I have been working for the same company for over 15 years. On the first day of starting my new job, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork I was asked to sign and choices to make. I felt ignorant because I knew what I was doing was supposed to be important, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was a lot! There were so many options; dental plans, vision plans, insurance plans, beneficiary choice. I remember being offered the option of participating in the company 401k pension plan. Once again, I knew it was a good thing, but I didn’t know who good it can be! Well, as I matured and became more educated on 401ks, I’m glad I started when I did.
So, what is a 401k? A 401k is a retirement saving plan like an IRA, but the 401k is offered by an employer, but not all employers offer this option. The name “401k” actually comes from the section of the tax code in the IRS regulation that gave birth to these plans which began to take their familiar form in 1978. At first, 401ks were looked upon as “poor substitutes” for the traditional pension plan Americans were accustomed to having. But now, they are the preferred source of retirement savings for most Americans.
401k plans came to usurp pension plans as the most popular retirement plan for a simple reason. Pension plans are generally expensive for an employer because traditional pension plans often pay out guarantee amounts to a qualified employee-sometimes these payouts are for life. And employee wouldn’t have to be very involved as the employer would handle most, if not all, of the investment choices. Today’s 401ks place the burden of saving for retirement on the employee. The employees are responsible for choosing their own investments from a selection of investments offered by their employer. The employee also has the power to change investments, increase, decrease, or cease contributing to the plan at their discretion. Today’s employee needs to be more aware to be as successful as the pension holder of yesterday.
401ks have some excellent benefits that contribute to their fame. To name a few:
First, just like IRAs, there are tax benefits with 401ks. The money within a 401k can grow tax-deferred (meaning the taxes are to be paid at a later date) or tax-free depending on options made available by an employer. But, in either case, both are advantageous to the investor.
Secondly, there is a lot of potentials to put money away from retirement and the limit keeps rising. The federal limit for 401ks in 2019 has risen to $19,000 a year! That’s a lot of money!
Thirdly, like an IRA, there is no limit to the value of a 401k, nor is there any limit to the number of 401ks a single individual can own. However, an individual is limited to one 401k per employer but may have multiple 401ks through multiple employers.
Fourthly, unlike pensions, 401ks are not managed by the employer, but they are operated by large financial custodians such as Fidelity, Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, etc. This means, that if the company offering the 401k plan goes bankrupt, your investment is protected.
And lastly, many employers offer an “employee match” with their 401k plans. An employee match is where the company agrees to contributes to your 401k. Yep, that’s right. Some companies give their employees free money for their retirement.
As great as 401ks are, they do have their restrictions. Some of the major ones are:
401ks have limited investment choices that only include stocks, mutual funds, and bonds (yuck!).
401k plans vary drastically between employers. One company may offer an “employee match”, while another may not. One company may offer great performing stocks or funds, while another may not. It really is up to the company.
Similar to IRAs, the investments in 401ks ARE NOT TO BE USED until the investor is at least 59 ½ years old. Investments withdrawn before 59 ½ are subject to a penalty for early withdrawing.
401ks are one of the best ways to get a good start on planning for retirement; especially if a company offers an employee match. Other than excessive debt which needs to be rectified, I don’t know why someone would not take advantage of their employer’s 401k matching plan. It’s literally free money! I was listening to the Dave Ramsey radio show when Chris Hogan, one of the hosts, claimed that a survey of over 10,000 millionaires revealed that about 78% of those surveyed have retirement plans such as 401ks. Even millionaires (who are thought to be wise with their money) take advantage of these government-sponsored retirement plans. Why would you not?
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