Guide to Maxing Out Your 401(k)

By Ashley Kilroy · February 27, 2024 · 17 minute read

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Guide to Maxing Out Your 401(k)

Maxing out your 401(k) involves contributing the maximum allowable to your workplace retirement account to increase the benefit of compounding and appreciating assets over time.

All retirement plans come with contribution caps, and when you hit that limit it means you’ve maxed out that particular account.

There are a lot of things to consider when figuring out how to max out your 401(k) account. And if you’re a step ahead, you may also wonder what to do after you max out your 401(k).

Key Points

•   Maxing out your 401(k) contributions can help you save more for retirement and take advantage of tax benefits.

•   Strategies to maximize your 401(k) include contributing enough to get the full employer match, increasing contributions over time, and utilizing catch-up contributions if eligible.

•   Automating contributions and adjusting your budget can help you free up funds to maximize your 401(k) contributions.

•   Diversifying your investments within your 401(k) and regularly reviewing and rebalancing your portfolio can optimize your returns.

•   Seeking professional advice and staying informed about changes in contribution limits and regulations can help you make the most of your 401(k).

What Does It Mean to Max Out Your 401(k)?

Maxing out your 401(k) means that you contribute the maximum amount allowed by law in a given year, as specified by the established 401(k) contribution limits. But it can also mean that you’re maxing out your contributions up to an employer’s percentage match, too.

If you want to max out your 401(k) in 2024, you’ll need to contribute $23,000 annually. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $7,500, for an annual total of $30,500. If you want to max out your 401(k) in 2023, you’ll need to contribute $22,500 annually. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute an additional $7,500, for an annual total of $30,000.

For some quick background, 401(k) plans are one of the most common types of retirement plans in the U.S. They are employer-sponsored accounts that allow both you and your employer to make contributions.

When you set up a 401(k), you can opt to have a certain amount or percentage of your paycheck go directly to your 401(k), and sometimes an employer will match your own contributions up to a certain percentage or dollar amount. For example, you might contribute 3%, and your employer might match your 3% dollar for dollar, for a total of 6%. If your employer’s maximum match is 3%, and you contribute up to that matching amount, then in this case, you’re “maxing out” your 401(k).

If you were contributing less than 3%, you might want to make changes to your 401(k) contributions to “max” it out.

But on a broader scale, and what we’ll stick with for the purposes of this piece, maxing out a 401(k) primarily refers to contributing as much as legally possible during a given year.

So, to max out a 401(k) for tax year 2023, an employee would need to contribute $22,500 in salary deferrals — or $30,000 if they’re over age 50. Some investors might think about maxing out their 401(k) as a way of getting the most out of their retirement savings strategy.

Is It Good to Max Out Your 401(k)?

4 Goals to Meet Before Maxing Out Your 401(k)

Generally speaking, yes, it’s a good thing to max out your 401(k) so long as you’re not sacrificing your overall financial stability to do it. Saving for retirement is important, which is why many financial experts would likely suggest maxing out any employer match contributions first.

But while you may want to take full advantage of any tax and employer benefits that come with your 401(k), you also want to consider any other financial goals and obligations you have before maxing out your 401(k).

That doesn’t mean you should put other goals first, and not contribute to your retirement plan at all. That’s not wise. Maintaining a baseline contribution rate for your future is crucial, even as you continue to save for shorter-term aims or put money toward debt repayment.

Other goals could include:

•   Is all high-interest debt paid off? High-interest debt like credit card debt should be paid off first, so it doesn’t accrue additional interest and fees.

•   Do you have an emergency fund? Life can throw curveballs—it’s smart to be prepared for job loss or other emergency expenses.

•   Is there enough money in your budget for other expenses? You should have plenty of funds to ensure you can pay for additional bills, like student loans, health insurance, and rent.

•   Are there other big-ticket expenses to save for? If you’re saving for a large purchase, such as a home or going back to school, you may want to put extra money toward this saving goal rather than completely maxing out your 401(k), at least for the time being.

Once you can comfortably say that you’re meeting your spending and savings goals, it might be time to explore maxing out your 401(k). There are many reasons to do so — it’s a way to take advantage of tax-deferred savings, employer matching (often referred to as “free money”), and it’s a relatively easy and automatic way to invest and save, since the money gets deducted from your paycheck once you’ve set up your contribution amount.

Brian Walsh, Certified Financial Planner™ at SoFi, says not to overthink it. “Generally speaking, you should invest money when you have it … When you have money to save, you save it.”

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6 Steps to Maxing Out Your 401(k)

For 2023, the IRS has set the 401(k) contribution limit as $22,500 in salary deferrals. Individuals over the age of 50 can contribute an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions. Only a relatively small percentage of people actually do max out their 401(k)s, however. Here are some strategies for how to max out your 401(k).

1. Max Out 401(k) Employer Contributions

Your employer may offer matching contributions, and if so, there are typically rules you will need to follow to take advantage of their match.

An employer may require a minimum contribution from you before they’ll match it, or they might match only up to a certain amount. They might even stipulate a combination of those two requirements. Each company will have its own rules for matching contributions, so review your company’s policy for specifics.

For example, suppose your employer will match your contribution up to 3%. So, if you contribute 3% to your 401(k), your employer will contribute 3% as well. Therefore, instead of only saving 3% of your salary, you’re now saving 6%. With the employer match, your contribution just doubled. Note that employer contributions can range from nothing at all to upwards of 15%. It depends.

Since saving for retirement is one of the best investments you can make, it’s wise to take advantage of your employer’s match. Every penny helps when saving for retirement, and you don’t want to miss out on this “free money” from your employer.

If you’re not already maxing out the matching contribution and wish to, you can speak with your employer (or HR department, or plan administrator) to increase your contribution amount, you may be able to do it yourself online.

2. Max Out Salary-Deferred Contributions

While it’s smart to make sure you’re not leaving free money on the table, maxing out your employer match on a 401(k) is only part of the equation.

In order to make sure you’re setting aside an adequate amount for retirement, consider contributing as much as your budget will allow. Again, individuals younger than age 50 can contribute up to $22,500 in salary deferrals per year — and if you’re over age 50, you can max out at $30,000 in 2023.

It’s called a “salary deferral” because you aren’t losing any of the money you earn; you’re putting it in the 401(k) account and deferring it until later in life.

Those contributions aren’t just an investment in your future lifestyle in retirement. Because they are made with pre-tax dollars, they lower your taxable income for the year in which you contribute. For some, the immediate tax benefit is as appealing as the future savings benefit.

3. Take Advantage of Catch-Up Contributions

As mentioned, 401(k) catch-up contributions allow investors over age 50 to increase their retirement savings — which is especially helpful if they’re behind in reaching their retirement goals. Individuals over age 50 can contribute an additional $7,500 for a total of $30,000 for the year. Putting all of that money toward retirement savings can help you truly max out your 401(k).

As you draw closer to retirement, catch-up contributions can make a difference, especially as you start to calculate when you can retire. Whether you have been saving your entire career or just started, this benefit is available to everyone who qualifies.

And of course, this extra contribution will lower taxable income even more than regular contributions. Although using catch-up contributions may not push everyone to a lower tax bracket, it will certainly minimize the tax burden during the next filing season.

4. Reset Your Automatic 401(k) Contributions

When was the last time you reviewed your 401(k)? It may be time to check in and make sure your retirement savings goals are still on track. Is the amount you originally set to contribute each paycheck still the correct amount to help you reach those goals?

With the increase in contribution limits most years, it may be worth reviewing your budget to see if you can up your contribution amount to max out your 401(k). If you don’t have automatic payroll contributions set up, you could set them up.

It’s generally easier to save money when it’s automatically deducted; a person is less likely to spend the cash (or miss it) when it never hits their checking account in the first place.

If you’re able to max out the full 401(k) limit, but fear the sting of a large decrease in take-home pay, consider a gradual, annual increase such as 1% — how often you increase it will depend on your plan rules as well as your budget.

5. Put Bonus Money Toward Retirement

Unless your employer allows you to make a change, your 401(k) contribution will likely be deducted from any bonus you might receive at work. Many employers allow you to determine a certain percentage of your bonus check to contribute to your 401(k).

Consider possibly redirecting a large portion of a bonus to 401k contributions, or into another retirement account, like an individual retirement account (IRA). Because this money might not have been expected, you won’t miss it if you contribute most of it toward your retirement.

You could also do the same thing with a raise. If your employer gives you a raise, consider putting it directly toward your 401(k). Putting this money directly toward your retirement can help you inch closer to maxing out your 401(k) contributions.

6. Maximize Your 401(k) Returns and Fees

Many people may not know what they’re paying in investment fees or management fees for their 401(k) plans. By some estimates, the average fees for 401(k) plans are between 1% and 2%, but some plans can have up to 3.5%.

Fees add up — even if your employer is paying the fees now, you’ll have to pay them if you leave the job and keep the 401(k).

Essentially, if an investor has $100,000 in a 401(k) and pays $1,000 or 1% (or more) in fees per year, the fees could add up to thousands of dollars over time. Any fees you have to pay can chip away at your retirement savings and reduce your returns.

It’s important to ensure you’re getting the most for your money in order to maximize your retirement savings. If you are currently working for the company, you could discuss high fees with your HR team. One of the easiest ways to lower your costs is to find more affordable investment options. Typically, the biggest bargains can be index funds, which often charge lower fees than other investments.

If your employer’s plan offers an assortment of low-cost index funds or institutional funds, you can invest in these funds to build a diversified portfolio.

If you have a 401(k) account from a previous employer, you might consider moving your old 401(k) into a lower-fee plan. It’s also worth examining what kind of funds you’re invested in and if it’s meeting your financial goals and risk tolerance.

What Happens If You Contribute Too Much to Your 401(k)?

After you’ve maxed out your 401(k) for the year — meaning you’ve hit the contribution limit corresponding to your age range — then you’ll need to stop making contributions or risk paying additional taxes on your overcontributions.

In the event that you do make an overcontribution, you’ll need to take some additional steps such as letting your plan manager or administrator know, and perhaps withdrawing the excess amount. If you leave the excess in the account, it’ll be taxed twice — once when it was contributed initially, and again when you take it out.

What to Do After Maxing Out a 401(k)?

If you max out your 401(k) this year, pat yourself on the back. Maxing out your 401(k) is a financial accomplishment. But now you might be wondering, what’s next? Here are some additional retirement savings options to consider if you have already maxed out your 401(k).

Open an IRA

An individual retirement account (IRA) can be a good complement to your employer’s retirement plans. The pre-tax guidelines of this plan are pretty straightforward.

You can save up to $7,000 pre-tax dollars in an IRA if you meet individual IRS requirements for tax year 2024, and $6,500 for tax year 2023. If you’re 50 or older, you can contribute an extra $1,000, totaling $8,000 for 2024 and $7,500 for 2023, to an IRA.

You may also choose to consider a Roth IRA. Roth IRA accounts have income limits, but if you’re eligible, you can contribute with after-tax dollars, which means you won’t have to pay taxes on earnings withdrawals in retirement as you do with traditional IRAs.

You can open an IRA at a brokerage, mutual fund company, or other financial institution. If you ever leave your job, you can roll your employer’s 401(k) into your IRA without facing any tax consequences as long as they are both traditional accounts and it’s a direct rollover – where funds are transferred directly from one plan to the other. Doing a rollover may allow you to invest in a broader range of investments with lower fees.

Boost an Emergency Fund

Experts often advise establishing an emergency fund with at least six months of living expenses before contributing to a retirement savings plan. Perhaps you’ve already done that — but haven’t updated that account in a while. As your living expenses increase, it’s a good idea to make sure your emergency fund grows, too. This will cover you financially in case of life’s little curveballs: new brake pads, a new roof, or unforeseen medical expenses.

The money in an emergency fund should be accessible at a moment’s notice, which means it needs to comprise liquid assets such as cash. You’ll also want to make sure the account is FDIC insured, so that your money is protected if something happens to the bank or financial institution.

Save for Health Care Costs

Contributing to a health savings account (HSA) can reduce out-of-pocket costs for expected and unexpected health care expenses. For tax year 2023, eligible individuals can contribute up to $3,850 pre-tax dollars for an individual plan or up to $7,750 for a family plan.

The money in this account can be used for qualified out-of-pocket medical expenses such as copays for doctor visits and prescriptions. Another option is to leave the money in the account and let it grow for retirement. Once you reach age 65, you can take out money from your HSA without a penalty for any purpose. However, to be exempt from taxes, the money must be used for a qualified medical expense. Any other reasons for withdrawing the funds will be subject to regular income taxes.

Increase College Savings

If you’re feeling good about maxing out your 401(k), consider increasing contributions to your child’s 529 college savings plan (a tax-advantaged account meant specifically for education costs, sponsored by states and educational institutions).

College costs continue to creep up every year. Helping your children pay for college helps minimize the burden of college expenses, so they hopefully don’t have to take on many student loans.

Open a Brokerage Account

After you max out your 401(k), you may also consider opening a brokerage account. Brokerage firms offer various types of investment account brokerage accounts, each with different services and fees. A full-service brokerage firm may provide different financial services, which include allowing you to trade securities.

Many brokerage firms require you to have a certain amount of cash to open their accounts and have enough funds to account for trading fees and commissions. While there are no limits on how much you can contribute to the account, earned dividends are taxable in the year they are received. Therefore, if you earn a profit or sell an asset, you must pay a capital gains tax. On the other hand, if you sell a stock at a loss, that becomes a capital loss. This means that the transaction may yield a tax break by lowering your taxable income.

Will You Have Enough to Retire After Maxing Out 401(k)?

There are many factors that need to be considered, however, start by getting a sense of how much you’ll need to retire by using a retirement expense calculator. Then you can decide whether maxing out your 401(k) for many years will be enough to get you there, even assuming an average stock market return and compounding built in.

First and foremost, you’ll need to consider your lifestyle and where you plan on living after retirement. If you want to spend a lot in your later years, you’ll need more money. As such, a 401(k) may not be enough to get you through retirement all on its own, and you may need additional savings and investments to make sure you’ll have enough.

Pros and Cons of Maxing Out Your 401(k)

There are some pros and cons to maxing out your 401(k).

Pros of 401(k) Max Out

The most obvious advantage to maxing out your 401(k) is that your retirement savings account will be bigger, which can lead to more growth over time. That’s critical if you hope to indeed retire some day, and by maxing out your 401(k) every year, you might be able to hit your goals sooner.

Maxing out your 401(k) can also make your saving and investing relatively easy, as long as you’re taking a no-lift approach to setting your money aside thanks to automatic contributions.

Cons of 401(k) Max Out

The downsides of maxing out a 401(k) include the fact that not everyone is in a financial position to do so. Depending on your specific financial situation, you simply may not be able to afford to contribute the maximum amount per year, especially if you’re also tackling debt and taking aim at other savings goals.

There are also opportunity costs to consider, which boil down to the fact that you may be able to do something else with your money besides put it in your retirement plan. For instance, during years when the stock market realizes substantial returns, your money could be more immediately accessible if invested in these assets via a non-retirement account, rather than being tied up in a retirement fund.

That said, putting money away — no matter how you do it — isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s likely always better than frittering it away on unnecessary expenditures.

The Takeaway

Maxing out your 401(k) involves matching your employer’s maximum contribution match, and also, contributing as much as legally allowed to your retirement plan in a given year. For 2024, that limit is $23,000, or $30,500 if you’re over age 50. For 2023, that limit is $22,500, or $30,000 if you’re over age 50. If you have the flexibility in your budget to do so, maxing out a 401(k) can be an effective way to build retirement savings.

And once you max out your 401(k)? There are other smart ways to direct your money. You can open an IRA, contribute more to an HSA, or to a child’s 529 plan. If you’re looking to roll over an old 401(k) into an IRA, or open a new one, SoFi Invest® can help. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions (the full fee schedule is here), and you can access complimentary professional advice.

For a limited time, opening and funding an Active Invest account gives you the opportunity to get up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.

FAQ

What happens if I max out my 401(k) every year?

Assuming you don’t overcontribute, you may see your retirement savings increase if you max out your 401(k) every year, and hopefully, be able to reach your retirement and savings goals sooner.

You may also be interested in:

Should I Put My Bonus Into My 401k?

How Much Should I Contribute to My 401k?

The Average 401(k) Balance by Age


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