What Is a 401(k) and How Does It Work? (2023)

What Is a 401(k) and How Does It Work? (1)

What Is a 401(k) Plan?

A 401(k) plan is a retirement savings plan offered by many American employers that has tax advantages for the saver. It is named after a section of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code (IRC).

The employee who signs up for a 401(k) agrees to have a percentage of each paycheck paid directly into an investment account. The employer may match part or all of that contribution. The employee gets to choose among a number of investment options, usually mutual funds.

Key Takeaways

  • A 401(k) plan is a company-sponsored retirement account to which employees can contribute income, while employers may match contributions.
  • There are two basic types of 401(k)s—traditional and Roth—which differ primarily in how they're taxed.
  • With a traditional 401(k), employee contributions are pre-tax, meaning they reduce taxable income, but withdrawals are taxed.
  • Employee contributions to Roth 401(k)s are made with after-tax income: There's no tax deduction in the contribution year, but withdrawals are tax free.
  • Employer contributions can be made to both traditional and Roth 401(k) plans.


Introduction To The 401(K)

How 401(k) Plans Work

The 401(k) plan was designed by the United States Congress to encourage Americans to save for retirement. Among the benefits they offer is tax savings.

There are two main options, each with distinct tax advantages.

Traditional 401(k)

With a traditional 401(k), employee contributions are deducted from gross income, meaning the money comes from the employee's payroll before income taxes have been deducted. As a result, the employee's taxable income is reduced by the total amount of contributions for the year and can be reported as a tax deduction for that tax year. No taxes are due on either the money contributed or the investment earnings until the employee withdraws the money, usually in retirement.

Roth 401(k)

With a Roth 401(k), contributions are deducted from the employee's after-tax income, meaning contributions come from the employee's pay after income taxes have been deducted. As a result, there is no tax deduction in the year of the contribution. When the money is withdrawn during retirement, no additional taxes are due on the employee's contribution or the investment earnings.

However, not all employers offer the option of a Roth account. If the Roth is offered, the employee can choose between a traditional and Roth 401(k), or contribute to both up to annual limit.

(Video) How 401(k) Plans Work And Why They Killed Pensions

Contributing to a 401(k) Plan

A 401(k) is a defined contribution plan. The employee and employer can make contributions to the account up to the dollar limits set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

A defined contribution plan is an alternative to the traditional pension, known as a defined-benefit plan. With a pension, the employer is committed to providing a specific amount of money to the employee for life during retirement.

In recent decades, 401(k) plans have become more common, and traditional pensions have become rare as employers have shifted the responsibility and risk of saving for retirement to their employees.

Employees also are responsible for choosing the specific investments within their 401(k) accounts from a selection that their employer offers. Those offerings typically include an assortment of stock and bond mutual funds and target-date funds designed to reduce the risk of investment losses as the employee approaches retirement.

They may also include guaranteed investment contracts (GICs) issued by insurance companies and sometimes the employer's own stock.

Contribution Limits

The maximum amount that an employee or employer can contribute to a 401(k) plan is adjusted periodically to account for inflation, which is a metric that measures rising prices in an economy.

For 2022, the annual limit on employee contributions is $20,500 per year for workers under age 50. However, those aged 50 and over can make a $6,500 catch-up contribution.

For 2023, the annual limit on employee contributions is $22,500 per year for workers under age 50. Moreover, those aged 50 and over can make a $7,500 catch-up contribution.

If the employer also contributes or if the employee elects to make additional, non-deductible after-tax contributions to their traditional 401(k) account, there is a total employee-and-employer contribution amount for the year:


  • For workers under 50 years old, the total employee-employer contributions cannot exceed $61,000 per year.
  • If the catch-up contribution for those 50 and over is included, the limit is $67,500.


  • For workers under 50 years old, the total employee-employer contributions cannot exceed $66,000 per year.
  • If the catch-up contribution for those 50 and over is included, the limit is $73,500.

Employer Matching

Employers who match employee contributions use various formulas to calculate that match.

For instance, an employer might match 50 cents for every dollar that the employee contributes, up to a certain percentage of salary.

Financial advisors often recommend that employees contribute at least enough money to their 401(k) plans to get the full employer match.

Contributing to Both a Traditional and a Roth 401(k)

If their employer offers both types of 401(k) plans, an employee can split their contributions, putting some money into a traditional 401(k) and some into a Roth 401(k).

However, their total contribution to the two types of accounts can't exceed the limit for one account (such as $20,500 for those under age 50 in 2022 or $22,500 in 2023).

(Video) What is a 401(k)?

Employer contributions can be made to a traditional 401(k) account and a Roth 401(k). Withdrawals from the former will be subject to tax, whereas qualifying withdrawals from the latter are tax-free.

How Does a 401(k) Earn Money?

Your contributions to your 401(k) account are invested according to the choices you make from the selection your employer offers. As noted above, these options typically include an assortment of stock and bond mutual funds and target-date funds designed to reduce the risk of investment losses as you get closer to retirement.

How much you contribute each year, whether or not your company matches your contributions, your investments and their returns, plus the number of years you have until retirement all contribute to how quickly and how much your money will grow.

Provided you don't remove funds from your account, you don't have to pay taxes on investment gains, interest, or dividends until you withdraw money from the account after retirement (unless you have a Roth 401(k), in which case you don't have to pay taxes on qualified withdrawals when you retire).

What's more, if you open a 401(k) when you are young, it has the potential to earn more money for you, thanks to the power of compounding. The benefit ofcompoundingis that returns generated by savings can be reinvested back into the account and begin generating returns of their own.

Over a period of many years, the compounded earnings on your 401(k) account can actually be larger than the contributions you have made to the account. In this way, as you keep contributing to your 401(k), it has the potential to grow into a sizable chunk of money over time.

Taking Withdrawals From a 401(k)

Once money goes into a 401(k), it is difficult to withdraw it without paying taxes on the withdrawal amounts.

"Make sure that you still save enough on the outside for emergencies and expenses you may have before retirement," saysDan Stewart, CFA®, president of Revere Asset Management Inc., in Dallas. "Do not put all of your savings into your 401(k) where you cannot easily access it, if necessary."

The earnings in a 401(k) account are tax deferred in the case of traditional 401(k)s and tax free in the case of Roths. When the traditional 401(k) owner makes withdrawals, that money (which has never been taxed) will be taxed as ordinary income. Roth account owners have already paid income tax on the money they contributed to the plan and will owe no tax on their withdrawals as long as they satisfy certain requirements.

Both traditional and Roth 401(k) owners must be at least age 59½—or meet other criteria spelled out by the IRS, such as being totally and permanently disabled—when they start to make withdrawals to avoid a penalty.

This penalty is usually an additional 10% early distribution tax on top of any other tax they owe.

Some employers allow employees to take out a loan against their contributions to a 401(k) plan. The employee is essentially borrowing from themselves. If you take out a 401(k) loan, please consider that if you leave the job before the loan is repaid, you'll have to repay it in a lump sum or face the 10% penalty for an early withdrawal.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

Traditional 401(k) account holders are subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs) after reaching a certain age. (Withdrawals are often referred to as distributions in IRS parlance.)

After age 72, account owners who have retired must withdraw at least a specified percentage from their 401(k) plans that is based on their life expectancy at the time. Prior to 2020, the RMD age was 70½ years old.

(Video) 🕵 Beginners guide to how a 401k works.

Note that distributions from a traditional 401(k) are taxable. Qualified withdrawals from a Roth 401(k) are not.

Roth IRAs, unlike Roth 401(k)s, are not subject to RMDs during the owner's lifetime.

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

When 401(k) plans became available in 1978, companies and their employees had just one choice: the traditional 401(k). Then in 2006, Roth 401(k)s arrived. Roths are named for former U.S. Senator William Roth of Delaware, the primary sponsor of the 1997 legislation that made the Roth IRA possible.

While Roth 401(k)s were a little slow to catch on, many employers now offer them. So the first decision employees often have to make is choosing between a Roth and a traditional (401(k).

As a general rule, employees who expect to be in a lower marginal tax bracket after they retire might want to opt for a traditional 401(k) and take advantage of the immediate tax break.

On the other hand, employees who expect to be in a higher bracket after retiring might opt for the Roth so that they can avoid taxes on their savings later. Also important—especially if the Roth has years to grow—is that, since there is no tax on withdrawals, all the money that the contributions earn over decades of being in the account is tax free.

As a practical matter, the Roth reduces your immediate spending power more than a traditional 401(k) plan. That matters if your budget is tight.

Since no one can predict what tax rates will be decades from now, neither type of 401(k) is a sure thing. For that reason, many financial advisors suggest that people hedge their bets, putting some of their money into each.

When You Leave Your Job

When you leave a company where you've been employed and you have a 401(k) plan, you generally have four options:

1. Withdraw the Money

Withdrawing the money is usually a bad idea unless you urgently need the cash. The money will be taxable in the year it's withdrawn. You will be hit with the additional 10% early distribution tax unless you are over 59½, permanently disabled, or meet the other IRS criteria for an exception to the rule.

In the case of a Roth 401(k), you can withdraw your contributions (but not any profits) tax free and without penalty at any time as long as you have had the account for at least five years. Remember, however, that you're still diminishing your retirement savings, which you may regret later.

2. Roll Your 401(k) into an IRA

By moving the money into an IRA at a brokerage firm, a mutual fund company, or a bank, you can avoid immediate taxes and maintain the account's tax-advantaged status. What's more, you will be able to select from among a wider range of investment choices than with your employer's plan.

The IRS has relatively strict rules on rollovers and how they need to be accomplished, and running afoul of them is costly. Typically, the financial institution that is in line to receive the money will be more than happy to help with the process and prevent any missteps.

Funds withdrawn from your 401(k) must be rolled over to another retirement account within 60 days to avoid taxes and penalties.

(Video) 401k Explained in 3 Minutes! | How 401k Plans work

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

In many cases, employers will permit a departing employee to keep a 401(k) account in their old plan indefinitely, though the employee can't make any further contributions to it. This generally applies to accounts worth at least $5,000. In the case of smaller accounts, the employer may give the employee no choice but to move the money elsewhere.

Leaving 401(k) money where it is can make sense if the old employer's plan is well managed and you are satisfied with the investment choices it offers. The danger is that employees who change jobs over the course of their careers can leave a trail of old 401(k) plans and may forget about one or more of them. Their heirs might also be unaware of the existence of the accounts.

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

You can usually move your 401(k) balance to your new employer's plan. As with an IRA rollover, this maintains the account's tax-deferred status and avoids immediate taxes.

It could be a wise move if you aren't comfortable with making the investment decisions involved in managing a rollover IRA and would rather leave some of that work to the new plan's administrator.

How Do You Start a 401(k)?

The simplest way to start a 401(k) plan is through your employer. Many companies offer 401(k) plans and some will match part of an employee's contributions. In this case, your 401(k) paperwork and payments will be handled by the company during onboarding.

If you are self-employed or run a small business with your spouse, you may be eligible for a solo 401(k) plan, also known as an independent 401(k). These retirement plans allow freelancers and independent contractors to fund their own retirement, even though they are not employed by another company. A solo 401(k) can be created through most online brokers.

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

For most people, the maximum contribution to a 401(k) plan is $20,500 in 2022 and $22,500 in 2023. If you are more than 50 years old, you can make an additional 2022 catch-up contribution of $6,500 for a total of $27,000 (the catch-up contribution for 2023 is $7,500 for a total of $30,000). There are also limitations on the employer's matching contribution: The combined employer-employee contributions cannot exceed $61,000 in 2022 (or $67,500 for employees over 50 years old) and $66,000 in 2023 (or $73,500 for employees over 50 years old).

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

There are few advantages to taking an early withdrawal from a 401(k) plan. If you take withdrawals before age 59½, you will face a 10% penalty in addition to any taxes you owe. However, some employers allow hardship withdrawals for sudden financial needs, such as medical costs, funeral costs, or buying a home. This can help you avoid the early withdrawal penalty but you will still have to pay taxes on the withdrawal.

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

A 401(k) plan lets you reduce your tax burden while saving for retirement. Not only do you get tax-deferred gains but it's also hassle-free since contributions are automatically subtracted from your paycheck. In addition, many employers will match part of their employee's 401(k) contributions, effectively giving them a free boost to their retirement savings.

(Video) 401K for Dummies - A Beginners Guide to 401K Plans

The Bottom Line

A 401(k) plan is a workplace retirement plan that lets you make annual contributions up to a certain limit and invest that money for the benefit of your later years once your working days are done.

401(k) plans come in two types: a traditional or Roth. The traditional 401(k) involves pre-tax contributions that give you a tax break when you make them and reduce your taxable income. However, you pay ordinary income tax on your withdrawals. The Roth 401(k) involves after-tax contributions and no upfront tax break, but you'll pay no taxes on your withdrawals in retirement. Both accounts allow employer contributions that can increase your savings.


How is a 401k paid out? ›

When withdrawing your retirement savings from a 401(k), you can decide to take a lump-sum distribution, take a periodic distribution (either monthly or quarterly), buy an annuity, or rollover the retirement savings into an IRA.

What happens to 401k if I quit? ›

Your employer gets to take back any unvested contributions. If there was no vesting schedule — in other words, if 100% of employer contributions vested immediately — then it's all yours. (Of course, any money you put in yourself is always yours either way.)

Can I stop my 401k and get my money? ›

Cashing out Your 401k while Still Employed

If you resign or get fired, you can withdraw the money in your account, but again, there are penalties for doing so that should cause you to reconsider. You will be subject to 10% early withdrawal penalty and the money will be taxed as regular income.

How does a 401k benefit you? ›

Tax-Deferred Earnings When you contribute a percentage of your pay to a 401(k) plan, you immediately start paying less to Uncle Sam. That's because your contribution comes out of your paycheck before income taxes are deducted. That means your taxable income is less, which in turn lowers your tax bill.

Can I just cash out my 401k? ›

Yes, you can withdraw money from your 401k before age 59 ½. However, early withdrawals often come with hefty penalties and tax consequences. If you find yourself needing to tap into your retirement funds early, here are rules to be aware of and options to consider.

How much money do I need in my 401k to retire? ›

By age 50, you should have six times your salary in an account. By age 60, you should have eight times your salary working for you. By age 67, your total savings total goal is 10 times the amount of your current annual salary. So, for example, if you're earning $75,000 per year, you should have $750,000 saved.

Can you lose your 401k if you get fired? ›

If you are fired, you lose your right to any remaining unvested funds (employer contributions) in your 401(k). You are always completely vested in your contributions and can not lose this portion of your 401(k).

Do you lose your 401k when you lose your job? ›

If you've been let go or laid off, or even if you're worried about it, you might be wondering what to do with your 401k after leaving your job. The good news is that your 401k money is yours, and you can take it with you when you leave your old employer.

Should I cash out my 401k when I leave my job? ›

Considering the penalties, you don't want to withdraw early from a 401(k) if you can help it, especially if you're quitting your job without something else lined up.

What age can you withdraw 401k? ›

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) generally are minimum amounts that a retirement plan account owner must withdraw annually starting with the year that he or she reaches 72 (70 ½ if you reach 70 ½ before January 1, 2020), if later, the year in which he or she retires.

How long can a company hold your 401k after you leave? ›

For amounts below $5000, the employer can hold the funds for up to 60 days, after which the funds will be automatically rolled over to a new retirement account or cashed out. If you have accumulated a large amount of savings above $5000, your employer can hold the 401(k) for as long as you want.

Can your employer take your 401k? ›

Key Takeaways. Your employer can remove money from your 401(k) after you leave the company, but only under certain circumstances. If your balance is less than $1,000, your employer can cut you a check. Your employer can move the money into an IRA of the company's choice if your balance is between $1,000 to $5,000.

Does 401k pay you monthly? ›

Typically, plans let you select an amount to receive monthly or quarterly, and you're allowed to change that amount once a year, although some plans allow you to do so far more frequently.

Are 401k actually worth it? ›

The value of 401(k) plans is based on the concept of dollar-cost averaging, but that's not always a reliable theory. Many 401(k) plans are expensive because of high administrative and record-keeping costs. Nonetheless, 401(k) plans are ultimately worth it for most people, depending on your retirement goals.

Is it smart to do a 401k? ›

The answer is yes. It's far better to contribute some money to your company's 401(k) — even if it's a seemingly trivial amount each month — than to do nothing. Don't have a 401(k)? An individual retirement account offers some of the same advantages, but you can open one without employer sponsorship.

Can I withdraw my 401k to my bank account? ›

Once you have attained 59 ½, you can transfer funds from a 401(k) to your bank account without paying the 10% penalty. However, you must still pay income on the withdrawn amount. If you have already retired, you can elect to receive monthly or periodic transfers to your bank account to help pay your living costs.

How much should a 55 year old have in 401K? ›

Experts say to have at least seven times your salary saved at age 55. That means if you make $55,000 a year, you should have at least $385,000 saved for retirement.

What is a good monthly retirement income? ›

A good retirement income is about 80% of your pre-retirement income before leaving the workforce. For example, if your pre-retirement income is $5,000 you should aim to have a $4,000 retirement income.

How much do I need in 401K to get 2000 a month? ›

You'd need to save at least $480,000 before retirement if you want $2,000 per month.

How do I cash out my 401k from an old job? ›

Technically, yes: After you've left your employer, you can ask your plan administrator for a cash withdrawal from your old 401(k). They'll close your account and mail you a check. But you should rarely—if ever—do this until you're at least 59 ½ years old!

What percentage should I contribute to my 401k? ›

For that reason, many experts recommend investing 10-15 percent of your annual salary in a retirement savings vehicle like a 401(k).

Do I have to pay taxes on my 401k after age 65? ›

A withdrawal you make from a 401(k) after you retire is officially known as a distribution. While you've deferred taxes until now, these distributions are now taxed as regular income. That means you will pay the regular income tax rates on your distributions. You pay taxes only on the money you withdraw.

Can I retire at 55 and collect Social Security? ›

You can start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 62. However, you are entitled to full benefits when you reach your full retirement age. If you delay taking your benefits from your full retirement age up to age 70, your benefit amount will increase.

How many years does it take to be fully vested in a 401k? ›

This is known as "graded vesting." You will be fully vested (the employer-matching funds will belong to you) after five years at your job. You'll be 60% vested if you leave your job after three years. You'll be entitled to 60% of the amount of money that your employer has contributed to your 401(k).

How much will 401k be worth in 20 years? ›

You would build a 401(k) balance of $263,697 by the end of the 20-year time frame. Modifying some of the inputs even a little bit can demonstrate the big impact that comes with small changes. If you start with just a $5,000 balance instead of $0, the account balance grows to $283,891.

Is 500 a month good for 401k? ›

Most experts recommend putting at least 10% to 15% of your income toward your retirement fund, so $500 per month is right on target according to this guideline.

How much should I put in my 401k each week? ›

You should aim to contribute enough from each paycheck to take advantage of any employer match. If your employer offers a 3% match, contribute at least 3% of each paycheck to your 401(k). After you reach the match, increase your contributions when you can afford to, aiming for 10-20% of your paycheck each month.

Is it better to put money in 401k or savings? ›

Health savings accounts have a huge advantage over a 401(k). You can potentially get double the tax break than a 401(k) provides. A 401(k) allows you to make pre-tax contributions, but when money is withdrawn, you pay taxes on the funds you take out.

Is a 401k better than just saving? ›

A 401(k) can help you to save money for retirement while enjoying some tax breaks. If you have access to a 401(k) at work, taking advantage of it can be a smart move. Regular contributions to a tax-advantaged retirement plan, even in smaller amounts, can add up over time through the power of compounding interest.

What is a better option than a 401k? ›

An IRA is a good first choice

Like a 401(k), savings grow tax-deferred, which means you don't pay income taxes on the earnings as long as the money is in the account. Currently, you can contribute up to $6,000 a year to an IRA (with a $1,000 catch-up for those 50-plus). That would be a good start to your savings.

Is 401k better than stocks? ›

401(k) plans are generally better for accumulating retirement funds, thanks to their tax advantages. Stock pickers, on the other hand, enjoy much greater access to their funds, so they are likely to be preferable for meeting interim financial goals including home-buying and paying for college.

Is 401k lump sum or monthly? ›

If you have a 401(k), IRA or similar individual retirement savings account, your payout options are typically a one-time lump-sum payout or regular withdrawals from your savings. Some 401(k) plans offer an option to convert your savings into a lifetime monthly pension payment.

How is 401k paid by employer? ›

Employers tend to set their 401(k) contribution limits based on the employee's annual salary. In other words, an employer's contribution rate may be at most a certain percentage of the employee's salary. For example, an employer may be willing to match 50% of an employee's contribution, up to 6% of their annual salary.

Do you get your 401k in a lump sum? ›

You can make a 401(k) withdrawal in a lump sum, but in most cases, if you do and are younger than 59½, you'll pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to taxes. There were special allowances for withdrawals in 2020 for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

How much does a 401k take from your paycheck? ›

Financial experts generally recommend that everyone contribute 10% of their paycheck to a 401(k), but this may not be doable for all. Plus, often times we think about other ways we'll need to use that money now.

Does 401k double every 7 years? ›

“The longer you can stay invested in something, the more opportunity you have for that investment to appreciate,” he said. Assuming a 7 percent average annual return, it will take a little more than 10 years for a $60,000 401k balance to compound so it doubles in size.

How much should 401k be monthly? ›

However, regardless of your age and expectations, most financial advisors agree that 10% to 20% of your salary is a good amount to contribute toward your retirement fund.

Do employers automatically put money in 401k? ›

Automatic enrollment allows an employer to automatically deduct elective deferrals from an employee's wages unless the employee makes an election not to contribute or to contribute a different amount. Any plan that allows elective salary deferrals (such as a 401(k) or SIMPLE IRA plan) can have this feature.

What does 6% 401k match mean? ›

Q: What does 6% 401k match means? A: This means that the employer is matching up to a total of 6% of an employee's overall compensation to his or her 401k account on top of what the employee is contributing. So if an employee is earning $50,000 per year, the employer's match would not exceed $3,000.

Can I contribute 100% of my paycheck to 401k? ›

For 2023, your total 401(k) contributions — from yourself and your employer — cannot exceed $66,000 or 100% of your compensation, whichever is less. For 2022, that number is $61,000 or 100% of your compensation.

How long does it take to get your 401k check after you quit? ›

When you leave a job, you can decide to cash out your 401(k) money. Generally, when you request a payout, it can take a few days to two weeks to get your funds from your 401(k) plan. However, depending on the employer and the amount of funds in your account, the waiting period can be longer than two weeks.

What percent should I put in 401k? ›

For that reason, many experts recommend investing 10-15 percent of your annual salary in a retirement savings vehicle like a 401(k).

Are 401k worth it? ›

The value of 401(k) plans is based on the concept of dollar-cost averaging, but that's not always a reliable theory. Many 401(k) plans are expensive because of high administrative and record-keeping costs. Nonetheless, 401(k) plans are ultimately worth it for most people, depending on your retirement goals.

How much 401k should I have at 40? ›

Fidelity says by age 40, aim to have a multiple of three times your salary saved up. That means if you're earning $75,000, your retirement account balance should be around $225,000 when you turn 40. If your employer offers both a traditional and Roth 401(k), you might want to divide your savings between the two.


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