The allure of starting a small business employer retirement plan is easy to understand. Not only can business owners provide a benefit to their employees by giving them a means to save for retirement in a tax-deferred account and by making contributions to those accounts, but a 401(k) plan with profit sharing also gives the employer (i.e., founders/owners) a way to save more for their own retirements on a tax-preferenced basis, reducing their tax exposure in the process. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see founders saving more in taxes than it “costs” them in employee contributions!
As compelling as that might seem however, the caveat is that the upfront tax savings of making 401(k) salary deferral and profit-sharing contributions for owners isn’t actually tax savings for them. Instead, it’s merely tax deferral, as those pre-tax contributions will eventually be taxable when distributed. Which is important, because the cash outlays made on behalf of the employees actually are a permanent expense that the owners will never be able to recapture!
The net result is that in the long run, it’s often financially better for business owners to skip the small business retirement plan – even with the tax savings – and simply pay their own taxes and save the net proceeds instead. The business owners may lose out on the upfront tax deduction on the contribution, but by avoiding employee contributions they otherwise didn’t need to make for compensation purposes, the net value is often still higher… especially for taxable accounts that are managed reasonable tax-efficiently to take advantage of the available 15% long-term capital gains and qualified dividend rates.
Of course, the less tax-efficient the investment account will otherwise be, and the higher the percentage of contributions that can be skewed to owners – especially by leveraging the rules permitting some disparity in contributions, such as age-weighted or cross-tested profit-sharing plans – the more compelling the 401(k) plan may become. Still, though, even situations where as much as 90% of all dollars accrue to the owners, who in turn are saving taxes at a 32% marginal tax rate, may still need as much as 20+ years to “recover” the hard cost of employee contributions with the long-term (and very slow) benefits of tax-deferred compounding growth. Which ironically means even salary-deferral-only plans that just require a safe harbor contribution to avoid running afoul of the ACP discrimination tests may still not actually be worthwhile in the long run, compared to just contributing to an IRA (and saving any excess in a normal taxable account).
For small business owners who need to compensate employees more in the form of retirement plan contributions, need to offer an employer retirement plan simply to compete for talent, and/or who may be able to recover most or all of the employee contributions by attaching a vesting schedule (knowing that employees are likely to turn over), the small business retirement plan may still be compelling or an outright necessity. Nonetheless, small business owners should be cautious to recognize that “just” saving on taxes in exchange for making employee contributions is not necessarily as appealing in the long run as it may appear at first… once the fact that 401(k) tax deductions are merely tax deferral, and not real tax savings, in the first place.