401 What?

“Where in the world is my 401k?”

I quite literally typed that question into the Google search bar trying to locate this so-called money I’d been saving… Is it floating in space? Where does it live? In the cloud…with the rest of the things I can’t locate?

After finally finding “it” …. I thought I would back-up a little bit and identify what “it” is.

Let’s start with the basics:

WTF is a 401k?

According to Meriam Webster herself a 401k is, “A retirement account to which employee and employer contribute, on which taxes are deferred until withdrawal, and for which the employee usually selects the types of investments”

Hmm so let’s break it down:

Your employer (those ppl that pay you) take a certain amount of money out of every paycheck and sends it away to be saved and invested for your retirement. Now read that again. Okay? Got it.

So why is this different then my own savings account??

Because the money that is being taken out of your paycheck and being put into a 401k plan is TAX FREE (until later butttt let’s not worry about that right this second- stay in the present people). Since living in New York almost half of my paycheck goes to the government (yay). So instead of having to deal with those pesky taxes now you deal with them down the road. OH and all interest and dividends made from your 401k investment go tax free as well : )

A certain amount of my dollars? How much are we talkin?

As an employee you typically opt in or out to a 401k plan, when enrolling in your benefits. You probably signed something your first day of employee orientation or paid zero attention during the HR presentation (guilty). A typical amount is about 6% of your paycheck but this is something YOU dictate. There’s a max amount you can contribute which is about $18k/ year unfortunately for now I’m not having to worry about that ha. Now some employers match some or all of your contribution up to a certain point, but we will get to that later…

My money is sent away? Excuse me?

Okay so not actually sent away but your employer has an individual account setup with a financial services company (ie Fidelity or Merrill Lynch) where the money from your paycheck goes. This is typically put into a big pile with other people’s money aka a mutual fund where its invested in diverse stocks, bonds, and other assets. Basically, its peoples job to make sure it stays safe and grows steadily so when you retire you can go on a cruise every year like your grandparents. And you don’t even have to lift a finger!

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned:

  • A 401 (k) is a retirement plan that is setup by your employer
  • A % of your paycheck is automatically put into your 401 (k) to be saved/invested
  • Your contribution is TAX FREE (so more $$ for you)
  • A professional manages/invests your money so that you can make more $money$

Alright now that we’ve covered the basics…

What does it mean when an employer contributes or matches your 401 (k)? Sometimes a company agrees to either a % of your contribution to your 401k or matches it in its entirety

So FREEEEE MONEY! Got your attention now?

Example: Your employers matches you 50% up to the first 6% contributed

“Matches you up to 50” so the employer will put 50 cents in your 401(k) for every $1 that you contribute.

“Up to the first 6%” this mean that there is a limit of 6% of your gross salary that the employer agrees to contribute.

Let’s do some math…. Have you checked out yet? Stay with me! 

Let’s say you make $60,000 a year gross salary so 6% of that is $3,600. If you contribute $3,600 to your 401k then your company will match you $1,800 (50% of every dollar).

If you didn’t contribute the $3,600 then you would be losing out on that free money of $1,800. When now you have a total of $5,400 big ones, as opposed to your measly $3,600 – jk you’re doing great. Try and write it out yourself (it helps)!

**All plans differ so be sure to sit down with someone in your HR department and ASK QUESTIONS

And a few more tax and “un-fun” things before you completely shut off…

  • Even though your contributions are tax-free if you try and cash-out of your 401k BEFORE YOU ARE 59.5 there is a hefty tax penalty so unless you are in major crisis (ie disability, medical expenses) DON’T touch that money until yep- 59.5
  • Once you hit the big five nine and a half you can then roll the money into an IRA
  • If you want to pay taxes now and not later, that’s when a ROTH IRA comes in handy… but let’s not think about that just yet
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