What Is a SIMPLE IRA Plan? How It Works, Rules & FAQs
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A SIMPLE IRA plan (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees) can be a way for small- business employees and the self-employed to save for retirement. Although more similar to a traditional IRA than a 401(k) plan offered by larger employers, this workplace retirement savings account allows both employee and employer contributions.
What Is a SIMPLE IRA?
A SIMPLE IRA is a type of tax-deferred retirement plan for small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. While it is considered an employer-sponsored retirement plan — and employer contributions are mandatory — its investment, distribution and rollover rules make it more similar to a traditional IRA.
Employees might like that employer match, but they may be less happy about the lower contribution limits, compared with 401(k)s. They may also lament the lack of a Roth version.
Additionally, If you work for yourself, you’re also allowed to contribute to a SIMPLE IRA, although there may be better retirement plan options for the self-employed.
SIMPLE IRA vs. traditional IRA
SIMPLE IRAs bear some similarities to a traditional IRA. Contributions are tax-deferred, meaning the amount you save up to your contribution limit reduces your taxable income for the year, and investment growth is tax-deferred until you start taking distributions after age 59 ½.
SIMPLE IRA vs. 401(k)
In some ways, SIMPLE IRAs are like 401(k) plans: Eligible employees indicate how much (if anything) of each paycheck they want to contribute to the account, and the money is automatically diverted into the worker’s individual investment account. The big difference is how much employees can contribute.
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SIMPLE IRA contribution limits for 2023
Employee contribution limits for a SIMPLE IRA in 2023 is $15,500. People age 50 and older can make an additional $3,500 catch-up contribution.
Employer contributions are mandatory and can be made using one of two methods:
Provide matching contributions up to 3% of the employee’s pay, not limited by any annual compensation limit.
Make non-elective contributions equal to 2% of the employee’s compensation based on a maximum salary of $330,000 in 2023.
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Benefits of a SIMPLE IRA
Benefits for employers
For employers, SIMPLE IRAs have start-up and operating costs that are generally lower than setting up a 401(k) plan. Employers get a tax deduction for their contributions to employees’ accounts.
Benefits for employees
Employees don’t have to sign up for salary deferrals to get the employer contribution if their employer chooses the nonelective 2% contribution option. If the plan uses the elective salary reduction/matching method, the employee must contribute to earn the match.
Eligibility requirements are low. In general, you’re eligible to participate in a SIMPLE IRA if you’ve received at least $5,000 in compensation during any two preceding calendar years and expect to earn at least that much during the calendar year of participation. But the IRS also allows employers to offer these accounts to employees who don’t meet these standards.
Employer contributions vest immediately. With no vesting period, you have 100% ownership of all the money in your SIMPLE IRA.
The IRS lets individuals contribute to other retirement savings plans at the same time. That’s handy if, for example, you have more than one job that offers an employer-sponsored retirement plan, or if you also want to contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA.
Investment choices tend to outnumber what’s offered in 401(k)s. Instead of being limited to whatever mutual funds a 401(k) plan administrator chooses, you can invest in stocks, bonds, mutual funds and any other investments offered by the IRA provider.
Drawbacks of SIMPLE IRA plans
The contribution limits for SIMPLE IRA plans are lower than other workplace retirement plans. In 2023, solo business owners can contribute up to $15,500 per year versus $22,500 in a 401(k) and $19,000 versus $30,000 for those 50 and older.
Also, there is no Roth version of the SIMPLE IRA. This is a big drawback given the benefits of Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s. (See “What Is a Roth IRA?” for more on why we like these accounts.)
Participant loans are not allowed.
You’ll pay a steep tax penalty for some early withdrawals. In general, SIMPLE IRA distribution rules mirror traditional IRA rules, except for non-qualified withdrawals within the first two years of your participation. For those, you’ll pay an extra 15% early withdrawal penalty on top of the standard 10% penalty. That means if you tap into the money before age 59 ½ and before you’ve had the plan for two years, you’ll likely owe the IRS 25% of the money you take out in penalties, plus whatever income taxes you owe on it.
Rollovers to another IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan are subject to strict rules. The 25% penalty mentioned above also applies if you do a rollover into anything other than another SIMPLE IRA during the two-year period after you first participate in the plan.
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Is a SIMPLE IRA right for me?
The answer depends on whether you're an employee or the employer.
For business owners: If you're a solo business owner or self-employed and your goal is to maximize your own retirement savings, there are other retirement savings plans that have higher contribution limits:
A solo 401(k) allows a business owner with no employees to contribute up to $66,000 in 2023, with an additional $7,500 catch-up contribution if you’re age 50 or older. The exception to the no-employees rule is if your spouse earns income from your business.
A SEP IRA (Simplified Employee Pension Individual Retirement Account) is a lot like a SIMPLE IRA. But like a solo 401(k), the contribution limits are much higher: You’re allowed to contribute either 25% of compensation or up to $66,000 in 2023.
If you own a small business with employees, a SIMPLE IRA might be attractive if you want to offer your employees a retirement plan but would like to avoid the extra administrative costs that can come with a 401(k). Just keep in mind that some employees may still want a 401(k) because of its higher contribution limits.
For employees: Anyone who has access to the plan at work and wants to maximize their savings may want to consider participating in the SIMPLE IRA plan to get the free money.
If your plan provides the automatic 2% employer contribution, you’ll get that money even if you elect not to divert any of your salary. If the employer contribution is offered by matching funds, you must sign up to contribute a portion of your salary to earn the match. (Remember: You can still save in other types of retirement savings accounts in addition to a SIMPLE IRA.)
» Read more about how to choose between a SIMPLE IRA and a 401(k)