401(k)s Made Easy: The 7 Things You Really Need to Know

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What Is a 401k?
There comes a time in most young professionals' careers when they're faced with the decision of whether to invest in a 401(k). The topic is usually brought up fleetingly during new employee orientation. Or perhaps it's mentioned in that folder you got on your first day, the one currently collecting dust on your dresser. Either way, without realizing it, you may have already given this retirement option the cold shoulder. Or maybe you did realize it and you just don't want to part with a percentage of your income today in exchange for the vague promise of seeing a bigger, better version of it years down the road.

Whatever the decision, that's up to you. But before you take a solid "yes" or "no" stance on 401(k)s, let's discuss the basics. As a wise sage once said, "An uninformed decision is no decision at all." (Just kidding. I just made that up. But, really, it's kind of true.)

So here are some basics for any of you riding that 401(k) fence:

What Is a 401(k)?

Glad you asked! Simply put, a 401(k) is a way for an employee (you!) to contribute money to an account, most often pre-tax. You can choose different plans and options to invest your money, and oftentimes, your company will contribute money to your plan as well.

What Is Matching?

Free money, free money, read all about it! Matching is the best thing that ever happened to your retirement savings. Many companies will match whatever contributions you make, up to a certain percentage. For instance, let's say they match 100 percent of your contributions up to 3 percent of your income.

And let's say you make $100,000 a year (well done!), and you contribute 3 percent, or $3,000. Your employer would match that at 100 percent, putting another $3,000 in your retirement account. So in one year, investment gains aside, your 401(k) savings would go from $3,000 to $6,000. That's a pretty killer return.

What Is Vesting?

Vesting is the little asterisk next to the contribution matching many companies offer. Not all companies require vesting. But sometimes, if a company matches your contributions, it will require you to wait a few years before you're fully vested. But what does that mean? (It has nothing to do with wardrobe requirements, thank goodness.) Quite simply, it means gaining full rights over your employer's contributions to your retirement account.

Here's an example: Let's say your company requires you to work with them for four years before you're fully vested. That means that if you quit before that time, you won't be able to keep all the money they've contributed. (Of course, all the money you've contributed is yours from Day One.) But if you quit after, say, two years, you might only be able to keep 50 percent of your company's contributions. It's a retention tactic -- and an understandable one.

What Happens to My 401(k) Contributions If I Leave My Job?

Well, you keep 'em! The question is how you keep them. One option is to cash out, although you'll be hit with taxes, as well as a 10 percent penalty for taking the money out early. Other options are to leave the money where it is (if your employer allows) and allow it to continue to grow. You could also roll it over into your new company's 401(k) or into an IRA. But no matter what, that money's still yours.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on My 401(k)?

Years down the road, when the time comes to take out your 401(k) money, you will have to pay the standard income tax on it. But you don't have to pay taxes on the money you contribute in the year that you contribute it. In other words, if your income is $100,000 and you put $10,000 into your 401(k) this year, your taxable income come April 15 will be $90,000, not $100,000. Capisce?

Is There a Limit to How Much I Can Contribute?

Yes. As of 2013, the limit is $17,500 in a given year. However, your employer's contributions don't count toward that limit. The combined contribution limit for 2013 is $51,000. Remember, these contributions are tax-deferred; thus, the reason for the limit.

Why Should I Start Investing Now?

Our favorite question! The sooner you start contributing, the more money you'll gain in the long run -- all thanks to our little friend, compounding growth. With compounding growth, you'll earn profits on both the money you put in and, over time, on the returns from your original investments. In other words, your 401(k) money starts having babies. And then those babies have babies. And the longer you give it, the more money babies there will be. The key to lots of money babies is time. So get started on that money baby family as early as you can.

So the next time your friends quiz you on 401(k)'s, you'll get an A+. And we'll take all credit for any popularity you gain, since popularity is a little-known side effect of knowing your financial FAQs. The things we learn in a day, right?

Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind OurFreakingBudget.com, a personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains and realities of living on a budget. Here are a few popular posts from their blog:


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