Tips on Maximizing Your 401K Match

How to Save More for Retirement With an Employer Match

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There is nothing worse than leaving free money behind. That is why getting the most out of your employer’s 401(k) match is one of the most important “must-do” strategies of retirement planning. To maximize the value you receive from your 401(k) match, keep the following things in mind:

Understand That It Really is a 401K Match

Typically, you only receive a contribution into your 401(k) plan if you make a contribution yourself.

When you save some of your paycheck by putting money into your 401(k), your company may also match a certain percentage of your contributions. But if you fail to contribute to your 401(k) plan, then your company match goes away potentially leaving a significant amount of money on the table.

Understand Your 401K Matching Program

Some companies don’t even have a 401(k) plan so it is important to take time to understand your company's 401(k) matching program. For those that do have a 401k plan, you should keep in mind that each plan can be different. Some employers have very generous matching programs. Others have relatively paltry matches or no matching program at all. As of 2015, the average company contribution was 2.7% of pay. Ask your HR representative for an overview of your 401(k) matching program. Here are two sample matching programs and how they work:

  • 50% match up to the first 6% – If you have such a plan, your employer will place 50 cents into your retirement plan for every dollar you put in. Each year, there is a limit of 6% of your gross salary that the employer will match. Therefore, an individual with a salary of $50,000 that contributes at least 6% to his/her 401(k) plan will receive a matching contribution from the employer of $1,500. Note, however, that an employee who doesn’t contribute to the plan will receive nothing from the employer in the way of a match.
  • Dollar for dollar match up to 5% - For every dollar you put in your 401(k) plan, your company will also put in a dollar. Once you reach a total of 5% of your gross pay contributed for the year, your employer won’t add any more dollars to your account until the next calendar year.
  • Keep in mind your matching program may be different from those presented above.

    Don’t Turn Down Free Money

    If you fail to contribute to your 401(k) plan up to the amount your employer matches, then you are turning down money your company would otherwise be providing for your retirement. It is hard to imagine a scenario when turning down free money is a good idea. Be sure to take advantage!

    Don't Rely on Auto-Enrollment

    Many employers are automatically enrolling new employees into retirement plans. This is a great way to encourage saving for retirement, but auto-enrollment plans differ widely from employer to employer. Therefore, it is important to understand your employer match to make sure that you aren't leaving money on the table. Some employers begin auto-enrollment contribution rates below the amount needed to capture the full employer match.

    401K Match and Annual Limits

    Regardless of your company’s matching program, you can’t contribute more than $18,000 of your own money to your 401(k) in 2017 ($24,000 if you are 50 or older)   Employer contributions are not included in your annual contribution limit. However, there is a combined contribution limit of $54,000 for the employer and employee contributions in 2017 (plus the $6,000 catch-up if age 50 or older). The employee compensation limit for calculating contributions is $270,000 in 2017.

    Beware of any Vesting Schedules

    No matter when or how you terminate employment, the money you contribute to your 401(k) plan is yours to keep. However, the contributions made by your employer may be subject to a vesting schedule. Make sure you understand your vesting program before you quit your job!

    No Match for IRAs

    No matching contributions are available for an IRA you might open yourself. This lack of free money is one reason why it usually makes sense to first prioritize saving money in a matched 401(k) account before contributing to an IRA. Once you reach the matching limit, however, be sure to check out a regular IRA or a Roth IRA. For more information on how much you can contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), check out the following resources:

    2017 IRA Contribution Limits

    Calculate Your Contribution Amount

    Since many employees do not take full advantage of their matching 401(k) contributions it is important to make sure that you are maximizing your employee benefits. This calculator may be used to help you optimize your 401(k) contributions to make the most of the employer match. For more information about how much you can contribute to a 401(k) plan for the 2017 tax year check out the following link:

    2017 401(k) contribution limits