The Differences and Similarities Between Bank Account and Brokerage Account for Self-Directed Solo 401k

While a bank or brokerage account is required to hold the solo 401(k) liquid funds which can then be self-direct in investments such as real estate, precious metals, tax liens, and promissory notes, to name a few, both types of accounts have their differences and similarities which are covered below.

The Solo 401k Bank and Brokerage Account Similarities:

  • Both come with a checkbook for investing in alternative investments such as real estate, promissory notes, metals, private companies and tax liens, to name a few.
  • Since both come with a free checkbook, a check can be written for processing a solo 401k participant loan.
  • Both allow for outgoing wires for investing in alternative investments as well as processing 401(k) loan (borrowing form the plan).
  • Neither the bank nor the brokerage firm serves as the solo 401(k) plan provider. Instead, My Solo 401k Financial performs this important role.
  • Neither the bank nor the brokerage firm prepare the solo 401k loan documents. Instead, My Solo 401k prepares the loan documents.
  • Neither the bank nor the brokerage firm holds the solo 401k participant loan paperwork. Instead, the solo 401k owner holds the paperwork.
  • Neither the bank nor the brokerage firm hold the investment paperwork in connection with each solo 401k alternative investment (e.g., real estate, notes and tax liens). Instead, the solo 401k owners safe-keeps the investment paperwork.
  • Neither the bank nor the brokerage firm server as trustee of the solo 401k. This role is performed by the solo 401k owner.
  • Neither the bank nor the brokerage firm perform solo 401k reporting, such as the issuance of Form 1099R and Form 5500-EZ. This is performed by My Solo 401k Financial with the cooperation of the solo 401k trustee.
  • Neither the bank nor  the brokerage firm process the solo 401k plan document updates. This is provided by My Solo 401k Financial as the solo 401k provider.

The Solo 401k Bank and Brokerage Account Differences:

  • The brokerage account allows for investing in stocks and mutual funds in addition to real estate, notes, metals, and tax liens, for example.
  • While the bank account allows for investing in real estate, notes, metals, and tax liens, for example, it does not allow for investing in stocks and mutual funds.
  • The brokerage account is generally less expensive than the bank account because the brokerage firm only charges out-going wire fees and stock trading fees. On the other hand, the bank generally charger a monthly bank account fee.
  • The bank account comes with a debit card if the solo 401k owner chooses to order one. The brokerage account does not come with a debit card
  • IMPORTANT COMPLIANCE NOTE 1: A solo 401k is not allowed to obtain a credit card.
  • The bank account allows for cashier checks which is important when investing in tax liens and purchasing real estate at auction. The brokerage firm will not issue cashier checks.

In sum, a solo 401k from a solo 401k plan document provider such as My Solo 401k Financial allows for the use of a bank and/or brokerage account for processing solo 401k participant loans as well as investing in equities and alternative investments. However, as explained above, both are very similar but different in nature.

Retail Bank Account QUESTION:

Is there an advantage of having the checkbook in my retail bank versus an investment firm like Fidelity Investments?


Having a brokerage account allows for investing in traditional investments (e.g. mutual funds, stocks, etc.) that you can’t invest in via a bank. While the Fidelity brokerage account also comes with a checkbook and you can process investment by wire, having a bank account allows for access to cashier checks & a debit card.  You can also have both a bank and a brokerage account.

Vanguard Brokerage Account QUESTION:

Can the brokerage accounts for the solo 401k be set up at Vanguard? Would It be like any other brokerage account or like Vanguards solo 401k with the investment restrictions of their solo 401k?


While Vanguard used to be a viable option in the past for these types of accounts, more recently they require that the accounts be set up as pooled accounts which will not be compatible if the solo 401(k) plan will have multiple participants and/or multiple types of funds (e.g. pretax, Roth, after-tax). Therefore, this will not be a good set up for what you want to achieve. Alternative options are Fidelity, Schwab, etc. where we would prepare all of the paperwork to open up brokerage accounts which are free to set up with no maintenance fee including a free checkbook.

Number of Brokerage Accounts QUESTION:

How many brokerage accounts do I need for my solo 401k plan?


It depends if both trustees (e.g., husband ans spouse) participate in the plan and on the contributions types that will be made (e.g., pretax, Roth and voluntary after-tax) to the solo 401k plan.

If both trustees participate in the plan:  (1) There will be at least 2 brokerage accounts for each of you (one in the name of the 401k for the benefit of John and a second in the name of the 401k for the benefit of Sally).  In addition, if you wish to have Roth funds (and/or Voluntary After Tax funds), additional brokerage accounts will be needed (potentially 6 if there are pre-tax, Roth and Voluntary After-Tax for each of you).  (2) We would prepare the brokerage forms.  Note that Fidelity and Schwab are best in terms of ease of setup, etc. based on customer feedback.

Using Merrill Lynch Brokerage Accounts QUESTIONS:

Quick Question. Regardless whether I ultimately decide to setup my Solo401K Trust sponsoring entity as a NJ Sole Proprietorship Entity (Schedule C) using my SSN or a NJ LLC with S Corp Tax Election (1120S) under a new EIN there is no restrictions under your Solo401K Plan Prototype guidelines on the specific Banks and Broker Dealers that I can choose to use to handle Solo401K Plan financial transactions. Correct?
I have many accounts with Merrill Lynch currently so if I was to select a Merrill Edge brokerage as best option to have custody of my new Solo401K Plan assets I would just use the attached Merrill Edge Self Directed Trust Cash Management Account (CMA) Account Application using the Trust Entity Name we decide to create and get an EIN for – Correct?


Correct – no restrictions under rules.  It is just that while some brokerage firms (e.g. Fidelity and Schwab) make it easy, other firms have made a business decision not to support (e.g. Vanguard).  Based on experience, Merrill has been hit or miss.  The key is that the account is opened under the name of the solo 401k plan and the tax ID/EIN for the 401k (which we obtain as part of our services).  Please note that the Solo 401k is a revocable trust but not a living trust and the form provided by Merrill (“Merrill Edge Self-Directed Trust Cash Management Account -CMA Account”) refers to a living trust.

About Mark Nolan

Each day I speak with energetic entrepreneurs looking to take the plunge into a new venture and small business owners eager to take control of their retirement savings. I am passionate about helping others find their financial independence. Having worked for over 20 years with some of the top retirement account custodian and insurance companies I have a deep and extensive knowledge of the complexities of self-directed 401ks and IRAs as well as retirement plan regulations. Learn more about Mark Nolan and My Solo 401k Financial >>

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