The 411 on 401(K)

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Employer-sponsored qualified retirement plans such as 401(k)s are some of the most powerful retirement savings tools available. If your employer offers such a plan and you’re not participating in it, you should be. Once you’re participating in a plan, try to take full advantage of it.

Before you can take advantage of your employer’s plan, you need to understand how these plans work. Read everything you can about the plan and talk to your employer’s benefits officer. You can also talk to a financial planner, a tax advisor and other professionals. Recognize the key features that many employer-sponsored plans share:

  • Your employer automatically deducts your contributions from your paycheck. You may never even miss the money - out of sight, out of mind.
  • You decide what portion of your salary to contribute, up to the legal limit. And you can usually change your contribution amount on certain dates during the year: The more you can save for retirement, the better your chances of retiring comfortably. If you need to free up money to do that, try to cut certain expenses.

Why put your retirement dollars in your employer’s plan instead of somewhere else? One reason is that your pretax contributions to your employer’s plan lower your taxable income for the year. This means you save money in taxes when you contribute to the plan - a big advantage if you’re in a high tax bracket. For example, if you earn $100,000 a year and contribute $10,000 to a 401(k) plan, you’ll pay income taxes on $90,000 instead of $100,000. Another reason is the power of tax-deferred growth. Your investment earnings compound year after year and aren’t taxable as long as they remain in the plan. Over the long term, this gives you the opportunity to build an impressive sum in your employer’s plan. You should end up with a much larger balance than somebody who invests the same amount in taxable investments at the same rate of return.

  • With 401(k), 403(b), 457(b), SARSEPs, and SIMPLE plans, you contribute to the plan on a pretax basis. Your contributions come off the top of your salary before your employer withholds income taxes.
  • Your 401(k) or 403(b) plan may let you make after-tax Roth contributions - there’s no up-front tax benefit but qualified distributions are entirely tax free.
  • Your employer may match all or part of your contribution up to a certain level. You typically become vested in these employer dollars through years of service with the company.
  • Your funds grow tax deferred in the plan. You don’t pay taxes on investment earnings until you withdraw your money from the plan.
  • You’ll pay income taxes and possibly an early withdrawal penalty if you withdraw your money from the plan.
  • You may be able to borrow a portion of your vested balance (up to $50,000) at a reasonable interest rate.
  • Your creditors cannot reach your plan funds to satisfy your debts.