The cornerstone of retirement savings for many people today, the 401(k) plan is a savings vehicle that requires a hands-on approach – which is why we are investing our time and money (intellect = money) in describing its features as fully as possible, so as for you to clearly understand and imbibe them. Ready? If you forgot your multivitamins today please have them before we continue.
Well, ready or not, here we come!
The 401(k) plan makes it easy and convenient for you to save money for retirement. Once you enroll, your contributions are automatically deducted from your paycheck before you even get to see it. This forces a strict savings discipline on you usually an absolute necessity if you’re not good at looking to the future. Since you are planning to pass through the retirement stage of your life in style instead of as a pauper (and it’s hard to foresee this and save when you receive a full pay-check), this is a real advantage that will help make your retirement as comfortable as possible. If you’re using this plan, you may even retire at age 55 and gain full access to your money, penalty-free! This, in part, is a semblance of the sheer beauty of the plan. Aren’t we poetic?!
Do remember that your contributions deducted from the paycheck are tax-deferred, thereby decreasing your current income tax. (That news calls for a pat on our back!) However, there is a limit to how much you may contribute to a 401(k). This limit is set by the Congress and set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. Your employer, too, may limit your contributions to a percentage of your salary, depending on how much he really likes you. Additionally, he may also choose to match all or a part of your contribution. (Yes, it’s time for you to go through your company’s policies regarding the plan if you haven’t already!) It’s also time to polish those rusty apple polishing skills – pun intended!
Most 401(k) plans provide you with a range of investment options, including stock funds, bond funds, balanced funds, international funds, and company stock. You may decide (on your own) how your contributions are distributed among the plan’s offerings by considering your long-term financial objectives, your tolerance for risk, and how close you are to retirement age. We do not advise you to fear risky investments since those are the ones making the greatest amount of money. Others may think differently and suggest that a more conservative allocation strategy is ideal as you get older. Don’t pay too much attention to those behind the times financial advisors; they’re all ageist!
Regardless of your allocation strategy, it is critical to closely monitor the progress of your 401(k) plan. The plan is required by law to provide you with an annual statement in order to assist you with the management. Many plans will also provide you with quarterly statements, online access, and toll-free numbers offering 24/7 access to your current balance.
Each 401(k) plan also specifies when and how often you can make changes to your investments. While some plans permit you to make daily changes, others allow a limited number of transactions per year. At any rate, you are responsible for checking up on your plan’s performance and making allocation changes whenever deemed appropriate. Please make sure you’re not smashed on the day you decide to make those changes!
Certain 401(k) plans also allow you to access your savings in case of a financial emergency before reaching the age of eligibility. This access may come through a loan (with interest) or a hardship withdrawal. In case of a hardship withdrawal you will have to pay ordinary income tax on the amount withdrawn and pay a 10% penalty to the government if you don’t meet one of the following exceptions: (1) purchasing a principal residence; (2) avoiding eviction from your present residence; (3) paying tuition for yourself, your spouse, children or dependents; (4) funeral expenses for a family member; and (5) medical expenses exceeding 7.5% of your AGI.
Oh and we lied when we said that the 401(k) plan always permits you to make penalty-free withdrawals if you retire at age 55. While it is true that you may make such withdrawals at this particular age, it is also correct that certain 401(k) plans only allow you penalty-free access to your savings at age 59.5 years. Again, it is for you to choose the plan that meets your needs. Just remember that by April 1 following the year in which you turn 70.5 years old or retire (whichever is later), it is obligatory to begin withdrawing from your 401(k). So let’s hope you will have so much money coming in that you won’t have to withdraw before turning 70.5! Yes, were also finding it a little odd that we have to refer to ages in decimals (who says seventy point five ?!)- But that’s how it goes, my friend!