Self-employed Americans have it good on myriad fronts. They're their own boss, come and go as they please and don't have to deal with the same office politics their corporate peers face on a daily basis, among other benefits.
But one area where self-employed Americans clearly lag against traditional employees is in retirement savings, where over half are behind by $335,000, according to the TD Ameritrade 2015 Self-Employed Survey. The study says that about five million American self-employed workers are short a total of $1.7 trillion in retirement savings.
T.D. Ameritrade also says that self-employed workers believe they "are not a priority" for the President of the U.S., while 51% says the next President should "reduce health care costs" which are negatively impacting the savings and cash flow of self-employed Americans.
"Many of the self-employed recognize how important retirement savings is, but they're more likely to be living in the here-and-now, and they have unpredictable income that can make savings a challenge," said Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade, Inc., a broker-dealer subsidiary of TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation. "Business owners are sometimes put off by what they perceive as the hassle and costs of plan administration, but it may be easier and more affordable than many believe - and can include tax benefits."
To business and career experts, it's not exactly a shocker that self-employed Americans are losing ground on retirement savings. "It's unsurprising, to me, that self-employed workers have a retirement savings gap," says Jason Hull, chief technology officer at myFinancialAnswers, LLC in Woodbury, N.J. "After all, 54% of them have reported not having a paycheck at some point to keep the business afloat, 23% went a year or more without a paycheck and approximately 50% of businesses do not survive past the first five years."
It's tough to contribute to your retirement when you don't get a paycheck or when you're plowing all of the company's retained earnings into trying to grow the business, Hull adds. "The goal is to create a profitable, sustainable enterprise that can not only pay you, but can also throw off excess profits which you get to keep," he says. "So, most self-employed ventures really are bets on the future, where, for now, these employees are forgoing retirement savings in exchange for what is hoped to be a bigger pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
Margie Shard, CEO at Shard Financial Services, Inc., in Fenton, Mich. and a small business owner, says she understands the struggle self-employed workers go through in accumulating retirement savings assets. In fact, there are good reasons for that.
"Business owners get crushed by taxes," Shard says. "Sometimes it's because they fail to set up the proper entity for their company. For example, changing from a sole proprietor to an LLC with an S-election or S-Corp typically makes sense when your income bypasses $50,000. The simple change in structure will cost more for your CPA to do your taxes, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives."
"Sole proprietors pay an additional 15.3% for taxes plus their federal and state tax bracket," she adds. "By utilizing an LLC with an S-election or S-Corp, they are able to eliminate this extra 15.3% on a portion of their income."
Shard also notes that retirement plans are typically not built in favor of employers. "Limits are placed on what they can contribute and in order to even contribute they often have to give more than they can afford to their employees," she says. "Those who are able to utilize the traditional retirement plans available are lucky, but those in higher income brackets get eaten by taxes, and the normal, everyday CPA and financial advisor are not aware of more complex plans and strategies that exist in order to help business owners."
That creates an unpleasant scenario.
"This results in business owners not being educated about their options and missing out on substantial tax savings that would allow them to save more," she says.
As far as catching up, the best advice for self-employed professionals is to stop waiting and get started by focusing on separating their personal net worth from their company net worth. "Rather than focus on the goal of retirement, focus on the tax benefits and the creditor protection offered by retirement accounts," says Scott Stratton, president of Good Life Wealth Management in Dallas. "For self-employed individuals without employees, they need to look at establishing a Self-Employed 401(k) plan or a SEP-IRA. If they have employees, they might want to consider a SIMPLE-IRA for their company, if they have fewer than 100 employees."
While being your own boss represents the good life on many levels, falling behind on your retirement savings as an entrepreneur is just courting trouble. Nip the problem in the bud and talk to a good financial advisor or accountant as soon as possible.
Chances are, you have 335,000 good reasons to do so.