August 27, 2015

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

Written By Jack Ryder
Last updated November 10, 2017

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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

Jack Ryder

Jack Ryder has been working as a reporter and writer in the personal finance space for many years. He enjoys breaking down complicated finance information into easy-to-read articles, so his readers can better navigate their financial lives. He is currently the Editor of the Credit Repair and Debt Relief categories, although enjoys writing about all things finance. Jack has had articles appear in publications from the Huffington Post to Business Insider. You can contact Jack at

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