5 Questions to Ask Before Enrolling in a 401(k)

Written By Jeff Hindenach
Last updated November 10, 2017

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Investing
August 27, 2015

Simple. Thrifty. Living.

It’s nearly gospel that employees should join their company’s 401(k) plans. It makes sense: Free money is often involved, and the plans are a way for you to stockpile funds and not have to think much about them. However, there are situations in which you might be better off not signing up for your employer’s plan. If you think this may be the case, ask yourself the following five questions.

If the answer is no, wait to join your employer’s retirement plan (although many plans these days have automatic enrollment). Aim to save about six months’ worth of your income. With no exceptions, you need an emergency fund, and it takes priority over investing, saving and other monetary activities. If you don’t establish this fund, what happens when an emergency hits? Racking up credit card debt or taking money out of your 401(k)? Withdrawing early comes with hefty penalties and tax consequences.

If you’re overwhelmed with debt, use the money that would go toward a 401(k) to pay down some of that debt. An exception may apply if your employer has a lavish 401(k) match.

Many companies match contributions up to a certain percentage, such as five percent. The matching amounts to free money, and whether you contribute beyond a cap depends on if you can afford it and other factors. However, quite a few companies have no match whatsoever. If that’s the case with your company, an IRA, whether it is traditional or Roth, could be a more viable retirement plan. Here’s a good comparison between 401(k)s and IRAs.

Even if your employer matches your contributions up to a certain percentage, the matching funds disappear if you leave the job too early. With a graded vesting schedule, the amount vested gradually increases. For example, 20 percent after the first year in the plan and 50 percent after two years, with full vesting after five years. Cliff vesting means you’re 0 percent vested until you reach a certain point, in which you become fully vested.

401(k) plans provide a mix of mutual funds, stocks and other investment options. Supposing you don’t like them, you can see if you’re allowed to use a percentage of your money for another account with investment options that match your preferences.

About the Author

Jeff Hindenach

Jeff Hindenach is the co-founder of Simple. Thrifty. Living. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism. He has a long history of financial journalism, with a background writing for newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Examiner, as well as writing on personal finance for The Huffington Post, New York Times, Business Insider, CNBC, Newsday and The Street. He believes in giving readers the tools they need to get out of debt.

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