” Sergunina said. “Then you’ll be a lot more practiced to say, ‘Okay, I can contribute $500 a month regularly.'”
Anjali Jariwala, the founder of financial planning firm FIT Advisors, says the most important aspect of planning contributions is setting good financial habits.
“Set a goal of how much of your income you’d like to save and see if you can meet or exceed that goal,” Jariwala said. “If you exceed the goal, set the percentage higher.”
2. Consider an IRA
Now that I’ll be saving for retirement without the help of my employer, I’ll want to consider an IRA. These accounts are relatively easy to open online via banks and online brokerages and allow investments in a wide range of securities, including stocks and bonds.
They come with major tax benefits. With a traditional IRA, I can contribute tax-free money now and pay taxes when I take the money out in the future. A Roth IRA works the opposite way: I can put after-tax dollars in now and make tax-free withdrawals down the road.
“Roth is awesome, especially for someone who’s younger and especially if your income tax bracket is lower now,” said Tricia Rosen, principal at Access Financial Planning.
Because of my age, I can contribute up to $6,500 to an IRA in 2023. The limit increases by $1,000 when you turn 50.
If I decide I’m looking to contribute more than $6,500, financial planners I spoke to said I may want to consider a SEP IRA, which is similar to an IRA but with a higher contribution limit and different calculation for contributions. SEP IRAs let you contribute 25% of your earnings, up to $66,000 this year.
Another option — the SIMPLE IRA — would allow me to act as the employee and the employer who contributes a match. It has higher contribution limits than a traditional IRA and may make more sense for someone looking to employ people.
3. Consider a solo 401(k)
I can also consider a solo 401(k), which provides similar benefits to an employer 401(k).
“You’re both the employee and the employer,” Rosen said about the solo 401(k). So you can make your employee contribution, but you can also make a contribution as the employer.
Someone my age can contribute $22,500 in 2023 as the employee and up to 25% of their net self-employment income as the employer.
4. Don’t forget about income and contribution limits or taxes
The income threshold for being able to contribute to these accounts and IRAs changes each year, so you’ll want to check on your eligibility. And you can open up multiple retirement accounts, but keep track of your contributions and limits. You can’t double dip and max out both a solo 401(k) and a SEP IRA, for example, Jariwala said.
“It is more accounts to manage, but can be worth it at the end of the day if you are able to put more away into retirement,” she added.
I also have to remember that I no longer have an employer sending money from my paycheck to the IRS. That means I need to have a solid understanding of my tax bracket and the percentage of my revenue I’ll have to set aside to make quarterly estimated payments.
“That is the priority even before retirement savings, because you can get in deep trouble pretty quickly with the IRS if you don’t do that,” Rosen said.