Retirement planning in the gig economy

Self-employment changes how you save for retirement.

Tags: Retirement, Planning, Be prepared, Gig economy, Gig economy tips
Published: August 25, 2021

Nearly 40% of Americans participate in the “gig economy.”1 This workforce includes all kinds of self-employed consultants, freelancers and contractors, plus temporary and on-call workers.

Self-employment is an appealing career path for many people, but it doesn't come with a built-in retirement plan.


Retirement planning for the self-employed

“Self-employment is a double-edged sword,” says Joni Meilahn, vice president and product manager at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. “With greater freedom and flexibility also comes greater responsibility. You don’t have the support of an employer-sponsored retirement plan to keep you on track. And, if you’re self-employment turns into a small business with employees, you become the source for not only your retirement plan but theirs as well.”

Retirement planning starts with a basic understanding of how much you can afford to save for retirement. Look at both your cash flow and your business expenses for the year to see how much you can comfortably put away each month.

Keep in mind the long-term nature of saving using IRS tax-qualified plans since there are penalties and taxes on withdrawals prior to age 59 ½. “Working with an accounting professional can really make a difference here,” says Meilahn. “That person can help you decide how best to report revenue and expenses in a way that’s both accurate and beneficial to your business.”


Finding the right tax-qualified retirement plan for you

After you have a sense of how much you can afford to put away for retirement, it’s time to find the specific, tax-qualified plan for you. Two tips before you get started:


1. Understand the IRS tax forms for your business

The structure of your business will determine which income tax forms you’ll need to file each year, and how your taxable income gets reported that provides the correct income upon which to base retirement plan contributions. Qualified retirement plan contributions provide valuable tax deductions that help reduce your overall taxes.

Are you a small business owner with employees? A contract worker out on your own? The answers determine how the IRS will tax your earnings. Check out these guidelines from the IRS to see which filing forms you’ll need, depending on your business structure.


2. Choose a tax-qualified retirement plan that fits your criteria

You’ve laid the groundwork by following the correct IRS reporting structure for your business. You know how much you’re prepared to contribute to your retirement. That means you’re ready to decide which tax-qualified plan to use. Each retirement plan comes with its own set of rules and contribution limits.

It might seem like the plan with the highest annual contribution limit is the best. But “best for you” really depends on your personal situation. Plans with higher caps may also carry higher administration fees and can involve complicated adoption and filing processes. To find the specific plan that best fits your needs, follow this retirement plan pyramid. 


The retirement plan pyramid

Here’s how the different levels are distinguished, and what you should know about each one:


First/foundation level = Traditional IRA and Roth IRA


Second level = SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA


  • When to consider: You have few or no employees and aren’t sure if you’ll be able to contribute every year.
  • Requirements: Limited paperwork; no annual reporting to the IRS needed. SEP contributions are employer contributions only, made to your account and to that of any eligible employee.

  • Current contribution cap: The lesser of $61,000 or up to 25% of net taxable compensation/income (limited to $305,000).


  • When to consider: You own a larger business that has up to 100 employees. Think of yourself as both the employer and employee for contributions to your own account.
  • Requirements: Contributions are made up of employee deferral contributions and employer contributions. As the employer, you would need to make mandatory contributions to employee accounts who are eligible and making contributions to the SIMPLE IRA, including yourself.

  • Current contribution cap for employee deferrals: Up to $14,000 (plus an additional $3,000 if you’re 50 or older).

  • Note: If you also work for an employer in addition to your own business, the overall IRS contribution limits apply to all plans together.


Third level = Solo 401(k) + Profit-Sharing

  • When to consider: You’re a solo business owner or self-employed with no employees. This option can also include your spouse as an owner to maximize household contribution potential.
  • Requirements: In addition to adopting a formal plan document, you’ll need to file paperwork with the IRS each year once you accumulate $250,000 in your account.
  • Solo 401(k) highlight: Think of yourself as two different people — both your employer and your employee. You “both” have the option to make contributions, which allows for a much greater level of saving each year.
  • Current contribution cap: 
    • The employee deferral contribution is the lesser of $20,500 (plus an additional $6,500 if you’re 50 or older) or 100% of your earned income
    • The employer contribution limit is up to 25% of your compensation each year
    • The combination of your employee and employer contributions together cannot exceed $61,000 ($67,500 if you’re 50 or older)


Fourth/top level = Defined Benefit / “Cash Balance”

  • When to consider: You have consistent, high income and want to save a lot for retirement on an ongoing basis.
  • Requirements: Defined Benefit plans require a bit more planning, are more complex to set up, and are more expensive to maintain, however the contributions can be far greater. You’ll need to be committed to this type of plan for at least three to five years or more.

  • Contribution cap: Contributions to the plan are mandatory each year and are calculated based on the benefit you’ll receive at retirement, your age and expected investment returns. Depending upon your specific situation, contributions can be over $100,000 or more.


Choosing which plan level is right for you and your business is a personal choice, but one you can ask for guidance from your accountant or financial professional. “When you understand which level best fits for you, and when it might be appropriate to move up the retirement plan pyramid, everything is a lot easier,” Meilahn says.

When you’re self-employed, planning for retirement needs to be a self-driven pursuit. Whether you’re new to the workforce or have chosen a freelance or contracting gig as your second act in life, it pays to know what your options are so you can create a solid retirement fund that will help you build a brighter future.


Learn more about types of IRAs and which might be right for you.


1 The Future of Employment – 30 Telling Gig Economy Statistics. SmallBizGenius
U.S. Bancorp Investments can assist clients with IRA Rollovers. However, keep in mind that a rollover of qualified plan assets into an IRA is not your only option. Before deciding whether to keep assets in your current employer's plan, to roll assets to a new employer's plan, to take a cash distribution, or to roll assets into an IRA, clients should be sure to consider potential benefits and limitations of all options. These include total fees and expenses., range of investment options available, penalty-free withdrawals, availability of services, protection from creditors, RMD planning and taxation of employer stock. Discuss rollover options with your tax advisor for tax considerations.