How to Manage Your 401(k): Tips for All Investors

By Pam O’Brien · February 07, 2024 · 9 minute read

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How to Manage Your 401(k): Tips for All Investors

A 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored retirement plan that you fund with pre-tax dollars deducted from your paycheck.

Understanding the nuances of a 401(k) plan may help individuals maximize their savings.

While financial and retirement situations differ, there are some 401(k) tips that could be helpful to many using this popular investment plan. Consider these eight strategies to help you save for retirement.

1. Take Advantage of Your Employer Match

2. Consider Your Circumstances Before Contributing the Match

3. Understand Your 401(k) Investment Options

4. Stay the Course

5. Change Your Investments Over Time

6. Find—and Keep—Your Balance

7. Diversify

8. Beware Early Withdrawals

8 Tips for Managing Your 401(k)

1. Take Advantage of Your Employer Match

Understanding an employer match is important to making the most of your 401(k).

Also called a company match, an employer match is an employee benefit that allows an employer to contribute a certain amount to an employee’s 401(k). Depending on the plan, the amount of the match might be a percentage of the employee’s contribution up to a specific dollar amount, or a set dollar amount.

Some employers may require that employees make a certain minimum contribution to be eligible for matching funds. For example, an employer might match 3% when you contribute 6%. Your employer may do something different, so be sure to check with your HR or benefits representative.

Even if you don’t contribute the maximum allowable amount to your 401(k), you still may want to take advantage of the match. In other words, in the example above, if the maximum contribution limit for your 401(k) is 10% and you aren’t contributing that much, it might make sense to at least contribute 6% to get the employer match of 3%.

An employer match is sometimes referred to as “free money,” as in, “don’t leave this free money on the table.” An employer match is money that is part of your compensation and benefits package. Claiming it could be your first step in wealth building.

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2. Consider Your Circumstances Before Contributing the Max

Contributing the maximum amount allowed to a 401(k) may make sense for some individuals, particularly if contributing the max isn’t a financial stretch for them. But if you’re struggling to reach that maximum contribution number, or if you have other pressing financial obligations, it may not be the best use of your money.

For 2024, the maximum amount you can contribute to a 401(k) is $23,000 if you’re under age 50, and $30,500, including catch-up contributions, if you’re 50 or older. (These limits don’t include matching funds from your employer.)

If you are living paycheck to paycheck, or you don’t have an emergency savings fund for unexpected expenses, you may want to prioritize those financial situations first. Also, if you have a lot of high-interest debt like credit card debt, it may be in your best interest to pay that debt down before contributing the full amount to your 401(k).

In addition, you may want to think about whether you’re going to need any of the money you might contribute to your 401(k) prior to retirement. Withdrawing money early from a 401(k) can result in a hefty penalty.

There are some exceptions, depending on what you’ll use the withdrawn funds for. For example, qualified first-time home buyers may be exempt from the early distribution penalty. But for the most part, if you know you need to save for some big pre-retirement expenses, it may be better to do so in a non-qualified account.

You might also want to consider whether it makes sense to contribute to another type of retirement account as well, rather than putting all of your eggs in your 401(k) basket. While a 401(k) can offer benefits in terms of tax deferral and a matching contribution from your employer, individuals who are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA, may want to think about splitting contributions between the two accounts.

While 401(k) contributions are made with pre-tax dollars and you pay taxes on the withdrawals you make in retirement, Roth IRA contributions are made with after-tax dollars and typically withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

If you’re concerned about being in a higher tax bracket at retirement than you are now, a Roth IRA can make sense as a complement to your 401(k). A caveat is that these accounts are only available to people below a certain income level.

3. Understand Your 401(k) Investment Options

Once you start contributing to a 401(k); the second step is directing that money into particular investments. Typically, plan participants choose from a list of investment options, many of which may be mutual funds.

When picking funds, consider what they consist of. For example, a mutual fund that is invested in stocks means that you will be invested in the stock market.

With each option, think about this: Does the underlying investment make sense for your goals and risk tolerance?

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4. Stay the Course

At least part of your 401(k) money may be invested in the stock market through the funds or other investment options you choose.

If you’re not used to investing, it can be tempting to panic over small losses. Getting spooked by a dip in the market and pulling your money out is generally a poor strategy, because you are locking in what could possibly amount to be temporary losses. The thinking goes, if you wait long enough, the market might rebound. (Though, as always, past performance is no predictor of future success.)

It may help to know that stock market fluctuations are generally a normal part of the cycle. However, some investors may find it helpful to only check their 401(k) balance occasionally, rather than obsess over day-to-day fluctuations.

5. Change Your Investments Over Time

Lots of things change as we get older, and one important 401(k) tip is to change your investing along with it.

While everyone’s situation is different and economic conditions can be unique, one rule of thumb is that as you get closer to retirement, it makes sense to shift the composition of your investments away from higher risk but potentially higher growth assets like stocks, and towards lower risk, lower return assets like bonds.

There are types of funds and investments that manage this change over time, like target date funds. Some investors choose to make these changes themselves as part of a quarterly or annual rebalancing.

6. Find — And Keep — Your Balance

While you may want your 401(k) investments to change depending on what life stage you’re in, at any given time, you should also have a certain goal of how your investments should be allocated: for instance, a certain portion in bonds, stocks, international stocks, American stocks, large companies, small companies, and so on.

These targets and goals for allocation can change, however, even if your allocations and investment choices don’t change. That’s because certain investments may grow faster than others and thus, they end up taking up a bigger portion of your portfolio over time.

Rebalancing is a process where, every year or every few months, you buy and sell shares in the investments you have in order to keep your asset allocation where it was at the beginning of the year.

For example, if you have 80% of your assets in a diversified stock market fund and 20% of your assets in a diversified bond fund, over the course of a year, those allocations may end up at 83% and 17%.

To address that, you might either sell shares in the stock fund and buy shares in the bond fund in order to return to the original 80/20 mix, or adjust your allocations going forward to hit the target in the next year.

7. Diversify

By diversifying your investments, you put your money into a range of different asset classes rather than concentrating them in one area. The idea is that this may help to lower your risk (though there are still risks involved in investing).

There are several ways to diversify a 401(k), and one of the most important 401(k) investing tips is to recognize how diversification can work both between and within asset classes.

Diversification applies to your overall asset allocation as well as the assets you allocate into. While every situation is different, you may want to be exposed to both stocks and fixed-income assets, like bonds.

Within stocks, diversification can mean investing in U.S. stocks, international stocks, big companies, and small companies. It might make sense to choose diversified funds in all these categories that are diversified within themselves — thus offering exposure to the whole sector without being at the risk of any given company collapsing.

8. Beware Early Withdrawals

An important 401(k) tip is to remember that the 401(k) is designed for retirement, with funds withdrawn only after a certain age. The system works by letting you invest income that isn’t taxed until distribution. But if you withdraw from your 401(k) early, some of this advantage can disappear.

With a few exceptions, the IRS imposes a 10% penalty on withdrawals made before age 59 ½. That 10% penalty is on top of any regular income taxes a plan holder would pay on 401(k) withdrawals. While withdrawals are sometimes unavoidable, the steep cost of withdrawing funds early should be a strong reason not to, if possible.

If you would like to buy a house, for instance, there are other options to explore. First consider pulling money from any accounts that don’t have an early withdrawal penalty, such as a Roth IRA (contributions can typically be withdrawn penalty-free as long as they’ve met the 5-year rule).

The Takeaway

If you have a 401(k) through your employer, consider taking advantage of it. Not only might your employer offer a match, but automatic contributions taken directly from your paycheck and deposited into your 401(k) may keep you from forgetting to contribute.

Also be aware that a 401(k) is not the only option for saving and investing money for the long-term. One alternative option is to open an IRA account online. While there are income limitations to who can use a Roth IRA, these accounts also tend to have a bit more flexibility when withdrawing funds than 401(k) plans.

Another option is to open an investment account. These accounts don’t have the special tax treatment of retirement-specific accounts, but may still be viable ways to save money for individuals who have maxed out their 401(k) contributions or are looking for an alternative way to invest.

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