What Is a 401(k)?

Understanding Your 401(k) Retirement Plan

Anyone familiar with the time value of money knows that even small amounts, when compounded over long periods, can result in thousands, or even millions, of dollars in additional wealth. This simple truth is one of the reasons many financial planners recommend tax-advantaged accounts and investments such as traditional or Roth IRAs and municipal bonds.

In the past, these decisions were not as crucial because of the prevalence of defined-benefit pension plans. Those old-world pensions are going by the wayside at most U.S. firms; instead, most of today’s workforce is likely to find their retirement years funded by the proceeds of their 401(k) retirement plan.

Defining a 401(k) Retirement Plan

A 401(k) retirement plan is a special type of account funded through pre-tax payroll deductions. The funds in the account can be invested in a number of different stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or other assets, and are not taxed on any capital gains, dividends, or interest until they are withdrawn. The retirement savings vehicle was created by Congress in 1981 and gets its name from the section of the Internal Revenue Code that describes it; you guessed it—section 401(k).

401(k) Maximum Contribution Limits

What is the maximum contribution limit on your 401(k) account? The answer depends on your plan, your salary, and government guidelines. In short, your annual employee elective salary deferral limit is set by the Internal Revenue Service. The following lists maximum contribution limits:

401(k) Maximum Contribution Limits

  • 2014: $17,500
  • 2015: $18,000
  • 2016: $18,000
  • 2017: $18,000
  • 2018: $18,500
  • 2019: $19,000
  • 2020: $19,500

Since 2006, the total maximum contribution limit has been increased periodically based on changes in the cost of living (inflation) in $500 increments.

Catch Up Contributions

If you are 50 years old or older and your employer offers “catch-up” contribution for your 401(k), you are eligible to contribute additional amounts up to the maximum contribution limits as follow:

401(k) Maximum Catch-Up Contribution Limits

  • 2014: $5,500
  • 2015: $6,000
  • 2016: $6,000
  • 2017: $6,000
  • 2018: $6,000
  • 2019: $6,000
  • 2020: $6,500

Since 2006, the maximum catch up contribution limit has been increased based on changes in the cost of living, in increments of $500.

Employer Matching Contributions and 401(k) Contribution Limits

If your employer matches your contributions, keep in mind that matching contributions of an employee’s pre-tax salary are not included in the annual elective salary deferral contribution limit, but in the overall contribution limit. For example, if you qualified, you could make a 401(k) contribution of $19,500 in 2020 and have your employer still match the first 6 percent of your salary; that match would be deposited above and beyond the $19,500 you contributed directly. The overall contribution limit, which includes employer contributions, is $57,000 for 2020.

The Benefits of a 401(k) Retirement Plan

There are five key benefits that make investing through a 401(k) retirement plan particularly attractive. They are:

  • Tax advantages
  • Employer match programs
  • Investment customization and flexibility
  • Loan and hardship withdrawals
  • Moving the account to another employer

Tax Advantage of 401(k) Retirement Plans

The primary benefit of a 401(k) retirement plan is the favorable tax treatment it receives from Uncle Sam. Dividend, interest, and capital gains are not taxed until they are disbursed. In the meantime, they can compound tax-deferred inside the account. In the case of a young worker with three or four decades ahead of them, this can mean the difference between struggling in retirement or being very comfortable.

The Employer Match Benefit

Many employers, in an effort to attract and retain talent, offer to match a certain percentage of the employee’s contribution. For example, Starbucks will match a percentage of the first 5 percent of pay the employee contributes to their 401(k) retirement plan. After 90 days, employees receive a 100 percent match.

In other words, after working there 90 days, an employee of the coffee giant who earns $100,000 and contributed $5,000 to their 401(k) would receive an additional $5,000 deposit in the account directly from the company (100 percent match on a $5,000 contribution.) Anything the employee deposited above the 5 percent threshold would not receive a match.

Even if you have high-interest credit card debt, it is preferable in almost all cases to contribute the maximum amount your company will match. The reason is simple math: If you are paying 20 percent on a credit card and your company is matching you dollar-for-dollar (a 100 percent return), you are going to end up poorer by paying off the debt. Factor in the tax-deferred gains generated by the 401(k) plan and the disparity becomes even larger.

Employer matching contributions of an employee’s pre-tax salary are not included in the annual elective salary deferral contribution limit, but in the overall contribution limit.

Investment Customization and Flexibility

401(k) retirement plans give employees a range of choices as to how their assets are invested. An individual who does not have a high-risk tolerance could opt for a higher asset allocation in low-risk investments such as short-term bonds; likewise, a young professional interested in building long-term wealth could place a heavier emphasis on equities.

Many businesses allow employees to acquire company stock for their 401(k) retirement plan at a discount, although some financial advisors recommend against holding a substantial portion of your 401(k) in the shares of your employer, in part because of various high-profile scandals. 

Use Your 401(k) for a Loan

In most cases, an employee can borrow up to 50 percent of their vested account balance up to a maximum of $50,000. If the employee has taken out a 401(k) loan in the previous 12 months, they will only be able to borrow a reduced amount. The amount of the reduction is your highest outstanding loan balance during that period minus the outstanding balance on the date of the new loan. The 401(k) loan must be paid back over the subsequent five years with the exception of home purchases, which are eligible for a longer time horizon.

401(k) Loan Interest Expense

Even though you’re borrowing from yourself, you still have to pay interest. Most plans set the standard interest rate at prime plus an additional 1 percent or 2 percent. The benefit is two-fold: one, unlike interest paid to a bank, you will eventually get this money back in the form of qualified disbursements at or near retirement, and two, the interest you pay back into your 401(k) plan is tax-sheltered.

The Drawbacks of 401(k) Loans

The biggest danger of taking out a 401(k) loan is that it will disrupt the dollar cost averaging process. This has the potential to significantly lower long-term results. Another consideration is employment stability; if an employee quits or is terminated, the 401(k) loan must be repaid in full, normally within 60 days. Should the plan participant fail to meet the deadline, a default would be declared and penalty fees and taxes assessed.

401(k)Hardship Withdrawal

What if your employer doesn’t offer 401(k) loans or you are not eligible? It may still be possible for you to access cash if the following four conditions are met (note that the government does not require employers to provide 401(k) hardship withdrawals, so you must check with your plan administrator):

  1. The withdrawal is necessary due to an immediate and severe financial need
  2. The withdrawal is necessary to satisfy that need (i.e., you can’t get the money elsewhere)
  3. The amount of the loan does not exceed the amount of the need
  4. You have already obtained all distributable or non-taxable loans available under your 401(k) plan

If these conditions are met, the funds can be withdrawn and used for one of the following six purposes:

  1. A primary home purchase (excluding mortgage payments)
  2. Higher education tuition, room and board and fees for the next 12 months for you, your spouse, your dependents or children (even if they are no longer dependent upon you)
  3. To prevent eviction from your home or foreclosure on your primary residence
  4. Severe financial hardship
  5. Funeral expenses for spouse, dependent, or beneficiary
  6. Tax-deductible medical expenses that are not reimbursed for you, your spouse or your dependents

All 401(k) hardship withdrawals are subject to taxes and the 10 percent penalty. This means that a $10,000 withdrawal can result in not only significantly less cash in your pocket, but causes you to forgo forever the tax-deferred growth that could have been generated by those assets. 401(k) hardship withdrawal proceeds cannot be returned to the account once the disbursement has been made.

Non-Financial Hardship 401(k) Withdrawal

Although the investor must still pay taxes on non-financial hardship withdrawals, the 10 percent penalty fee is waived. There are five ways to qualify:

  1. You become totally and permanently disabled
  2. Your medical debts exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income
  3. A court of law has ordered you to give the funds to your divorced spouse, a child, or a dependent
  4. You are permanently laid off, terminated, quit, or retire early in the same year you turn 55 or later
  5. You are permanently laid off, terminated, quit, or retired and have established a payment schedule of regular withdrawals in equal amounts of the rest of your expected natural life. Once the first withdrawal has been made, the investor is required to continue taking them for five years or until he/she reaches the age of 59 1/2, whichever is longer.

A 401(k) hardship withdrawal should be a last resort.

Your 401(k) Options When Changing Employers

One of the benefits of a 401(k) retirement plan is that it can follow an employee throughout his or her career. When changing employers, the investor has four options:

  1. Leave Your Assets in the Old Employer’s 401(k) Retirement Plan: Many 401(k) plan administrators charge record-keeping and other fees to manage your account, regardless of whether you are still with the company. These fees can take a bite out of your future net worth, especially if you have accounts maintained at several different employers.
  2. Complete a 401(k) Rollover to the New Employer’s 401(k) Plan: Practically speaking, this option is only available if the employee has another job offer before leaving their current employer. In some cases, a rollover IRA may be the best option. How do you know if it is the right choice? The decision should be largely based on the investment options of the new 401(k) plan. If you are unsatisfied with the choices, completing a 401(k) rollover to an IRA may be a better option.
  3. Complete a 401(k) Rollover and Move the Assets to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA): Completing a 401(k) rollover is often the best choice for those interested in providing for a comfortable retirement, because it allows the investor’s capital to continue compounding tax-deferred while providing maximum control over asset allocation (you aren’t limited to the investments offered by the 401(k) plan provider.) Here’s how it works: A distribution of the current 401(k) plan assets is ordered (this is reported on the IRS Form 1099-R.) Once the employee receives the assets, they must be contributed into the new retirement plan within 60 days; this deposit is reported on IRS Form 5498. The government limits 401(k) rollovers to once every 12 months.
  4. Cash out the Proceeds, Paying Taxes and the 10 Percent Penalty Fee: With the exception of failing to take advantage of an employer’s contribution match program, cashing out a 401(k) when leaving or changing jobs is most often a poor decision. The mistake costs far more than the taxes and penalty fee alone; the greater financial loss comes from the decades of tax-deferred compounding that capital could have earned had the account owner chosen to initiate a 401(k) rollover.

The purpose of your 401(k)retirement plan is to provide for your golden years. There are times, however, when you need cash and there are no viable options other than to tap your nest egg. For this reason, the government allows plan administrators to offer 401(k) loans to participants (be aware that the government doesn’t require this and therefore it is not always available.)

The primary benefit of 401(k)loans is that the proceeds are not subject to taxes or the 10 percent penalty fee except in the event of default. The government does not set guidelines or restrictions on the uses for 401(k) loans. Many employers, however, do; these can include minimum loan balances (usually $1,000) and the number of loans outstanding at any time in order to reduce administrative costs. Additionally, some employers require that married employees get the consent of their spouse before taking out a loan.

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