What Is a 401(k) Plan? Definition, Types, and Benefits

What Is a 401(k) Plan? Definition, Types, and Benefits ...

Many employers are comparing employee 401(k) contributions in amounts from 15% of each paycheck.

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  • What Is a 401(k) Account?
  • How Does Employer Matching Work?
  • How Are 401(k) Funds Invested?
  • How Are 401(k) Funds Taxed When They Are Withdrawn?
  • Traditional vs. Roth 401(k)s: What Are the Differences?
  • 401(k)s vs. Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): What Are the Differences?
  • What Sorts of Fees Do 401(k) Accounts Charge?
  • What Sorts of Penalties Can 401(k) Accounts Incur?
  • What Are Rollovers and How Do They Work?
  • 401(k)s and Dollar-Cost Averaging
  • What Is the 401(k) Annual Contribution Limit?
  • A Short History of 401(k)s
  • 401(k) Pros and Cons

What Is a 401(k) Account?

A 401(k) is a private retirement-savings account in which a worker can divert some of their income from each paycheck on a pre-tax basis. In other words, an employee''s contributions to their 401(k) account come out of their paycheck but do not account toward their taxable income for the year.

Employers are able to split employee contributions up to a certain percentage of each paycheck. Using money from a workers 401(k) account, the accounts administrator will invest on their behalf. Ideally, these investments will benefit from capital gains and interest. After an employee turns 59 and a half, they may begin withdrawing funds from their 401(k) to fund their retirement.

How Does Employer Matching Work?

Employers may match employees'' 401(k) contributions to a certain percentage of their paycheck each pay period. For example, if an employer offers a 3% 401(k) match and an employee chooses to divert 3% of each paycheck to their 401(k), their employer might still contribute an amount equivalent to 3% of their paycheck. If the same employee only diverted 2% of each paycheck into the account, the company would still match their 2% contribution.

Employees benefit the most by contributing the maximum percentage their organization is willing to match from each paycheck. This way, each investment they make is basically doubled via their employer matching contribution.

How Are 401(k) Funds Invested?

The funds in an employee 401(k) are invested through its service provider (e.g. Fidelity, Charles Schwabb, etc.) into a variety of securities, including ETFs and mutual funds that may include stocks, bonds, and, in some cases, even commodities like gold and crude oil.

Employees may also choose to customize how their contributions are allocated across a variety of financial instruments offered by their 401(k) provider to improve their portfolio for growth, dividend income, and other financial objectives.

When 401(k) funds are withdrawn, how is it taxed?

The funds in their 401(k) which ideally have grown via capital gains and compounding interest may be withdrawn. At this time, many retirees are subject to an ordinary income tax. Nevertheless, the account owner may benefit from a lower tax rate than the one who purchased the funds when they were added to the account.

Despite the fact that a 401(k) is an investment account, and the funds within them are used by the accounts administrator to purchase gain-creating securities like stocks, bonds, ETFs, and mutual funds until they are eventually withdrawn during retirement. This means that 401(k) holders do not have to pay a special tax on their capital gains as a result of the fact that their gains came from a normal investment account.

What Are the Differences between Traditional and Roth 401(k)s?

401(k)s are offered by some employers out of line. If this is the case, employees may usually choose one or the other or split their contribution between them. How do these two 401(k) accounts differ?

An employee has an income tax on the money they divert into their account, but no income taxes (or capital gains taxes) are charged as long as the account has been opened for 5+ years and the account holder is 59.5+ years old.

Which type of 401(k) is better? It depends on when you want to pay taxes. Roth 401(k)s are often recommended to younger employees in lower income brackets, as their assumptions indicate that their income tax now will be comparatively lower than what they might owe upon retirement if they end up in higher income bracket by the end of their career.

In reality, both accounts are different, and there''s no harm in having one. This is a great way to get clarity about which account type may be the best for your situation.

What Are the Differences Between 401(k)s and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)?

Individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, are very similar to 401(k) accounts. Both are used to draw tax-deferred income into an investment account intended to be drawn from during retirement, and both are completely independent of employers. However, no matching contributions are available. For this reason, someone who does not workor a worker whose employer does not offer a 401(k)may open an IRA via a financial institution because they don''t have access to a 401(k) plan.

IRAs have some advantages, even if the 401(k) options offered by employers are typically limited to whatever plans and service providers the employer has established, someone who opens an IRA has much greater freedom to shop around for a provider that provides lower fees and financial instruments to invest in.

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What Sorts of Fees Do 401(k) Accounts Charge?

Fees vary significantly between 401(k) accounts and providers, but most charge some sort of administration fee, which covers the ongoing operation of the plan, including records and accounting expenses, as well as employee earnings and expenses. In some instances, administration fees are covered by employers, while in others, they are deducted from each account holders investment returns.

The majority of 401(k) plans are also subjected to investment fees, which are typically deducted from returns as well, meaning that the returns are already included in the net return seen on their account statements for a period.

Some 401(k)s charge service charges to individuals who wish to utilize their options under their scheme, such as taking out a loan against their balance. Going deeper, certain mutual funds charge fees like sales charges and commission fees, but there may be additional expenses to look out for.

According to a TD Ameritrade analysis of user data from their 401(k) fee-analyzer tool, the fees per program increased by about 0.45% of the total account balance. Other studies using different samples have placed the average at 1% and even 2.2%.

On page 8, the Department of Labor, a 401(k) fee checklist. Employees may use this list to gain a better understanding of how much they pay to their plan administrator.

What Arts of Penalties Can 401(k) Accounts Incur?

The entire withdrawal is subject to income tax, meaning that 401(k) account holders may not withdraw funds until they are 59 and a half years old.

In certain situations, the 10% early-withdrawal penalty may be lifted if the funds are to be used to pay for a first house or college tuition. Certain workplaces may also enforce a vesting schedule that restricts employee ownership of matched funds to incentivize employees to remain in the company. Check with your employer to see if your account vests or belongs to you in full from the start.

What Are Rollovers and How Do They Work?

Although most people remain at a single day, it is often necessary for the funds in a 401(k) account to be divided into a different tax-advantaged retirement account, whether it be a new 401(k) from a new company or an IRA from a financial institution.

While several 401(k)s and/or IRAs may be maintained simultaneously, some investors prefer to keep their retirement savings in one place so they are easier to monitor and manage. It is important to see if a rollover might have any financial implications.

If a worker simply wants to roll their 401(k) from their previous employer into a new one sponsored by their current employer, the only thing they really need to worry about is whether the new plan will charge higher fees than the previous one. An investor might be better off shopping around for a low-fee IRA to roll into instead. Employers may also benefit from increased fees, and a rollover may still be the best option.

If an investor wanted to convert a traditional 401(k) into a Roth 401(k) or Roth IRA, they would be subjected to income tax on their total wealth, since the contributions to Roth accounts are not tax-deferred.

Rollovers are a helpful way to keep your retirement savings in a single account, but before proceeding into the rollover process, it is important to consider any potential fees or tax implications that might impact your earnings.

401(k)s and Dollar-Cost Averaging

The practice of putting the same amount of money into the same investments at regular intervals over time is one of the most highly recommended investment strategies for longer-term, more passive investors. This strategy minimizes the effects of volatility on a portfolio by buying more shares when prices are lower and fewer shares when prices are higher.

If you are a professional trader or fund manager, you''re more likely to see significant long-term gains from regularly and passively investing than by stock picking or day trading.

Because 401(k) accounts invest for you in the same basket of securities (unless you change your selections) on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, they basically automate the process of dollar-cost averaging for employees. This is not to say that employees should not customize their investment goals, nevertheless, it''s easy to sit back and let your 401(k) dollar-cost average lead to long-term growth.

What Is the 401(k) Annual Contribution Limit?

The IRS has imposed a $20,500 limit for an employee''s 401(k) account each year. However, this limit does not include employer matching. Moreover, employees aged 50+ may pay an additional $6,500 per year.

A Short History of 401(k)s

Pensions were the most common retirement strategy offered by most employers until the 1980s. Pensions were a way through which employers would make contributions to an employee retirement account each pay period from the company''s earnings. A formula that analyzed the employee''s age, years of service with the company, pay rate, and how long they would survive following retirement.

Many businesses were quickly ditched their pension funds after 401(k)s, which took an enormous part of the burden of saving for retirement as an option.

This was the first time that the Revenue Act of 1978 was passed by the Congress. Section 40, paragraph k of this act,the new type of retirement plans, has stated that employees may not pay income tax on compensation that was delayed until they received that income.

Ted Benna, an employee-benefits consultant, proposed a tax-deferred retirement account by this way. So Benna ended up using it at the Johnson Companies, where he worked at the time. This was the first time that employer-sponsored 401(k) accounts with contribution matching existed in the United States.

This type of retirement plan has risen in popularity since 1980. According to the US Census Bureau, 68 percent of Americans have access to a 401(k) and 41 percent actively contribute to one (as of the 2020 census).

401(k) Pros and Cons


Deferred taxes

Annual contribution limit

Employer matching

Administrative and other fees

Automated dollar-cost averaging

Early withdrawal penalties

Delaying taxes

The annual contribution limit is minimal.

Employer matching

Administrative and other costs

Efficacy of dollar-cost averaging in an automated way

Sanctions for early withdrawal

Deferred taxes

Limit on a monthly contribution

Matching with employer

Administrative and other charges

averaging in half for automatic dollar rates

Sanctions for early withdrawal

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