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Entrepreneurs and the Retirement Trap

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The dream of running your own business can be a powerful one. Unfortunately, it sometimes blinds people to the world's ugly realities.

The odds of success aren't great, of course — but even first time entrepreneurs know that on some level. Startlingly few of the ones who do make it think forward to their golden years, however, which could present a big problem when they're ready to retire.

Those who do consider retirement options often consider selling their company as the sole exit strategy, and investment option. A big buyout, after all, is likely to top whatever they can squirrel away in IRAs and mutual funds. Reality has a way of squashing those dreams, though.

Dun & Bradstreet reports small business failure rates rose by 40 percent between 2007 and 2010 — and some states had it even worse. California, for instance, had a failure rate of 69 percent. For owners who were counting on those companies to set them up for life, it's a devastating figure.

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"It's been my experience that most entrepreneurs think of their business as their retirement," says Rick Rodgers, author of "The New Three-Legged Stool: A Tax Efficient Approach to Retirement Planning" and president of Rodgers & Associates. "At some point, they think 'I'm going to sell the business. I don't need to do anything else unless I need a tax advantage.' … So most of their disposable income goes into their business. … I don't think that makes sense. One of the founding principles of investing is diversification."

Even among those entrepreneurs who aren't betting the farm on the sale of their business, there's still concern. An October 2011 Gallup poll found 67 percent of small business owners are worried about not being able to put enough money away for retirement. And a survey in February by the American College, a nonprofit educational institution that focuses on financial services, found small business owners particularly unprepared for retirement.

"The lack of retirement planning by so many people is stunning, especially since business owners have no one else to rely on when it comes to putting their retirement plans in place," said Mary Quist-Newins, director of the State Farm Center for Women and Financial Services at The American College. "When you consider that the mean age of our respondents is just over 50 you have to wonder: 'What are these individuals waiting for?' Retirement will be upon them before they know it. Small business owners need to start preparing for retirement now."

The best way to do that is to force yourself to put away a minimal amount each month even in the insane start-up days.

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While the instinct of many entrepreneurs is to sink every available nickel into a company to make the launch as smooth as possible, a token amount earmarked for long-term savings can go a long way and establish good savings habits. Roth IRAs, for example, are great tools for early start-up owners. While they don't offer an immediate tax savings, the benefits upon withdrawal are significant.

"If you just set aside $100 per month that's not going to sink your business one way or another," says Rodgers. "And it gets you into the plan of putting that into a retirement account. … The bad habit for everyone is procrastination. They say 'I'll start saving once I buy this equipment or after my kids get out of school or after I hit $250,000 in annual sales.' Time works with you on this."

When your business takes off (and tax advantages become more important), it's easy to shift investments to a traditional IRA. And if your income really starts to explode, a SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA (which allows you to contribute up to 25 percent of your net self-employed income) becomes an option.

Though saving for retirement while starting a business might be a small headache, it beats the alternative. Earlier this month Barlow Research's Economic Pulse study found that 43 percent of small business owners say they do not intend to retire. That's just slightly lower than a 2010 Gallup survey that found economic conditions would prevent 47 percent of the entrepreneurs polled from retiring until they were forced to do so for health reasons.

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