Nowadays, the majority of workers do not have a traditional pension that they can depend on for income once they retire. As a result, saving through a 401(k) has become more important than ever. However, maximizing your savings through this vehicle is not always as simple as it seems. You will need to pay close attention to the rules governing deposits into your account, as well as current tax policy. Otherwise, you may end up costing yourself money down the line.
Importantly, rules and policies change every year, so it is imperative that you pay close attention as you continue to save for retirement. However, there are some general tips that you should follow to maximize your savings:
1. Avoid fees
When choosing your 401(k) provider through your work, you should opt for one with the lowest or fewest amount of fees. While fees may not sound like much, they can add up quickly and significantly cut into the account value down the line, especially when accounting for compounding over time. Of course, the plan should also have the right risk tolerance. You should never feel like you have been cornered into a particular plan because of fees. If that happens, it is time to talk to human resources and consider an alternate savings plan, such as an IRA. Taking advantage of employee matches may still make sense, but once that is maxed out, another product may prove to be the best choice.
2. Diversify savings
When it comes to investing for the future, diversification is important—but many people do not understand how to do so. Diversification reduces your portfolio’s risk by making it more stable during market volatility or downturns. Financial planners recommend choosing both stocks and bonds to provide some degree of balance, as well as periodically rebalancing the portfolio to target allocations.
For example, individuals may rebalance their portfolio to reduce their investment risk as they get closer to retirement to protect the stability of their overall investment. One piece of advice that all financial planners agree with is that investors should never make impulsive changes to their risk profiles without consultation and great need.
Diversification may also mean investing in more than one 401(k) product. A Roth account can offer several benefits to people who max out their contributions to a traditional account.
3. Get matched
Perhaps the most important aspect of maximizing 401(k) savings is taking advantage of employer matching programs. Most often, employers offer 50 cents on every dollar from the employee, up to 6 percent of total pay (although the policies differ between companies). You should know exactly what your company will match and plan to take full advantage of the program. After all, matching is basically free money in your account. This matching program is an easy way to significantly boost your account and provide a larger base for further compounding in the future.
4. Get vested
Importantly, companies also have different policies on getting vested, which means that employees who leave the company too early may not get their 401(k) contributions matched. At some companies, getting vested takes as long as five or six years of service. While some will not pay out at all until an employee becomes vested, other companies will allow employees to keep a portion of their matched contributions when they leave early.
Often, becoming vested means thousands of dollars directly to the retirement fund, so it makes sense to stay as long as possible. However, you should never let the promise of getting vested drive you to stay in a bad job.
5. Rollover balances
When people do switch jobs, they have the opportunity to cash out their 401(k) plan—this is rarely a good idea. Before the age of 59 1/2, you will face a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty and you will be required to pay income tax on the balance. This can be problematic even if you want to reinvest your money in a different account rather than spend it.
Luckily, there are other options. You can choose to keep the money in the 401(k) and let it grow over the years, but it can be difficult to keep track of your different accounts from each company you have worked at. Another option is asking your former employer to transfer the balance to a new account, which helps to avoid any fees or penalties and keeps all of your retirement money in a more centralized location.
6. Take distributions
Just because you’ve finished adding to the principal of your 401(k) account does not mean that you’re finished managing your account. These accounts have required minimum distributions starting at the age of 70 1/2. At this point, you must make minimum withdrawals on an annual basis or face a hefty penalty: 50 percent of the amount that should have been withdrawn. Since you may draw on multiple accounts during retirement or you may not be retired come this age milestone, making the withdrawal can sometimes fall through the cracks and result in a significant loss. Notably, this rule only applies to a traditional 401(k) account. With a Roth 401(k), there are no mandatory annual distributions.