How 401(k) Matching Works

Don't leave free money on the table

Employer matching of your 401(k) contributions means that your employer contributes a certain amount to your retirement savings plan based on the amount of your annual contribution.

Depending on the terms of your employer's 401(k) plan, your contributions to your retirement savings may be matched by employer contributions in several ways. Typically, employers match a percentage of employee contributions up to a specific portion of the total salary. Occasionally, employers may elect to match employee contributions up to a certain dollar amount, regardless of employee compensation.

Key Takeaways

  • When an employer matches your contributions, they add a certain amount to your 401(k) account in addition to what you contribute.
  • One way employers determine matching contributions is to match a percentage of an employee's contribution, up to a certain limit.
  • Most mid-to-large-sized companies offer some kind of retirement benefit.
  • For 2022, employees may contribute up to $20,500 to their 401(k) ($22,500 for 2023).
  • Not taking advantage of an employer match is the equivalent of leaving free money on the table.

Matching Contributions: How Much and When

The specific terms of 401(k) plans vary widely. Other than the necessity to adhere to certain required contribution limits and withdrawal regulations dictated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the sponsoring employer determines the specific terms of each 401(k) plan.

Your employer may elect to use a very generous matching formula or choose not to match employee contributions at all. Some 401(k) plans offer far more generous matches than others. Whatever the match is, it amounts to free money added to your retirement savings, so it is best to take advantage of it, if offered.

Refer to the terms of your plan to verify if and when your employer makes matching contributions. Not all employer contributions to employee 401(k) plans are the result of matching. Employers may elect to make regular deferrals to employee plans regardless of employee contributions, though this is not particularly common.

Employer Matching Contribution Formulas

Most often, employers match employee contributions up to a percentage of annual income. This limit may be imposed in one of a few different ways. Your employer may elect to match 100% of your contributions up to a percentage of your total compensation or to match a percentage of contributions up to the limit. Though the total limit on employer contributions remains the same, the latter scenario requires you to contribute more to your plan to receive the maximum possible match.

Some employers may match up to a certain dollar amount, limiting their liability to highly compensated employees regardless of income. For example, an employer may elect to match only the first $5,000 of your employee contributions.

"Your employer could match 100% or even a dollar amount based upon some formula, but this can get expensive and normally owners want their employees to take some ownership of their retirement while still providing an incentive," says Dan Stewart, CFA®, president, Revere Asset Management Inc., in Dallas, TX.

The IRS requires that all 401(k) plans take a nondiscrimination test annually to ensure that highly compensated employees don’t benefit more from tax-deferred contributions.

How Matching Works

Assume your employer offers a 100% match on all your contributions each year, up to a maximum of 3% of your annual income. If you earn $60,000, the maximum amount your employer would contribute each year is $1,800. To maximize this benefit, you must also contribute $1,800. If you contribute more than 3% of your salary, the additional contributions are unmatched.

A partial matching scheme with an upper limit is more common. Assume that your employer matches 50% of your contributions, equal to up to 6% of your annual salary. If you earn $60,000, your contributions equal to 6% of your salary ($3,600) are eligible for matching. However, your employer only matches 50%, meaning the total matching benefit is still capped at $1,800. Under this formula, you must contribute twice as much to your retirement to reap the full benefit of employer matching.

If your employer matches a certain dollar amount, as in the first example, you must contribute that amount to maximize benefits, regardless of what percentage of your annual income it may represent.

Contribution Limits

Employee and Employer Combined

Regardless of whether contributions to your 401(k) come from you and/or from employer matching, all deferrals are subject to an annual contribution limit dictated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). For 2022, the total contribution amount allowed for all 401(k) accounts held by the same employee (regardless of current employment status) is $61,000, or 100% of compensation, whichever is less. For 2023, this limit rises to $66,000.

Employee Alone

Elective salary deferrals made by employees alone are limited to $20,500 for tax year 2022 and $22,500 for tax year 2023. So, in short, a saver may contribute up to the annual salary deferral limit to their 401(k) each year, and an employer may match or contribute up to the combined IRS annual limit referred to above.

Importantly, the sum your employer matches does not count toward your annual salary deferral limit. 

Keep in mind that these figures may be updated every year by the IRS to account for inflation. The announcement of the following year's various limits is usually made in October or November.

The IRS also allows those age 50 and over to make catch-up contributions in addition to their normal contribution. These are designed to encourage employees nearing retirement to bulk up their savings. For 2022, the catch-up contribution amount is $6,500. For 2023, it's $7,500.

Therefore, for these individuals, their individual total deferral amount is $27,000 ($20,500 + $6,500) and $30,000 ($22,500 + $7,500), respectively. The combined employer/employee limits are $67,500 ($61,000 +$6,500) and $73,500 ($66,000 + $7,500), respectively.

You don't pay taxes on matching contributions until you withdraw them in retirement.

401(k) Vesting Schedules

In addition to reviewing your 401(k) plan's matching requirements, educate yourself about your plan's vesting schedule. A vesting schedule dictates the degree of ownership you have in employer contributions based on the number of years of your employment.

Even if your employer has a very generous matching scheme, you may forfeit some or all of those contributions if your employment is terminated—either voluntarily or involuntarily—before a certain number of years has elapsed.

Keep in mind, though, that any contributions you yourself make to your 401(k) account are 100% vested at all times and cannot be forfeited.

"A typical schedule gives an employee a percentage of ownership that steadily increases in lock-step with the employee's tenure. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of years to be fully vested is five," according to Mark Hebner, founder and president of Index Fund Advisors Inc., in Irvine, Calif., and author of The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors.

What Does Employer Matching Mean for My 401(k)?

It means that you can receive the enormous financial benefit of added money being deposited into your retirement savings plan at work and earning on your behalf for years. It's something you should make the most of if your company offers it. Specifically, the term "matching" refers to your employer contributing to your account a percentage of your total contribution or income, up to a certain limit.

Can My Employer Contribute to My 401k Even if I Don't?

Yes. Employers can make non-matching contributions to your 401(k) retirement savings account even if you don't contribute. For instance, an employer might decide to do so if a company's growth in revenue or profits for the year has been good.

Is There a Limit on the Combined Employer and Employee Contribution Amount?

Yes, there is. For 2022, the total amount that the combined employer/employee contribution can be is $61,000. For 2023, that limit is $66,000. For employees 50 years old and above, catch-up contributions of $6,500 for 2022 and $7,500 for 2023 increase these combination limits to $67,500 and $73,500, respectively.

The Bottom Line

One of the great advantages to those Americans saving for retirement through their workplace 401(k) accounts is the added money that they can accumulate by way of employer matching. Employers may or may not offer the benefit of matching. But if they do, try your best to contribute all that's needed to get as much of these additional funds as you can annually. By doing so, you can boost your savings potential for years to come.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Internal Revenue Service. "401(k) limit increases to $22,500 for 2023, IRA limit rises to $6,500."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Announces 401(k) Limit Increases to $20,500."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "FAQs about Retirement Plans and ERISA."

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "A Guide to Common Qualified Plan Requirements."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - 401k and Profit Sharing Plan Contribution Limits."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics -- Vesting."

  7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "How Does Your 401(k) Match Up?"

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