7 Ways to Maximize Your 401(K)

Learn How to Manage Your Retirement Savings

Get the most from you 401(k) plan. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Approximately 60% of employees have access to a retirement plan at work. For those employees able to save for retirement in an account that grows tax-deferred until retirement, it could be one of the most valuable employee benefits available.

Some employees have access to a 403(b) or a 457 plan instead of a 401(k) plan and they work very similarly.

Here are seven essential best practices to make sure you get the most out of participation in a retirement plan at work:

Save as much as possible today. It is often wise to go beyond the default savings rates many plans automatically use to enroll new hires. Most financial planners agree that you need to save 10-20% of total earned income each year throughout the course of your working career to maintain the same lifestyle during retirement. This approach increases the likelihood you will accumulate enough savings to replace income goals during retirement.  

See How Much Should I Save for Retirement? to learn how to estimate how much you need to save.

Max the match. If your employer matches your contributions, be sure to take full advantage of this free money that provides a nice boost for your retirement savings.

Think about your current tax rate and future taxes. Pre-tax contributions to 401(k) plans provide an immediate tax benefit. The size and significance of this tax break depends on your marginal tax bracket.

You can estimate the amount of tax savings you will see as a result of pre-tax contributions using tools like this Pre-Tax Savings calculator.

Some retirement plans offer a Roth option giving you the ability to invest on a tax-free basis. A Roth 401(k) is usually a smart choice if you do not need the current tax benefits of pre-tax contributions or anticipate being in the same or higher tax bracket when you begin taking distributions.

Make future increases to your savings automatic. It is easy to put our retirement contributions on cruise control and forget to make important changes as time passes by. The downside of this “set it and forget it” mindset is that our financial situation is constantly changing. Unfortunately, good intentions to save more later on in life aren’t always followed through with consistently. That is why behavioral finance experts have demonstrated that you can save more tomorrow through gradual retirement plan increases over time.

Many retirement plans automatically enroll new participants in a contribution rate escalation program. Others allow employees to sign up for this valuable feature at no additional cost. What makes automatic 401(k) savings features even more appealing is the ability to change your mind or make updates to the contribution amount at any time. 

Here is an example of how contribution rate escalation works:

Let’s assume Michelle is 30 years old and is contributing 5% of her salary ($60,000) to her 401(k) plan with a 1% annual rate increase and a 15% cap. After 30 years and with a 6% average annual increase the 401(k) balance would be approximately $577,000 compared to $244,500 without the automatic increases.

  Don’t have that much time on your side? After 10 years the difference is still just under $34,000 using the previous example.

Choose the right investment mix for your situation.  For many retirement investors portfolio selection can be a challenge. Finding an appropriate asset allocation model requires matching your comfort level with risk as an investor with your investing time horizon. Many retirement plans now offer static asset allocation funds or target date funds to help plan participants diversify their investments across multiple asset classes (i.e., stocks, bonds/fixed income, real estate, alternative investments).

Avoid early withdrawals.  It may be tempting to take an early withdrawal but the long-term consequences are often not worth it. 401(k) withdrawal rules can be complicated and there are certain situations where penalties can be avoided.

However, if you leave an employer or encounter financial hardships it is often recommended to avoid early withdrawals from a 401(k) plan.

Only use 401(k) loans as a last resort. Some positive 401(k) loan features include no credit checks and competitive interest rates. They can be a potential source of funds but it is often wise to avoid borrowing against your 401(k). There is an opportunity cost you may miss out on market gains while you are paying interest to yourself. But the biggest risk is that you could end up owing taxes and penalties if you leave your job and cannot repay the outstanding loan balance within 60 days of leaving an employer.  

See 9 Things You Should Know About Borrowing From Your 401(k)

Next Steps: Create an Action Plan for Retirement

In order to get the most out of your 401(k) plan it is important to have a clear vision of why you are saving for retirement in the first place. We all have our own unique definition of what the word “retirement” actually means. If you want to make sure you are making the smartest choices with your 401(k) take some time to assess your goals and review how many of the seven steps mentioned above you have already taken.  This assessment will help give you a brief assessment of where you stand.