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A 401(k) plan means a saving plan for retirement provided by several American employers that brings tax freedom to the saver.

What is a 401(k) Plan?

This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not legal advice, and you should seek professional advice.

What is a 401(k) Plan?

A 401(k) plan means a saving plan for retirement provided by several American employers that brings tax freedom to the saver. It got its name from a part of the American Revenue Code (Internal). The employees who consent to this plan imply that they have agreed to have a certain percentage of every paycheck deposited instantly into their investment account. The employer can combine a section of all their employees have contributed. Also, the employees can choose a wide range of investments, in most cases mutual funds.

What is a 401(k) Plan 1
A 401(k) plan means a saving plan for retirement provided by several American employers that brings tax freedom to the saver.

Key Pointers:

  • A 401(k) plan implies a company-sponsored retirement account in which employees have the freedom to contribute income, and employers have an option to match contributions.
  • The 401(k)-plan comes in two major types, Roth and Traditional – and the difference is always in their taxing mode.
  • For instance, a traditional option ensures the contributions given by employees are pre-tax, which implies that the taxable income is reduced; however, the withdrawals are often taxed.
  • On the flip side, the Roth 401(k) is often done using the after-tax income, and also it implies that the year’s contribution is not deducted; however, the withdrawals are usually tax-free.1
  • However, during 2020, which is supported by the CARES act, 401(k) slightly relaxed all the withdrawal guidelines for people hugely affected by COVID-19, and in fact, RMDs were hugely suspended.

How Do 401(k) plans work?

The 401(k) is a plan brought into life by the American Congress to motivate the USA residents to plan for their retirement by saving. And top on the list as their significant benefit of this plan was providing tax savings. There are essentially two main options, and each of them comes with varied tax advantages:

Traditional 401 (k)

First off, with this option, all that the employees contribute is usually gotten from the gross income, which implies that the amount essentially comes from the worker’s payroll before the deduction of income taxes. As the amount lowers, employees’ taxable income is contributed for the entire year and may be set as a tax deduction for the year taxed. Further, no taxes are pending on the amount that was contributed to 401(k). Even the earnings until after the employee request the money through withdrawals, often in retirement.

Roth 401(k)

With this type of plan, contributions are often gotten from the employee’s after-tax income, which implies that the contribution will usually come from the employee’s pay after the deduction of the income taxes. And as such, the employee will not have any tax deduction in the year they contribute. However, the employee will not have extra taxes due on investment earnings and contributions when the amount is withdrawn during the retirement period.1

But not all employers provide this option for employees. If a Roth is provided, the workers may go for one or the other option. They can even mix until the annual limit has been achieved on their tax-deductible contributions.

Contributing to a 401(k) plan

The 401 (k) is essentially a well-structured contribution plan. The employer and employee can contribute to the account up to what we refer to it as a dollar limit set out by the IRS – Internal Revenue Service. And this structured contribution plan is like the other option that replaces the traditional pension, often known in the IRS guide as a defined-benefit plan. With a pension plan, the employer commits themselves to providing a particular amount of cash to the worker for their entire life during retirement.

In this era, 401(k) plans have become popular and common, and their old options, such as traditional pensions, have been rendered useless. Most employers are shifting their risk and responsibility of retirement package to be entirely the duty of the employees. Besides, employees are tasked with selecting particular investments inside their 401(k) savings accounts from the option that their bosses provide. Those offers entail a bond mutual funds and an assortment of stock and funds with a target date to lower the investment risk of investment losses while the employee nears retirement.

Again, they may entail GICs – Guaranteed Investment Contracts given by companies that run insurance and, at times, the own stock of employers.

Limits of Contributions

The total amount an employer or employee may offer to a 401(1) is periodically adjusted to account for inflation, a measure of rising costs in any economy. For 2021, the limit on employee contributions (annual) is close to $19,500 yearly for employees under 50, and in 2022, the limit for employees is about $20,500 annually. But those aged 50 and up can contribute about $6,500 for catch-up in 2021 and 2022. If the employer also contributes, or even if the employee decides to make extra, non-deductible, after-tax contributions to what we now know as their traditional 401 (k) account, a total employee and employer contribution particular amount will exist for that specific year.


  • For employees under the age of 50, the maximum employee and employer amount they contributed is capped to stand at $58,000 or, in other words, 100 percent of employee compensation, which is lower.4
  • On the other hand, if we add the catch-up amount that should be included for those who are of age 50 and above, the limit stands at $64,500.4
  • For employees at the age of 50, the maximum employee and employer contributions aren’t allowed to pass the mark of $61,000 yearly.3
  • And when the catch-up amount is added for those people(s) who are 50 and above, the limit is generally at $67,500.3

Employer Matching

The workers who suit their bosses’ contributions use different formulas to develop that match. For example, a worker may match 50cents for each dollar contributed by the employee up to a particular salary percentage. A recommendation by financial advisors often points out that employees offer at least sufficient money to their 401 (1) plans to acquire the entire employer equivalent.

Contributing to Both Roth a Roth and Traditional 401 (1) 

If the employer provides the two types of 401 (k) plans, workers can split the amount they contribute; taking a percentage of some portion of the money to a traditional 401 (k) and even others into the Roth option. However, the total amount they raise for the two account options is not allowed to go beyond the account limit of a particular account, like $19,500 for those aged 50 in the year 2021 and even a limit of $20,500 for the year 2022. Again, the employer’s contribution is only allowed to be deposited into the traditional account. It will be subject to standard taxation when maturity reaches for withdrawal and not into the other option – Roth 401(k).

What is a 401(k) Plan 2
A 401(k) plan means a saving plan for retirement provided by several American employers that brings tax freedom to the saver.

Getting a withdrawal from a 401(k) Plan

After you’ve contributed to a 401(k) plan, withdrawing is somewhat difficult without being taxed on the amount you intend to withdraw. But be that as it may, it is also a good idea to save as much as you can to ensure that you can still meet your other needs and emergencies and other additional expense you may encounter before you can reach the retirement age. If possible, never place all your savings into your 401(k) where you can’t instantly access it when need be. The earnings deposited into a 401(k) account are simply tax-deferred in the way of the traditional option and utterly tax-free in the option of Roths.

When the first option, a traditional 401 (k) holder, makes a withdrawal, that amount of money that has never been taxed for life will undergo normal taxation as though it was ordinary income. On the other hand, the Roth account holder will not experience this because their account has already been taxed, and their contribution will not be taxed; in other words, they will be taxed-free. But they must satisfy some given requirements.

It is pointed out that both the Roth and traditional 401(k) owners ought to be in the least 59.5 years – and better yet, meet all other requirements given by the IRS, for instance, being permanently or disabled – when they begin to make a withdrawal. Otherwise, they’ll have to undergo an extra 10% early penalty tax distribution in addition to any other tax they are due to pay. 5

Other employees give consent for employees to get a loan from their contribution. This essentially means that the employees are borrowing from themselves or their contributions. For instance, if you acquire a 401(k) loan, you should consider that because if you leave the job before you can clear the job, you’ll have to pay the money in full or risk facing a penalty cost of 10% for withdrawing early.

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RDMs: Required Min Distributions 

This account’s traditional 401 (k) holders are required to RDMs after attaining a particular age; the withdrawals are usually known as distributions in IRS jargon. After reaching the age of 72 years, owners of the account who have already retired are mandated to withdraw a certain percentage out of their 401 (k) account. Based on the IRS requirements on their expectancy of life at that specified time- before 2020, the RDM age limit was at 70.5 years.1 Keep in that those distributions that come with a traditional option are fully taxed. But accounts from Roth that are qualified are not taxed.

Traditional 401 (k) vs Roth 401 (k)

When these said plans became available in 1978, employees and employers had only one particular option – the traditional 401 (k). Then later in 2006, Roth now came into place. The Roths is a name after a USA senator – William Roth, who represented the people of Delaware and doubled up as the primary sponsor who pushed the legislation of the Roth IRA. Even though 401 (k)s took time to catch up, now, employers have welcomed it. And therefore, usually, employers have the option of either going for tradition or the Roth way.

As a rule of thumb, employees who want to be in a minimal tax bracket after retiring usually want to go for a traditional 401 (k) and leverage on an instant tax break. On the flip side, employees who wish to be in a very high bracket after they retire might go for the Roth to help them avoid paying taxes using their savings later. Importantly, if your Roth account has many years before your account grows, you’ll not undergo taxes on your withdrawals, which implies that the contributions piled up over the years will be taxed free.

 To put it in perspective, Roth reduces your instant spending power instead of the traditional option. This is very important, particularly if you have a very tight budget. Because no one can predict or tell the tax rates as of now, both types may not be a sure bet. In that case, most financial advisors always advise that people should spread their risk by distributing their contributions into two kinds of accounts.

When You Leave Your Job

Working with a company with a 401(k) plan, you have four options when you leave the company. These options are as we have outlined below.

Withdraw the Money

You can withdraw the company’s money, but this could be a bad idea. We advise you to withdraw the money only if you need it urgently. Moreover, if you withdraw the money, it will be deducted because it is taxable in the year you withdraw. You will be struck with as it will come with a 10 percent early distribution tax not unless it is over 59.5 years. Also, you could be exempted if you are permanently disabled or if you meet other IRS criteria that give you exemption under rule number 9.

The rule number was only suspended in 2020 to favor those hit by COVID-19 economic woes. If we consider Roth IRAs, you can withdraw your contributions without any profits tax-free with no penalty, provided that you have had your account for at least five years. It would help if you also kept in mind that withdrawing will diminish your retirement savings, and you may regret it later in life.

Roll Your 401(k) into an IRA

You get to maintain your account’s tax advantage status and avoid direct taxes by moving your money into an IRA through a bank, brokerage firm, or a mutual fund company. Additionally, with this option, you can choose from several investment options other than employers’ plan 10.

However, the IRA has strict rules on rollovers, and there is a procedure to accomplish them. If you fail to follow these rules well, it will cost you a great deal. So to avoid taxes and penalties under rule number 10, when you withdraw your funds, you should rollover to another retirement account within 60 days. Thanks to the organization, you will choose to keep the money because they will help you through the process and avoid missteps.

Should You Leave Your 401(k) With the Old Employer

In several cases, your employer will allow you to keep your 401(k) account in their old plan though they cannot contribute any more to your account. However, this only applies if your account has at least $5000. So if your account is smaller, the employee will not take it but give you the option of moving it elsewhere.

It makes sense if you leave your 401(k) account where it is if your former employer is well managed and you are comfortable with the investment choices it offers. The challenge is you changing jobs one after the other and leaving your 401(k) accounts because you may forget one of them. Furthermore, your heirs may not be aware of the account’s existence. Hence you will lose your money if you forget one of your 401(k) funds.

Should You Move Your 401(k) to New Employer

You can move your 401(k) account balance to your new employer’s plan. This will allow you to maintain your account’s tax-deferred status and avoid taxes similar to IRA rollover. Again, this could be a wise decision if you are not comfortable making investment decisions that come with managing IRA rollover. Thus, you leave some of the work to your new administration plan.

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How to Start a 401(k)

A simple and easy way is through your employer. Most companies offer 401(k) plans, and interestingly some will match your contribution. Therefore, you won’t have to worry because the employer will handle all the paperwork and payments as you join the company. Moreover, if you venture into self-employment or run a small business with your spouse, you can create a 401(k) plan, otherwise referred to as an independent 401(k).

You can create an independent 401(k) plan through online brokers. This separate retirement plan will help contractors and freelancers to fund their retirement plans because a company does not employ them. Therefore if you are not employed, your retirement plans are covered.

What is the Maximum Contribution to a 401(k)?

In 2022, many people have gone for $20,500 as their maximum contribution to 401(k). If you are 50 years and above, you can contribute an additional catch-up of $6500, which will make a total of $27000. On the flip side, there are limitations on the employer’s matching contribution. The employee-employer combined contribution should not exceed $61000, and for employees over 50 years, it should not go beyond $67500.

Should You Take Early Withdrawals from Your 401(k)?

You could enjoy a few advantages if you consider taking early withdrawals from your 401(k). Taking an early withdrawal before you attain 59.5 years, you will be subjected to a 10 percent penalty added to any taxes you owe. On the other hand, some employers will allow you to withdraw early due to hardship for emergency financial needs, including funeral costs, purchasing a home, or medical expenses. Though this can help you avoid an early withdrawal penalty, you will have to deduct taxes as you withdraw.

What Is the Benefit of a 401(k)?

A 401(k) plan allows you to save for retirement and help you reduce the tax burden. Also, the gains in a 401(k) plan are tax-free; you don’t have to make the payments yourself because they are usually deducted from your paycheck. Again, most employers match part of their employees’ 401(k) contribution, and this will effectively give a free boost to retirement savings. Therefore, a 401(k) plan is good if you want to plan to save for your retirement.