About 401k: Your Complete Guide to Getting Started

Since 1999, our mission at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings™ has been to make it easy for small business owners to design and execute a cost-effective 401k saving strategy. Here is our guide to what you need to know about 401k:

  • 401k types and benefits
  • ROTH 401k
  • Safe Harbor 401k
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What is a 401k?

A 401k is a savings vehicle established by a business or self-employed person to help employees and business owners save for retirement as well as take advantage of the tax benefits provided to both the business owner and employees. The flexible features of a 401k can accommodate the needs of a broad range of retirement planning objectives. Each individual gets to choose how much of their pay will be deposited into their 401k account each pay period – before taxes are deducted and how those dollars will be invested. Many businesses choose to match a portion of the employees’ contributions, helping retirement savings grow even faster.

401k benefits

In addition to providing financial security in retirement, saving in a 401k provides tax advantages for both the business owner and the employees, including tax deductions, tax-deferred earnings, and tax credits. For example, when an employee saves in a 401k, their contribution is deducted from their paycheck before income taxes are withheld. These pre-tax contributions lower an individual’s tax liability for the year, just for investing in their future.

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Roth 401k

Many 401k plans allow employers and employees to contribute funds to their 401k in two ways: as a pre-tax contribution, and as a Roth 401k contribution. Roth 401k contributions are made with after-tax dollars. When an employee takes money out of their 401k, those contributions and the investment earnings made are tax-free if the employee meets certain requirements. To qualify for tax-free distributions, the individual must have a Roth 401k account for at least 5 years and be 59½ or older, disabled or deceased. Roth 401k is a big advantage for those who are concerned about the tax changes that may occur in the future. With a Roth 401k, individuals and employers will not be taxed on an uncertain tax future.

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Safe Harbor 401k

A 401k must pass certain nondiscrimination tests each year that are designed to prevent the 401k from primarily benefiting high-earning individuals. If a 401k fails these tests, an option for the small business owner is to adopt a Safe Harbor 401(k) plan. A Safe Harbor 401k can bypass the tests in exchange for specified employer contributions that are fully vested. When an employer chooses a Safe Harbor 401k, the owners and high-earning individuals will be able to maximize their 401k contributions instead of being limited by the amount lower-paid employees contribute to the 401k.

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401k plan guide

No confusing language or too much financial jargon. Just a clear, concise, simple explanation.

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Employer 401k contributions

Many employers make additional contributions to their employees’ 401k plan accounts to help their employees reach their retirement planning goals faster, while also taking advantage of additional tax benefits for their business.

The most common employer contribution is a match on a portion of the dollars an employee puts into the plan – for example, an employer may choose to contribute $1 for each dollar the employee contributes, up to the first 3% of the employees’ pre-tax pay. Employers, including self-employed individuals, also sometimes make discretionary profit sharing contributions to their employees.

Maximum 401k contributions

For 2020, you can save up to $19,500 of your pay in a 401k ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older).

In addition, the business may make matching or profit sharing contributions. Employee contributions, combined with any employer contributions, cannot be greater than the employee’s income for the year, up to a maximum of $57,000 for 2020.

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Limits for high-earning individuals

Tax laws require 401k plans to pass nondiscrimination tests each year to make certain the 401k is not primarily benefiting high-earning individuals within the company. The IRS wants to ensure that plans that are being established within an organization are fair and balanced, hence the name, “nondiscrimination” testing. If lower-paid individuals are not making significant contributions, high-earners and business owners may not be able to maximize their contributions.

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IRA vs. 401k

An Individual Retirement Account or IRA is another type of retirement savings vehicle. IRAs are set up by an individual, usually independent of their employer, and are funded by the individual as an additional way to save money toward their retirement planning goals. IRAs can also receive rollovers of assets from other retirement savings vehicles like 401k plans. A 401k, on the other hand, is established by a business or self-employed individual. A 401k plan can accept both employer and employee contributions.  Successful savers can use an IRA plus a 401k if their employer offers the 401k option.

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401k Investments

401k plans generally offer a broad range of investment options. These options are typically selected by the business that sponsors the 401k. Most 401k plans allow employees to choose their own investments from what the business owner (also known as the plan sponsor) selected for the 401k. Some 401k plans provide investment and advisory services to employees. Understanding the risk versus return of the investment fund is important.

Contribution deadlines

Employees who save in a 401k contribute a portion of their pay each pay period. Employers must deposit that pay into employees’ 401k accounts as soon as possible after each payroll date. Many employers also fund matching contributions each pay period but have until the business’s tax return due date to make employer matching and profit sharing contributions to the company 401k.

401k contribution deadlines

401k calculator

As a part of the retirement planning process, individuals should consider using a retirement calculator to help them estimate how much money they need to save to reach their savings goals and retire comfortably.

These tools help individuals estimate what their 401k balance will be at retirement, depending on their current 401k contribution rate, plus expected Social Security benefits, any employer matching dollars, or additional savings an individual may have saved. We recommend only calculating those funds that you control, like your 401k or other savings. The future of Social Security benefits has been debated for many years, and depending on when you retire, may not provide a consistent payout.

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401k rollover

When individuals stop working for the business sponsoring the 401k, they typically have four options regarding their 401k savings. They can choose to leave their savings in that 401k, roll over (move) their money to another 401k, roll over their money to an IRA, or take a cash distribution of their savings.

If an individual dissolves their 401k and takes the cash, it’s counted as income that year and taxed because the contributions were not taxed when deposited into the 401k. You will be taxed for the contribution and all the interest earned unless your 401k was set up as a Roth, or after-tax plan. Many individuals choose to roll their 401k money directly into an IRA or into a 401k offered by their new employer. Expert advice: Look at the investment choices available to you and the fees associated with the plan or IRA before making any moves.

401k withdrawal

In saving for retirement, tax laws are designed to discourage savers from taking money out of a 401k before they retire. Money can only be taken out of a 401k after certain events occur such as leaving employment, disability, and retirement. Many 401k plans allow individuals to take a withdrawal before retirement if they are experiencing a financial hardship. Distributions took before an individual reaches retirement age may be subject to early distribution taxes as well as income taxes.

Required minimum distributions

If someone reaches age 70½ and still has money in their 401k, they must begin taking a minimum payment each year until the account is depleted.

Some 401k plans provide exceptions for older workers who are still employed. When the 401k participant dies, the person(s) they named as beneficiary generally must continue taking payments out of the 401k.

401k loans

Sometimes individuals have a financial emergency or need for more money than they have on hand. Most 401k plans allow the business owner and employees to take a loan from their 401k account and pay back the loan, with interest, through payroll deductions.

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Additional resources for 401k maximum contribution

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44 Montgomery Street, Suite 3060
San Francisco, CA 94104
Support: 855.401.4357

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© 2020 Ubiquity Retirement + Savings
Privacy Policy
44 Montgomery Street, Suite 3060
San Francisco, CA 94104
Support: 855.401.4357

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