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5 Secrets About Your 401k Plan

401k plan secretMany folks have a 401k plan – it’s the most common sort of retirement savings vehicle that employers offer these days. But there are things about your 401k plan that you probably don’t know – and these secrets can be important to know!

The 401k plan is, for many, the only retirement savings you’ll have when you reach your golden years. Used properly, with steady contributions over time, a 401k plan can generate a much-needed addition to your Social Security benefits. But you have to make contributions to the 401k plan for it to work, and invest those contributions wisely.

So how much do you know about your 401k plan? Below are 5 secrets that you probably don’t know about your 401k plan. Check with your 401k plan administrator to see if these provisions are available – some plans are more restrictive than others.

Secrets You Don’t Know About Your 401k Plan

1. You can take a loan. You may not realize it, but you have a source of ready cash available for any purpose you need, in the form of a 401k loan. Of course, once you take the money out you have to pay it back, which can make your already small take-home pay even smaller. But if you have no other source for cash and a true crisis is ahead of you, a 401k loan could be the answer. For more details on 401k loans, see the article How to Take a Loan from Your 401k, and check with your 401k plan administrator for information.

2. You may have access to the money in your plan before you retire. Not all 401k plans allow this, but many do: once you’ve reached age 59½ (for some plans it’s 55), you may be eligible to take an “in-service distribution” from the plan while you’re still employed. This can be a way to make up for a spouse who has retired before you, and who is waiting for other retirement funds such as Social Security or a pension. As mentioned before, check with your 401k plan administrator to see if this option is available to you.

3. You can start with very small contributions, and grow the amount over time. Many times, especially early in our careers, the thought of trimming our already meager take-home pay with a contribution to a 401k plan is scary. The problem is that you’re faced with peers and bosses who tell you things like “If you don’t put in up to the company match amount, you’re throwing money away!” – which doesn’t help if you can’t hardly afford to set aside even 1%.

There is no rule that says you must put aside the amount to take advantage of the company match (often 6% or so) – you can start with a small amount, such as 1%, and see how it goes. My experience with folks who’ve done this is that they learn to budget around the smaller paycheck, and they’re happy they’ve done so. Then when you have an increase to your pay, figure out how much your increase is and put aside a portion of that in additional 401k plan contributions. Over time, you’ll build your contributions up to a point where you’re taking full advantage of the employer match, and then some!

4. You can stop and restart your contributions. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Unexpected expenses arise that we’re not prepared to deal with (hence the name “unexpected”!) and so it sure would be handy to put the 401k plan contributions on pause for a while. Most 401k plans will allow you to stop your contributions (or simply reduce the amount), although some may limit the frequency of making such changes. Just don’t get too comfy with the reduced or eliminated contribution level – set a time for yourself to bump it back up so that you keep putting money away for retirement!

5. Making contributions is very smart – in several ways. As mentioned above, your 401k plan may be your only source of money in retirement (besides Social Security) – and making contributions is the only way to build up this account. This by itself is smart, but there are xx other really smart things about making 401k plan contributions:

Employer Match – when you make a contribution to your 401k plan, many times your employer will match a portion of your contribution. If you don’t contribute, the employer won’t either, in most cases. So if you’re making $30,000 and your employer will match 50¢ for every dollar up to 5% for example, if you contribute the full 5% you’ll have credit for $2,250 in your account. That’s 7.5% – which only cost you 5%. Or $2,250 in your account that only cost you $1,500. Pretty sweet, right?

Payroll Deduction – making contributions to your 401k plan via payroll deduction is, for most folks, a relatively painless way to save money. If you don’t see the money in your checking account, you won’t miss it. And the tax treatment of 401k plan contributions helps out more (see the next point).

Tax Treatment – since traditional 401k plan contributions are taken out before income tax, the amount of reduction to your paycheck will be less than the amount you’re putting into the 401k plan. Think about that for a moment, because it’s a bit confusing…

What happens is when you make a contribution to the 401k plan, that money isn’t counted toward income taxes. So as a result, fewer dollars are withheld from your remaining paycheck to cover the tax bite. I have a good example over in the article How a 401(k) Contribution Affects Your Paycheck that works through the numbers for you.

Making contributions to your 401k plan is a smart move for you, tax-wise and savings-wise. Check with your 401k plan administrator to see what provisions are available to you.

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