What is a 401(k) plan? Learn the basics.

Are you worried about saving enough money for retirement? Do you want to invest in your future but aren't sure where to start? Saving for retirement is a critical financial goal that everyone should prioritize. One of the most popular retirement savings vehicles is the 401(k) plan, which is offered by many employers as a benefit to their employees.

A 401(k) plan allows individuals to contribute a portion of their pre-tax income into an investment account, where it can grow tax-free until retirement. However, despite its popularity, many people are still confused about how 401(k) plans work, how to maximize their benefits, and what potential pitfalls to avoid. 

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What is a 401(k) plan? 

Although it may look more complicated than it really is, a 401(k) plan is a retirement savings plan offered by many American employers. This type of retirement account is named after section 401(k) in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). When you sign up for a 401(k) plan through your employer, you agree to direct deposit a percentage of each paycheck to an investment account. In some cases, your employer may match a portion or all of your contribution. The 401(k) plan was designed by Congress to persuade Americans to save for retirement. Not all employers offer a 401(k) plan, so you may consider checking on that before accepting a job offer.

Types of 401(k) Plans

There are two main types of 401(k) plans; they differ in the types of tax advantages they offer:

Traditional 401(k)

With a traditional 401(k) plan, your contributions are made with pre-tax dollars, so you get a tax break upfront. In turn, this tax break helps to lower your current income taxes. Your money in a traditional 401(k) account grows tax-deferred until you withdraw it. At the time of withdrawal, typically at retirement, your money is considered ordinary income and you will be required to pay the current tax rate. You may also have to pay state taxes as well. 


Roth 401(k)

With a Roth 401(k) plan, your contributions are made with your after-tax income, meaning that contributions come from your paycheck after all income taxes have been deducted. As a result, there is no tax deduction when you withdraw your investment. 


Contributing to a 401(k) Plan 

A 401(k) plan is one of the most common and easiest ways to start saving for retirement. 401(k)s are known as defined contribution plans, meaning that employees and employers can both make contributions to the accounts up to certain dollar limits that are set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Contribution limits are adjusted regularly to account for inflation.  

For 2022, the employee contribution limit is $20,500 for individuals under the age of 50. For those over the age of 50, the IRS allows workers to make “catch-up contributions” of an additional $6,500 in 2022. 

If your employer offers a matching contribution, meaning your employer contributes to your 401(k) plan, there is an employee-employer total matching contribution amount for the year. 

For 2022, the employee-employer matching contribution limit is $61,000. For those over the age of 50, including catch-up contributions, the total matching contribution limit is $67,500. 


You must be eligible to participate before you can enroll in a 401(k) plan through your employer. This should not be an issue because federal law requires that when an employer sponsors a plan, all employees must have an equal opportunity to save. There are two restrictions your employer can impose:

  1. You must work for a full year (typically 1,000 hours over 12 months)
  2. You must be 21 years old before you enroll

However, not all employers make you wait! When starting a new job, you will want to ask when you’ll be eligible to contribute to a 401(k) plan. 

Employer Matching

If your company offers any type of employer match, take advantage of it! According to the IRS, matching contributions:

You should always take full advantage of your company’s matching contribution because it is essentially free money that your company is giving you! 

The retirement plan information your employer gives you will tell you all the details about the matching contribution (if offered) including how long you must work before receiving the contributions, the matching formula, and how much you must contribute to fully benefit from the match. 

How do I set up my 401(k) account?

Unlike other employer-sponsored benefits, you can enroll in a 401(k) plan year-round. If you haven’t enrolled yet, luckily it is simple. Your HR or benefits team will connect you with your plan administrator, typically an outside financial firm, to handle all the administrative details. From there, you will work independently or with the plan administrator to complete the following:

For most companies that automatically enroll you, they will start you out with a low contribution amount (typically 2-3%). Make sure you are contributing the amount you feel comfortable with. If your company has a waiting period before you are eligible to enroll, set a calendar reminder! 
Traditional 401(k)s are standard at workplaces, but more employers are adding Roth 401(k)s into the mix as well. The IRS allows you to allocate funds to both plans, which helps to diversify tax advantages in your retirement portfolio. Keep in mind that if you are under 50 years old, you cannot exceed the individual maximum annual contributions of $20,500 in 2022 (and $27,000 for those 50 and over).
Think about your 401(k) as a bowl to hold your retirement savings. What you put into the bowl (the particular investments) is up to you – within the limits of your specific plan. In addition to the specific investment options, make sure you review all fees for your investments (fees can also be referred to as management fees or expense ratios). As a rule of thumb, avoid any mutual fund that charges more than 1%. 
Make sure that you are contributing enough money to your 401(k) to receive your full employer match – that is free money! 
A good way to do this is by contributing money to other accounts outside of your 401(k). Learn more about IRAs and other types of investments.

How does my 401(k) account earn money? 

The contributions you make (and your employer’s matched contributions, when applicable) to your 401(k) are invested according to the investment choices you select from the options your employer provides. These investments typically include a variety of stock and bond mutual funds and target-date funds.  

A variety of factors determine how quickly and how much your money will grow in your 401(k) account:

As a rule of thumb, the younger you are when you start contributing to a 401(k) or other retirement accounts, the more money you have the potential to earn. So, if you’re not saving for retirement yet, start today! 

Withdrawing From Your 401(k) Account

Until you’ve reached retirement age, withdrawing money from your 401(k) account is difficult to do. Because this account is set up as a retirement fund, the U.S. Government imposes a 10% penalty tax on any withdrawals before the age of 59 ½. In addition to the 10% penalty tax, if you’re withdrawing from a traditional 401(k) early, you will also be required to pay any taxes you owe. 

However, in certain hardship situations, you may be eligible to withdraw money from a 401(k) before the plan’s normal retirement age without the 10% penalty tax. (Note: penalty-free does not mean tax-free – if you’re withdrawing from a traditional 401(k), your pre-tax contributions will be taxed at the current income tax rates.).

Required Minimum Distributions

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are minimum amounts that you must withdraw annually from your 401(k). RMDs act as safeguards against people using retirement accounts to avoid paying taxes. You must begin withdrawing from most retirement accounts by April 1 following the year the account holder reaches 72 years old. From there, the account holder must withdraw the RMD amount each year thereafter based on the current RMD calculations. The IRS has a worksheet to help determine how much must be withdrawn.  

RMDs are required for both Traditional 401(k)s and Roth 401(k)s. Just a reminder, distributions from a Traditional 401(k) are taxable, and qualified withdraws from a Roth 401(k) are not. 

Roth IRAs, unlike Roth 401(k)s are not subject to required minimum distributions during the owner’s lifetime. Learn more about IRAs

Should I have a Traditional 401(k) or a Roth 401(k)?

Today, many employers offer both Traditional and Roth 401(k)s. So, where should you invest your money? As a rule of thumb, if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket after you retire you may consider a traditional 401(k) for the immediate tax break. However, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket after retiring you may opt for a Roth 401(k) so you can avoid paying taxes on your savings later. 

Another consideration if you are many years away from retirement – there is no tax on withdrawals from a Roth 401(k), so your money can grow tax-free for decades. 

While these are general rules of thumb, it is impossible to predict exactly what tax rates will be when you retire. Because of that, you may consider diversifying by putting money into both a Traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k). 

Further Resources on 401(k) plans

Ensure you choose the right type of 401(k) plan with these helpful resources. 

The Bottom Line

No matter what age you are, it is vital that you save for retirement. A 401(k) is a great employer-sponsored option for you to do just that! Learn more about how credit unions can help you save for retirement by finding a credit union near you

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Did You Know?

Many credit unions have partnered with third-party administrators to provide their members with access to employer-sponsored retirement plans, including 401(k)s. This can be a great option for individuals who may not have access to a 401(k) through their employer or who want to diversify their retirement savings. Additionally, credit union 401(k) plans often come with lower fees and expenses compared to traditional plans, which can help maximize your retirement savings. 

Find the right Credit Union for you

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