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A 401k program is an employer-sponsored retirement program. This program is self-directed, which means you pick the investments in the account. It is also self-defined. You choose to enroll in the program and the amount of money contributed from your paycheck. You also choose when you begin withdrawing money from the program, but within a specific age range.

401k plans have one major benefit: they’re funded with pretax dollars. While your personal accounts are invested after you’ve paid taxes, your 401k contributions are not taxed. All money will grow tax-deferred until you begin withdrawing money in retirement. This means that your contributions, matches, and their compounded interest grow tax-free until you retire. That is a lot of free money.

Your employer’s selected 401k provider will give you a range of options that you can choose as investments. Usually, your options consist of a variety of mutual funds. Your plan may allow for commonly traded investments. The money you invest in the account increases at the rate of the investments you select. This means that you directly suffer all the financial risk. If you fail to meet your goals, that’s your problem. You will have to fix your failure. This is the risk that comes with a self-directed plan.

Company Offers & Matching

You can only contribute to a 401k plan if your employer chooses to create the option for their employees. Employers must choose to maintain the plan after establishing it for you to use it. Some companies allow you to contribute to your plan immediately after you begin working for them. Other companies do not allow you to contribute to a 401k plan until you have been working for a certain length of time. This may be three months, six months, or more.

Some companies don’t offer plans at all. The plans are not cheap for your employers, and most expenses come from company “matching”. If they offer 401k plans, they have to pay regular expenses into your 401k every month. There are other varieties of matching plans as well. A company typically pays 50 cents per dollar of your deposits every month, up to the first six percent of pay. Some companies match contributions dollar for dollar up to three percent, then 50 cents per dollar for another two percent. Some offer less, some firms offer more.

Company matching helps encourage low-income workers to use their 401k programs to their full benefit, which allows the executives and managers to use the program to their maximum potential. However, multiply the costs of a 401k plan over thousands of employees, and it creates large expenses. Many firms choose to avoid the cost.

If your firm provides a 401k program with a decent matching schedule, you should take advantage of it. Matching results in substantial free income. It instantly boosts your return on investment by the amount matched by your own contributions. If the company offers alternative matching, such as company shares or specific investment, try to acquire cash matching instead. If you are forced to take company shares, diversify these by selling them off and buying more diverse investments. You don’t want a lot of company shares in your 401k. You can only put a limited amount of pre-tax dollars in your 401k, and it’s best that they are diversified.

401k Plans & Costs

Since you select your investment plan, you also select the investment plan’s costs. Expenses and fees that are paid to mutual funds are charged, directly or indirectly, against your 401k balance. If the selected mutual funds in your 401k plan have high expenses, your 401k will increase at a slower rate. You should always compare the expenses and fees within your 401k with those outside of your program. You may notice that expenses for mutual funds inside your plan are higher than the same funds outside your plan. There are also large amounts of hidden fees that can be slipped in a 401k under indirect terms. These fees are to be avoided if possible. It may be wiser to use an IRA or invest in alternative methods if this is true. These expenses sap your returns. Investing all the capital, taking all the risk, and receiving 20% or 30% of the return is not a recipe for success. If these expenses occur within the actively managed funds, look at index funds accessible in your plan, and compare the cost of investment outside of the program.

Contributions & Limitations

Contributions are limited. These limitations are from a combined form of government and the company. The US government limits the highest possible 401k contribution, $17,500 as of 2013. Each year this limit adjusts with inflation, the actual maximum real contribution remains constant. Companies also set their own limit, though it is indirect and according to the government rules. American law states that all 401k users must benefit equally from the program. High-income earners, such as executives and managers, can only contribute their maximum contributions if the lower income employees can as well. If regular workers do not use the program to its full value, the executives cannot use the program to its maximum potential.

Catch-up Contributions

At a certain age, you can also begin contributing more money into your 401k. These are known as catch-up contributions, and they occur at ages 50 or over. An employer is not responsible for providing catch-up contributions but may choose to do so. If it provides these contributions it has to extend the opportunity to all people within the company. These contributions are capped as well. As of 2013, the limit is $5,500, increasing the cost of living.

Your contributions should be kept in line with your personal financial situation. If you have debts, you should pay them down while making reduced plan deposits. As your debts decrease you can raise your monthly transfers. Your debts will grow if you make full contributions and don’t pay them.


Between Ages 59 and a half, and age 70 and a half, you can begin withdrawing money. At age 70 and a half, you will be forced to begin withdrawals or pay a tax penalty unless you are still working. American law forces you to begin removing money from your 401k so the IRS can acquire deferred taxes. The money is taxed as ordinary income.

Job Change & Rollovers

Job changes are frequent; most workers will leave their firm before they retire. Fortunately, 401k plans are mobile as well. A program can be transferred to another firm in a process called a “roll-over”, which occurs tax-free. Some companies let you continue to hold their plans after you have left their firm, but they won’t allow you to add more funds. They would have to match any funds that you add. The government also allows you to change the 401k fund into an IRA fund. If you wish to continue contributing to the fund without rolling it over, this is a solution.

401k Loans

You can borrow against your 401k fund, but it is costly and not recommended. Your loan would need to be repaid within a time limit. If it isn’t repaid within the specific time limit, the loan registers as an early withdrawal. You will be taxed on the amount withdrawn, which qualifies as your normal income bracket and suffer an added 10% tax penalty on the funds. On top of that, you will owe the loan’s principal and interest which you will repay with dollars that are taxed. Don’t borrow against your 401k. You should also never withdraw money from your plan early.

Death & Beneficiary

You might die before your 401k is empty. In this case, your program’s funds will be inherited by your beneficiary. Note that your beneficiary is not designated by your will. You must entitle your beneficiary in the 401k’s selection forms. If you want to change who inherits your 401k fund, you must update the beneficiary. No other document will impact who receives your funds in the case of your death.

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