401(k) Vesting: What Does Vested Balance Mean?

By Michael Flannelly · January 30, 2024 · 6 minute read

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401(k) Vesting: What Does Vested Balance Mean?

Your vested 401(k) balance is the portion you fully own and can take with you when you leave your employer. This amount includes your employee contributions, which are always 100% vested, any investment earnings, and your employer’s contributions that have passed the required vesting period.

Here’s a deeper look at what being vested means and the effect it can have on your retirement savings.

Key Points

•   401(k) vesting refers to when ownership of an employer’s contributions to a 401(k) account shifts to the employee.

•   401(k) contributions made by employees are always 100% vested; they own them outright.

•   Vesting schedules vary, but employees become 100% vested after a specified number of years.

•   401(k) vesting incentivizes employees to stay with their current employer and to contribute to their 401(k).

•   Companies may use immediate, cliff, or graded vesting schedules for their 401(k) plans.

What Does Vested Balance Mean?

The vested balance is the amount of money that belongs to you and cannot be taken back by an employer when you leave your job — even if you are fired.

The contributions you personally make to your 401(k) are automatically 100% vested. Vesting of employer contributions typically occurs according to a set timeframe known as a vesting schedule. When employer contributions to a 401(k) become vested, it means that the money is now entirely yours.

Having a fully vested 401(k) means that employer contributions will remain in your account when you leave the company. It also means that you can decide to roll over your balance to a new account, start making withdrawals, or take out a loan against the account, if your plan allows it. However, keeping a vested 401(k) invested and letting it grow over time may be one of the best ways to save for retirement.

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How 401(k) Vesting Works

401(k) vesting refers to the process by which employees become entitled to keep the money that an employer may have contributed to their 401(k) account. Vesting schedules can vary, but most 401(k) plans have a vesting schedule that requires employees to stay with the company for a certain number of years before they are fully vested.

For example, an employer may have a vesting schedule requiring employees to stay with the company for five years before they are fully vested in their 401(k) account. If an employee were to leave the company before reaching that milestone, they could forfeit some or all of the employer-contributed money in the 401(k) account. The amount an employee gets to keep is the vested balance. Other qualified defined contribution plans, such as 401(a) or 403(b) plans, may also be subject to vesting schedules.

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Importance of 401(k) Vesting

401(k) vesting is important because it determines when an employee can keep the employer’s matching contributions to their retirement account. Vesting schedules can vary, but typically after an employee has been with a company for a certain number of years, they will be 100% vested in the employer’s contributions.

401(k) Vesting Eligibility

401(k) vesting eligibility is the time an employee must work for their employer before they are eligible to receive the employer’s contribution to their 401(k) retirement account. The vesting period varies depending on the employer’s plan.

401(k) Contributions Basics

Before understanding vesting, it’s important to know how 401(k) contributions work. A 401(k) is a tax-advantaged, employer-sponsored retirement plan that allows employees to contribute a portion of their salary each pay period, usually on a pre-tax basis.

For tax year 2024, employees can contribute up to $23,000 annually in their 401(k) accounts, with an extra $7,500 in catch-up contributions allowed for those age 50 or older. For tax year 2023, employers can contribute up to $22,500, with an extra $7,500 in catch-up contributions allowed for those age 50 or older. Employees can then invest their contributions, often choosing from a menu of mutual funds, exchanged-traded funds (ETFs) or other investments offered by their employer.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also allows employers to contribute to their employees’ plans. Often these contributions come in the form of an employer 401(k) match. For example, an employer might offer matching contributions of 3% or 6% if an employee chooses to contribute 6% of their salary to the 401(k).

In 2024, the total contributions that an employee and employer can make to a 401(k) is $69,000 ($76,500 including catch-up contributions). In 2023, the total contributions that an employee and employer can make to a 401(k) is $66,000 ($73,500 including catch-up contributions).

Employer contributions are a way for businesses to encourage employees to save for retirement. They’re also an important benefit that job seekers look for when searching for new jobs.

💡 Recommended: How To Make Changes to Your 401(k) Contributions

Benefits of 401(k) Vesting

There are several benefits of 401(k) vesting, including ensuring that employees are more likely to stay with a company for the long term because they know they will eventually vest and be able to keep the money they have contributed to their 401(k). Additionally, it incentivizes employees to contribute to a 401(k) because they know they will eventually be fully vested and be entitled to all the money in their account.

401(k) vesting also gives employees a sense of security, knowing they will not lose the money they have put into their retirement savings if they leave their job.

Drawbacks of 401(k) Vesting

While 401(k) vesting benefits employees, there are also some drawbacks. For one, vesting can incentivize employees to stay with their current employer, even if they want to leave their job. Employees may be staying in a job they’re unhappy with just to wait for their 401(k) to be fully vested.

Also, using a 401(k) for investing can create unwanted tax liability and fees. When you withdraw money from a 401(k) before age 59 ½, you’ll typically have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty and taxes. This can eat into the money you were hoping to use for retirement.

How Do I Know if I Am Fully Vested in my 401(k)?

If you’re unsure whether or when you will be fully vested, you can check their plan’s vesting schedule, usually on your online benefits portal.

Immediate Vesting

Immediate vesting is the simplest form of vesting schedule. Employees own 100% of contributions right away.

Cliff Vesting

Under a cliff vesting schedule, employer contributions are typically fully vested after a certain period of time following a job’s start date, usually three years.

Graded Vesting

Graded vesting is a bit more complicated. A percentage of contributions vest throughout a set period, and employees gain gradual ownership of their funds. Eventually, they will own 100% of the money in their account.

For example, a hypothetical six-year graded vesting schedule might look like this:

Years of Service

Percent Vested

1 0%
2 20%
3 40%
4 60%
5 80%
6 100%

Why Do Employers Use Vesting?What Happens If I Leave My Job Before I’m Fully Vested?

If you leave your job before being fully vested, you forfeit any unvested portion of their 401(k). The amount of money you’d lose depends on your vesting schedule, the amount of the contributions, and their performance. For example, if your employer uses cliff vesting after three years and you leave the company before then, you won’t receive any of the money your employer has contributed to their plan.

If, on the other hand, your employer uses a graded vesting schedule, you will receive any portion of the employer’s contributions that have vested by the time they leave. For example, if you are 20% vested each year over six years and leave the company shortly after year three, you’ll keep 40% of the employer’s contributions.

Other Common Types of Vesting

Aside from 401(k)s, employers may offer other forms of compensation that also follow vesting schedules, such as pensions and stock options. These tend to work slightly differently than vested contributions, but pensions and stock options may vest immediately or by following a cliff or graded vesting schedule.

Stock Option Vesting

Employee stock options give employees the right to buy company stock at a set price at a later date, regardless of the stock’s current value. The idea is that between the time an employee is hired and their stock options vest, the stock price will have risen. The employee can then buy and sell the stock to make a profit.

Pension Vesting

With a pension plan, vesting schedules determine when employees are eligible to receive their full benefits.

How Do I Find Out More About Vesting?

There are a few ways to learn more about vesting and your 401(k) vested balance. This information typically appears in the 401(k) summary plan description or the annual benefits statement.

Generally, a company’s plan administrator or human resources department can also explain the vesting schedule in detail and pinpoint where you are in your vesting schedule. Understanding this information can help you know the actual value of your 401(k) account.

The Takeaway

While any employee contributions to 401(k) plans are immediately fully vested, the same is not always true of employer contributions. The employee may gain access to employer contributions slowly over time or all at once after the company has employed them for several years.

Understanding vesting and your 401(k)’s vesting schedule is one more piece of information that can help you plan for your financial future. A 401(k) and other retirement accounts can be essential components of a retirement savings plan. Knowing when you are fully vested in a 401(k) can help you understand how much money might be available when you retire.

There are many ways to save for retirement, including opening a traditional or Roth IRA. To get started with those, you can open an online retirement account on the SoFi Invest® platform.

Find out more about investing with SoFi today.


What does 401(k) vesting mean?

401(k) vesting is when an employee becomes fully entitled to the employer’s matching contributions to the employee’s 401(k) account. Vesting typically occurs over a period of time, such as five years, and is often dependent on the employee remaining employed with the company.

What is the vesting period for a 401(k)?

The vesting period is the amount of time an employee must work for an employer before they are fully vested in the employer’s 401(k) plan. This period is different for each company, but generally, the vesting period is between three and five years.

How does 401(k) vesting work?

Vesting in a 401(k) plan means an employee has the right to keep the employer matching contributions made to their 401(k) account, even if they leave the company. Vesting schedules can vary, but most 401(k) plans have a vesting schedule of three to five years.

You may also be interested in:

What Happens to Your 401(k) When You Leave Your Job?

When Can You Withdraw From Your 401(k)?

Borrowing From Your 401(k): Pros and Cons

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