Top 5 Alternatives to a 401(k): Saving for Retirement Without a 401(k)

By Pam O’Brien · April 07, 2024 · 8 minute read

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Top 5 Alternatives to a 401(k): Saving for Retirement Without a 401(k)

A 401(k) is a popular way to save for retirement. But not everyone has access to these employer-sponsored 401(k) savings plans. For instance, many small companies don’t offer them. And self-employed individuals don’t have access to regular 401(k)s.

For those who don’t have access to a 401(k) at work or want to consider other retirement savings options, there are a number of 401(k) alternatives. Read on to learn about how to save for retirement without a 401(k), some 401(k) alternatives, and what you need to know about each of them to choose a plan that aligns with your retirement savings goals.

5 Alternatives to a 401(k)

These are some popular retirement savings plans available beyond a regular 401(k).

Traditional IRA

A traditional IRA (Individual Retirement Account) is similar to a 401(k) in that contributions aren’t included in an individual’s taxable annual income. Instead, they are deferred and taxed later when the money is withdrawn at age 59 ½ or later.

Early withdrawals from an IRA may be subject to an added 10% penalty (plus income tax on the distribution). However the main difference between an IRA vs. 401(k) is that IRAs tend to give individuals more control than company-sponsored plans—an individual can decide for themselves where to open an IRA account and can exert more control in determining their investment strategy.

Learning how to open an IRA is relatively simple—such accounts are available with a variety of financial services providers, including online banks and brokerages. This flexibility allows individuals to comparison shop, evaluating providers based on criteria such as account fees and other costs.

Once an individual opens an account, they may make contributions up to an annual limit at any time prior to the tax filing deadline. For tax year 2024, the limit is $7,000 ($8,000 for individuals 50 and older). For tax year 2023, the limit is $6,500 ($7,500 for individuals 50 and older).

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Roth IRA

There are a few key differences when it comes to a traditional IRA vs. a Roth IRA. To begin with, not everyone qualifies to contribute to a Roth IRA. The upper earnings limit to contribute even a reduced amount for tax year 2024 is $161,000 for singles, and $240,000 for married joint filers. The upper earnings limit for even a partial contribution for tax year 2023 is $153,000 for singles, and $228,000 for married joint filers.

Another thing that distinguishes Roth IRAs is that they’re funded with after-tax dollars—meaning that while contributions are not income tax deductible, qualified distributions (typically after retirement) are tax-free. Additionally, while an IRA has required minimum distributions (RMD) rules that state investors must start taking distributions upon turning 73, there are no minimum withdrawals required on Roth IRAs.

Like a traditional IRA, Roth IRAs carry an annual contribution limit of $7,000 for 2024 and $6,500 for 2023. Individuals aged 50 and up can make an additional $1,000 in 2023 and in 2024 in catch-up contributions. Roth IRAs also offer similar flexibility to traditional IRAs in that individuals can open online IRA accounts with a provider that best suits their needs—whether that means an account that offers more hands-on investing support or one with cheaper fees.

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Self-Directed IRA (SDIRA)

Another 401(k) alternative is a self-directed IRA. A SDIRA can be either a traditional or Roth IRA.

But whereas IRA accounts typically allow for investment in approved stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and CDs, self-directed IRAs allow for a much broader set of holdings, including things like REITs, promissory notes, tax lien certificates, and private placement securities. Some self-directed IRAs also permit investment in digital assets such as crypto trading and initial coin offerings.

While having the freedom to make alternative investments may be appealing to some individuals, the Security and Exchange Commission cautions that such ventures may be more vulnerable to fraud than traditional investing products.

The SEC cautions that individuals considering a self-directed IRA should do their homework before investing, taking steps to confirm both the investments and the person or firm selling them are registered. They also advise investors to be cautious of unsolicited offers and any promises of guaranteed returns.

Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) IRA

A SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA follows the same rules as traditional IRAs with one key difference: They are employer-sponsored and allow companies to make contributions on workers’ behalf, up to 25% of the employee’s salary.

Though the proceeds of SEP IRAs are 100% vested with the employee, only the employer contributes to this type of retirement account. To be eligible, the employee must have worked for the company for three out of the last five years.

Because people who are self-employed or own their own companies are eligible to set up SEP IRAs—and can contribute up to a quarter of their salary—this type of account can be an attractive option for those individuals who would like to put away more each year than traditional or Roth IRAs allow.

Solo 401(k)

Self-employed individuals and business owners may want to consider a solo 401(k). This type of 401(k) is designed for those who have no employees other than their spouse, and the way it works is similar to a traditional 401(k). Contributions are made using pre-tax dollars and taxed when withdrawn in retirement. (However, there are also Roth solo 401(k)s using after-tax dollars.) The biggest difference between a regular 401(k) and a solo 401(k) is that there is no matching contribution from an employer with a solo 401(k).

The total contribution limits for a solo 401(k) are $66,000 for tax year 2023, and $69,000 for 2024. Catch-up contributions for those 50 and older are an additional $7,500 for each year.

One thing to consider: There are extra IRS rules and reporting requirements for a solo 401(k), which may make these plans more complicated.

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How a 401(k) Differs From Alternatives

As mentioned, a 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement fund. 401(k) contributions are determined by an employee and then drawn directly from their paycheck and deposited into a dedicated fund.

Income tax on 401(k) contributions is deferred until the time the money is withdrawn—usually after retirement—at which point it is taxed as income.

During the time that an employee contributes pre-tax dollars to their 401(k) plan, the contributions are deducted from their taxable income for the year, potentially lowering the amount of income tax they might own. For example, if a person earned a $60,000 annual salary and contributed $6,000 to their 401(k) in a calendar year, they would only pay income tax on $54,000 in earnings.

There are annual limits on 401(k) contributions, and the ceilings on contributions change annually. In 2024, the limit for traditional 401(k)s is $23,000—a $500 increase over the 2023 limit (individuals 50 and older can contribute an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions). If a person participates in multiple 401(k) plans from several employers, they still need to abide by this limit, so it’s a good idea to add up all contributions across plans.

A 401(k) can be a helpful savings tool for a variety of reasons. Because withdrawals are set up in advance, and automatically deducted from an individual’s paycheck, it essentially puts retirement savings on “auto-pilot.” In addition, employers often contribute to these plans, whether through matching contributions or non-elective contributions.

But there are also some drawbacks to the plan, including penalties for early withdrawals. There are also mandatory fees, which may include plan administration and service fees, as well as investment fees such as sales and management charges. It’s helpful to brush up on all the costs associated with an employer’s 401(k) and look into other 401(k) alternatives if it makes sense.

The Takeaway

With a number of 401 (k) alternatives to choose from, it’s clear there’s no one right way to save for retirement. There are a variety of factors for an investor to consider, including current income, investment interests, and whether it makes sense to invest pre- or after-tax dollars.

Ultimately, the important thing is to identify a good retirement savings account for one’s individual needs, and then contribute to it regularly.

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What is a better option than a 401(k)?

There isn’t necessarily a better option than a 401(k), but if you’re looking for another type of retirement savings plan, you may want to consider a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. These retirement savings plans allow you to invest your contributions in different types of investments, and you will generally have a wider array of offerings than you might get with a 401(k). Plus, you can have an IRA in addition to a 401(k), which could help you save even more for retirement.

How to save for retirement if my employer doesn’t offer 401(k)?

If your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k), you could save for retirement with a traditional or Roth IRA. Both plans allow you to contribute a certain amount each year ($6,500 for tax year 2023, and $7,000 for 2024), plus an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions if you are 50 or older. With traditional IRAs, you contribute pre-tax dollars, and you pay tax on the money when you withdraw it in retirement. With a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax dollars and then withdraw the money tax-free in retirement.

What 401(k) alternatives are there for the self-employed?

Some 401(k) alternatives for the self-employed include SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRAs and solo 401(k)s. With a SEP IRA, individuals who are self-employed or own their own companies can contribute up to a quarter of their salary. Solo 401(k)s are designed for self-employed individuals who have no employees other than a spouse, and allow for contributions of up to $66,000 in 2023, and $69,000 in 2024.

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