Pros & Cons of Consolidating Your 401(k)

By Pam O’Brien · November 07, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Pros & Cons of Consolidating Your 401(k)

The nature of work is no longer what it used to be. Gone are the days of working for just one employer for an entire career. Now, it’s more common to move between lots of jobs.

According to a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person will have more than 12 jobs during the course of their career. That’s a lot of jobs – and potentially, a lot of 401(k) accounts.

That’s because instead of the pensions that many workers in previous generations had, the average worker today is likely to have self-funded retirement accounts like 401(k)s through each new employer.

This means that as employees move between jobs, many will be left with a hodgepodge of old 401(k)s and other retirement accounts.

Is it best to leave them as they are, or to consolidate 401(k) accounts? And if so, how do you consolidate them?

Read on to learn how to consolidate 401(k) accounts, along with the pros and cons of the most popular consolidation options.

What You Need to Know About 401(k) Plans

A 401(k) is a workplace-sponsored retirement plan. If you sign up for a 401(k), contributions are deducted from your paycheck to go into your 401(k) account. Often 401(k) plans are offered to employees as a workplace benefit, like vacation days and healthcare coverage.

Some companies offer a 401(k) match. This is where a company contributes money to an employee’s 401(k) to match the amount of money the employee has contributed, up to a certain amount. A company match program can make a 401(k) a lucrative way to save money for retirement.

In addition, 401(k) plans are considered an advantageous way to save retirement money because they have certain tax advantages. For instance, 401(k) accounts are referred to as “tax-deferred” because income taxes are deferred until later, when you take the money out in retirement.

The taxation of retirement accounts is an important consideration in long-term financial planning. Taxation also acts as a guide for knowing what retirement account types can be combined, and which types cannot be combined with other retirement account types.

Because all 401(k) accounts share the same tax status (tax-deferred), they can be combined. Traditional IRAs are also tax-deferred and can be combined with a 401(k) account. This process is called a rollover.

A Roth IRA is another popular retirement account type. A Roth IRA cannot be rolled over or combined with a 401(k) or a traditional IRA account, however, because it has a different tax status. With a Roth IRA, you pay the taxes upfront (meaning you make the contributions with after-tax dollars) and your qualified withdrawals are not taxed

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening any investment account, consider what level of risk you are comfortable with. If you’re not sure, start with more conservative investments, and then adjust your portfolio as you learn more.

Should I Combine My 401(k) Accounts?

You might be at the point during your career where you’ve got at least one 401(k) account from a previous job that you’re no longer contributing to. If you are wondering whether to consolidate your 401(k) accounts, here are a few of your options:

1.    Transfering the 401(k) account(s) into your active 401(k), meaning the one you have with your current employer).

2.    Rolling the 401(k) account(s) into a Traditional IRA at an institution of your choosing.

3.    Doing nothing, and leaving the account(s) as is.

Everyone’s financial situation is different, so evaluate the pros and cons of each option when trying to decide what is best for you. When weighing your options, here are some things you might consider:

Option 1: Rolling Over into Your Active 401(k)

Your first option with a 401(k) with a former employer is to transfer the money into your active 401(k) account with your current employer.


1. A single place for your tax-deferred money

By transferring old 401(k) accounts into an existing 401(k), you are consolidating those tax-deferred accounts in one place. You may find managing just one account an ideal scenario.

2. Consolidating your investment strategy

Consolidation may make it easier to keep track of your money and manage a cohesive investment strategy. It can be challenging to manage a bunch of different retirement accounts.


1. Limited investing options

Sometimes 401(k) plans have limited investing options. If this is the case with your current active 401(k), consolidating your other 401(k)s into the plan may limit your investing choices overall. Look at the investment option information provided by your plan to help make an informed decision.

2. Additional fees

Some 401(k) accounts have additional fees on both the accounts and investments themselves. Check to see if fees are assessed at a flat rate, or if they are assessed as a percentage of the amount invested. This may influence your decision to transfer your other 401(k)s into your active 401(k).

How to do it:

How to consolidate 401(k) accounts starts with contacting the institution that holds your old 401(k) and requesting a rollover to your active 401(k). The customer service representative should likely be able to help you on the phone or direct you to the paperwork online. It can be smart to clarify that this is a rollover to another tax-deferred account.

Ideally, the company is able to transfer the funds electronically to your active 401(k). If they are not able to do this, they may request an address to send a check. Get the address of the financial institution where your 401(k) is located and have it ready before making the call.

Option 2: Rolling into an IRA

Rolling old 401(k) accounts into a Traditional IRA of your choosing is a popular choice that allows you maximum control over the investments within the account.


1. You choose the institution

You get to choose where to open your individual retirement account. By selecting the institution, you can choose a place that fits your needs. You will have control over your investment choices and whether to use an institution that charges for certain services.

This may be especially important if the institution that holds your current 401(k) charges account maintenance fees or only offers high-cost investment products.

2. You’ll control it

You open a Traditional IRA on your own and without an employer—therefore, a Traditional IRA is yours. Some people may find it helpful to think of a Traditional IRA as a “home base” for their tax-deferred money. As you move through your career, you can roll old 401(k) accounts into a Traditional IRA that’s not going anywhere—it’s your home base.

3. More investment options

As compared to some 401(K) plans, a Traditional IRA opened at an institution of your choosing may have more options for investing.

Some 401(k) plans may require that participants choose from a pre-selected list of options. If you open a Traditional IRA at a brokerage firm or other financial institution, you’ll have the benefit of a broker’s wisdom and experience should you wish to use a broker. Asking the right questions is key to making sure a broker is the right fit for you.


1. You may still have multiple accounts to maintain

Even if you open a Traditional IRA, you may still want to contribute to your active 401(k). Therefore, you will need to maintain at least two retirement accounts. (And perhaps three, if you have a Roth IRA, which cannot be combined because it has a different tax status.)

(Still, having two accounts—an active 401(k) and a Traditional IRA—might be better for you than having many multiple 401(k) accounts scattered around at different financial institutions.)

2. It may complicate a “backdoor” Roth IRA

A backdoor Roth IRA is a way to contribute to a Roth IRA when your income is too high to contribute to one directly.

Though you’ll want to check with a tax professional, it is generally understood that a backdoor Roth IRA might be complicated if your Traditional IRAs contain a mix of pre and post-tax money that you put in.

If you want to pursue a backdoor Roth IRA, you may want to roll your old 401(k) assets into your current 401(k), or leave the account as it is. The greater the balance in your Traditional IRA, the greater the tax liability for the backdoor Roth IRA contributions since you can only contribute money that’s already been taxed to a Roth IRA.

How to do it:

If you do not already have one, you may want to open an IRA account at a financial institution of your choosing. This could be at a bank or other financial institution.

Once your Rollover IRA is active you can roll funds from your 401(k) into the Rollover IRA. The process is generally similar to that of rolling assets into an active 401(k) as noted above.

💡 Quick Tip: When you’re actively investing in stocks, it’s important to ask what types of fees you might have to pay. For example, brokers may charge a flat fee for trading stocks, or require some commission for every trade. Taking the time to manage investment costs can be beneficial over the long term.

Option 3: Doing Nothing

Lastly, you may opt to leave your 401(k) accounts exactly as they are. Here are some pros and cons of this strategy.


1. You are happy with the financial institution and/or investments

If you like your current investment allocation and investment options and want to continue using them, you may choose to leave your 401(k) as it is.


1. Difficult to manage

It could be hard to manage a cohesive investing strategy across multiple accounts. This may be the case for someone that has multiple accounts at different institutions.

2. Cannot add money to an old employer-sponsored 401(k)

It is not possible to contribute new money to an old 401(k) account that was previously tied to an employer. New money must go into a current 401(k) or some other self-directed retirement account, such as a Solo 401(k), Roth IRA, or Traditional IRA.

If you do not currently have access to an employer-sponsored 401(k), you may want to seek out another retirement account for which you can make contributions.

3. Possible maintenance fees

Old 401(k) accounts may charge monthly or annual fees such as account maintenance fees. By consolidating, it may be possible to eliminate all or most of these fees.

For example, a person could roll old 401(k) accounts that charge a maintenance fee into an account that has no such fee, whether that be their current 401(k) or a Traditional IRA.

4. Limited investing options

Because a person does not get to choose the bank that holds their employer-sponsored 401(k), they don’t get to determine the plan’s investing options, either. Therefore, it’s up to you to decide whether the available investment options in your old 401(k) are sufficient.

The Takeaway

People may benefit from consolidating their 401(k) accounts into their current 401(k) or into a Traditional IRA, if for no other reason than to consolidate their money under one roof.

It can be hard to manage a bunch of different accounts at different institutions, and may only get harder as individuals progress through their careers and end up with even more 401(k) accounts.

In general, a Traditional IRA can provide more flexibility and investing options than a 401(k). It means that you’ll be managing two accounts, yes, but it might be worth it to keep a Traditional IRA as a home base to roll all old 401(k) accounts into over time.

When you open an IRA, you’ll want to find a bank or financial institution that meets your needs. Many investors prefer institutions where they will not be charged with unnecessary fees and have access to low-cost investing options.

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Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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