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Why You Should Participate in a 401(k)

We all know that we should save money for a rainy day, a message we’ve received since we were little ones, but this article covers some more reasons why you should participate in a 401(k) plan, if you have one available. It’s on you Back in the olden days when the earth was still cooling, employees could count on (or at least thought they could count on) a pension benefit from their employer upon retirement.  This pension plan provided a safety net that allowed the employee to go into retirement with relatively little concern about whether there would be enough money to live on.

Roth 401(k) In-Plan Conversions

As of the beginning of 2013, a new provision became available for participants in 401(k), 403(b) and 457 deferred compensation retirement plans: the Roth 401(k) In-Plan Conversion.  This provision allows current employees participating in one of these Qualified Retirement Plans to convert funds from the traditional 401(k) (or other) account into the Designated Roth Account (DRAC) that is part of the plan. This is new and different because previously the only way to convert funds from the 401(k) plan to a Roth-like account was to have left employment by the sponsoring employer.

Roth 401(k) Rules

If your employer has a 401(k) plan available for you to participate in, you may also have a Roth 401(k) option available as a part of the plan. (We’re referring to 401(k) plans by name here, but unless noted the rules we’re discussing also apply to other Qualified Retirement Plans (QRPs) such as 403(b) or 457 plans.)  Roth 401(k) plans are not required when a 401(k) plan is offered, but many employers offer this option these days. The Roth 401(k) option, also known as a Designated Roth Account or DRAC, first became available with the passage of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (EGTRRA) of 2001, with the first accounts available effective January 1, 2006.  The Roth 401(k) was designed to provide similar features present in a Roth IRA to the employer-provided 401(k)-type plans. Similar to traditional 401(k) Certain features of the Roth 401(k) are similar to the traditional […]

Investment Allocation in Your 401(k) Plan

When you participate in your employer-sponsored 401(k) plan (or any type of Qualified Retirement Plan, including 403(b), 457, etc.), the first step is to determine how much money you will defer into the plan.  We discussed this previously in an article about contributions to your 401(k) plan. Once you’ve determined the amount you’ll contribute, the next step is to allocate your funds within the account.  This starts with an overall plan for your investment allocation – which you should take time to plan in advance.  For the purposes of our illustration here, we’ll say that you have a plan to split your account 75% to stocks and 25% to bonds.  Within the stock allocation, you want to split this as 1/3 each to large cap stock, small cap stock, and international stock.  In the bond category you want to split this to 80% domestic bonds and 20% international bonds. Now […]

Mechanics of 401(k) Plans – Loans

Continuing our series of articles on the mechanics of 401(k) plans, today we’ll talk about loans from the account.  As with all of these articles, we’ll refer generically to the plans as 401(k) plans, although they could be just about any Qualified Retirement Plans (QRPs), including 403(b), 457, and other plans. Unlike IRAs, 401(k) plans allow for the employee-participant to take a loan from the plan.  There are restrictions on these loans, but they can be useful if you need funds for a short-term period and have no other sources. 401(k) Loans If you have a balance in your 401(k) account, often your plan administrator will have a provision allowing you to take a loan of some of the funds in the account. (Not all plans allow loans – this is an optional provision, not a requirement.)  Sometimes the plan administrator will place restrictions on the use of the loan […]

Mechanics of 401(k) Plans – Distribution

For the next in our series of articles regarding the mechanics of 401(k) plans, we’ll review distributions from the plan.  As with our other articles in this series, we’re referring to all sorts of qualified retirement plans (QRPs) – including 401(k), 403(b), 457, and others – generically as 401(k) plans throughout. There are several types of distributions from 401(k) plans to consider.  Distributions before retirement age and after retirement age are the two primary categories which we’ll review below.  Another type of distribution is a loan – which will be covered in a subsequent article. But first, we need to define retirement age.  Generally speaking, retirement age for your 401(k) plan is 59½, just the same as with an IRA.  However, if you leave employment at or after age 55, the operative age is 55.  If you have left employment before age 55, retirement age is 59½. This means that […]

Mechanics of 401(k) Plans – Vesting

In this article in our series on the mechanics of 401(k) plans, we’ll be covering the concept of vesting.  As with the other articles in the series, we’ll refer specifically to 401(k) plans throughout, but most of the provisions apply to all types of Qualified Retirement Plans (QRPs), which go by many names: 401(k), 403(b), 457, etc.. Vesting refers to the process by which the employer-contributed amounts in the 401(k) plan become the unencumbered property of the employee-participant in the plan.  Vesting is based upon the tenure of the participant as an employee of the employer-sponsor of the plan. Generally, when an employee first begins employment there is a period of time when the employer wishes to protect itself from the circumstance of the new employee’s leaving employment within a relatively short period of time.  Vesting is one way that the employer can protect itself from handing over employer-matching funds […]

How Does an Early Withdrawal from a Retirement Plan Affect My Taxes?

Oftentimes we are faced with difficult situations in life – where we need extra money to pay for a major car repair, a new roof for the house, or just day-to-day living expenses – and our emergency funds are all tapped out.  Now your options become poor: should I go to a payday loan place, put more on my credit card?  My mortgage is upside-down so there’s no home equity loan in my future, and I can’t ask my folks for a loan, I’ve asked them for too much.  Hey, what about my retirement plan?  I’ve got some money socked away in an IRA that’s just sitting there, why don’t I take that money? It’s really tough to be in a situation like this, but you need to understand the impacts that you’ll face if you decide to go the route of the IRA withdrawal, especially if you’re under age […]

November is “Add 1% More to Your Savings” Month

That’s right, we unofficially declared November to be “Add 1% More to Your Savings” month.  So you can add that to the month-long observances like: No-shave November International Drum Month Sweet Potato Awareness Month and many more (see the list at Wikipedia) In November we encourage folks to increase their retirement savings rate by at least 1% more than the current rate.  It’s a small step, but it will pay off for you in the long run. Below is the list of my fellow bloggers who have written articles showing ways that you can start to increase your savings rate, as well as showing what the benefits can be.  Thanks to everyone who has participated so far – and watch for more articles in the weeks to come! The 1 Percent Solution by John Davis, @MentorCapitalMg Friday Financial Tidbit-What increasing your retirement contributions 1% can do for your retirement account by Jonathan White, […]

What You Can Do If Your 401(k) Has High Fees

Now that we’ve all been receiving 401(k) plan statements that include information about the fees associated with our accounts, what should you do with that information?  Some 401(k) plans have fees that are upwards of 2% annually, and these fees can introduce a tremendous drag on your investment returns over a long period of time. There are two components to the overall cost of your 401(k) plan.  The first, and the easiest to find, is the internal expense ratios of the investments in the plan.  Recent information shows that, on average, these investment fees are something on the order of 1% to 1.4% or more.  The second part of the costs is the part that has recently begun to be disclosed: the plan-level fees.  These are the fees that the plan administrator has negotiated with the brokerage or third-party administrator to manage the plan.  These fees can average from 1% […]

Did the Advent of 401(k) Plans Hurt Americans?

There’s been quite a bit of press lately about the recent Economic Policy Institute study (see this article “Rise of 401(k)s Hurt More Americans Than It Helped” for more), which indicates that the 401(k) plan itself is the cause of American’s lack of retirement resources.  I think it has more to do with the fact that the 401(k) plan (and other defined contribution plans) were expected to be a replacement for the old-style defined benefit pension plans, and the fact that those administering the retirement plans did little to ensure success for the employees. Traditional defined benefit pension plans didn’t ask the employee to make a decision about how much to set aside – this was determined by actuaries.  Then the company made sure that the money was set aside (in most cases) so that the promised benefit would be there when the employee retires.  In the world of 401(k) […]

Don’t Just Walk by That Dime on the Ground!

Have you ever been walking along the street and saw a dime on the ground?  Did you just walk right by, or did you stop to pick it up?  Heck, it’s only a dime, it’s not hardly worth the effort to bend over, right?  But what if it was a dollar?  Or a hundred dollars?  You wouldn’t just walk by that, would you?  What about $1,200? Unfortunately, many folks do this very thing with their 401(k) plan employer matching funds.  Most employers that sponsor 401(k) plans provide a matching contribution when you defer money into the plan.  Often this is expressed as a certain percentage of your own contribution, such as 50% of your first 6% of contributions to the plan. So if you make $40,000 a year and you contribute 6% to the 401(k) plan, that means you’ll be contributing $2,400 to the plan from your own funds, pre-tax.  […]

What to do with $1,000

I occasionally get this question – especially around the time of tax refunds.  When someone comes up with an additional $1,000 dollars, they want to know how to best use that money to help out their overall financial condition. Of course this question has different answers for different situations.  I’ll run through several different sets of conditions that a person might find him or herself in, and some suggestions for how you might use that $1,000 to best improve your financial standing.  It’s important to note that you don’t have to have an extra $1,000 lying around to use this advice – you could have an extra ten or twenty or fifty bucks a week and put it to work with the same principles.  The point is to find money that isn’t being spent on something critical, and put it to work for you!  Even small steps amount to wonders. […]

Exceptions to the 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty from IRAs and 401(k)s

When you take money out of your IRA or 401(k) plan (or other qualified retirement plan, such as a 403(b) plan), if you’re under age 59½ in most cases your withdrawal will be subject to a penalty of 10%, in addition to any taxes owed on the distribution.  There are many exceptions to this rule though, and the exceptions are not the same for all types of plans.  IRAs have one set of rules, and 401(k)s have another set of rules. The exceptions are always related to the purpose for which the money was withdrawn.  The exact same dollars withdrawn do not have to be used for the excepted purpose, just that the excepted expense was incurred. IRA Exceptions It is important to know that all distributions from your traditional IRA are subject to ordinary income tax, but some distributions are not subject to the early withdrawal penalty.  The list […]

Avoid Awkwardness in the Afterlife–Confirm Your Beneficiary Designations

This is a topic that I cover with all clients, and one that I recommend you for everyone with retirement plans and other accounts with beneficiary designations.  Too often we think we have the beneficiary designation form filled out just the way we want it, and then (once it’s too late) it is discovered that the form hadn’t been updated recently – and the designation is not what we hoped for. I made this recommendation to a client not long ago.  He assured me that he had all of his designations set up just the way he wanted.  His wife, sitting next to him in our meeting, asked him to make sure – talk to the IRA custodian and get a copy of the designation as it stands today.  A bit miffed about it all, he agreed to do so, and did the next day.  Guess what he found – […]

A Few Facts to Know About Retirement Plan Contributions

As we near the tax filing deadline, there are a few things you need to be aware of as you consider your retirement plan contributions for tax year 2012 (or whatever the prior tax year is, if you’re reading this sometime later). Regular IRA contributions are due by the filing deadline, with no extensions. That means April 15, 2013 for the 2012 tax year. Your contribution for 2012 is considered made “on time” if your payment is postmarked by midnight on April 15, 2013. Perhaps you wish to make a more substantial contribution to a retirement plan – in 2012, you can contribute up to $50,000 to a Keogh plan. That amount is limited to 20% of the net self-employment income, or 25% of wage income if the individual is an employee of the business. Keogh plan contributions can be made by the extended due date of your return – […]

Rolling Over a 401(k) into a New Employer’s Plan

When you change jobs you have a choice to make regarding your retirement plan at former employer.  If the plan is a 401(k), 403(b), or other qualified plan of that nature, you may have the option to roll the old plan into a plan at your new employer. The new employer’s plan must allow rollovers into the plan – this isn’t always automatic.  Most plans will allow rollover of former employer’s plans, but not all.  Once you’ve determined that the plan will accept a rollover, you should review the new plan to understand whether or not it makes sense to roll your old plan into it, or choose another option.  Other options may be: rollover the old plan into an IRA, convert the old plan to a Roth IRA, leave the old plan where it is, or take a distribution from the old plan in cash. In this article we’ll […]

Pros and Cons of the Roth 401(k)

The Roth 401(k) first became available in January 2006, is an option available for employers to provide as a part of “normal” 401(k) plans, either existing or new.  The Roth provision allows the employee to choose to direct all or part of his or her salary deferrals into the 401(k) plan to a separate account, called a Designated Roth Account, or DRAC. The DRAC account is segregated from the regular 401(k) account, because of the way the funds are treated.  When you direct a portion of your salary into a DRAC, you pay tax on the deferred salary just the same as if you had received it in cash.  This deferred salary is subject to ordinary income tax, Medicare withholding, and Social Security withholding if applicable. The unique thing about your DRAC funds is that, upon withdrawal for a qualified purpose (e.g., after you have reached age 59½, among other […]

How Dollar-Cost-Averaging Can Work to Your Advantage for Your 401(k)

When you invest in your 401(k) plan with salary deferrals from each and every paycheck, you are taking part in a process known as Dollar-Cost-Averaging (DCA).  This process can be advantageous when investing periodically over a long span of time, by smoothing out the volatility of the market and giving you an average cost of your investment shares over time. How does this work, and how can it be advantageous? Dollar-Cost-Averaging When deferring income with each paycheck, typically you will be investing in your 401(k) plan each pay period, whether monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly.  Each pay period the same amount is deferred and invested, no matter what the price of the underlying investments are at the time.  Since you’re always putting the same amount into the investment, when the price of the shares is higher, you purchase fewer shares; when the price is lower, you are purchasing more shares. Note: […]