I have received many requests to write a blog post on the various types of retirement plans. This isn’t surprising, since many of my friends are recent college graduates starting their first big boy (or girl) jobs and have never given retirement planning a thought. Instead of doing one long post covering every type of plan I am going to write three separate posts covering the most popular plans, the 401(k), IRA, and Pension. With that little introduction out of the way let’s kick this retirement party off with the big daddy, the traditional 401(k).
So what is it? The traditional 401(k) is a company sponsored retirement plan that allows you save for retirement by making pre-tax contributions to the plan. Not every company offers a 401(k) and you can not open one on your own, it must be through an employer.
How does it work? You elect through your employer to contribute funds to the plan on a pre-tax basis, usually a set percentage of each paycheck (for more information on pre-tax deductions check out the mini series your paycheck). The company sponsoring the plan will provide the employee with multiple options where they can choose what to invest the funds in, common investment options include, index funds, mutual funds, bond funds, and company stock. Once you retire and begin withdrawing funds, those distributions are then taxed at ordinary income taxes rates (see here for example) In many instances your company will match your contribution up to a certain percent (aka: Free Money!).
For example, say I make $10,000 a month (I wish!); and the company I work for will match my contribution up to 6% dollar for dollar. This means if I contribute 6% of my paycheck ($600) the company will also contribute an additional 6% ($600) for a total contribution of $1,200.
Matching varies from company to company and the terminology may differ as well. You might find out that your company matches the 1st 3% dollar for dollar then a 2nd 3% at .50 cents on the dollar, up to 6% total. This means the first 3% of your contribution is matched in its entirety and the subsequent 3% is matched at 50%. Using the $10,000 example from above an employee contribution of 6% ($600) would equate to an employer match of 4.5% ($450), the first 3% dollar for dollar equaling $300 and the second 3% .50 cents for each dollar totaling $150.
Important information to note: a 401(k) is not like a normal bank account, it is governed by different laws and regulations. The biggest difference is you can not access your money whenever you want, because it is a retirement account the money can not be accessed until you retire or reach the age of 59 and a half. Now, there are certain instances when funds can be withdrawn before retirement but you could be subject to penalties or additional taxes. Each situation is unique; if you need to withdraw money early from your 401(k) it is best to speak with your HR department or a financial advisor. There are also limits to the amount you can contribute to the plan in a given year, for 2012 the limit is $17,000 and if you are over 50 you can contribute an additional $5,500 for a total of $22,500. These limits do not include employer matching.
What’s all this noise about a Roth 401(k)? A Roth 401(k) is the same as the traditional 401(k) except for one key difference, contributions are made after tax instead of before. When money is withdrawn in retirement there is no tax withheld since it was already paid. Now many people want to know which plan is better, Roth or Traditional, and the truth is one is not “better” than the other. The choice of which plan to choose largely comes down to your individual tax situation, weather you prefer to pay taxes now or later, and your assessment of future tax rates (something very hard to determine). If you think tax rates could be higher when you retire it may be beneficial to choose a Roth plan, if you think rates will be lower the Traditional plan may suit your needs better.
WTF does the (k) mean? The (k) refers to the sub-section of section 401 of the IRS code. Not nearly as exciting as you thought the answer would be, was it?
Next up is the Individual Retirement Account, or IRA.
 It’s for this very reason that if your company offers a 401(k) you should be contributing!!