When an Employer Cuts Your 401(k) Match

How to offset the hit

Employers usually limit or stop making matching contributions to 401(k) retirement plans during hard times to save cash and sometimes avoid layoffs. Although such a cut is typically temporary, it can derail retirement goals for some employees. It can also create tough decisions for those individuals nearing retirement, such as whether to increase their contributions, reduce goals, or delay retirement.

The blow of the setback can be lessened by taking the steps outlined in this article.

Key Takeaways

  • Employers sometimes temporarily stop making 401(k) matching contributions during hard times.
  • If your employer cuts matching contributions, it’s essential to offset the difference, so as not to fall behind in saving for retirement.
  • It’s possible to make up for the loss by increasing contributions, contributing to a Roth IRA, or both.

How a Matching Contribution Works

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers a 401(k) plan a type of tax-qualified deferred compensation plan. Employees choose to have their employer contribute a certain amount of their wages to the plan before taxes are assessed and taken out. Because contributions are exempt from income tax, they lower an employee’s taxable income for a given year.

A matching contribution is typically a percentage of an employee’s salary that the employer contributes to their 401(k) account. Employers are not required to match contributions that workers make to their 401(k)s. A match is simply a retention tool that also motivates employees to save for retirement.

For 401(k)s, the average company match at the end of the first quarter of 2021 was 4.6% of an employee’s salary and an average of $1,720, according to Fidelity Investments. If an employer with 1,000 employees, for example, decided to suspend its 401(k) match based on the average match, it could save some $1.7 million a year.

When an Employer Match Stops

The suspension of an employer’s match often lowers the morale of workers and dissuades them from participating in the retirement plan. Some people reduce their own contributions or just stop contributing altogether, which can have a big impact on their retirement savings in the future.

For example, if a younger worker earning $50,000 a year contributes 5% of their salary ($2,500) and the employer stops the employee’s match for the same amount for a year, that worker will have $13,569 less saved for retirement 25 years later, assuming a 7% annual return.

How Employees Can Offset the Hit

If an employer cuts or eliminates matching contributions, here are two moves an employee can make to recover, as well as one to avoid.

Increase Contributions

Don’t forget that increasing contributions lowers taxable income. Employees who can’t afford to immediately increase contributions should find out if their employer has automatic escalation. This allows workers to increase contributions in smaller increments, such as 1% to 2% each year. Employees should also increase contributions when they get a raise.

Consider a Roth IRA

It's possible to contribute to both a Roth IRA and an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k). Income limits could affect eligibility.

Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible like those to a 401(k), but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. A Roth IRA can be particularly appealing for those who think they’re going to be in a higher income tax bracket in retirement.

It could also be a wise choice for a younger worker with a smaller paycheck and lower tax rates than an older worker at a higher-paying job. For 2021 and 2022, the annual contribution limit for a Roth IRA remains at $6,000. The limit is $1,000 more for those 50 or older.

Don’t Tap Into a 401(k)

Withdrawing funds from a 401(k) before retirement is generally never a good idea. For those younger than 59½, there will likely be a 10% early withdrawal penalty (there are a few exceptions), and the amount taken out is subject to income tax. Dipping into retirement funds early will also mean loss of tax-deferred growth on the returns from the investments that are withdrawn.

$123,900

The average 401(k) balance at the end of the first quarter of 2021, according to Fidelity, and a far cry from what is needed for a comfortable retirement.

What Is the Contribution Limit for a 401(k) Plan?

The annual contribution limit for a 401(k) plan is $19,500 in 2021 and $20,500 in 2022. If you are 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $6,500 a year.

Will I Lose My 401(k) Match if I Quit My Job?

Yes. If you quit your job you can no longer contribute to your 401(k) via that same employer. If you are not able to contribute then an employer cannot match. Regardless, you are not an employee anymore and they will not match a non-employee account. Your balance will remain in the account and once you start work with a new employer you can roll over your 401(k) to the new employer if you so choose.

How Much Do Employers Match a 401(k) Contribution?

The amount an employer will match your 401(k) contribution depends on the employer. Some employers will match 100% while other employers will not match at all. The percentage is the decision of the employer as opposed to the IRS or any other government branch.

The Bottom Line

Employers may limit or stop matching contributions during hard times. The cut is usually only temporary. If an employer cuts matching contributions, offset the difference by contributing more to a 401(k) and contributing to a Roth IRA. It’s also generally a bad idea to tap 401(k) funds before retirement.

Article Sources

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  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits." Accessed Dec. 5, 2021.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions." Accessed Dec. 5, 2021.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Announces 401(k) Limit Increases to $20,500." Accessed Dec. 5, 2021.