Understanding What is a SIMPLE IRA: A Straightforward Guide to Your Retirement Savings Plan

Curious about what is a SIMPLE IRA? Designed for small businesses, a SIMPLE IRA is a retirement plan that balances tax benefits and easy management. While providing a match from your employer, it offers an accessible route to grow your retirement funds. This guide will delve into its operation, including how to establish one, the rules of contribution, and options for investment, equipping you with everything you need to know about SIMPLE IRAs.

Key Takeaways

Defining a SIMPLE IRA

Small business owner reviewing retirement plan options

A SIMPLE IRA is a retirement savings plan designed for small businesses with 100 or fewer employees. It offers a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement while providing an easy-to-manage solution for small business owners. A SIMPLE IRA is an employer-sponsored retirement plan, meaning both the employer and the employees contribute to the plan, offering a dual benefit.

The establishment of a SIMPLE IRA is open to a wide range of individuals and businesses. Self-employed individuals as well as businesses operating with 100 or fewer employees can set one up, provided it is their primary retirement plan. This option is available for those looking to secure their financial future. In addition, any employee who has earned at least $5,000 in compensation from the employer in any two preceding calendar years and is anticipated to receive at least $5,000 in the current calendar year is eligible to participate in a SIMPLE IRA.

Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plan

Both employees and employers are allowed to contribute to a SIMPLE IRA, a unique type of employer-sponsored retirement plan. It operates based on a percentage of pay, and the funds accumulate tax-deferred until they are withdrawn at retirement. The reason why small employers often opt for SIMPLE IRAs is due to their simplicity in setup and the minimal expenses involved in managing the plan.

Thus, it’s a win-win scenario: employees can save for retirement and employers get to offer a benefit that can help attract and retain quality employees, without resorting to salary reduction.

Tax Advantages

The tax advantages of SIMPLE IRAs are another appealing factor. Contributions are exempt from federal income tax withholding upon deposit. Furthermore, the investment growth within the account is deferred from taxation, meaning that taxes are only applicable to the earnings upon withdrawal during retirement.

While both SIMPLE IRAs and traditional IRAs provide tax-deferred growth on investments, SIMPLE IRAs have distinct withholding and contribution regulations. They also have a lower contribution limit than 401(k) plans.

Setting Up a SIMPLE IRA

Financial institution offering retirement plans

There are several key steps involved in setting up a SIMPLE IRA. These include:

  1. Selecting a financial institution to act as the trustee of the IRA

  2. Creating a plan document

  3. Notifying eligible employees about the plan and their participation options

The financial institution will be responsible for holding the retirement plan assets, including managing various retirement accounts.

To establish the match plan for employees, employers must complete the necessary paperwork, which includes either Form 5304-SIMPLE or Form 5305-SIMPLE, or adopt a prototype document issued by a financial institution. Once the plan is established, employers need to notify eligible employees about the plan and their participation options. This includes providing information about their rights and responsibilities, as well as the annual election period for making contributions.

Choosing a Financial Institution

The choice of a financial institution to manage a SIMPLE IRA is a crucial decision. Banks, savings and loan associations, insurance companies, regulated investment companies, federally insured credit unions, and brokerage firms are all eligible to hold and invest contributions made to SIMPLE IRA plans. This diversification of authorized institutions provides flexibility for contributors and plan participants. These institutions provide trustee services, individual brokerage SIMPLE IRA accounts, and necessary customer agreements and disclosures for eligible employees.

Creating a Plan Document

Another pivotal step in setting up a SIMPLE IRA is the creation of a plan document. The plan document outlines the terms and conditions of the SIMPLE IRA, including eligibility requirements, contribution limits, and investment options. Employers can use either Form 5304-SIMPLE or Form 5305-SIMPLE, or adopt a prototype document issued by a mutual fund, insurance company, bank, or other qualified institution.

Once the document is filled out and signed, it should be retained. There’s no need to submit it to the IRS.

Notifying Eligible Employees

It is the responsibility of the employers to inform eligible employees about the SIMPLE IRA plan. This includes outlining their rights and responsibilities, as well as the annual election period for making contributions. Employees must receive this notification prior to the commencement of the election period.

The terms and conditions of the SIMPLE IRA plan are outlined in a document called the Participant Notice and Summary Description, which employers must distribute to eligible employees.

Contribution Rules and Limits

Employee making salary deferral contributions

The SIMPLE IRA is fundamentally characterized by its simple ira contributions rules and limits. Employees can contribute up to a specific annual limit to their SIMPLE IRA. The limit for 2023 is $15,500, and it will rise to $16,000 in 2024. Employees aged 50 and above can make an additional $3,500 as catch-up contributions.

In addition to employee contributions, also known as salary deferral contributions, employers are also obligated to make contributions to each employee’s SIMPLE IRA. They can either provide matching contributions up to 3% of the eligible employee’s compensation or offer nonelective contributions equivalent to 2% of the employee’s compensation, capped at a maximum salary of $345,000 in 2024.

Moreover, starting in 2024, employers will be allowed to make supplementary contributions to each employee’s SIMPLE IRA, provided the total annual contributions stay within the specified limits.

Employee Contributions

The IRS sets annual limits, known as the annual compensation limit, to which employee contributions to a SIMPLE IRA must adhere. For instance, the contribution limit for 2023 is $14,000. These limits are periodically adjusted by the IRS to reflect changes in the cost of living.

Over-contributing to a SIMPLE IRA can have its penalties. If an employee contributes more than the annual limit, they could potentially be liable for a 6% excise tax on the excess contribution.

Employer Contributions

The retirement savings plan, also known as a savings incentive match plan, necessitates employer contributions to a SIMPLE IRA as a fundamental element. These contributions are a key aspect of the employee benefit package. Employers have two options: they can either match their employees’ contributions on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to a maximum of 3% of the employee’s compensation, or they can make nonelective contributions equivalent to 2% of each eligible employee’s compensation for the full year. The contributions must be made by April 15 of the following year, or by October 15 if on extension.

Investment Options in a SIMPLE IRA

Diverse investment options in a retirement plan

A broad spectrum of investment options, such as individual stocks and mutual funds, is offered by a SIMPLE IRA. This diversity allows employees to create a well-rounded portfolio that aligns with their financial goals and risk tolerance.

The investment decisions in a SIMPLE IRA are in the hands of the employees, giving them control over their retirement savings.


In a SIMPLE IRA, diversification serves as a pivotal strategy. It involves spreading investments across various asset classes and within the portfolio to effectively manage risk and maximize returns. Effective diversification can be achieved through:

Various investment options, including low-risk choices like CDs and different types of mutual funds, can be used to diversify a SIMPLE IRA portfolio.

Monitoring Performance

After making the investments, employees should ensure the regular monitoring of their SIMPLE IRA performance. Key indicators of investment performance that should be monitored include yield, return on investment, and income generated. Employees should review their SIMPLE IRA performance at least once a year. If the performance is not aligning with their retirement goals, they can adjust their portfolio to meet long-term objectives.

Benefits and Drawbacks of SIMPLE IRAs

Despite offering numerous benefits, SIMPLE IRAs also entail certain drawbacks. They are known for their reduced costs and simplified administration compared to other retirement plans, making them a popular choice among small business owners. They also offer tax deductions and tax-deferred growth of earnings on the plan’s investments.

However, they have lower contribution limits and lack a Roth option. Early withdrawals and rollovers also attract substantial tax penalties.

Pros for Employers

There are several benefits that SIMPLE IRAs provide for employers. They receive a tax deduction for their contributions to employees’ accounts, which reduces the overall taxable income of the business. SIMPLE IRAs are also easy to administer, with a simplified contribution method for employees’ retirement savings that eliminates the need for extensive paperwork and testing associated with other plans.

Pros for Employees

Employees stand to gain several benefits from SIMPLE IRAs. Employees with a minimum of $5,000 in compensation from the employer in any two preceding calendar years and who expect to receive at least $5,000 in the current calendar year are eligible to participate in a SIMPLE IRA. They also gain immediate ownership of the employer contributions due to the immediate vesting feature of SIMPLE IRAs.

Moreover, they have access to a wide range of investment options, allowing them to customize their investment strategy based on their financial goals and risk tolerance.


Yet, SIMPLE IRAs do have a few disadvantages. They have lower contribution limits compared to other retirement plans. For instance, the maximum annual contribution limit for a SIMPLE IRA in 2023 is $15,500, which is less than the traditional 401(k) limit of $22,500.

Roth versions are not available for SIMPLE IRA accounts. Additionally, early withdrawals from a SIMPLE IRA can attract substantial tax penalties, typically ranging from 10% to 25% based on the timing of the withdrawal.

Furthermore, SIMPLE IRAs have a two-year period during which the assets cannot be transferred, leading to a significant 25% IRS penalty if violated.

Rollovers and Withdrawals

Specific rules and penalties apply to rollovers and withdrawals from a SIMPLE IRA. Employees are required to wait for a duration of two years from their initial participation in a SIMPLE IRA plan before they are eligible to transfer those funds to another retirement plan.

If funds are withdrawn from a SIMPLE IRA before the age of 59.5, a 10% additional tax is imposed on the taxable amount withdrawn, which may increase to 25% in certain cases, unless another exception to this tax applies.

Rollover Rules

Regarding rollovers, a waiting period of two years from the moment a SIMPLE IRA account is opened is mandatory before employees can transfer those funds into another retirement plan. However, it’s worth noting that it is possible to execute a tax-free rollover from one SIMPLE IRA to another at any time; this action is not subject to the IRS’s two-year rule.

After the 2-year period, it is permissible to execute tax-free rollovers from SIMPLE IRAs to other non-Roth IRAs or to an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Withdrawal Penalties

A 10% additional tax applies to the taxable amount withdrawn from a SIMPLE IRA before the age of 59.5. If the withdrawal happens within the initial two years of the account’s establishment, the penalty increases to 25%.

It’s important to note that the withdrawal of funds from a participant’s SIMPLE IRA does not hinder their ability to continue participating in the employer’s SIMPLE IRA plan.

Maintaining Compliance

Employer maintaining compliance records

Both employers and employees must ensure compliance with SIMPLE IRA rules and regulations. Adherence to these rules ensures that the retirement plan operates within the legal framework and delivers the intended benefits without facing penalties. An employer is typically not subjected to annual filing obligations with the IRS and is exempt from submitting an annual Form 5500 return, thereby streamlining the administrative procedure.

However, employers with active SIMPLE IRA plans have ongoing administrative responsibilities, which encompass ensuring the accuracy and timeliness of contributions, maintaining eligibility records, and complying with all communication requirements with employees.


To maintain compliance with SIMPLE IRA rules, it is vital to uphold proper recordkeeping. Employers need to keep accurate records of:

These records should be retained until the trust or IRA has disbursed all benefits and a sufficient period has elapsed to minimize the risk of an audit.

Annual Self-Audit

Another key component of maintaining compliance with SIMPLE IRA rules is the conduct of an annual self-audit. The purpose of an annual self-audit is to assess whether the plan is in compliance with the relevant regulations. During the audit, employers should monitor for common mistakes or inconsistencies, such as:

Failing to perform an annual self-audit can result in potential non-compliance with rules and regulations, potentially leading to penalties or legal repercussions.


In summary, a SIMPLE IRA is a retirement savings plan specifically designed for small businesses and self-employed individuals, offering tax-deferred savings, various investment options, and simplified administration. However, they also come with lower contribution limits, no Roth option, and certain restrictions on rollovers and early withdrawals. Maintaining compliance with SIMPLE IRA rules and regulations is essential to ensure the successful operation of the plan and avoid potential penalties.

Before deciding to establish or participate in a SIMPLE IRA, it’s important to understand the features, benefits, and potential drawbacks of the plan. With proper knowledge and careful management, a SIMPLE IRA can be an effective retirement savings solution. As always, it’s advisable to consult with a qualified tax advisor or financial professional to ensure that a SIMPLE IRA is the right fit for your specific situation and goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a SIMPLE IRA and how does it work?

A SIMPLE IRA is a type of tax-deferred retirement savings plan that allows both employees and employers to contribute money for retirement. It’s an easy-to-manage option, with tax-deferred growth and the possibility for employer contributions.

What is the difference between a SIMPLE IRA and a standard IRA?

The main difference between a SIMPLE IRA and a standard IRA is that a SIMPLE IRA is set up by small business owners for employees and themselves, while a standard IRA is set up by individuals. For a SIMPLE IRA, contributions can be made by both employees and the employer, whereas for a standard IRA, contributions are made by the individual only.

Is SIMPLE IRA better than 401k?

While 401(k) plans offer more savings power and flexibility, SIMPLE IRAs are easier to administer. Depending on your priorities, one may be more advantageous than the other.

Is it a good idea to have a SIMPLE IRA?

Yes, a SIMPLE IRA can be a good option for small employers looking to set up a retirement plan with less hassle and expense than a typical 401(k) plan, and it provides tax advantages and matching benefits for employees. Plus, it is easier to set up and has lower administrative costs compared to other retirement plans.

What is the maximum annual contribution limit for a SIMPLE IRA?

The maximum annual contribution limit for a SIMPLE IRA is $15,500 in 2023, increasing to $16,000 in 2024. Employees aged 50 and above can make an additional $3,500 as catch-up contributions.