What Is a 401(k)?

Quick Answer

A 401(k) is a type of employer-sponsored retirement account that you fund with pretax money. You’ll pay taxes on your withdrawals when you take money out in retirement. Apart from the tax benefits, reasons to invest in a 401(k) include easy, consistent saving and the possibility of an employer match.

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A 401(k) is a type of retirement savings plan many employers offer as part of their employee benefits package. It's a powerful way to invest for retirement because contributions come directly out of your paycheck, which makes it easier to save consistently. Since your contributions are tax-deferred, you won't have to pay taxes on the money you put into your account until you withdraw funds in retirement.

Understanding what a 401(k) is and how to invest in one can help you improve your savings and reach financial freedom in retirement. Here's what you need to know about how to invest in a 401(k) and get the most out of your investments.

How Does a 401(k) Work?

A 401(k) is a type of retirement savings plan that many employers offer as a way to help employees save for retirement. They are tax-deferred, meaning contributions you make to the plan come out of your paycheck before your income is taxed. In retirement, you'll be taxed on withdrawals at your income tax rate at that time.

To earn returns in your 401(k), you'll choose from a basket of investment funds the plan offers—typically mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. You can decide how you want to allocate your investments depending on your tolerance for risk and other factors.

The easiest way to enroll in a 401(k) is to take advantage of a workplace plan offered by your employer. When you onboard at your new job, or during an enrollment period, you can enroll in your company's 401(k) plan and set up automatic contributions based on a percentage of each paycheck.

Types of 401(k)s

While you may hear about traditional 401(k)s most often, there are a number of other types of 401(k) savings plans. Here's an overview of the most common types of 401(k)s.

  • Traditional 401(k): This common type of 401(k) plan is funded with pretax dollars, meaning contributions come out of your paycheck and reduce your taxable income now. The funds grow tax-deferred, and you'll pay taxes on your contributions and earnings when you take distributions in retirement.
  • Roth 401(k): A Roth 401(k) is funded with after-tax dollars. Money in the account grows tax-free, and you'll pay no taxes on qualified distributions in retirement. That can be an advantage if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket in retirement.
  • SIMPLE 401(k): Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) 401(k)s are designed for small businesses with fewer than 100 employees.
  • Solo 401(k): Also sometimes called individual 401(k)s or self-employed 401(k)s, these types of retirement savings plans are designed for small business owners who have no other employees. These can be a helpful way to save for retirement while running your own business.

Why Should You Invest in a 401(k)?

The tax advantages 401(k)s offer can help your money go further. Your contributions to your 401(k) lower your taxable income now. And, if your income tax bracket is lower in retirement than it is now, investing in a 401(k) can lower your overall tax liability.

Not only that, but your contributions are automatically pulled from each paycheck. That makes it much easier to meet the crucial aim of saving regularly toward retirement. Rather than letting your pay land in your bank account and then attempting to set aside funds to invest, it'll all happen automatically—so you're much more likely to stick with it.

On top of those benefits, many employers also match a portion of your 401(k) contributions, often capped at a percentage of your salary. If your employer offers to match your contributions, it's almost always wise to take the match: It's essentially free money toward your retirement savings.

401(k) Contribution Limits

The IRS limits how much you can contribute to a 401(k) each year. For the 2023 tax year, annual employee contributions to a 401(k) are limited to $22,500. Workers who are 50 and older can make an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions, for a total annual contribution limit of $30,000.

Keep in mind that employer matching contributions don't count toward this limit. The IRS limits the combined total contributions to a 401(k) from both you and your employer to no more than $66,000 in 2023 ($73,500 for workers 50-plus) or 100% of your compensation—whichever is less. In other words, if a 35-year-old employee earned $50,000 in 2023, the sum of the employee and employer's contributions to the workplace 401(k) plan couldn't exceed that amount.

How Much Should I Contribute to a 401(k)?

As a general rule, it's wise to contribute at least enough to exhaust any employer match. For instance, if your employer offers to match your contributions up to 4% of your salary, then elect to defer at least 4% of your pay. If you don't, you're essentially leaving money from your employer on the table.

Beyond that match, you should aim to contribute as much as you're able while balancing other financial needs and goals. Many experts recommend you contribute 10% to 15% of your paycheck each month.

How to Withdraw Funds From a 401(k)

When it comes to withdrawing from a 401(k), there are two distinct things to consider: taking qualified distributions in retirement and making early withdrawals in retirement.

These two types of withdrawals have different implications: Early withdrawals before age 59½ typically come with penalties and have a negative impact on your retirement savings, so it's best to consider it as a last resort or, ideally, avoid it altogether.

Qualified Withdrawals in Retirement

Here's how to withdraw funds from your 401(k) during your retirement years:

  1. Reach retirement age. You'll need to wait until at least age 59½ to begin taking qualified withdrawals and avoid paying penalties.
  2. Understand required minimum distributions. When planning how much to withdraw each year in retirement, you'll need to be aware of this big stipulation: Once you reach age 72 (or 70½ if you were born before July 1, 1949), you need to start withdrawing a certain percentage of your 401(k) account balance each year to avoid paying penalties.
  3. Contact your plan administrator. You'll initiate withdrawals from your account by reaching out to your 401(k) plan administrator. They'll help you complete the steps necessary to begin withdrawals. You can often request a lump-sum payment, but to create a steady stream of income, consider asking to set up regular deposits into your bank account. Ask about transaction fees to avoid paying more for regular withdrawals.
  4. Plan for taxes. You've deferred taxes on your contributions and earnings in your 401(k) up until retirement, so now you'll owe the IRS its slice. Your withdrawals will be subject to ordinary income taxes. Consider working with a financial advisor or a tax professional to make sure you're developing a plan for how and when you'll take withdrawals and how it will impact your taxes.

Early 401(k) Withdrawals

If you withdraw funds from your 401(k) before you reach age 59½, then the IRS will consider the transaction an early withdrawal. Again, it's not generally in your financial interest to take early withdrawals from your 401(k) due to both the immediate financial penalties andthe likely impact on your ability to save long-term for retirement.

Before you consider making an early withdrawal, understand the penalties. The money you withdraw will typically be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty. In addition, you'll need to pay income taxes on the withdrawn amount. The IRS imposes these penalties to discourage people from withdrawing their funds early, and encourage them to let their savings grow for retirement.

If you're experiencing a serious financial need, you may qualify for a hardship withdrawal. Check IRS guidelines for hardship withdrawals to understand whether you may qualify.

The Bottom Line

Investing through a 401(k) plan is an excellent way to save for retirement. If you have access to one, it's worth taking full advantage of it by exhausting your employer match. Beyond that, consider making annual contributions up to the amount you can afford.

If you need help determining how much to invest in retirement accounts, how to pick between the benefits of a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) and how to balance retirement with your other financial goals, consider reaching out to a financial advisor. That way, you can discuss the specifics of your financial situation and come up with a plan tailored to your goals.