Don’t let the cryptic name of the plan confuse you, these plans are actually fairly easy to understand. A 401(k) is a retirement plan offered by some employers in the United States. The plan received the name from the section of Internal Revenue Code it was named after.
One of the largest benefits of a 401(k) plan is how contributions are made on a pre-tax basis. As an employee, you are allowed to make pre-tax contributions through salary deferral into the plan. Since these contributions are done on a pre-tax basis, you do not pay any current income tax on the money that is deferred into the plan.
In addition to reducing your tax liability through contributions, the money that is saved in the plan can earn interest and continue to grow tax-deferred. You are only taxed on the money you withdraw from the plan at a later date as ordinary income.
The Employer Match
Some companies offer an additional benefit in these plans in the form of a company match. This means your employer will contribute additional money into your plan that matches a portion of your contributions. Some employers match dollar-for-dollar up to a certain percentage of pay while others match a specified percentage of your contribution.
In addition, the company may have a vesting schedule in place that requires you to work for the company for a given length of time before you can collect the matched money. The vesting period can be on a graduated scale or a one-time length of service requirement.
A 401(k) plan allows you to invest money for retirement in a number of ways. These may include mutual funds that invest in the stock, bond or money markets, annuities or guaranteed investment pools, company stock or even self-directed brokerage accounts. Most plans will offer a selection of various investment options that will allow you to create a suitable retirement portfolio.
Money can generally be withdrawn from a 401(k) on five different occasions:
- Termination of employment
- Reaching age 59 ½ (or 55 in some cases)
It is important to note that in some cases if money is withdrawn from these accounts before reaching age 59 ½ the IRS will issue a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Outside of the five qualified distribution events you may be able to access a portion of your money if your plan allows loans.