What Is 401(k) Matching and How Does It Work?

By LeeMarie Kennedy · May 18, 2024 · 9 minute read

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What Is 401(k) Matching and How Does It Work?

Matching in 401(k) retirement accounts involves an employee making a contribution to the account, and their employer mirroring that contribution — or matching it. A 401(k) is a mechanism for saving retirement funds by making pre-tax contributions through deductions from payroll.

Some plans offer a 401(k) employer match, which can be the equivalent of getting “free money” from an employer. That can help increase an investor’s retirement savings over time.

Key Points

•   401(k) matching involves employers contributing to an employee’s retirement plan, matching the employee’s contributions up to a certain limit.

•   Benefits include tax-deferred growth on investments and immediate ownership of contributions.

•   Matching rates vary, with some employers offering dollar-for-dollar matches and others a percentage.

•   Contribution limits are set annually, with additional catch-up contributions allowed for those over 50.

•   Vesting schedules determine when employees gain full ownership of employer contributions.

What Is 401(k) Matching?

Matching a 401(k) contribution means that an employer matches or mirrors an employee’s contribution to their retirement account, typically up to a certain percentage. In effect, if an employee contributes $1 to their 401(k), an employer would also contribute $1, thereby “matching” the contribution. But again, there are limits to how much employers are generally willing to match.

There are certain advantages to 401(k) matching.

For one, investment gains and elective deferrals to 401(k) plans are not subject to federal income tax until they’re distributed, which is typically when:

•   The participant reaches the age of 59 ½

•   The participant becomes disabled, deceased, or otherwise has a severance from employment

•   The plan terminates and no subsequent plan is established by the employer

•   The participant incurs a financial hardship

Second, elective deferrals are 100% vested. The participant owns 100% of the money in their account, and the employer cannot take it back or forfeit it for any reason.

And third, participants choose how to invest their 401(k). The plans are mainly self-directed, meaning participants decide how they’d like to invest the money in their account. This could mean mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs) which invest in a wide array of sectors and companies, but typically doesn’t include investing in individual companies and stocks.

Investment tactics might vary from person to person, but by understanding their goals, investors can decide whether their portfolio will have time to withstand market ups and downs with some high-risk, high-reward investments, or if they should shift to a more conservative allocation as they come closer to retirement.

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How Does 401(k) Matching Work?

A 401(k) match is an employee benefit that allows an employer to contribute a certain amount to their employee’s 401(k) plan. The match can be based on a percentage of the employee’s contribution, up to a certain portion of their total salary or a set dollar amount, depending on the terms of the plan.

So, some employers might offer a dollar-for-dollar match, while others might offer matching based on a percentage, or a partial-match. Others may not offer any type of match.

That’s important to keep in mind: Not all employers offer this benefit, and some have prerequisites for participating in the match, such as a minimum required contribution or a cap up to a certain amount.

Meeting with an HR representative or a benefits administrator is a one way to get a better idea of what’s possible. Learning the maximum percent of salary the company will contribute is a start, then the employee can set or increase their contribution accordingly to maximize the employer match benefit.

401(k) Matching Example

Many employers use a match formula to determine their 401(k) matches (assuming they offer it at all). Some formulas are more common than others, too, which can help us with an example.

Consider this: Many 401(k) plans use a single-tier match formula, with $0.50 on the dollar on the first 6% of pay being common. But others use multi-tier match formulas, e.g., dollar-on-dollar on the first 3% of pay and $0.50 on the dollar on the next 2% of pay.

For the sake of breaking a few things down, here’s a retirement saving scenario that can illuminate how 401(k) matching works in real life:

Let’s say a person is 30 years old, with a salary of $50,000, contributing 3% of their salary (or $1,500) to a 401(k). Let’s also say they keep making $50,000 and contributing 3% every year until they’re 65. They will have put $52,500 into their 401(k) in those 35 years.

Now let’s say they opt into an employer match with a dollar-for-dollar up to 3% formula. Putting aside the likelihood of an increase in the value of the investments, they’ll have saved $105,000 — with $52,500 in free contributions from their employer.

That, effectively, is a no-cost way to increase retirement savings by 100%.

Average 401(k) Match

Average 401(k) matches is generally around 4% or 5%, and can vary from year to year. With that in mind, workers who are getting an employer match in that range, or within a broader range — perhaps 3% to 6% — are likely getting a “good” match.

But again, considering that some employers don’t offer any match at all, the chance to secure almost any type of match could be considered good for some investors.

Contribution Limits When 401(k) Matching

When deciding how much to contribute to a 401(k) plan, many factors might be considered to take advantage of a unique savings approach:

•   If a company offers a 401(k) employer match, the participant might consider contributing enough to meet whatever the minimum match requirements are.

•   If a participant is closer to retirement age, they’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what they already have saved and what they need to reach their retirement goals. An increase in contributions can make a difference, and maxing out their 401(k) might be a solid strategy.

A retirement calculator can also be helpful in determining what the right contribution amount is for a specific financial situation.

In addition to the uncertainty that can come with choosing how much to contribute to a 401(k), there’s the added pressure of potential penalties for going over the maximum 401(k) contribution limit.

Three common limits to 401(k) contributions:

1.    Elective deferral limits: Contribution amounts chosen by an employee and contributed to a 401(k) plan by the employer. In 2024, participants can contribute up to $23,000. In 2024, participants can contribute up to $23,000. In 2023, participants can contribute up to $22,500.

2.    Catch-up contribution limits: After the age of 50, participants can contribute more to their 401(k) with catch-up contributions. In 2024 and 2023, participants can make up to $7,500 in catch-up contributions.

3.    Employer contribution limits: An employer can also make contributions and matches to a 401(k). The combined limit (not including catch-up contributions) on employer and employee contributions in 2024 is $69,000 and in 2023 is $66,000.

If participants think their total deferrals will exceed the limit for that particular year, the IRS recommends notifying the plan to request the difference (an “excess deferral”) “be paid out of any of the plans that permit these distributions. The plan must then pay the employee that amount by April 15 of the following year (or an earlier date specified in the plan).”

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401(k) Vesting Schedules

Vesting ” means “ownership” in a retirement plan. The employee will vest, or own, some percent of their account balance. In the case of a 401(k), being 100% vested means they’ve met their employer’s vesting schedule requirements to ensure complete ownership of their funds.

Vesting schedules, determined by 401(k) plan documents, can lay out certain employer vesting restrictions that range from immediate vesting to 100% vesting after three years to a schedule that increases the vested percentage based on years of service. Either way, all employees must be 100% vested if a plan is terminated by the employer or upon reaching the plan’s standard retirement age.

Tips on Making the Most of 401(k) Matching

Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to make the most of 401(k) matching.

Remember: It’s “Free” Money

An employer match is one part of the overall compensation package and another way to maximize the amount of money an employer pays their employees. Those employees could be turning their backs on free money by not contributing to an employer-matched 401(k) plan.

You Can Reduce Taxable Income

According to FINRA, “with pre-tax contributions, every dollar you save will reduce your current taxable income by an equal amount, which means you will owe less in income taxes for the year. But your take-home pay will go down by less than a dollar.”

If a participant contributed $1,500 a year to a 401(k), they’d only owe taxes on their current salary minus that amount, which could save some serious money as that salary grows.

Every Dollar Counts

It can be tempting to avoid contributing to your retirement plan, and instead, use the money for something you want or need now. But remember: The more time your money has to potentially grow while it’s invested, the more likely you are to reach your financial goals sooner. While that’s not guaranteed, every dollar you can save or invest now for future use is a dollar you don’t need to save or invest later.

The Takeaway

A 401(k) match is an employee benefit that allows an employer to contribute a certain amount to their employee’s 401(k) plan. Matches can be based on a percentage of the employee’s contribution, up to a certain portion of their total salary or a set dollar amount, depending on the terms of the plan.

Taking advantage of employer matches in a 401(k) plan can help workers reach their financial goals sooner, as a match is, in effect, “free money.” If you’re considering how matches can help bolster your investment strategy, it may be worth discussing with a financial professional.

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How much should I match 401(k)?

It’ll be up to the individual investor, but to make the most of a 401(k) match, workers should likely try to contribute as much as possible up to their employer’s match — it may be worth discussing with a financial professional for additional guidance.

What does 6% 401(k) match mean?

A 6% 401(k) match means that an employer is willing to match up to 6% of an employee’s total salary or compensation in their 401(k) account through matching contributions.

What is a good 401(k) match?

A good 401(k) match could be in the 3% to 6% range, as average employer matches tend to be between 4% and 5%.

Is a 3% match good? Is a 4% match good?

Generally speaking, a 3% match could be considered “good,” as could a 4% match. On average, employers match somewhere between 4% and 5%, and when you get down to it, almost any employer match is “good.”

How do I maximize my 401(k) match?

Maximizing your 401(k) match involves contributing enough to get at least your employer’s full match, whatever that match may be. You should be able to change your contribution levels through your provider, or by speaking with your employer.

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