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SIMPLE IRA vs. 401(k): How to Pick the Right Plan

There are pros and cons to both types of plans for employers. For simplicity, choose the SIMPLE IRA. For flexibility, a 401(k) plan provides a wider array of choices.
June 8, 2019
401(k), Investing, IRA, Other Retirement Accounts
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The decision between a SIMPLE IRA and a 401(k) is, at its core, a choice between simplicity and flexibility for employers.

The aptly named SIMPLE IRA, which stands for Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees, is the more straightforward of the two options. It’s quick to set up, and ongoing maintenance is easy and inexpensive. But if you have employees, you are required to provide contributions to their accounts. (See our SIMPLE IRA explainer.)

Although a 401(k) plan can be more complex to establish and maintain, it provides higher contribution limits and gives you more flexibility to decide if and how you want to contribute to employee accounts. Another big difference is that you can opt for a Roth version of the plan, whereas the SIMPLE IRA allows no Roth provision.

SIMPLE IRA vs. 401(k)

Here are the need-to-know differences between SIMPLE IRAs and 401(k)s:


 SIMPLE IRA401(k)
Employer eligibilityEmployers with 100 or fewer employeesAny employer with one or more employees
Employee eligibilityAll employees who have compensation of at
least $5,000 in any prior 2 years, and are reasonably expected to earn at least $5,000 in the current year
All employees at least 21 years old who worked at least 1,000 hours in a previous year
Employer contribution rules
  • Mandatory employer contribution: Either matching contribution of up to 3% of employee's pay or contribution equal to 2% of employee’s compensation, even if employee does not contribute.
  • All contributions vest immediately.
  • Employer contributions deductible on business tax return.
  • Employer contributions are optional.
  • Employee contributions vest immediately. Employer sets vesting schedule for employer contributions.
  • Required proportional contributions for each eligible employee if you contribute for yourself.
  • Employer contributions deductible up to IRS limits.
Contribution limits
  • Employee contribution limit: $13,000; $16,000 for those age 50 or older.
  • No limit on employer matching contribution; if using the 2% contribution based on compensation, employer match allowed on up to $280,000 of salary.
  • Employee contribution limit: $19,000; $25,000 for those age 50 or older.
  • Combined contributions of employee and employer are limited to the lesser of 100% of compensation or $56,000 ($62,000 if age 50 or older).
Administrative responsibilitiesNo annual tax filing requirements; annual plan details must be sent to employeesSubject to annual compliance testing to ensure plan does not favor highly compensated employees
FeesMinimal account feesVaries by plan
Investment optionsAny investments available through the financial institution that holds accountsInvestment selection curated by employer and plan administrator
Pros
  • Requires minimal administrative management.
  • Lower setup and maintenance costs.
  • Participants may be allowed to choose account provider.
  • Higher contribution limits.
  • Roth 401(k) option available.
  • Employer contribution is optional.
  • Vesting schedule set by employer.
  • Plan may permit loans.
Cons
  • Mandatory employer contribution.
  • No Roth option.
  • Lower contribution limits.
  • 25% penalty on distributions made before age 59½ and within the first two years of participation in the plan.
  • No loans allowed.
  • Employer cannot maintain any other type of retirement plan.
  • Higher setup costs and administrative requirements.
  • Plan fees can be high, especially for small businesses.
More details What Is a SIMPLE IRA?What Is a 401(k)?

Source: IRS.gov

SIMPLE IRA or 401(k): How to decide

Startup costs and ease of setup often dictate the choice between retirement savings plans. But there are other factors to consider as well. To help decide which plan is best, answer the following questions:

Why are you setting up a retirement plan?

For many small-business owners, the answer is that they’re trying to maximize their own retirement savings dollars. If that’s the case, contribution limits should weigh heavily in your decision. For high earners especially, the higher contribution limit of the 401(k) makes it a more attractive choice than a SIMPLE IRA.

How important is it to offer the Roth option?

As mentioned earlier, the IRS allows employers to offer a Roth 401(k). (Quick reminder: A Roth 401(k) is funded with after-tax contributions in exchange for tax-free distributions in retirement.) There is no Roth version of the SIMPLE IRA. The account is subject to many of the same rules as a traditional IRA: Contributions reduce your taxable income for the year, but distributions in retirement are taxed as ordinary income. That said, the IRS allows participants to save in both a SIMPLE IRA and a Roth IRA at the same time.

Will you need to adjust employer contributions?

Although a nice perk to attract potential employees, employer contributions are not required of companies that offer 401(k) plans. You also have the freedom to set vesting terms, which allows you to require employees remain employed by you for a set time before taking ownership of your contributions to their accounts. Employer contributions to employee SIMPLE IRA accounts are mandatory, though you can choose between two matching arrangements dictated by the IRS. Contributions to a SIMPLE IRA are immediately 100% vested.

» Ready to open a SIMPLE, traditional or Roth IRA? See the top-rated IRA account providers

You have other choices

If you are self-employed or a small-business owner, SIMPLE IRAs and 401(k) plans aren’t your only options. There are a variety of retirement plans at your disposal.

For example, if you run a business with no employees, a solo 401(k) is worth considering. As the employer and (your own) employee, you’re allowed to contribute a total of up to $56,000 in 2019 (or $62,000 if you’re age 50 or older).

A SEP IRA also has a high contribution limit for business owners and self-employed individuals, though there is no catch-up contribution for savers 50 or older. The drawbacks: Like the SIMPLE IRA, a SEP requires employers to contribute to eligible employee accounts, and no Roth version is allowed.

We’ve laid out the pros and cons for these and other retirement plan options for the self-employed.

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