7 Pros and Cons of Investing in a 401(k) Retirement Plan at Work

A 401(k) retirement plan is one of the most powerful savings vehicles on the planet. If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that offers one (or its sister for non-profits, a 403(b)), it’s a valuable benefit that you should take advantage of.

But many people ignore their retirement plan at work because they don’t understand the rules, which may seem confusing at first. Or they worry about what happens to their account after they leave the company or mistakenly believe you must be an investing expert to use a retirement plan.

Let's talk about seven primary pros and cons of using a 401(k). You’ll learn some lesser-known benefits and get tips to save quickly so you have plenty of money when you’re ready to kick back and enjoy retirement.

What is a 401(k) retirement plan?

Traditional retirement accounts give you an immediate benefit by making contributions on a pre-tax basis.

A 401(k) is a type of retirement plan that can be offered by an employer. And if you’re self-employed with no employees, you can have a similar account called a solo 401(k). These accounts allow you to contribute a portion of your paycheck or self-employment income and choose various savings and investment options such as CDs, stock funds, bond funds, and money market funds, to accelerate your account growth.

Traditional retirement accounts give you an immediate benefit by making contributions on a pre-tax basis, which reduces your annual taxable income and your tax liability. You defer paying income tax on contributions and account earnings until you take withdrawals in the future.

Roth retirement accounts require you to pay tax upfront on your contributions. However, your future withdrawals of contributions and investment earnings are entirely tax-free. A Roth 401(k) or 403(b) is similar to a Roth IRA; however, unlike a Roth IRA there isn’t an income limit to qualify. That means even high earners can participate in a Roth at work and reap the benefits.

RELATED: How the COVID-19 CARES Act Affects Your Retirement

Pros of investing in a 401(k) retirement plan at work

When I was in my 20s and started my first job that offered a 401(k), I didn’t enroll in it. I was nervous about having investments with an employer because I didn’t understand what would happen if I left the company, or it went out of business.

I want to put your mind at ease about using a 401(k) because there are many more advantages than disadvantages.

I want to put your mind at ease about using a 401(k) because there are many more advantages than disadvantages. Here are four primary pros for using a retirement plan at work.

1. Having federal legal protection

Qualified workplace retirement plans are protected by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a federal law. It sets minimum standards for employers that offer retirement plans, and the administrators who manage them.

ERISA offers workplace retirement plans a powerful but lesser-known benefit—protection from creditors.

ERISA was enacted to protect your and your beneficiaries’ interests in workplace retirement plans. Here are some of the protections they give you:

  • Disclosure of important facts about your plan features and funding 
  • A claims and appeals process to get your benefits from a plan 
  • Right to sue for benefits and breaches of fiduciary duty if the plan is mismanaged 
  • Payment of certain benefits if you lose your job or a plan gets terminated

Additionally, ERISA offers workplace retirement plans a powerful but lesser-known benefit—protection from creditors. Let’s say you have money in a qualified account but lose your job and can’t pay your car loan. If the car lender gets a judgment against you, they can attempt to get repayment from you in various ways, but not by tapping your 401(k) or 403(b). There are exceptions when an ERISA plan is at risk, such as when you owe federal tax debts, criminal penalties, or an ex-spouse under a Qualified Domestic Relations Order. 

When you leave an employer, you have the option to take your vested retirement funds with you. You can do a tax-free rollover to a new employer's retirement plan or into your own IRA. However, be aware that depending on your home state, assets in an IRA may not have the same legal protections as a workplace plan.

RELATED: 5 Options for Your Retirement Account When Leaving a Job

2. Getting matching funds

Many employers that offer a retirement plan also pay matching contributions. Those are additional funds that boost your account value.

Always set your 401(k) contributions to maximize an employer’s match so you never leave easy money on the table.

For example, your company might match 100% of what you contribute to your retirement plan up to 3% of your income. If you earn $50,000 per year and contribute 3% or $1,500, your employer would also contribute $1,500 on your behalf. You’d have $3,000 in total contributions and receive a 100% return on your $1,500 investment, which is fantastic!

Always set your 401(k) contributions to maximize an employer’s match, so you never leave easy money on the table.

3. Having a high annual contribution limit

Once you contribute enough to take advantage of any 401(k) matching, consider setting your sights higher by raising your savings rate every year. For 2021, the allowable limit remains $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re over age 50. A good rule of thumb is to save at least 10% to 15% of your gross income for retirement.

Most retirement plans have an automatic escalation feature that kicks up your contribution percentage at the beginning of each year. You might set it to increase your contributions by 1% per year until you reach 15%. That’s a simple way to set yourself up for a happy and secure retirement.

4. Getting free investing advice

After you enroll in a workplace retirement plan, you must choose from a menu of savings and investment options. Most plan providers are major brokerages (such as Fidelity or Vanguard) and have helpful resources, such as online assessments and free advisors. Take advantage of the opportunity to get customized advice for choosing the best investments for your financial situation, age, and risk tolerance.

In general, the more time you have until retirement, or the higher your risk tolerance, the more stock funds you should own. Likewise, having less time or a low tolerance for risk means you should own more conservative and stable investments, such as bonds or money market funds.

RELATED: A Beginner's Guide to Investing in Stocks

Cons of investing in a 401(k) retirement plan at work

While there are terrific advantages of investing in a retirement plan at work, here are three cons to consider.

1. You may have limited investment options

Compared to other types of retirement accounts, such as an IRA, or a taxable brokerage account, your 401(k) or 403 (b) may have fewer investment options. You won’t find any exotic choices, just basic asset classes, including stock, bond, and cash funds.

However, having a limited investment menu streamlines your investment choices and minimizes complexity.

2. You may have higher account fees

Due to the administrative responsibilities required by employer-sponsored retirement plans, they may charge high fees. And as a plan participant, you have little control over the fees you must pay.

One way to keep your workplace retirement account fees as low as possible is selecting low-cost index funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) when possible.

One way to keep your workplace retirement account fees as low as possible is selecting low-cost index funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) when possible.

3.  You must pay fees on early withdrawals

One of the inherent disadvantages of putting money in a retirement account is that you’re typically penalized 10% for early withdrawals before the official retirement age of 59½. Plus, you typically can’t tap a 401(k) or 403(b) unless you have a qualifying hardship. That discourages participants from tapping accounts, so they keep growing.

The takeaway is that you should only contribute funds to a retirement account that you won’t need for everyday living expenses. If you avoid expensive early withdrawals, the advantages of using a workplace retirement account far outweigh the downsides.

Traditional And Roth IRA Contribution Limits Announced

The contribution limits for the Roth IRA and Traditional IRA were just announced. Here’s what IRS limits are for the upcoming year.

The post Traditional And Roth IRA Contribution Limits Announced appeared first on Bible Money Matters and was written by Peter Anderson. Copyright © Bible Money Matters – please visit biblemoneymatters.com for more great content.

5 Options for Your Retirement Account When Leaving a Job

One of the most common retirement questions I receive is what to do with a retirement account when leaving a job. Knowing your options for managing a retirement plan with an old employer is essential because most people change jobs many times throughout their careers. And millions of Americans remain out of work during the pandemic.

When you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave.

Fortunately, when you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave. It doesn't matter if you quit, get fired, or get laid off, the same rules apply. 

This post will cover five options for managing your retirement account when your employment ends. You'll learn the rules for handling a retirement plan at an old job and the best move to create a secure financial future.

Why should you use a retirement account?

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise because they come with terrific tax advantages. They defer or eliminate the tax on your contributions and investment earnings, which may allow you to accumulate a bigger balance than with a taxable brokerage account.

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise. If you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll!

So, if you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll! Contribute as much as you can, even if it's just a small amount. Make a goal to increase your contribution rate each year until you're putting away at least 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income.

FREE RESOURCE: Retirement Account Comparison Chart (PDF)—a handy one-page download to see the retirement account rules at a glance.

What is a retirement account rollover?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you leave a job with a 401(k) or a 403(b) you can't continue getting tax breaks. Doing a rollover allows you to withdraw funds from a retirement plan with an old employer and transfer them to another eligible retirement account.

When you roll over a workplace retirement account, you don't lose your contributions or investment earnings. And if you're vested, you don't lose any money that your employer may have put into your account as matching funds.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process. If you miss this deadline and are younger than age 59½, the transaction becomes an early withdrawal. That means it is subject to income tax, plus an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty.

If you're a regular Money Girl podcast listener or reader, you know that I don't recommend taking early withdrawals from retirement accounts. Paying income tax and a penalty is expensive and reduces your nest egg.

If you complete a traditional rollover within the allowable 60-day window, you maintain all the funds' tax-deferred status until you make withdrawals in the future. And with a Roth rollover, you retain the tax-free status of your funds.

What are your retirement account options when leaving a job?

Once you're no longer employed by a company that sponsors your retirement plan, there are four options for managing the account. 

1. Cash out your account

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option. As I mentioned, taking an early withdrawal means you must pay income tax and a 10% penalty. 

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option.

Let's say you have a $100,000 account balance that you cash out. If your average rate for federal and state income taxes is 30%, and you have an additional 10% penalty, you lose 40%. Cracking open your $100,000 nest egg could mean only having $60,000 left, depending on how much you earn.

Note that if your retirement plan has a low balance, such as $1,000 or less, the custodian may automatically cash you out. If so, they're required to withhold 20% for taxes (although you may owe more), file Form 1099-R to document the distribution, and pay you the balance. 

2. Maintain your existing account

Most retirement plans allow you to keep money in the account after you're no longer employed if you maintain a minimum balance, such as more than $5,000. If you don't have the minimum, but you have more than the cash-out threshold, the custodian typically has the authority to deposit your money into an IRA in your name.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions because you're not an employee. However, your funds can continue to grow there. You can manage them any way you like by selling or buying investments from a set menu of options.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions.

Leaving money in an old retirement plan is certainly better than cashing out and paying taxes and a penalty, but it doesn't give you as much flexibility as you you would get with the next two options I'm going to talk about.

I only recommend leaving money in an old employer's retirement plan if you're happy with the investment choices and the fund and account fees are low. Just make sure that the plan doesn't charge you higher fees once you're no longer an active employee.

Another reason you might want to leave retirement money in an old employer's plan is if you're unemployed or have a job that doesn't offer a retirement account. I'll cover some special legal protections you'll get in just a moment.

3. Rollover to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA)

Another option for your old workplace retirement plan is to roll it into an existing or new traditional IRA. If you have a Roth 401(k) or 403(b), you can roll it over into a Roth IRA. The deadline to complete an IRA rollover is 60 days.

Your earnings in a traditional IRA would continue to grow tax-deferred, just like in your old workplace plan. And earnings grow tax-free in a Roth IRA, like a Roth account at work. 

Here are a couple of advantages to moving a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Getting more control. You choose the financial institution and the investments for your IRA.  
  • Having more flexibility. With an IRA, there are more ways to tap your funds before age 59½ and avoid an early withdrawal penalty than with a workplace account. That rule applies to several exceptions, including using withdrawals for medical bills, college expenses, and buying or building your first home.

Here are some downsides to rolling over a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Having fewer legal protections. Depending on your home state, assets in an IRA may not be protected from creditors.  
  • Being ineligible for a Roth IRA. When you're a high earner, you may not be allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA. However, you can still manage the account and have tax-free investment earnings.

If you want more control over your investment choices, think you'll need to make withdrawals before retirement, are self-employed, or don't have a job with a retirement plan to roll your account into, having an IRA is a great option.

4. Rollover to a new workplace plan

If you land a new job with a retirement plan, it may allow a rollover from your old plan once you're eligible to participate. While the IRS allows rollovers into most retirement accounts, employer plans aren't required to accept incoming rollovers. So be sure to check with your new plan administrator about what's possible. 

Once you initiate a transfer from one workplace plan to another, you must complete it within 60 days to avoid taxes and a penalty.

Here are some advantages of doing a workplace-to-workplace rollover:

  • More convenience. Having all your retirement savings in one place may make it easier to manage and track.  
  • Taking early withdrawals. Retirees can begin taking penalty-free withdrawals from workplace plans as early as age 55.  
  • Avoiding Roth income limits. Unlike a Roth IRA, there are no income restrictions for participating in a Roth workplace retirement account.  
  • Getting more legal protections. Workplace retirement plans are covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a federal regulation. It doesn't allow creditors (except the federal government) to touch your account balance.

Some downsides to transferring money from one workplace plan to another include:

  • Having less flexibility. You can't take money out of a 401(k) or a 403(b) until you leave the company or qualify for an allowable hardship. It doesn't come with as many withdrawal exceptions compared to an IRA. 
  • Getting less control. You may have fewer investment choices or higher fees than an IRA, depending on the brokerage firm. 

5. Rollover to an account for the self-employed

If you left a job to become self-employed, having an IRA is a great option. However, there are other types of retirement accounts that you might consider, such as a solo 401(k) or a SEP-IRA, based on whether you have employees and on your business income. 

Read 4 Ways to Start a Retirement Account as a Self-Employed Freelancer or 5 Retirement Options When You're Self-Employed for more information. 

When is a Roth rollover allowed?

For a rollover to be tax-free, you must use a like account. For example, if you have a traditional 403(b), you must rollover to another traditional retirement account at work or to a traditional IRA.

If you move traditional, pre-tax funds into a post-tax, Roth account, you must pay income tax on any amount that wasn't previously taxed. That could leave you with a massive tax liability. If you want a Roth, a better move would be to open a Roth account at your new job or to start a Roth IRA (if your income doesn't make you ineligible to contribute). 

Where should you move an old retirement account?

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want. Other considerations include the quality of your old plan, your income, and whether you have a new job with a retirement plan that accepts rollovers.

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want.

The goal is to position your retirement money where you can keep it safe and allow it to grow using low-cost, diversified investment options. If you have questions about doing a rollover, get advice from your retirement plan custodian. They can walk you through the process to make sure you choose the best investments and don't break the rollover rules.