People are increasingly on their own when it comes to providing for their retirement. Traditional pensions are all but unheard of now, outside of the civil service or heavily unionized industries, as both employers and the government have increasingly transferred more and more responsibility (and risk) to the individual worker.

When it comes to employer-sponsored plans, such as 401(k)s, it is vital for workers, savers, and investors (and you should see yourself as all three) to make the most they can out of them. While there are some differences with other plans, such as 403(b)s, most of this advice applies fairly well across the major plans in the United States, be they 401(k)s or individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

Key Takeaways

  • Consistent saving is key to a successful retirement plan.
  • Always be sure to contribute enough to a 401(k) to qualify for matching contributions from your employer.
  • Be wary of the underlying costs and fees of the various investments within your retirement plans.

Work Backward

For employees who have the ambition and financial wherewithal to make the most of their 401(k), one of the best ways to begin is by working backward. Take your maximum allowable annual contribution, divide it by the number of pay periods in a year, and see where that leaves you. For 2019 the maximum you can contribute is $19,000. If you’re 50 or older, you can add $6,000 in annual catch-up contributions. These limits may be revised upward every fall—especially in inflationary environments.

Your employer may give you the choice between a regular 401(k) and a Roth 401(k). The contribution limit is the same, but the Roth 401(k) is funded with after-tax dollars, like a Roth IRA (see below). Either 401(k) option is an important way to save for retirement. The Roth 401(k) provides taxpayers who earn too much to contribute to a Roth IRA to gain Roth IRA benefits (tax-free distributions, no required minimum distributions in your lifetime), as that money can later be rolled over into a Roth IRA. This process is called setting up a backdoor Roth IRA.

Contributions to Roth 401(k) and Roth IRA plans are made with after-tax dollars, while contributions to 401(k)s and IRAs are made with pretax dollars.

Be Consistent

Can you afford to save the maximum? If so, there is not much more that you need to do, apart from making the best investment decisions you can within the plan options. If you cannot afford this amount, whittle it down until you can. Clearly, expenses such as mortgage or rent payments, utilities, and food need to be covered, and it makes little sense to put aside so much that you need to accumulate credit card debt to make it through a month.

Even if you cannot make the maximum contribution, consider supplementing this with any bonuses or profit-sharing payments you receive. Many companies will allow you to have these amounts deposited directly into your 401(k), and this is a good idea whenever possible—many good intentions have gone awry once a bonus check is in hand. 

Above all, try to be consistent. Set a specific per-paycheck amount and do not change it unless you really have to. Likewise, do not try to time the market or curtail contributions just because the economic or political news seems depressing for a while.

If you can, try to save a minimum of 15% of your gross pay. This amount, coupled with reasonable investment returns on those savings, should be sufficient to not only supplement Social Security down the line but also fund a pretty secure retirement.

Make the Match

Fully exploiting employer matching is one of the most vital strategies in getting the most out of a 401(k) plan. Matching is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Subject to certain rules and limits, your employer will contribute the same amount of money you contribute or a percentage thereof, effectively doubling your retirement savings without decreasing your salary or increasing your tax burden. Many employer matches kick in once you contribute 3% of your pay (or higher), so try as hard as you can to make that happen.

Want another reason to max out your employer match? In many cases employers calculate their costs and base their staffers’ salaries on the basis of full matching. If you don’t take advantage of this, you’re basically handing back free money.

Some employers will elect to match your contributions in company stock. While this is not always as desirable as cash, it shouldn’t dissuade you from maximizing your match. In many cases that stock can be sold and converted to cash within a fairly short period of time and at a reasonable cost. 

Watch the Costs

As part of some employee retirement plans, workers can avail themselves of investment advice from independent professionals. Unfortunately, this advice is rarely free, and you may find that you pay 1% to 2% of your funds to get this help.

It’s understandable that many workers feel overwhelmed when it comes to calculating their contributions and then investing that money. Even still, paying for investment advice is a dicey proposition, particularly when it involves a 401(k) plan, for which investors are given a relatively fixed menu of investment options.

Savers also need to pay careful attention to the costs of the investments they buy within their 401(k). While mutual fund expenses have come down in general over the years, and many fund families offer no-load funds for 401(k) plans as well as low-cost index funds, it’s still important to compare and contrast the numbers, because fees still vary a good deal.

Along similar lines, investors need to be careful with annuities and target-date funds. Annuities arguably do not have much of a place in tax-sheltered accounts to begin with (a topic for another day), and their often high expense ratios can eat away at their value over time. Likewise, while target-date funds are popular options in many plans, these funds often charge higher fees than normal funds without correspondingly better results.

Consider Borrowing

For workers who save some funds in a 401(k) but find that they cannot contribute more because they are saddled with expensive debt, there may be a counterintuitive option. Most plans have provisions that allow employees to borrow funds from their own account. This money comes relatively free of strings (insofar as what the funds can be used for), and it is possible to use it to pay off high-interest loans or credit card balances. This money does not come free, but the good news is that the interest charged is basically being paid to you.

This clearly is not a risk-free maneuver. That money has to be repaid on time, or the borrower will incur penalties. Moreover, some workers will find that borrowing from their retirement savings is just a little too convenient, which opens a Pandora’s box of future trouble. Nevertheless, this can be an effective means of freeing up more money for savings. It is not a step for everyone, but borrowing low-cost money from a 401(k) in order to repay high-cost credit card debt and ultimately invest even more in the 401(k) can be a prudent step.

Complain

Complaining about a deficient plan can be an effective means of improving your options (and those of your coworkers). If you do not like how a plan is organized or the investment options on offer, say so.

Keep in mind that many employers choose 401(k) plans on the basis of what is cheapest and most convenient to offer, and they may not even be aware of its deficiencies. While it is true that many workers do not like to be a squeaky wheel, and some companies are certainly apt to be more responsive than others, doing nothing is a pretty good way to ensure that the plan will not be improved.

Roth 401(k)s do not have contribution limits.

Explore Other Options

What do you do if you have maxed out your 401(k) or want to save even more by using a well-known investment vehicle? Thankfully, there are many options available to you, including traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs.

IRAs and 401(k)s are funded with pretax contributions, up to $19,000 for 401(k)s and $6,000 for IRAs in 2019. The Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) are funded with after-tax dollars. Again, contributions are limited to $19,000 for the Roth 401(k) and $6,000 for the Roth IRA. If you are age 50 or older, the 401(k) and Roth 401(k) give you the opportunity to make $6,000 catch-up contributions per year, while IRAs will let you add $1,000.

Of course, eligibility and deductibility will depend on your adjusted gross income and the phase-outs imposed on it. In 2019 single tax filers cannot contribute to a Roth IRA if they earn $74,000 or more, and for those married filing jointly the limit is $123,000. There is no income limit on contributions to a Roth 401(k).

Once you have contributed as much as possible to these tax-sheltered accounts, there are still other ways to save for retirement. People who are lucky to have maxed out their 401(k) or IRA in a year can consider buying and investing in annuities. There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages with annuities—they can carry high sales loads, typically have high expenses, and sponsors have continually transferred more risk to the investor. All of that said, money in an annuity can accumulate without year-to-year taxation, and it is a worthwhile option if protecting even more retirement savings from the taxman is important.

The Bottom Line

Tax-advantaged retirement savings plans are one of the relatively few boons that the government gives to ordinary workers. Careful saving may not be a gateway to becoming independently wealthy, but it can at least go a long way toward ensuring a more comfortable and desirable retirement. Whatever the specifics on offer to you, be it a 401(k), a 403(b), or an IRA, make sure to contribute as much as you can afford and take full advantage of your opportunity to put money away for the future.