Solo 401(k) vs SEP IRA: Key Differences and Considerations

Solo 401(k) vs SEP IRA: An In-Depth Comparison for Self-Employed Retirement Planning

Self-employment has its perks, but an employer-sponsored retirement plan isn’t one of them. Opening a solo 401(k) or a Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Account (SEP IRA) allows the self-employed to save for retirement while enjoying some tax advantages.

So, which is better for you? The answer can depend largely on whether your business has employees or operates as a sole proprietorship and which plan yields more benefits, in terms of contribution limits and tax breaks.

Weighing the features of a solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA can make it easier to decide which one is more suited to your retirement savings needs.

Key Points

•   Solo 401(k) allows tax-deductible contributions, employer contributions, employee contributions, and offers the option for Roth contributions and catch-up contributions.

•   SEP IRA allows tax-deductible contributions, employer contributions, but does not allow employee contributions, Roth contributions, catch-up contributions, or loans.

•   Withdrawals from traditional solo 401(k) plans and SEP IRAs are taxed in retirement.

•   Solo 401(k) plans allow loans, while SEP IRAs do not.

•   Solo 401(k) plans offer more flexibility and options compared to SEP IRAs.

Understanding the Basics

A solo 401(k) is similar to a traditional 401(k), in terms of annual contribution limits and tax treatment. A SEP IRA follows the same tax rules as traditional IRAs. SEP IRAs, however, typically allow a higher annual contribution limit than a regular IRA.

What Is a Solo 401(k)?

A solo 401(k) covers a business owner who has no employees or employs only their spouse. Simply, a Solo 401(k) allows you to save money for retirement from your self-employment or business income on a tax-advantaged basis.

These plans follow the same IRS rules and requirements as any other 401(k). There are specific solo 401(k) contribution limits to follow, along with rules regarding withdrawals and taxation. Regulations also govern when you can take a loan from a solo 401(k) plan.

A number of online brokerages offer solo 401(k) plans for self-employed individuals, including those who freelance or perform gig work. You can open a retirement account online and start investing, no employer other than yourself needed.

If you use a solo 401(k) to save for retirement, you’ll also need to follow some reporting requirements. Generally, the IRS requires solo 401(k) plan owners to file a Form 5500-EZ if it has $250,000 or more in assets at the end of the year.

What Is a SEP IRA?

A SEP IRA is another option to consider if you’re looking for retirement plans for the self-employed. This tax-advantaged plan is available to any size business, including sole proprietorships with no employees. SEP IRAs work much like traditional IRAs, with regard to the tax treatment of withdrawals. They do, however, allow you to contribute more money toward retirement each year above the standard traditional IRA contribution limit. That means you could enjoy a bigger tax break when it’s time to deduct contributions.

If you have employees, you can make retirement plan contributions to a SEP IRA on their behalf. SEP IRA contribution limits are, for the most part, the same for both employers and employees. If you’re interested in a SEP, you can set up an IRA for yourself or for yourself and your employees through an online brokerage.

💡 Quick Tip: Did you know that you must choose the investments in your IRA? Once you open a new IRA and start saving, you get to decide which mutual funds, ETFs, or other investments you want — it’s totally up to you.

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Diving Deeper: Pros and Cons of Each Plan

As you debate between a solo 401(k) vs. a SEP IRA as ways to build wealth for retirement, it’s helpful to learn more about how these plans work, including their benefits and drawbacks.

Advantages of Solo 401(k)s

In terms of differences, there are some things that set solo 401(k) plans apart from SEP IRAs.

With a solo 401(k), you can choose a traditional or Roth. You can deduct your contributions in the year you make them with a traditional solo 401(k), but you’ll pay taxes on your distributions in retirement. With a Roth solo 401(k) you pay taxes on your contributions in the year you make them, and in retirement, your distributions are tax free. You can choose the plan that gives you the best tax advantage.

Another benefit of a solo 401(k) is that those age 50 and older can make catch-up contributions to this plan. In addition, you may be able to take a loan from a solo 401(k) if the plan permits it.

Advantages of SEP IRAs

One of the benefits of a SEP IRA is that contributions are tax deductible and you can make them at any time until your taxes are due in mid-April of the following year.

The plan is also easy to set up and maintain.

If you have employees, you can establish a SEP IRA for yourself as well as your eligible employees. You can then make retirement plan contributions to a SEP IRA on your employees’ behalf. (All contributions to a SEP are made by the employer only, though employees own their accounts.)

SEP IRA contribution limits are, for the most part, the same for both employers and employees. This means that you need to make the same percentage of contribution for each employee that you make for yourself. That means if you contribute 15% of your compensation for yourself, you must contribute 15% of each employee’s compensation (subject to contribution limits).

A SEP IRA also offers flexibility. You don’t have to contribute to it every year.

However, under SEP IRA rules, no catch-up contributions are allowed. There’s no Roth option with a SEP IRA either.

Eligibility and Contribution Limits

Here’s what you need to know about who is eligible for a SEP IRA vs. a Solo 401(k), along with the contribution limits for both plans for 2023.

Who Qualifies for a Solo 401(k) or SEP IRA?

Self-employed individuals and business owners with no employees (aside from their spouse) can open and contribute to a solo 401(k). There are no income restrictions on these plans.

SEP IRAs are available to self-employed individuals or business owners with employees. A SEP IRA might be best for those with just a few employees because IRS rules dictate that if you have one of these plans, you must contribute to a SEP IRA on behalf of your eligible employees (to be eligible, the employees must be 21 or older, they must have worked for you for three of the past five years, and they must have earned at least $750 in the tax year).

Plus, the amount you contribute to your employees’ plan must be the same percentage that you contribute to your own plan.

Contribution Comparison

With a solo 401(k), there are rules regarding contributions, including contribution limits. For 2023, you can contribute up to $66,000, plus an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500 for those age 50 and older. In 2024, you can contribute up to $69,000, plus an extra catch-up contribution of $7,500 for those age 50 and older.

For the purposes of a solo 401(k) you play two roles — employer and employee. As an employee, you can contribute the lesser of 100% of your compensation or up to $22,500 in 2023 and up to $23,000 in 2024. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute the $7,500 catch-up contribution in 2023 and 2024 as well. As an employer, you can make an additional contribution of 25% of your compensation (up to $330,000 of compensation in 2023 and $345,000 in 2024) or net self-employment income.

The contribution limits for a SEP IRA are the lesser of 25% of your compensation or $66,000 in 2023 and $69,000 in 2024. As mentioned earlier, there are no catch-up contributions with this plan.

And remember, per the IRS, if you have a SEP IRA, you must contribute to the plan on behalf of your eligible employees. The amount you contribute to your employees’ plan must be the same percentage that you contribute to your own plan.

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Key Differences That Could Influence Your Decision

When you’re deciding between a solo 401(k) vs. a SEP IRA, consider the differences between the two plans carefully. These differences include:

Roth Options and Tax Benefits

With a solo 401(k), you can choose between a traditional and Roth solo 401(k), depending on which option’s tax benefits make the most sense for you. If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket when you retire, a Roth may be more advantageous since you can pay taxes on your contributions upfront and get distributions tax-free in retirement.

On the other hand, if you anticipate being in a lower tax bracket at retirement, a traditional solo 401(k) that lets you take deductions on your contributions now and pay tax on distributions in retirement could be your best option.

Loan Options and Investment Flexibility

You may also be able to take a loan from a solo 401(k) if your plan permits it. Solo 401(k) loans follow the same rules as traditional 401(k) loans.

If you need to take money from a SEP IRA before age 59 ½, however, you may pay an early withdrawal penalty and owe income tax on the withdrawal.

Both solo 401(k)s and SEP IRA offer more investment options than workplace 401(k)s. So you can choose the investment options that best suit your needs.

The Impact of Having Employees

Whether you have employees or not will help determine which type of plan is best for you.

A solo 401(k) is designed for business owners with no employees except for a spouse.

A SEP IRA is for those who are self-employed or small business owners. A SEP IRA may be best for those who have just a few employees since, as discussed above, you must contribute to a SEP IRA on behalf of all eligible employees and you must contribute the same percentage of compensation as you contribute for yourself.

The Financial Implications for Your Business

The plan you choose, solo 401(k) vs. SEP IRA, does have financial and tax implications that you’ll want to consider carefully. Here’s a quick comparison of the two plans.

Solo 401(k) vs SEP IRA at a Glance

Both solo 401(k) plans and SEP IRAs make it possible to save for retirement as a self-employed person or business owner when you don’t have access to an employer’s 401(k). And both can potentially offer a tax break if you’re able to deduct contributions each year.

Here’s a rundown of the main differences between a 401(k) vs. SEP IRA.

Solo 401(k)

SEP IRA

Tax-Deductible Contributions Yes, for traditional solo 401(k) plans Yes
Employer Contributions Allowed Yes Yes
Employee Contributions Allowed Yes No
Withdrawals Taxed in Retirement Yes, for traditional solo 401(k) plans Yes
Roth Contributions Allowed Yes No
Catch-Up Contributions Allowed Yes No
Loans Allowed Yes No

How These Plans Affect Your Bottom Line

Both solo 401(k)s and SEP IRAs are tax-advantaged accounts that can help you save for retirement. With a SEP IRA, contributions are tax deductible, including contributions made on employees’ behalf, which offers a tax advantage. Solo 401(k)s give you the option of choosing a traditional or Roth option so that you can pay tax on your contributions upfront and not in retirement (traditional), or defer them until you retire (Roth).

Making the Choice Between SEP IRA and Solo 401(k): Which Is Right for You?

An important part of planning for your retirement is understanding your long-term goals. Whether you choose to open a solo 401(k) or make SEP IRA contributions can depend on how your business is structured, how much you want to save for retirement, and what kind of tax advantages you hope to enjoy along the way.

When to Choose a Solo 401(k)

If you’re self-employed and have no employees (or if your only employee is your spouse), you may want to consider a solo 401(k). A solo 401(k) could allow you to save more for retirement on a tax-advantaged basis compared to a SEP IRA. A solo 401(k) allows catch-up contributions if you are 50 or older, and you can also take loans from a solo 401(k).

Just be aware that a solo 401(k) can be more work to set up and maintain than a SEP IRA.

When to Choose a SEP IRA

If you’re looking for a plan that’s easy to set up and maintain, a SEP IRA may be right for you. And if you have a few employees, a SEP IRA can be used to cover them as well as your spouse. However, you will need to cover the same percentage of contribution for your employees as you do for yourself.

Remember that a SEP IRA does not allow catch-up contributions, nor can you take loans from it.

Step-by-Step Guide to Opening Your Account

You can typically set up a SEP IRA with any financial institution that offers other retirement plans, including an online bank or brokerage. The institution you choose will guide you through the set-up process and it’s generally quick and easy.

Once you establish and fund your account, you can choose the investment options that best suit your needs and those of any eligible employees you may have. You will need to set up an account for each of these employees.

To open a Solo 401(k), you’ll need an Employee Identification Number (EIN). You can get an EIN through the IRS website. Once you have an EIN, you can choose the financial institution you want to work with, typically a brokerage or online brokerage. Next, you’ll fill out the necessary paperwork, and once the account is open you’ll fund it. You can do this through direct deposit or a check. Then you can set up your contributions.

Additional Considerations for Retirement Planning

Besides choosing a SEP IRA or a solo 401(k), there are a few other factors to consider when planning for retirement. They include:

Rollover Process

At some point, you may want to roll over whichever retirement plan you choose — or roll assets from another retirement plan into your current plan. A SEP IRA allows for either option. You can generally roll a SEP IRA into another IRA or other qualified plan, although there may be some restrictions depending on the type of plan it is. You can also roll assets from another retirement plan you have into your SEP.

A solo 401(k) can also be set up to allow rollovers. You can roll other retirement accounts, including a traditional 401(k) or a SEP IRA, into your solo 401(k). You can also roll a solo 401(k) into a traditional 401(k), as long as that plan allows rollovers.

Can You have Both a SEP IRA and a Solo 401(k)?

It is possible to have both a SEP IRA and a solo 401(k). However, how much you can contribute to them depends on certain factors, including how your SEP was set up. In general, when you contribute to both plans at the same time, there is a limit to how much you can contribute. Generally, your total contributions to both are aggregated and cannot exceed more than $66,000 in 2023 and $69,000 in 2024.

Preparing for Retirement Beyond Plans

Choosing retirement plans is just one important step in laying the groundwork for your future. You should also figure out at what age you can retire, how much money you’ll need for retirement, and the typical retirement expenses you should be ready for.

Working on building your retirement savings is an important goal. In addition to opening and contributing to retirement plans, other smart strategies include creating a budget and sticking to it, paying down any debt you have, and simplifying your lifestyle and cutting unnecessary spending. You may even want to consider getting a side hustle to bring in extra income.

The Takeaway

Saving for retirement is something that you can’t afford to put off. And the sooner you start, the better so that your money has time to grow. Whether you choose a solo 401(k), SEP IRA, or another savings plan, it’s important to take the first step toward building retirement wealth.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Help grow your nest egg with a SoFi IRA.


Photo credit: iStock/1001Love

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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Mutual Funds vs Index Funds: Key Differences

Mutual funds and index funds are similar in many ways, but there are some key differences that investors need to understand to effectively implement them into an investment strategy. Those differences might include investing style, associated fees and taxes, and how they work.

The choice between an index fund and an actively managed mutual fund can be a hard one, especially for investors who are unsure of the distinction. The differences between index funds and other mutual funds are actually few — but may be important, depending on the investor.

Key Points

•   Index funds aim to mirror the performance of a specific market index, using a passive investment strategy.

•   Mutual funds are actively managed by fund managers who select securities to potentially outperform the market.

•   The costs associated with mutual funds are generally higher due to active management fees.

•   Index funds typically have lower expense ratios, making them a cost-effective option for investors.

•   The choice between index and mutual funds depends on individual investment goals and preferences for active versus passive management.

What’s the Difference between Index Funds and Mutual Funds?

Index funds and mutual funds are similar in many ways, but they do differ in some others, such as how they work, associated costs, and investment style.

💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self-directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

How They Work

Index funds are a type of mutual fund, interestingly enough. Index funds are distinguished by their investing approach: Index funds invest in an index, and only change the securities they hold when the index changes, or to realign their holdings to better match the index they invest in.

Rather than rely on a portfolio manager’s instincts and experience, an index fund tracks a particular index. There are benchmark indexes across all of the different asset classes, including stocks, bonds, currencies, and commodities. As an example, the S&P 500® Index tracks the stocks of 500 of the leading companies in the United States.

An index fund aims to mirror the performance of a given benchmark index by investing in the same companies with similar weights. With these funds, it’s not about beating the market, it’s about tracking it, and as such, index funds typically follow a passive investment strategy, known as a buy-and-hold strategy.

A mutual fund is an investment that holds a collection — or portfolio — of securities, such as stocks and bonds. The “mutual” part of the name has to do with the structure of the fund, in that all of its investors mutually combine their funds in this one shared portfolio.

Mutual funds are also called ’40 Act funds, as they were created in 1940 by an act of Congress that was designed to correct some of the investment abuses that led to the Stock Market Crash of 1929. It created a regulatory framework for offering and maintaining mutual funds, including requirements for filings, service charges, financial disclosures, and the fiduciary duties of investment companies.

To get people to invest, the portfolio managers of a given mutual fund offer a unique investment perspective or strategy. That could mean investing in tech stocks, or only investing in the fund manager’s five best ideas, or investing in a few thousand stocks at once, or only in gold-mining stocks, and so on.

Fees and Taxes

There may be different associated costs with index funds and mutual funds as well.

Mutual-fund managers generally charge investors a management fee, which comes from the assets of the fund. Those fees vary widely, but an active manager will generally charge more, as they have to pay the salaries of analysts, researchers, and the stock pickers themselves. Passive managers of index funds, on the other hand, simply have to pay to license the use of an index.

An actively-managed mutual fund may charge an expense ratio (which includes the management fee) of 0.5% to 0.75%, and sometimes as high as 1.5%. But for index funds, that expense ratio is typically much lower — often around 0.2%, and as low as 0.02% for some funds.

Investing Style

The two also differ on a basic level in that index funds are a passive investing vehicle and mutual funds are typically actively managed. That means that investors who want to take a hands-off approach may find index funds a more suitable choice, whereas investors who want a guiding hand in their portfolio may be more attracted to mutual funds.

Mutual Funds vs. Index Funds: Key Differences

Mutual Funds

Index Funds

Overseen by a fund manager Track a market index
May have higher associated costs Typically has lower associated costs
Active investing Passive investing

Index vs Mutual Fund: Which is Best for You?

There’s no telling whether an index or mutual fund is better for you — it’ll depend on specific factors relevant to your specific situation and goals.

When deciding how to invest, everyone has their own unique approach. If an investor believes in the expertise and human touch of a fund manager or team of professionals, then an actively managed fund like a mutual fund may be the right fit. While no one beats the market every year, some funds can potentially outperform the broader market for long stretches.

But for those individuals who want to invest in the markets and not think about it, then the broad exposure — and lower fees — offered by index funds may make more sense. Investing in index funds tends to work best when you hold your money in the funds for a longer period of time, or use a dollar-cost-average strategy, where you invest consistently over time to take advantage of both high and low points.

💡 Quick Tip: Did you know that opening a brokerage account typically doesn’t come with any setup costs? Often, the only requirement to open a brokerage account — aside from providing personal details — is making an initial deposit.

The Takeaway

Index funds and mutual funds are similar investment vehicles, but there are some key differences which include how they’re managed, costs associated with them, and how they function at a granular level.

The choice between index funds and other mutual funds is one with decades of debate behind it. For individuals who prefer the expertise of a hands-on professional or team buying and selling assets within the fund, a mutual fund may be preferred. For investors who’d rather their fund passively track an index — without worrying about “beating the market” — an index fund might be the way to go.

Ready to expand your portfolio's growth potential? Alternative investments, traditionally available to high-net-worth individuals, are accessible to everyday investors on SoFi's easy-to-use platform. Investments in commodities, real estate, venture capital, and more are now within reach. Alternative investments can be high risk, so it's important to consider your portfolio goals and risk tolerance to determine if they're right for you.


Invest in alts to take your portfolio beyond stocks and bonds.

FAQ

Do index funds outperform mutual funds?

Actively-managed funds, such as mutual funds, tend to underperform the market as a whole over time. That’s to say that most of the time, a broad index fund may be more likely to outperform a mutual fund.

Do people prefer index funds over mutual funds, or mutual funds over index funds?

The types of funds that investors prefer to invest in depends completely on their own financial situation and investment goals. But some investors may prefer index funds over mutual funds due to their hands-off, passive approach and lower associated costs.

Are mutual funds riskier than index funds?

Mutual funds may be riskier than index funds, but it depends on the specific funds being compared — mutual funds do tend to be more expensive than index funds, and tend to underperform the market at large, too.



An investor should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses of the Fund carefully before investing. This and other important information are contained in the Fund’s prospectus. For a current prospectus, please click the Prospectus link on the Fund’s respective page. The prospectus should be read carefully prior to investing.
Alternative investments, including funds that invest in alternative investments, are risky and may not be suitable for all investors. Alternative investments often employ leveraging and other speculative practices that increase an investor's risk of loss to include complete loss of investment, often charge high fees, and can be highly illiquid and volatile. Alternative investments may lack diversification, involve complex tax structures and have delays in reporting important tax information. Registered and unregistered alternative investments are not subject to the same regulatory requirements as mutual funds.
Please note that Interval Funds are illiquid instruments, hence the ability to trade on your timeline may be restricted. Investors should review the fee schedule for Interval Funds via the prospectus.

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Mutual Funds (MFs): Investors should carefully consider the information contained in the prospectus, which contains the Fund’s investment objectives, risks, charges, expenses, and other relevant information. You may obtain a prospectus from the Fund company’s website or clicking the prospectus link on the fund's respective page at sofi.com. You may also contact customer service at: 1.855.456.7634. Please read the prospectus carefully prior to investing.Mutual Funds must be bought and sold at NAV (Net Asset Value); unless otherwise noted in the prospectus, trades are only done once per day after the markets close. Investment returns are subject to risk, include the risk of loss. Shares may be worth more or less their original value when redeemed. The diversification of a mutual fund will not protect against loss. A mutual fund may not achieve its stated investment objective. Rebalancing and other activities within the fund may be subject to tax consequences.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.

Claw Promotion: Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $25 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

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What Is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule? Are There Exceptions?

The Roth IRA 5-year rule is one of the rules that governs what an investor can and can’t do with funds in a Roth IRA. The Roth IRA 5-year rule comes into play when a person withdraws funds from the account; rolls a traditional IRA account into a Roth; or inherits a Roth IRA account.

Here’s what you need to know.

Key Points

•   The Roth IRA 5-year rule requires accounts to be open for five years before earnings can be withdrawn tax-free after age 59 ½.

•   Contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn at any time without penalties.

•   Exceptions to the 5-year rule include reaching age 59 ½, disability, and using funds for a first home purchase.

•   Each conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA starts a new 5-year period for tax purposes.

•   Inherited Roth IRAs also adhere to the 5-year rule, affecting the taxation of earnings withdrawals.

What Is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?

The Roth IRA 5-year rule pertains to withdrawals of earnings from a Roth IRA. A quick reminder of how a Roth works: An individual can contribute funds to a Roth IRA, up to annual limits. For 2024, the maximum IRS contribution limit for Roth IRAs is $7,000. Investors 50 and older are allowed to contribute an extra $1,000 in catch-up contributions. For 2023, the maximum IRS contribution limit for Roth IRAs is $6,500 annually. Investors 50 and older can contribute an extra $1,000.

Roth IRA contributions can be withdrawn at any time without tax or penalty, for any reason at any age. However, investment earnings on those contributions can only typically be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free once the investor reaches the age of 59 ½ — and as long as the account has been open for at least a five-year period. The five-year period begins on January 1 of the year you made your first contribution to the Roth IRA. Even if you make your contribution at the very end of the year, you can still count that entire year as year one.

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Example of the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule

To illustrate how the 5-year rule works, say an investor opened a Roth IRA in 2022 to save for retirement. The individual contributed $5,000 to a Roth IRA and earned $400 in interest and they now want to withdraw a portion of the money. Since this retirement account is less than five years old, only the $5,000 contribution could be withdrawn without tax or penalty. If part or all of the investment earnings is withdrawn sooner than five years after opening the account, this money may be subject to a 10% penalty.

In 2027, the investor can withdraw earnings tax-free from the Roth IRA because the five-year period will have passed.

💡 Quick Tip: How much does it cost to open a new IRA account? Often there are no fees to open an IRA, but you typically pay investment costs for the securities in your portfolio.

Exceptions to the 5-Year Rule

There are some exceptions to the Roth IRA 5-year rule, however. According to the IRS, a Roth IRA account holder who takes a withdrawal before the account is five years old may not have to pay the 10% penalty in the following situations:

•   They have reached age 59 ½.

•   They are totally and permanently disabled.

•   They are the beneficiary of a deceased IRA owner.

•   They are using the distribution (up to $10,000) to buy, build, or rebuild a first home.

•   The distributions are part of a series of substantially equal payments.

•   They have unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 7.5% of their adjusted gross income for the year.

•   They are paying medical insurance premiums during a period of unemployment.

•   They are using the distribution for qualified higher education expenses.

•   The distribution is due to an IRS levy of the qualified plan.

•   They are taking qualified reservist distributions.

5-Year Rule for Roth IRA Conversions

Some investors who have traditional IRAs may consider rolling them over into a Roth IRA. Typically, the money converted from the traditional IRA to a Roth is taxed as income, so it may make sense to talk to a financial or tax professional before making this move.

If this Roth IRA conversion is made, the 5-year rule still applies. The key date is the tax year in which the conversion happened. So, if an investor converted a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA on September 15, 2022, the five-year period would start on January 1, 2022. If the conversion took place on March 10, 2023, the five-year period would start on January 1, 2023. So, unless the conversion took place on January 1 of a certain year, typically, the 5-year rule doesn’t literally equate to five full calendar years.

If an investor makes multiple conversions from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, perhaps one in 2023 and one in 2024, then each conversion has its own unique five-year window for the rule.

5-Year Rule for Inherited Roth IRA

The 5-year rule also applies to inherited Roth IRAs. Here’s how it works.

When the owner of a Roth IRA dies, the balance of the account may be inherited by beneficiaries. These beneficiaries can withdraw money without penalty, whether the money they take is from the principal (contributions made by the original account holder) or from investment earnings, as long as the original account holder had the Roth IRA for at least five years. If the original account holder had the Roth IRA for fewer than five tax years, however, the earnings portion of the beneficiary withdrawals is subject to taxation until the five-year anniversary is reached.

People who inherit Roth IRAs, unlike the original account holders, must take required minimum distributions (RMDs). They can do so by withdrawing funds by December 31 of the 10th year after the original holder died if they died after 2019 (or the fifth year if the original account holder died before 2020), or have the withdrawals taken out based upon their own life expectancy.

💡 Quick Tip: All investments come with some degree of risk — and some are riskier than others. Before investing online, decide on your investment goals and how much risk you want to take.

How to Shorten the 5-Year Waiting Period

To shorten the five-year waiting period, an investor could open a Roth IRA online and make a contribution on the day before income taxes are due and have it applied to the previous year. For example, if one were to make the contribution in April 2023, that contribution could be considered as being made in the 2022 tax year. As long as this doesn’t cause problems with annual contribution caps, the five-year window would effectively expire in 2027 rather than 2028.

If the same investor opens a second Roth IRA — say in 2024 — the five-year window still expires (in this example) in 2027. The initial Roth IRA opened by an investor determines the beginning of the five-year waiting period for all subsequently opened Roth IRAs.

The Takeaway

For Roth IRA account holders, the 5-year rule is key. After the account has been opened for five years, an account holder who is 59 ½ or older can withdraw investment earnings without incurring taxes or penalties. While there are exceptions to this so-called 5-year rule, for anyone who has a Roth IRA account, this is important information to know about.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

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FAQ

Do I have to wait 5 years to withdraw from my Roth IRA?

Because of the Roth IRA 5-year rule, you generally have to wait at least five years before withdrawing earnings tax-free from your Roth IRA. You can, however, withdraw contributions you made to your Roth IRA at any time tax-free.

Does the 5-year rule apply to Roth contributions?

No, the Roth IRA rule does not apply to contributions made to your Roth IRA, only to earnings. You can withdraw contributions you made to your IRA tax-free at any time.



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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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Student Loan Refinancing: What Happens If There’s Overpayment?

If there’s an overpayment on your student loan refinance, the money might be returned to you or go towards your next payment on your new loan. Another possibility is that you may have to request a student loan overpayment refund.

These kinds of situations do occur, and they are typically resolved without too much effort. Here’s a closer look at student loan overpayment when you are refinancing your debt and what you can do to get your money back.

Student Loan Overpayment Explained

Student loan overpayment occurs when you pay off more than the amount you owe to your loan servicer. If you owe $1,000 on your loan and make a $1,500 payment, you’ve overpaid by $500.

This might happen for a couple of reasons.

•   For one, you might send an extra payment before your loan servicer has processed your previous one. It might take some time for your payments to reflect in your account. If you send an extra payment before the servicer has applied your last one, you could end up overpaying your balance.

•   Overpaying loans can also happen when you refinance student loans. When you refinance, your new loan provider will pay back your old balances. Specifically, it will send the amount that’s agreed upon when you sign the Truth in Lending (TIL) Disclosure, which is one of the documents you must sign to finalize your loan refinance.

If you make a payment on your old loans after you’ve signed the TIL Disclosure but before your new refinancing provider has disbursed the payment, the amount sent to your old servicer will exceed your balance. Your new lender will have paid off your old loan and then some, resulting in a student loan overpayment.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t keep paying back your student loans while you’re waiting for refinancing to go through. In fact, it’s important to keep up with repayment so you don’t miss any due dates and end up with a negative mark on your credit report. Wait until your new refinanced student loan is up and running before you stop paying your old student loans.



💡 Quick Tip: Enjoy no hidden fees and special member benefits when you refinance student loans with SoFi.

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What Happens When a Student Loan Is Overpaid?

There are a few things that can happen when there’s an overpaid student loan. For one, a loan servicer might send the extra payment back to you via check or direct deposit.

If a refinancing provider overpaid your account, your old servicer might send the payment back to them. Then, that refinancing lender could send you back the payment or apply it toward your new, refinanced student loan.

Let’s say, for instance, that you decide to refinance your federal student loans with Alpha (a made-up company for the sake of this example). You understand that refinancing with a private student loan means you forfeit federal benefits and protections, and you know that if you refinance for an extended term, you may pay more interest over the life of the loan. If Alpha sends an overpayment to your existing loan servicers, those servicers will generally return the extra amount to Alpha. Then, Alpha will apply that overpayment retroactively to the principal balance on your new Alpha loan, a process that may take about six to eight weeks.

In some cases, your old servicer will send the payment back to you. For example, a lender might send a refund to the borrower directly if the overpaid amount is less than $500. In this case, the amount might be sent back to you via check using the address it has on file.

You can also receive a direct deposit, but you may need to request it specifically. Reach out to your loan servicer to find out how it deals with excess payments and any steps you need to take to receive your student loan refund.

💡 Quick Tip: If you have student loans with variable rates, you may want to consider refinancing to lock in a fixed rate before rates rise. But if you’re willing to take a risk to potentially save on interest — and will be able to pay off your student loans quickly — you might consider a variable rate.

What Should I Do With My Refund?

Finding out you overpaid your student loans can result in a windfall of cash. You may be wondering what to do with your student loan refund. Here are a few options worth considering.

Put Towards Next Payment

If you already used that payment toward your old loans, you might put it toward your new refinanced loan to pay down your balance faster (if your new servicer hasn’t already sent it there). After all, you’d already designated that cash for a student loan payment, so you may not miss having it in your bank account.

Making extra payments on your student loans can help you pay your student loan off early and save on interest charges. Let’s say, for example, that you owe $5,000 at a 7% interest rate with a five-year repayment term. If you make an extra payment of $500, you’ll get out of debt eight months sooner and save $292 in interest.

Use this tool for calculating student loan payments and finding out how much you can save by making extra payments. If you choose this route, instruct your loan servicer to apply the extra payment to your principal balance, rather than saving it for a future payment.

Use For Personal Expenses

Another option is putting that student loan refund toward personal expenses or your own savings. If you’re struggling to pay your rent or have other high-interest debt, for instance, covering those costs might be a priority over prepaying your student loans.

It’s also useful to have an emergency fund on hand that you can draw on if you lose your job or encounter unexpected expenses. Funneling that student loan refund into an emergency fund could save the day if you run into financial hardship.

However, using that refund on vacation or non-essential expenses might not be the best idea if you’re dealing with debt or don’t have an emergency fund in place. Consider your financial goals and priorities to determine the best use for that student loan refund.

The Takeaway

Overpaying student loans may be an inconvenience, but don’t worry about losing that money forever — you’ll get it back in the form of a refund or a payment toward your new, refinanced student loan. The exact process may vary by lender, so reach out to yours to find out what will happen next and whether there are any steps you must take to get your refund. Ensure that your loan servicers have your current address on hand, too, in case they need to mail you a check.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.


With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.

FAQ

What happens if you overpay a student loan?

If you overpay a student loan, your servicer will issue a refund. That refund may go to you or, in the case of refinancing, to the third-party servicer that issued the payment. The exact process may vary by lender, so get in touch with yours to find out where it will send your refund.

What happens to excess student loan money?

When you borrow a student loan, the lender usually sends the amount directly to your financial aid office, which applies it to required expenses like tuition and fees. It then sends any excess funds to you so you can use the money on books, supplies, living expenses, and other education-related costs. If you find you borrowed more than you need, you could consider returning the amount to your lender. If you return part of a federal student loan within 120 days of disbursement, you won’t have to pay any fees or interest on the amount.

Does refinancing affect student loan forgiveness?

Refinancing student loans can affect your eligibility for loan forgiveness. Most loan forgiveness programs are federal, and when you refinance federal loans with a private lender, you lose access to federal programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Teacher Loan Forgiveness.


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SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.


Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

Checking Your Rates: To check the rates and terms you may qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

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