Don’t Make These 401k Mistakes

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The American 401k is a very powerful retirement-planning option. Properly utilized it can help provide for a comfortable retirement. There are certain 401k mistakes that can derail your retirement dreams. Here’s what they are, and how to avoid them.

Retirement Investing for Beginners | 401k

Love Your 401k

What is a 401k plan? A 401k plan is an employer-sponsored retirement plan that is available to almost 80% of the working American population. Contributions by employees are made before taxes are withheld, allowing the full amount to be invested. Additionally, most companies will match a portion of the employee contribution.

In recent years the average corporate 401k match has been almost 3% of an employ’s salary. That’s free money and instant gain on your investment!

Yes, there are a lot of great reasons to love your 401k. If both people in a two-income household were to max-out their 401k contributions through their prime earning years, they’d retire with around $4.6 million dollars. Think you could retire comfortably on that? I know I could!

But there are a few common mistakes people make that derail those retirement dreams.

Avoid These 401k Mistakes

As awesome of a retirement vehicle the 401k is, there are several mistakes made by far too many people. Below are the most common of those mistakes so you can understand and avoid them – and maximize your 401k benefits.

Mistake #1: Not Contributing To Your 401k

To get the benefits of a 401k plan, you need to contribute to the plan.

It’s a no-brainer to contribute at least enough to benefit from your employer match. Right?

Studies show that less than half of people with a 401k available to them actually contribute. That’s right, 59% of 401k-eligible people are passing up free money. Not only that but they’re missing out on one of the best tax-deferred ways to build wealth for a comfortable retirement.

Invest what you can. You can always increase the amount later, but definitely get started with something. If possible try to invest enough to get the match free money.

Remember too that the contributions are tax-deferred. Taxes aren’t paid until later in retirement. Let’s say you pay 25% in federal and 5% in state income taxes right now. Contributing $500 monthly into your 401k only impacts  your take-home pay by $350.

The tax breaks make it easier to find money to contribute than many people realize.

Here’s how much you’ll have if you max out your 401k plan

Mistake #2: Poor Choice Of 401k Investments

I’ve seen this happen: An employee makes the excellent decision to put money in their 401k plan. They don’t take the time to review their investment options and just randomly pick a few mutual funds for their money.

You might get lucky doing that, but likely you won’t.

Spend at least a minimal amount of time thinking about your investment portfolio in consideration of your goals and your risk tolerance.

The investment choices don’t have to be complex. In fact here are three investment portfolio options that use just three funds or less!

The point is – consider your options and choose funds to achieve your goals.

Automatic Millionaire: Real-Life Specifics

Mistake #3: Borrowing From Your 401k

You can borrow up to 50% of your 401k balance and the interest paid goes back into your own account.

Sounds great, right? Not necessarily.

Sure, this option is better than taking out some high interest loan, but it can also seriously slow progress toward your retirement goals.

Consider that interest payments you make on a 401k loan are paid with after-tax money. You’ll also pay taxes again on that interest when you withdraw it in retirement. Interest on 401k loans effectively become double-taxed.

Understand too that if you leave your job you will need to quickly pay back the loan. Generally people have 2-3 months after leaving a job to fully pay back a 401k loan.

Of course when you’ve borrowed against your 401k you don’t benefit from any gains on that amount while the loan is outstanding. So not only are you paying taxable interest but you’re missing out on any growth in the market.

How much do you need to save, from any age, to retire a millionaire?

Mistake #4: Taking An Early 401k Cash-Out

Withdrawing money from a 401k before you turn 59.5 can be costly!

First you’ll have to pay federal and state income taxes at your current tax bracket rate. Then you will also be required to pay a 10% penalty on top of taxes. That $10,000 withdraw could look a lot like $6k or less after taxes and penalties.

Unfortunately, a lot of people make this mistake. Back in 2011 the IRS collected $5.7 billion dollars in early-withdraw penalties. That’s almost $6 billion dollars that would otherwise have gone toward providing a comfortable retirement for many Americans.

There are a few ways to avoid the penalty, but as you can see from the huge amount of fees collected, not many people qualify for the avoidance.

Slow and steady got me to $500k

In Closing

Avoid these 401k mistakes to maximize your plan’s benefits. Taking the proper steps now can help assure a comfortable retirement when the time comes.

As a financial life planner I can help you clarify your dreams and priorities, then develop an actionable plan to achieve your goals. Having a financial plan for your life includes much more than just investing, but intelligent investing is definitely part of the solution. Reach out and let's talk about how I can help you achieve the life of your dreams.

Do you have a 401k available? If so, are you contributing to it? Let us know in the comments.


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  1. Grant @ Life Prep Couple October 10, 2017 at 9:39 am - Reply

    Nice post Brad. I am always amazed when I talk to people who aren’t contributing to their 401k. Especially when there is company match. Come on it is free money.

    Once we started maxing out our 401k is when our net worth really started taking off.

    • Brad Kingsley October 10, 2017 at 11:14 am - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts Grant. We’ve seen the same on the net worth – the 401k was a major wealth-growth factor for us!

  2. Mrs. Adventure Rich October 10, 2017 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    I think one of the best things I did early in my career was invest in my 401k. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway (and thank goodness I did!) I wish 401K education was more widely spread.

    • Brad Kingsley October 10, 2017 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Indeed Mrs AR! The 401k is a way more powerful tool than many people realize. I agree we need to help get the message out so people aren’t missing this great wealth-building opportunity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Dave @ Married with Money October 10, 2017 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    I was just talking to a coworker last month; he left a previous role and cashed out his 401(k). He didn’t realize he’d get slapped with taxes, and definitely didn’t realize he’d get slapped with another 10% fee. He wasn’t happy, and now he’s in pretty rough shape for retirement. 🙁

    • Brad Kingsley October 10, 2017 at 3:44 pm - Reply

      Oh man, that stinks. Hopefully he’s young and resourceful enough to make up for that lost ground. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Dave!

  4. Tom @ Dividends Diversify October 14, 2017 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    Brad, Totally agree with all your points. My only real complaints about 401Ks I have participated in is that the fees tend to be higher and the investment choices less attractive than what I can access on my own. Otherwise they are a great vehicle for long term investing. I have always opted to roll over directly to a self directed IRA when changing employers to address my complaints and avoid your mistake #4. Nice post. Tom

    • Brad Kingsley October 14, 2017 at 8:01 pm - Reply

      I absolutely agree Tom – thanks for sharing those thoughts!

      If 401ks didn’t have the benefits they do, then going IRA instead would be better. Thankfully the benefits outweigh the challenges.

      Rolling a 401k into an IRA when leaving the job is a GREAT option. We’ve always done that ourselves. Once you’ve lost the benefits of an active 401k plan, it makes more sense to expand the investment options – while lowering costs at the same time – with a self-directed IRA.

      Betterment, Fidelity, Vanguard, and just about every brokerage I’ve used supports easy roll-overs.

      Thanks again for sharing those thoughts!

  5. Jason@WinningPersonalFinance November 14, 2017 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    Great list Brad! Never want to miss that employer match. How often can you get a 100% return!?!?!

  6. Baby Boomer Super Saver December 3, 2017 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    Love the list of mistakes to avoid, great advice. Not all jobs offer an employer match for 401k contributions, but it’s still worth investing in it because you can often max out the 401k and do a separate IRA to save even more money for retirement. Not to mention the generous catch-up contribution limits allowed if you’re over 50 for both of these!

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