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PERSONAL FINANCE

Beyond the 401(k)

Few start-ups make it. New retirement plan options can help hedge your risk -- without breaking the bank.
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In the 18 months since she launched her own publicity firm in Los Angeles, Samantha Slaven has focused almost entirely on the task at hand: landing clients and building the business. She puts in 60-hour weeks and has taken a major salary cut, paying herself just one-third of what she used to make. Revenue at her four-person shop, Samantha Slaven Publicity, has tripled over the past 12 months, and no wonder why: "When I have a surplus of cash," Slaven says, "it goes right back into the business." Like many entrepreneurs when they're starting out, Slaven, 33, isn't giving much thought to things -- such as retirement planning -- that don't matter right now. "I haven't had time," she says. "My clients' needs come first."

When you're busy drumming up sales and getting orders out the door, retirement can seem a far-off concern. And what entrepreneur isn't counting on the windfall that will make retirement planning unnecessary? Perhaps that's why less than 25% of companies with fewer than 100 employees offer a defined-contribution retirement plan, such as a 401(k), according to the Chicago market research firm Spectrum Group.

You may think you can't afford to start saving just yet. But if putting off planning for the future is problematic for anyone, it's especially risky for entrepreneurs. Unlike the average salaried employee, entrepreneurs, especially those running start-ups, often have the bulk of their assets wrapped up in their venture. Should that venture fail, you could be left with nothing. You might even be forced to liquidate personal assets to pay off creditors. And the odds are not in your favor: The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that only 5% of start-ups make it to their fifth birthday.

Fortunately, there is a range of retirement planning options that can help you hedge that risk. Just ask Steve Marinak, president of Midrange Support & Service Inc., an IBM computer reseller in Delray Beach, Fla. Marinak worked without a retirement plan for eight years. Like Slaven, he was in survival mode and assumed he could not afford it. Then his company switched accounting firms, and the new CPA set up a 401(k) plan that costs just $1,000 a year to administer. Marinak, 40, has since saved a hefty $40,000 a year. Just as important, by stashing away pretax dollars, his company has been able to reduce its business tax bill by about $15,000 a year. "We can put away a good amount of money pretax," Marinak says.

The 401(k), of course, is the best-known and most common retirement plan. But it's not necessarily the one best-suited to a start-up. For one thing, such plans require a fair amount of administration and paperwork and often require the help of a CPA. If you're a sole proprietor, you might consider a solo 401(k), which typically requires less paperwork, and virtually none until your plan assets exceed $100,000. In 2004, such plans cap contributions at $41,000 (or $44,000 if you're over the age of 50). And though solo 401(k) plans are geared to the self-employed, they can also work if you employ your spouse or if your business is set up as a partnership.

A far simpler option, especially if you have just a handful of employees, is the simplified employee pension plan, or SEP IRA. Such plans are funded with tax-deductible employer contributions; employees are not permitted to contribute. There are no filing requirements with the IRS and contributions can vary from year to year, giving you plenty of flexibility. Alexandra L. Miller, a 43-year-old CPA in Tucson, often recommends SEPs to small-business clients. In fact, that's what she set up when she launched her own firm in 1999. "I wish I had started saving while I was in my 20s," Miller says. "I missed a lot of compounding time." SEPs allow business owners to contribute up to 25% of self-employment income a year, up to $41,000. Miller sets aside the full amount. It's a lot of money, but Miller is watching costs elsewhere. She penny-pinches on office supplies and hasn't upgraded her technology in a while.

The downside of SEPs? You must contribute to your employees' accounts at the same rate that you contribute to your own. (Miller will begin contributing 25% of her employee's salary when she becomes eligible in 2005.) On the other hand, such contributions can be a strong incentive to attract and retain workers. If your goal is to provide an even stronger incentive, consider a simple IRA (savings incentive match plan for employees). The plans, available to companies with fewer than 100 employees, allow employees to deduct contributions straight from their paychecks; in addition, the employer makes contributions. The drawback: a simple plan restricts your own ability to save to just $9,000 a year in 2004.

That was enough for Anne Miles, owner of Red Toad Media, a four-year-old Louisville-based Web design firm with one employee. Miles is just 33. But she began to fear that if she didn't start planning for her retirement soon, she might find herself facing the worst option: being forced to work forever. She's watched her 66-year-old father, an independent truck driver, struggle to earn a living after having a heart attack and surgery earlier this year. "I'm terrified of being in the same situation at his age," she says. Such fears prompted her to open a simple IRA. Each month, between 3% and 5% of her compensation goes straight into her retirement account. It means making some sacrifices. Miles would like to buy new computer equipment. Now that's going to take longer than planned. The delay, Miles admits, might set back her business plans slightly. But she's convinced she's doing the right thing. "It isn't much," she says. "But at least I'm doing something."

Retirement Saving 101

Hedge Your Bets
If your start-up flops, you could be left with nothing; you might even be forced to liquidate personal assets.

It's Cheaper Than You Think
A 401(k) can cost less than $1,000 a year to set up. A SEP or simple IRA can cost far less.

Flying Solo?
Consider a solo 401(k), which requires little paperwork and lets you save up to $44,000 a year.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2004




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