Cecile Corral had been feeling optimistic about her retirement savings. For a decade, she was making good use of an employer-sponsored 401(k), contributing 6% of her salary and receiving a match of as much as 6%. Before she had children, she had been saving nearly 10% of her paycheck.

“My retirement savings plan was basically on autopilot, and I didn’t worry about it,” said Corral, 48, who lives in Miami.

That came to a screeching halt in May 2020. A casualty of the pandemic, she was laid off after 20 years as the senior editor of a family of trade magazines. It was a shock to her system — and her finances.

“I needed to make sure that our bills got paid and that my husband and two children had health insurance,” said Corral.

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Corral’s husband had been a freelance documentary film producer for the past 10 years, and the family had health insurance through her employer. The household was suddenly supported by two freelancers rather than one.

Soon, Corral began offering freelance public relations and marketing services. But with new expenses for the family and her business, and no paycheck, saving for retirement had to go on pause.

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“Even though I had some time until I retired, I was worried,” Corral said. “I knew I needed to find a way to start saving for retirement again.”

Saving for retirement as a freelancer is much different from it is as an employee, said Ben Henry-Moreland of Freelance Financial Planning, an independent financial planning firm that specializes in working with the self-employed.

“The single biggest obstacle to saving for retirement as a freelancer is the fact that you need to take the initiative,” he said. “You need to put aside some money, determine what type of retirement vehicles you want to use, then you have to find a provider or providers.”

Besides having income that may vary from month to month, “Freelancers have additional expenses that employees don’t have,” said Lazetta Rainey Braxton, co-CEO of 2050 Wealth Partners, a fee-only financial planning and wealth management firm. These include the self-employment tax of 15.3% on your net earnings — which covers Social Security and Medicare contributions — as well as health insurance costs and other types of benefits. Business-operating expenses such as website hosting and marketing are more.

Preparing to save

If you are new to earning a living as a freelancer, there are ways to organize your finances so you can save. But first, make sure you have a cash emergency fund.

“Before you even start saving for retirement, put aside six months of living expenses and three months of business expenses,” Braxton said.

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After that, determine a percentage that you want to contribute to your retirement savings and find a way to automate it.

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“I use a modified version of the system detailed in the book ‘Profit First,’ ” said Julie Cunningham, of Hendersonville, North Carolina, a registered dietitian and freelance writer.

Cunningham, 49, uses three business bank accounts — for operating expenses, for taxes and for a reserve account for her business — in addition to her personal bank account. She also uses the Wave accounting app, which is free, to track her business expenses.

“Every two weeks, I enter my gross income into a Google sheet, which is already set up to calculate 50% of my gross income to pay myself, with 15% of my gross to go to taxes, 5% to go to a reserve account and 30% to go to my business’s operating expenses account,” Cunningham said. She then takes a portion of the money she paid herself and moves it to an individual retirement account for self-employed workers known as a SEP-IRA, winding up with 10% of her gross as retirement savings, she said.

Savings and investment vehicles

Once you have a system or plan for saving for retirement, you’ll need to set up one or more retirement accounts where your money can live and grow.

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Below are the four primary retirement savings options for freelancers, according to Atiya Brown, a certified public accountant and president of the Savvy Accountant, a virtual full-service accounting firm. “It’s important to invest the dollars you save for retirement instead of keeping it all in cash,” she said.

— The SEP-IRA, or Simplified Employee Pension plan individual retirement account. Although they are available to businesses of all sizes, SEPs can be used by the self-employed and have contribution limits that change from year to year. In 2022, workers using this type of IRA can contribute up to 25% of net income (after expenses), or $61,000, Henry-Moreland said.

After one year of freelancing, Corral was able to resume saving money in a SEP-IRA. “Once I landed some retainer clients, the consistent monthly revenue helped me feel comfortable about putting aside 10% of my gross income for retirement,” she said. She rolled over her old 401(k) to a SEP-IRA at TD Ameritrade. (As for health insurance, she was able to get a policy through the Affordable Care Act, but with higher deductibles and copays than at her old job.)

The Solo 401(k). “My favorite retirement savings option is the Solo 401(k),” said Holly Larson, 55, a business-to-business and technology copywriter in Durham, North Carolina, who has been working independently for more than 20 years. “In 2022, I can contribute up to $67,500, and you can contribute up to $61,000 if you’re under 50,” she said. “That’s money the U.S. government will allow you to tax-deduct right off the top of your revenue, which is an incredible way to save for retirement, and decrease taxes.”

The Health Savings Account, or HSA. As a freelancer, you may have to pay for your health insurance. If you have a high-deductible health insurance plan (defined by the IRS as a plan with an annual deductible of at least $1,400 per individual and $2,800 per family), you are eligible to open an HSA.

“The benefit of an HSA is the ability to put aside money with pretax dollars,” Brown said. “While the funds can be used to pay for out-of-pocket medical costs, including deductibles, you can choose to keep the funds in your HSA and use it as an investment vehicle.”

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In 2022, the contribution limit for an individual is $3,650, and for a family, it is $7,300. If you are 55 or older, you can make an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000. At age 65, these account holders can withdraw the money in an HSA for any reason, not just for medical costs. Distributions for qualified medical expenses are not taxed, but other withdrawals are taxable.

The Roth IRA. “If you still have money to put aside for retirement after you’ve contributed to other retirement vehicles, and you meet income ceilings, consider funding a Roth IRA,” Brown said. The maximum contribution of after-tax dollars is $6,000 per year, with an additional $1,000 catch-up contribution if you’re over 50. That money can be withdrawn free of taxes after age 59 1/2 if the account has been open more than five years.

Larson also maxes out her Roth IRA contributions each year. “Even though they are after-tax and not deductible, they are valuable because you reap tax savings on the back end of the deal,” she said.

Resources

Retirement planning can be challenging, especially when you have competing goals, such as paying down debt or saving for a child’s college education. But there are numerous resources that offer useful retirement financial tips, too, particularly online communities.

For example, Larson belongs to a variety of Facebook groups focused on financial independence, including ChooseFI, Women’s Personal Finance (Women on FIRE) and Taxes in Retirement. She also combs blogs and sites such as Financial Samurai, Get Rich Slowly, Mr. Money Mustache and ESI Money’s millionaire interviews. She likes podcasts such as ChooseFI and Afford Anything.

She credits them for helping her learn about and maximize tax-advantaged investing and use savings tools.

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When it’s time to start investing, you can do it yourself or consult a financial professional.

If you are considering a financial adviser, ask if the adviser team has experience working with freelancers or sole proprietorship businesses. Larson suggested asking for an example of a freelance client, how they set up that person’s retirement investing accounts and what their recommendations are to tax-optimize investing for your situation.

“That will let you know if they are familiar with freelance retirement investing,” she said. Fees are important, too. Look to pay less than 1% of assets.

Even with all of the challenges of saving for retirement, some freelancers are optimistic about their prospects.

“Business is booming. It’s great to be a freelance technology writer right now, due to the incredible demand from companies and agencies,” Larson said. “As a result, I get to do work I truly enjoy and save more aggressively for retirement. It’s the best of both worlds.”