The 401(k) Plan: A Complete Guide

What Is a 401(k) Plan?

A 401(k) plan is a tax-advantaged retirement savings plan that is offered by many American workplaces. It is called after a provision of the Internal Revenue Code of the United States.

When an employee enrolls in a 401(k), he or she agrees to have a portion of each paycheck deposited directly into an investing account. Part or all of the contribution may be matched by the employer. The employee has a variety of investment options to select from, most of which are mutual funds.

How 401(k) Plans Work

The United States Congress created the 401(k) plan to encourage Americans to save for retirement. One of the advantages they provide is tax savings.

There are two basic choices, each with its own set of tax benefits.

Traditional 401(k)

Employee contributions to a standard 401(k) are taken from gross income, which means the money comes from the employee’s paycheck before income taxes are subtracted. As a result, the total amount of contributions for the year is deducted from the employee’s taxable income, which can then be recorded as a tax deduction for that tax year. There are no taxes due on the money donated or earned until the employee withdraws it, which is usually in retirement.

Roth 401(k)

Contributions to a Roth 401(k) are deducted from the employee’s after-tax income, which means contributions are taken from the employee’s compensation after taxes have been deducted. As a result, no tax deduction is available in the year of contribution. There are no additional taxes required on the employee’s contribution or the investment earnings when the money is withdrawn at retirement.

However, Roth accounts are not available at all employers. If the Roth is available, the employee can choose one or the other, or a combination of the two, up to the yearly tax-deductible contribution limitations.

Contributing to a 401(k) Plan

A 401(k) is a type of defined contribution retirement plan. Contributions to the account can be made by both the employee and the employer up to the financial restrictions imposed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

A defined contribution plan, also termed as a defined-benefit plan by the IRS, is an alternative to the traditional pension. With a pension, the company agrees to pay the employee a set sum of money for the rest of his or her life.

Employers have moved the duty and risk of saving for retirement to their employees, resulting in the rise of 401(k) plans and the decline of traditional pensions in recent decades.

Employees are also responsible for selecting specific investments for their 401(k) accounts from a list provided by their company. Those options usually include a mix of stock and bond mutual funds, as well as target-date funds, which are meant to decrease the risk of investment losses as the employee nears retirement.

Guaranteed investment contracts (GICs) provided by insurance firms, as well as the employer’s own stock, may be included.

Contribution Limits

The maximum amount that an individual or company can contribute to a 401(k) plan is increased on a regular basis to account for inflation, which is a metric that monitors an economy’s rising prices.

Employee contributions are capped at $19,500 per year for workers under the age of 50 in 2021, and $20,500 per year in 2022. In 2021 and 2022, however, persons aged 50 and older can make a $6,500 catch-up contribution.

There is a total employee-and-employer payment amount for the year if the employer contributes as well, or if the employee elects to make extra, non-deductible after-tax payments to their standard 401(k) account.


  • The combined employee-and-employer contribution amount for workers under 50 years old is capped at $58,000, or 100 percent of employee compensation, whichever is lesser.
  • The maximum rises to $64,500 if we include the catch-up payment for people aged 50 and up.


  • The total employee-employer payments for workers under the age of 50 cannot surpass $61,000 per year.
  • The total ceiling, including the catch-up payment for individuals over 50, is $67,500.

Employer Matching

Employers who match their employees’ contributions utilize a variety of formulas to do so.

An employer might, for example, match 50 cents for every dollar an employee puts in up to a particular percentage of compensation.

Employees should contribute enough to their 401(k) plans to receive the full employer match, according to financial advisors.

Contributing to Both a Traditional and Roth 401(k)

Employees who work for a company that offers both types of 401(k) plans can split their contributions, putting some in a standard 401(k) and some in a Roth 401(k) (k).

Their combined contributions to the two types of accounts, however, cannot exceed the maximum for one account (for example, $19,500 for those under 50 in 2021 and $20,500 in 2022).

Taking Withdrawals From a 401(k)

It’s tough to withdraw money from a 401(k) without paying taxes on the withdrawal amounts.

“Make sure you have enough money saved up for emergencies and unexpected needs before retiring,” says Dan Stewart, CFA®, president of Dallas-based Revere Asset Management Inc. “Don’t put all of your savings into a 401(k) where you won’t be able to retrieve it quickly if you need it.”

Traditional 401(k) account earnings are tax-deferred, whereas Roth 401(k) account earnings are tax-free. When a typical 401(k) owner takes a distribution, the money will be taxed as regular income, even though it has never been taxed. Owners of Roth accounts have previously paid income tax on their contributions and will owe no tax on any withdrawals as long as they meet specific criteria.

When it comes to withdrawals, both traditional and Roth 401(k) holders must be at least 59.5 years old—or meet other IRS requirements, such as being totally and permanently handicapped.

If they don’t, they’ll normally have to pay a 10% early-distribution penalty charge on top of any other taxes they owe.

Some firms allow employees to borrow money against their 401(k) contributions. The employee is essentially taking out a loan from himself. If you take out a 401(k) loan, keep in mind that if you quit your employment before the loan is repaid, you’ll have to refund it in full or suffer a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

RMDs, or required minimum distributions, are required of traditional 401(k) account holders after they reach a specific age. (In IRS jargon, withdrawals are referred to as “distributions.”)

Account owners who have retired after the age of 72 are required to take at least a certain amount from their 401(k) plans, based on IRS tables based on their life expectancy at the time. (The RMD was 70 years old prior to 2020.)

It’s worth noting that typical 401(k) distributions are taxable. Withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) are not qualified.

Traditional 401(k) vs. Roth 401(k)

When 401(k) plans first became available in 1978, employers and workers only had one option: the typical 401(k) plan (k). 7 Then, in 2006, Roth 401(k)s were available. Former United States Senator William Roth of Delaware was the major sponsor of the 1997 legislation that established the Roth IRA. 8

While Roth 401(k)s were slow to catch on, they are now widely available. As a result, employees frequently have to choose between Roth and traditional retirement plans.

Employees who expect to be in a lower marginal tax band after retirement should generally choose a regular 401(k) to take advantage of the immediate tax savings.

Workers who intend to be in a higher tax bracket after retirement, on the other hand, may choose the Roth to avoid paying taxes on their funds later. Also essential if the Roth has years to build that there is no taxation on withdrawals, which means that all of the money contributed grows tax-free over decades.

In practice, a Roth 401(k) plan lowers your immediate spending power more than a standard 401(k). If you’re on a tight budget, this is important.

Because no one knows what tax rates will be in the future, neither sort of 401(k) is guaranteed. As a result, many financial consultants advise clients to hedge their chances by putting some of their money in the bank.

When You Leave Your Job

When a worker leaves a firm with a 401(k) plan, he or she usually has four options:

1. Withdraw the Money

Withdrawing money is rarely a good idea unless the employee has a pressing need for cash. The funds will be subject to taxation in the year they are withdrawn. Unless the employee is over 5912, permanently incapacitated, or meets other IRS criteria for an exception to the provision, the employee will be subject to an additional 10% early distribution tax.

For people afflicted by the COVID-19 economic crisis in 2020, this rule has been suspended.

Employee contributions (but not profits) in Roth IRAs can be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free at any time as long as a person has had the plan for at least five years. They’re still depleting their retirement funds, something they may come to regret later.

2. Roll Your 401(k) Into an IRA

The worker can avoid immediate taxes and keep the account’s tax-advantaged status by transferring the funds to an IRA at a brokerage firm, mutual fund company, or bank. Furthermore, the employee will have access to a broader selection of investment options than they would with their employer’s plan.

The IRS has quite tight guidelines about rollovers and how they must be completed, and breaking them can be costly. Normally, the financial institution in line to receive the funds will be more than willing to assist with the procedure and ensure that no mistakes are made.

3. Leave Your 401(k) With the Old Employer

Employers will often allow a departing worker to keep a 401(k) account in their former plan indefinitely, even though the individual is no longer eligible to contribute to it. This usually applies to accounts with a balance of $5,000 or more. In the event of smaller accounts, the employer may force the employee to transfer the funds to another account.

If the old employer’s 401(k) plan is well-managed and the employee is content with the investment options, leaving the money where it is can make sense. Employees who move jobs throughout their careers run the risk of leaving a trail of old 401(k) plans behind them and forgetting about one or more of them. Their successors may likewise be unaware of its existence.

4. Move Your 401(k) to a New Employer

Your 401(k) balance can normally be transferred to your new employer’s plan. This, like an IRA rollover, keeps the account tax-deferred and avoids paying taxes right away.

If the employee isn’t comfortable making the financial decisions that come with administering a rollover IRA and would rather delegate part of that work to the new plan’s administrator, this could be a smart move.

How Do You Start a 401(k)?

Your company is the simplest place to start a 401(k) plan. Many businesses have 401(k) plans, and some may match a portion of an employee’s contributions. The firm will handle your 401(k) documentation and payouts during onboarding in this situation. You may be qualified for a solo 401(k) plan, also known as an independent 401(k) plan, if you are self-employed or manage a small business with your spouse (k). Even though they are not engaged by another company, these retirement plans enable freelancers and independent contractors to finance their own retirement. Most internet brokers can help you set up a solo 401(k).

What Is the Maximum Contribution to a 401(k)?

In 2022, the contribution limit to a 401(k) plan for most people will be $20,500. If you are over the age of 50, you can contribute a $6,500 catch-up payment, bringing your total to $27,000. The employer’s matching contribution is likewise subject to limits: the total employer-employee contributions cannot surpass $61,000 (or $67,500 for employees over 50 years old).

Is It a Good Idea to Take Early Withdrawals from Your 401(k)?

Making an early withdrawal from a 401(k) plan has a few benefits. If you take withdrawals before the age of 5912, you will be subject to a 10% penalty on top of any taxes you owe. Some employers, on the other hand, allow hardship withdrawals for unexpected financial demands such as medical bills, funeral expenditures, or property purchases. Although you will avoid the early withdrawal penalty, you will still be responsible for paying taxes on the withdrawal.

What Is the Main Benefit of a 401(k)?

A 401(k) plan allows you to save for retirement while lowering your tax burden. The gains are not only tax-free, but they’re also hassle-free because contributions are deducted automatically from your paycheck. Furthermore, many firms will match a portion of their employees’ 401(k) contributions, thereby offering a free boost to their retirement savings.