If you’re like me, you’ve probably sat through a 20-minute session or two on setting up your 401(k) account. And if you’re like me, you walked out nodding like you heard some really great advice, but it sounded more like a foreign language. You might have checked the boxes for the “most recommended” allocations for your age group and called that “good enough.” You may not even know how much is going toward your 401(k) each paycheck, or what the balance is currently, or if that’s “good” or “bad” … or…. OK, how much does it matter? HALP!
While it’s sometimes difficult to imagine retirement or know how to plan for it so early, I couldn’t help but wonder about my own future.
For most of us, our employer offers us a 401(k) account – but we’re in charge of contributing. So, let’s consider how those contributions actually impact the outcome (account balance) and, more importantly, the value on the day we are ready to cash out.
A 401(k) account is a tool employers offer as an incentive for their employees to save and plan for their retirement. It’s a type of savings/investment account that allows your money to grow tax deferred.
Part of the incentive could be your employer’s match. Not all employers provide a match. (*cough, cough* This is something you should look into if you don’t know.) Anyway, for every “X amount” you contribute, your employer will also contribute or match “Y amount.” As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to take advantage of this match, so you’re not walking away from the money they’re willing to offer you. (It’s basically free money, people!) Beyond that, you can save as much as you’d like each year, up to the contribution limit, which is determined by the government annually. (P.S. The pretax contribution limit for 2019 is $19,000. You’re welcome).
One major difference between a 401(k) and a traditional savings account is that you really shouldn’t withdraw your 401(k) money until you reach retirement age (which the government has decided is 59 ½ years old). If you do withdraw funds before then, you will pay a hefty 10% penalty. Yikes. While that 10% penalty may seem unfair, think of this as part of a sweet deal that you and the government have shaken hands on. You need to save money as quickly as possible for retirement, right? And you’d rather not pay taxes on that money now, so it will reap the full advantage of compound interest (aka grow faster). The government says, “OK, I won’t take taxes on that money now, because I would like you to have money to retire eventually. BUT, the one condition is that you can’t use that money to buy a new Ferrari prior to 59 ½ (unless you wanna pay a 10% penalty).” Remember, the government wasn’t born yesterday.
OK, so you’re putting this money in regularly – what happens to it after it hits your account? Remember that “most recommended” option you checked after you glanced over the pie chart? That allocation option determines a mixture of stock and bond mutual funds where your money goes to grow. The company holding your account (such as Fidelity, MassMutual,etc.), will keep track of all this for you (*takes deep sigh of relief*).
While there may be predetermined blends of “conservative” or “aggressive” allocations, you can customize your selections — if you so choose — and those selections can be changed at any time. For some people, taking advantage of aggressive models might seem scary – to diversify, and put large amounts of valuable (vulnerable) money out there. But it’s good to keep in mind that time is on our side here.
So, if you start to watch your account, you might see the balance fluctuate day to day; but just because the market may take a dip or seem “low” does not necessarily mean that you’ve lost a lot. It could actually be a good time to buy in, as the more time you have ahead, the more time the market has to correct itself and grow – to your benefit.
And lastly, a little disclaimer (because we like those). I am not a financial advisor, so please make sure to consult with one of those amazing, qualified professionals to determine your own unique retirement plan.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article coming Thursday!
Article Contributed By: Heidi Lengacher
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