You just started a new job and have come across information about your company’s 401(k) in your benefits paperwork. You may be wondering what exactly it is and whether you should sign up. The 401(k) plan got its name from the portion of the IRS tax code that governs its use. In the past, most employees received guaranteed monthly retirement income through an employer-funded pension plan. But those days are long gone, and the once common benefit has been largely replaced by the employer-sponsored, but employee-funded, 401(k). The good news is that 401(k)s offer a bevy of benefits and advantages all their own. And it’s important to fully understand them when deciding whether to enroll and how much of your income to contribute.
Employee match. Many employers match a portion of their workers’ 401(k) contributions up to a given amount. Sometimes, this is a dollar-for-dollar bonus; other times, it might be a percentage - up to a certain limit. For example, an employer might match $.50 on the dollar for employee contributions up to 6%. It’s important to speak with your HR department or benefits manager to understand what the policy is where you work because the 401(k) match is like getting free money in your retirement account, and you can’t find that guarantee anywhere else in the investment world.
Tax advantages. Pre-tax dollars fund your 401(k) contributions. That means with every contribution, you can lower your tax liability up to the allowable limits. This can help you save significantly over time. Additionally, your investment grows tax-deferred until you start making withdrawals, which are allowed without penalty once you reach age 59½. Contributions up to $19,500 are tax deductible in 2020.
After-tax contributions. It’s permissible to contribute even more than $19,500, although those additional dollars are not tax-deductible. In 2020, the IRS allows workers to contribute up to $57,000 in combined employee and employer contributions yearly to their 401(k) account. For those aged 50 and older, the limit goes up to $63,500.
Catch-up contributions. If you’ve fallen behind on your retirement-savings goals, you’re not alone. Fortunately, 401(k) regulations allow those over the age of 50 to contribute up to an extra $6,000 per year to help make up for lost time.
Fiduciary oversight. Since 401(k) plans are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), your employer is mandated by law to put your interests above their own in terms of managing and administering your 401(k) investments. They’re obligated to make sure costs are reasonable and investment options are varied and appropriate. You may even have access to educational resources or professional investment advice.
Creditor protection.In most circumstances, 401(k) accounts cannot be seized by creditors. However, it’s important to note that there are some exceptions to this rule, particularly when it comes to IRS violations as well as other government garnishments or criminal fines.
Loan accessibility. Many programs allow participants to take a loan out against the funds in their account. However, if a loan is not paid back on time, it’s considered a taxable distribution and subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you haven’t reached age 59½. The IRS permits those who leave their jobs in or after the year they reach age 55 to make withdrawals without penalty (although you must still pay income tax on that withdrawal). For qualified public safety employees, these distributions can occur if you separate from your employer in or after the year you turn 50. You may also be able to access your 401(k) funds without the 10% early withdrawal penalty in the event of a hardship, if you qualify.
Automatic savings. A number of 401(k) plans offer automatic enrollment as well as auto escalation of contributions. If you’re the kind of person who tends to put off making financial decisions, this can help you stay on track toward your retirement goals by getting on board early and raising your contribution levels regularly.
And if you’re worried about committing to making those contributions month after month, it’s important to remember that you can stop or reduce them if your circumstances change, so you’re not locked in. 401(k) plans offer numerous benefits for workers and can help them achieve their retirement goals - but only if they participate.