Never Stop Contributing to Your 401(k)

Wooden blocks spelling out 401K

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Some financial experts advise pressing pause on contributions to retirement plans when money is tight or during a debt-reduction plan. However, here's why you should always—and I mean always—contribute to your 401(k), even if you are falling behind on your bills: To do anything else is to leave money on the table.

Thanks to the magic of compound interest, contributions to your retirement accounts are worth far more over time than they were when you invested them. Beyond that, there are other considerations that make money added to your 401(k) worth more than you might have reckoned.

The bottom line is that you should never stop contributing to your 401(k) if there is any way you can possibly help it, no matter how bad the financial crisis may be.

Above all, avoid taking an early withdrawal from your 401(k). If you do so, you may pay a penalty, as well as taxes on the withdrawal.

Tapping Into 401(k) Balances

The American retirement system is in crisis. Social Security typically covers only a portion of a retiree's financial needs. In 2021, the maximum payout for an applicant who retires at 70 is $3,895, but the average amount is far less at $1,543. Most retirees will need additional income to get by.

However, few American workers are saving enough for retirement. According to a survey from TD Ameritrade, nearly two-thirds of 40-year-olds have less than $100,000 saved for retirement. A fifth of respondents in their 70s reported having less than $50,000 in retirement savings.

Savers may also be tempted to dip into their 401(k) accounts when times get tough. If they do so before age 59½, most will pay a 10% penalty tax. In the old days, you couldn't raid your pension fund no matter how dire things became. Now, people turn to their accounts, always banking on being able to replenish the funds at some point in the future.

Key Considerations

Here is why to keep contributing to your 401(k) plan even if you are experiencing financial hardship:

Contributions Are Often Tax-Deductible

In other words, your taxable income is reduced, so you end up paying less in tax. If you instead choose not to put those dollars aside, the federal and state governments are going to take a bigger chunk of your pay in income taxes. Not only will you end up with less money in your retirement account, but you'll also have less cash in your hand today. It's sort of like killing the chicken for meat now when you could live off the eggs for a much longer time.

Many Employers Match Contributions

If your firm were to give, say, a dollar-for-dollar match on the first 3% of salary, and you make $40,000 per year, you could get an extra $1,200 in pay—tax-deferred—simply by making contributions to your 401(k). If you stop, not only are you going to pay the higher taxes we discussed just a moment ago, but you are going to forfeit this money forever.

Protection Under the Law

If you are unfortunate enough to have to declare bankruptcy, most courts will protect your retirement accounts, including your 401(k). That means that the money that has been put aside will stay there while the rest of your assets are liquidated or reorganized.

If you are really in trouble, you should want to put as much as possible away in this relatively safe place, beyond the reach of many creditors. That way, if you were wiped out, you would have a chance at starting over ahead of the game with investments pumping out passive income for you.

Long-term Tax Advantages

Over long periods of time, the tax advantages enjoyed by a 401(k) can result in far more wealth than if you had held your stocks or mutual funds in a brokerage account. If you stop contributing to your 401(k) plan, you lose all of the time value of money compounding that would have gone to you. 

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.