American Option vs European Options: Key Differences

American Option vs European Option: What is the Difference?

Two of the most popular types of options are American and European. American and European options have a lot in common, but there are some key differences that are important for investors to understand.

Options Basics

One of the reasons investors like options trading is that it provides the right, but not the obligation to the buyer, to buy an asset. Making the choice to buy (call) or sell (put) is known as exercising the option.

Like all derivatives, the value of options reflects the value of an underlying asset. The value of an option changes as its expiration approaches and according to the price of the underlying asset. Investors using a naked option trading strategy may not have the cash or assets set aside in their portfolio to meet the obligations of the contract.

If the value of the contract or the underlying asset doesn’t increase, the investor would choose to let it expire and they lose only the premium they paid to enter into the contract. Both put and call options contracts include a predetermined price to which the buyer and seller agree, and the contract is valid for a specified period of time.

After the contract ends on the expiration date, so does the option holder’s ability to buy or sell. There are many different options trading strategies that investors can use.

Recommended: Call vs Put Option: The Differences

What Are American Options?

America options are the most popular, with both retail investors and institutional investors using them. One of the reasons for their popularity is their flexibility. Traders can exercise their right to buy or sell the asset on any trading day during the term of the agreement.

Most often, American stock options contracts have an expiration period between three and twelve months.

American Option Example

Say an investor purchases an American call in March with a one-year expiry date. The contract states that the investor has the option to purchase stock in Company X for $25 per share. In options terminology, $25 would be known as the option’s strike price. As the price of the underlying stock asset changes, the value of the option also changes.

After the investor purchases the American call options, the value of the stock increases. Within a few months the price was $50. The investor decides to exercise their option to buy, purchasing 100 shares of the stock at the agreed upon strike price of $25/share, paying a total of $2,500. The investor then sells the shares at the current market price of $50/share, making a profit of $2,500 because their value had doubled, not including the premium paid.

Investors can also buy put options, which give them the right to sell instead of the right to buy. With put options the scenario is reversed in that the investor would exercise their right to sell if the asset decreased in value.

What Are European Options?

European options are similar to American options, but holders can only exercise them on the expiration date (not before), making them less flexible.

European Options Example

Let’s say an investor purchases a European call option for 100 shares of Company X with a strike price of $25 and an expiration date six months from the time of purchase. Three months after the contract starts, the price of the stock increases to $50/share. The investor can’t exercise the right to buy because the contract hasn’t reached the expiration date.

When the option holder is able to exercise three months later, the stock is down to $30/share. So the investor can still exercise the option and make a profit by purchasing 100 shares at $25 and selling them for $30. The investor would also need to subtract the upfront premium they made, so this scenario wouldn’t be nearly as profitable as the American option scenario.

This is why European options are not as valuable or popular as American options. Options pricing reflects this difference. The premium, or price to enter into a European option contract is lower. However, traders can sell their European options at any point during the contract period, so in the example above the trader could have sold the option for a profit when the stock price went up to $50/share.

💡 Quick Tip: How to manage potential risk factors in a self-directed investment account? Doing your research and employing strategies like dollar-cost averaging and diversification may help mitigate financial risk when trading stocks.

American Style Options vs European Style

American and European options are similar in that they have a set strike price and expiration date. But there are several key differences between American and European options. These include how they’re traded, associated premiums, and more.

Trading

One main difference between American and European options is traders typically buy and sell European options over-the-counter (OTC) and American options on exchanges.

Recommended: What Is the Eurex Exchange?

Premiums

American options typically have higher premiums than European options since they offer more flexibility. If the investor doesn’t exercise their right to buy or sell before the contract expires, they lose the premium.

Settlement

European options tend to relate to indices, so they settle in cash. American options, on the other hand, typically relate to individual stocks or exchange-traded funds and can settle in stock or cash.

Settlement Prices

With American options, the settlement price is the last closing trade price, while with European options the settlement price is the opening price of index components.

Volume

American options typically have a much higher trading volume than European options.

Exercising Options

Traders can only exercise European options at the expiration date, while they can exercise American options at any point during the contract period. Traders can sell either type of option before its expiration date.

Pricing Models

A popular pricing model for options is called the Black-Scholes Model. The model is less accurate for American options because it can’t consider all possible trading dates prior to the expiration date.

Recommended: Black-Scholes Model Explained

Underlying Assets

The underlying assets of most American options are related to equities, European options are typically pegged to indices.

💡 Quick Tip: If you’re an experienced investor and bullish about a stock, buying call options (rather than the stock itself) can allow you to take the same position, with less cash outlay. It is possible to lose money trading options, if the price moves against you.

Risks of Americans and European Options

American options are riskier to an options seller because the holder can choose to exercise them at any time.

For buyers, it’s easier to create a hedging strategy with European options since the holder knows when they can exercise their right to buy or sell. Day traders and others who invest in options realize that there are risks involved with all investing strategies, along with potential reward.

The Takeaway

Options are one commonly traded type of investment, and many traders use them to execute a trading strategy. However, it’s possible to build a portfolio without trading options as well. If you have questions about how options may fit into your investment strategy, it may be a good idea to speak with a financial professional.

Qualified investors who are ready to try their hand at options trading, despite the risks involved, might consider checking out SoFi’s options trading platform. The platform’s user-friendly design allows investors to trade through the mobile app or web platform, and get important metrics like breakeven percentage, maximum profit/loss, and more with the click of a button.

Plus, SoFi offers educational resources — including a step-by-step in-app guide — to help you learn more about options trading. Trading options involves high-risk strategies, and should be undertaken by experienced investors.

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.


Photo credit: iStock/AleksandarNakic

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

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.

Options involve risks, including substantial risk of loss and the possibility an investor may lose the entire amount invested in a short period of time. Before an investor begins trading options they should familiarize themselves with the Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options . Tax considerations with options transactions are unique, investors should consult with their tax advisor to understand the impact to their taxes.
Claw Promotion: Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $25 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

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Cup-and-Handle Stock Pattern: What It Is and How to Trade It

Cup and Handle Pattern Explained

A cup and handle pattern is something identified by stock traders or investors analyzing data related to certain securities. Traders analyzing stock charts can identify a cup and handle pattern, which comprises a period of falling values followed by a “breakout,” and use it to help inform their trading decisions.

The cup and handle pattern is one of many that investors may identify and use to help make investing decisions.

What Is a Cup and Handle Pattern?

The cup and handle security trading pattern is a bullish continuation pattern used in technical analysis. When the pattern appears on a stock chart, it shows a period of price consolidation followed by a price breakout. The pattern is called cup and handle because it has two distinct parts: the cup and the handle.

The cup pattern forms after an advance and looks like a bowl with a round bottom. It forms after a price advance. After that pattern forms, a “handle” forms to the right of the cup within a trading range. Finally, there is a breakout above the range of the handle, showing a bullish continuation of the prior advance.

Stock broker William O’Neil identified the cup and handle stock pattern and introduced it in his 1988 book, How to Make Money in Stocks.

💡 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.

How the Cup and Handle Works

The cup-and-handle candlestick pattern starts with the formation of the “cup,” which looks like a bowl. The two sides of the cup are not always the same height but in a perfect scenario they would be. Once the cup forms, the stock price pulls back, forming a “handle” out to the right of the cup. The handle shows price consolidation happening before a price breakout occurs.

The handle is smaller than the cup and generally doesn’t retrace more than ⅓ of the cup’s advance, staying in the upper part of the cup range. It can also form a triangle shape. If the handle forms at the bottom price range of the cup, the pattern may indicate that this is not a good time to trade. It may take six months or longer for the cup pattern to form, but the handle forms much faster, ideally within four weeks.

The entire pattern can also form within minutes or days. Technical analysts watching the cup-and-handle pattern try to buy when the price breaks out from the handle. This is marked by when the price moves above the old resistance level, which is the top of the right side of the cup. The more volume in the breakout the stronger the buy signal.

To estimate the price target the stock might hit after the breakout, a trader would measure the distance from the bottom of the cup to the top of the right side of the cup and then add that number to the buy signal point. If the left and right sides of the cup are different heights, the smaller side would give a more conservative price target, and the taller would be a more aggressive target.

What Does a Cup and Handle Pattern Tell Traders?

The cup-and-handle is a candlestick pattern that indicates a cup-shaped price consolidation. This involves a downward price movement, a stabilization period, then a price increase of about the same amount as the downward movement.

This is followed by a sideways pullback between the high and low of the cup shape, forming the handle. Then, a price breakout indicates increasing trade volume. However, as with any trading pattern, a cup-and-handle pattern does not guarantee the stock price will continue on a bullish trajectory, it’s just a trading indicator.

The cup and handle is a bullish pattern that can show a continuation or a reversal from a bearish trend into a bullish trend. Either way it indicates that the stock price will likely rise following the pattern.

Example of a Cup and Handle Pattern

An example of a cup and handle pattern would be if a cup shape forms between $48 and $50. A handle should then form between $49 and $50, ideally closer to $50. Then the price should break out above the price range of the handle.

💡 Quick Tip: Look for an online brokerage with low trading commissions as well as no account minimum. Higher fees can cut into investment returns over time.

Does the Cup and Handle Pattern Work?

The cup-and-handle pattern is one strategy that traders can use to get a sense of the market and inform their investing decisions. However, it is not a perfect tool.

Like any trading pattern, the cup and handle should be used in conjunction with other trend indicators and signals to make informed trading decisions. Although the cup and handle pattern can be a useful and easy to understand pattern to find entry and exit points, it does have some drawbacks.

The cup-and-handle pattern may form over the course of a day, weeks, months, or even a year. This makes it challenging to figure out exactly when to place a purchase order. Generally it forms over a month to a year, but identifying the exact breakout point is not easy.

Also, the depth of the cup can be a confusing part of the pattern. A shallow or a deep cup might be a false signal. The cup also doesn’t always form a handle at all, and the liquidity of the stock also affects the strength of the trading signal.

How to Trade a Cup and Handle Pattern

Traders wait for the handle pattern to form, which may either be in the shape of a sideways handle or a triangle. When the stock price breaks out above the top of the handle, that indicates completion of the cup-and-handle pattern, and creates a signal that stock price could continue to rise.

Although the cup-and-handle pattern can be a strong buy indicator, it does not guarantee that prices will go up. The stock price may rise, fall again, then continue to rise. Or it might rise and then simply fall.

One way to avoid significant losses when this happens is to set a stop-loss on trades with your broker. Day traders may want to close out the trade before the market closes.

Cup-and-Handle Patterns in Crypto

While the cup-and-handle pattern has traditionally been used for stock trading, it can also be used in crypto trading. Cup and handle patterns have formed in Bitcoin and Ethereum charts in recent years. Bitcoin formed a cup and handle pattern in 2019, and Ethereum formed one in 2021. The basic guidelines and indicators are the same for crypto as for stocks.

Recommended: Crypto Technical Analysis: What It Is & How to Do One

The Takeaway

Stock patterns are signals that form a certain recognizable shape when charted graphically, making them easy to spot and trade. They can help traders find entry or exit points, estimate price targets and potential risk. The cup-and-handle pattern is a useful and easy to follow trading pattern to help traders spot entry points for bullish trades.

Ready to invest in your goals? It’s easy to get started when you open an investment account with SoFi Invest. You can invest in stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, alternative funds, and more. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

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

Is cup and handle pattern bullish?

Yes, the cup and handle pattern is considered a bullish market signal, and investors may take it as a sign that they should go “long” on an investment or specific market position.

How reliable is cup and handle pattern?

The cup and handle pattern is merely an indicator, and not a promise or sure sign that something is going to happen. As such, investors should be careful not to take it as a sure thing. That said, investors may do well to use it in conjunction with other trading strategies and methods, and along with other trend markers.

What are the rules for the cup and handle pattern?

The cup and handle pattern doesn’t have “rules” per se, but instead, is a pattern that forms on a stock chart. That form shows a stock price decreasing in price over a short period of time, then stabilizing, forming a “cup,” which is then followed by a rise in value, creating the “handle.”

What is the weekly timeframe for the cup and handle pattern?

Cup and handle patterns can emerge on a stock chart over several months, but many times, over a handful of weeks.


Photo credit: iStock/jacoblund

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

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.

Crypto: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren’t endorsed or guaranteed by any government, are volatile, and involve a high degree of risk. Consumer protection and securities laws don’t regulate cryptocurrencies to the same degree as traditional brokerage and investment products. Research and knowledge are essential prerequisites before engaging with any cryptocurrency. US regulators, including FINRA , the SEC , and the CFPB , have issued public advisories concerning digital asset risk. Cryptocurrency purchases should not be made with funds drawn from financial products including student loans, personal loans, mortgage refinancing, savings, retirement funds or traditional investments. Limitations apply to trading certain crypto assets and may not be available to residents of all states.

Claw Promotion: Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $25 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

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A Guide to Special Margin Requirements

Guide to Special Margin Requirements

Special margin requirements refer to higher-than-normal requirements for margin traders. That typically means requirements that are above 25%.

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), many brokers keep even higher maintenance margin requirements, typically between 30% and 40% — and sometimes higher depending on the type of securities purchased. These special margin requirements may vary.

What Are Special Margin Requirements?

Special margin requirements are higher than standard margin requirements — above a maintenance margin rate of 25%. Higher margin rate requirements mean you must maintain a higher equity amount in your account when trading on margin.

Margin trading refers to using cash and securities in your account as collateral to purchase more assets. In doing so, you can use leverage to amplify returns — but you must also pay interest on borrowed funds. For anyone interested in trading on margin, it’s important to know the rules of margin accounts and also which stocks feature special margin requirements.

When it comes to trading stocks on margin, there are plenty of blanket rules and regulations in place. For instance, the Federal Reserve requires a 50% initial margin and a 25% maintenance margin.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) also require at least $2,000 of cash or securities to be deposited before someone can trade in a margin account.

Special margin requirements are often found on highly volatile stocks, so just a small drop in the price of these stocks can trigger a margin call. Brokers might also issue special margin requirements on concentrated positions in your account. Leveraged positions and other factors might also trigger special margin requirements.

Leverage and margin are related — but not the same.

Brokers do not just haphazardly issue special margin requirements. An analysis of historical volatility is used along with the use of SPAN margin. SPAN margin is calculated by standardized portfolio analysis of risk — a system used by exchanges around the world to control risk. SPAN margin determines margin requirements based on an assessment of one-day risk for a trader’s account. It is used primarily in options and futures markets. The SPAN system allows an exchange to know what a “worst-case” one-day move could be for any open futures position.

Special vs Standard Margin Requirements

Special Margin Requirement

Standard Margin Requirements

Brokers can determine special margin rates Initial margin set at 50%
A special margin requirement might exist for a concentrated position Some securities cannot be purchased on margin



💡 Quick Tip: Are self-directed brokerage accounts cost efficient? They can be, because they offer the convenience of being able to buy stocks online without using a traditional full-service broker (and the typical broker fees).

Increase your buying power with a margin loan from SoFi.

Borrow against your current investments at just 10%* and start margin trading.

*For full margin details, see terms.


How Do Special Margin Requirements Work?

Special margin requirements work by enforcing stricter equity deposits in your account when trading volatile stocks. The broker wants to protect itself in the event the securities in your account rapidly drop in value. Another way a broker protects itself is by issuing margin calls when special margin requirement percentages are breached.

With a margin call, you must deposit more cash or securities into your account to meet the call. You can also liquidate your holdings to generate cash and increase your equity percentage. If you fail to meet the call on time, the broker might liquidate your positions for you.

For a broker, it’s important to have safeguards like special margin requirements in place in case financial markets turn volatile. If many investors face margin calls all at once, the broker could face credit risk if those investors are unable to repay loans used in margin trading.


💡 Quick Tip: When you trade using a margin account, you’re using leverage — i.e. borrowed funds that increase your purchasing power. Remember that whatever you borrow you must repay, with interest.

Pros and Cons of Special Margin Requirements

In terms of benefits and drawbacks, the upside is that special margin requirements help to control risk when investors engage in day trading — and the downside is more restrictions on your margin trading account.

Here’s a deeper dive into positives and negatives for the broker and for the investor.

Pros and Cons for Brokers

Pros Cons
Reduces risk when markets turn volatile More restrictive trading could turn away customers
Allows for tighter margin calls on risky positions Individuals might seek looser requirements from other brokers
Historical data provides a guide as to which stocks are most volatile Uncertainty exists when trying to predict what the most volatile securities will be going forward

Pros and Cons for Investors

Pros Cons
Highly volatile stocks are easier to identify Higher equity is required to trade certain stocks
Provides a guardrail when trading stocks Margin calls can trigger more quickly
Can be a tool to identify highly volatile stocks for options trading Margin percentages can change without notice

The Takeaway

While many stocks and ETFs have initial margin amounts of 50% and maintenance margin levels at 25%, some volatile stocks have higher special margin requirements. These requirements help protect both brokers and investors in the event that the stock tanks.

Margin trading is typically riskier than trading with a cash account. Investing with borrowed funds amplifies returns — positive and negative. It is important to be aware of the risks involved with this strategy.

If you’re an experienced trader and have the risk tolerance to try out trading on margin, consider enabling a SoFi margin account. With a SoFi margin account, experienced investors can take advantage of more investment opportunities, and potentially increase returns. That said, margin trading is a high-risk endeavor, and using margin loans can amplify losses as well as gains.

Get one of the most competitive margin loan rates with SoFi, 10%*

FAQ

What is a special margin account?

A margin account is a type of brokerage account in which your broker lends you cash, using the account’s equity as collateral, to purchase securities. These securities are known as marginable securities. Margin increases your purchasing power but also exposes you to the potential for larger losses.

What are margin requirements?

Margin requirements are percentages of equity you must maintain in your margin trading account. According to Regulation T of the Federal Reserve Board, the initial margin for equities is 50% and maintenance margin is 25%. There are higher special margin requirements for highly volatile stocks. In addition, if you have a concentrated position, you might face a special higher margin requirement.

How much money do you need to open a margin account?

The NYSE and FINRA require a deposit of $2,000 or cash or securities with your broker before trading on margin. Some firms may require larger deposits.


Photo credit: iStock/akinbostanci

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

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.

*Borrow at 10%. Utilizing a margin loan is generally considered more appropriate for experienced investors as there are additional costs and risks associated. It is possible to lose more than your initial investment when using margin. Please see SoFi.com/wealth/assets/documents/brokerage-margin-disclosure-statement.pdf for detailed disclosure information.
Claw Promotion: Customer must fund their Active Invest account with at least $25 within 30 days of opening the account. Probability of customer receiving $1,000 is 0.028%. See full terms and conditions.

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How Much Should I Contribute to My 401(k)?

Once you set up your retirement plan at work, the next natural question is: How much to contribute to a 401(k)? While there’s no ironclad answer for how much to save in your employer-sponsored plan, there are some important guidelines that can help you set aside the amount that’s right for you, such as the tax implications, your employer match (if there is one), the stage of your career, your own retirement goals, and more.

Here’s what you need to think about when deciding how much to contribute to your 401(k).

401(k) Contribution Limits for 2024

Like most tax-advantaged retirement plans, 401(k) plans come with caps on how much you can contribute. The IRS puts restrictions on the amount that you, the employee, can save in your 401(k); plus there is a cap on total employee-plus-employer contributions.

For tax year 2024, the contribution limit is $23,000, with an additional $7,500 catch-up provision for those 50 and older, for a total of $30,500. The combined employer-plus-employee contribution limit for 2024 is $69,000 ($76,500 with the catch-up amount).

Those limits are up from tax year 2023. The 401(k) contribution limit in 2023 is $22,500, with an additional $7,500 catch-up provision for those 50 and older, for a total of $30,000. The combined employer-plus-employee contribution limit for 2023 is $66,000 ($73,500 with the catch-up amount).

401(k) Contribution Limits 2024 vs 2023

2024

2023

Basic contribution $23,000 $22,500
Catch-up contribution $7,500 $7,500
Total + catch-up $30,500 $30,000
Employer + Employee maximum contribution $69,000 $66,000
Employer + employee max + catch-up $76,500 $73,500



💡 Quick Tip: Want to lower your taxable income? Start saving for retirement with a traditional IRA. The money you save each year is tax deductible (and you don’t owe any taxes until you withdraw the funds, usually in retirement).

How Much Should You Put Toward a 401(k)?

Next you may be thinking, now I know the retirement contribution limits, but how much should I contribute to my 401(k)? Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you’re deciding on your contribution amount.

When You’re Starting Out in Your Career

At this stage, you may be starting out with a lower salary and you also likely have commitments to pay for, like rent, food, and maybe student loans. So you may decide to contribute a smaller amount to your 401(k). If you can, however, contribute enough to get the employer match, if your employer offers one.

Here’s how it works: Some employers offer a matching contribution, where they “match” part of the amount you’re saving and add that to your 401(k) account. A common employer match might be 50% up to the first 6% you save.

In that scenario, let’s say your salary is $100,000 and your employer matches 50% of the first 6% you contribute to your 401(k). If you contribute up to the matching amount, you get the full employer contribution. It’s essentially “free” money, as they say.

To give an example, if you contribute 6% of your $100,000 salary to your 401(k), that’s $6,000 per year. Your employer’s match of 50% of that first 6%, or $6,000, comes to $3,000 for a total of $9,000.

As You Move Up in Your Career

At this stage of life you likely have a lot of financial obligations such as a mortgage, car payments, and possibly child care. It may be tough to also save for retirement, but it’s important not to fall behind. Try to contribute a little more to your 401(k) each year if you can — even 1% more annually can make a difference.

That means if you’re contributing 6% this year, next year contribute 7%. And the year after that bump up your contribution to 8%, and so on until you reach the maximum amount you can contribute. Some 401(k) plans have an auto escalation option that will automate the extra savings for you, to make the process even easier and more seamless. Check your plan to see if it has such a feature.

As You Get Closer to Retirement

Once you reach age 50, you’ll likely want to figure out how much you might need for retirement so you have a specific goal to aim for. To help reach your goal, consider maxing out your 401(k) at this time and also make catch-up contributions if necessary.

Maxing out your 401(k) means contributing the full amount allowed. For 2024, that’s $23,000 for those 49 and under. If, at 50, you haven’t been contributing as much as you wish you had in previous years, you can also contribute the catch-up contribution of $7,500. So you’d be saving $30,500 for retirement in your 401(k) in 2024. With the potential of compounding returns, maxing out your 401(k) until you reach full retirement age of 67 could go a long way to helping you achieve financial security in retirement.

The Impact of Contributing More Over Time

The earlier you start saving for retirement, the more time your money will potentially have to grow, thanks to the power of compounding returns, as mentioned above.

In addition, by increasing your 401(k) contributions each year, even by just 1% annually, the savings could really add up. For instance, consider a 35-year-old making $60,000 who contributes 1% more each year until their full retirement age of 67. Assuming a 5.5% annual return and a modest regular increase in salary, they could potentially save more than an additional $85,000 for retirement.

That’s just an example, but you get the idea. Increasing your savings even by a modest amount over the years may be a powerful tool in helping you realize your retirement goals.


💡 Quick Tip: Did you know that opening a brokerage account typically doesn’t come with any setup costs? Often, the only requirement to open a brokerage account — aside from providing personal details — is making an initial deposit.

Factors That May Impact Your Decision

In addition to the general ideas above for the different stages of your life and career, it’s also wise to think about taxes, your employer contribution, your own goals, and more when deciding how much to contribute to your 401(k).

1. The Tax Effect

The key fact to remember about 401(k) plans is that they are tax-deferred accounts, and they are considered qualified retirement plans under ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act) rules.

That means: The money you set aside is typically deducted from your paycheck pre-tax, and it grows in the account tax free — but you pay taxes on any money you withdraw. (In most cases, you’ll withdraw the money for retirement expenses, but there are some cases where you might have to take an early 401(k) withdrawal. In either case, you’ll owe taxes on those distributions.)

The tax implications are important here because the money you contribute effectively reduces your taxable income for that year, and potentially lowers your tax bill.

Let’s imagine that you’re earning $100,000 per year, and you’re able to save the full $23,000 allowed by the IRS for 2024. Your taxable income would be reduced from $100,000 to $77,000, thus putting you in a lower tax bracket.

2. Your Earning Situation

One rule-of-thumb is to save at least 10% of your annual income for retirement. So if you earn $100,000, you’d aim to set aside at least $10,000. But 10% is only a general guideline. In some cases, depending on your income and other factors, 10% may not be enough to get you on track for a secure retirement, and you may want to aim for more than that to make sure your savings will last given the cost of living longer.

For instance, consider the following:

•   Are you the sole or primary household earner?

•   Are you saving for your retirement alone, or for your spouse’s/partner’s retirement as well?

•   When do you and your spouse/partner want to retire?

If you are the primary earner, and the amount you’re saving is meant to cover retirement for two, that’s a different equation than if you were covering just your own retirement. In this case, you might want to save more than 10%.

However, if you’re not the primary earner and/or your spouse also has a retirement account, setting aside 10% might be adequate. For example, if the two of you are each saving 10%, for a combined 20% of your gross income, that may be sufficient for your retirement needs.

All of this should be considered in light of when you hope to retire, as that deadline would also impact how much you might save as well as how much you might need to spend.

3. Your Retirement Goals

What sort of retirement do you envision for yourself? Even if you’re years away from retirement, it’s a good idea to sit down and imagine what your later years might look like. These retirement dreams and goals can inform the amount you want to save.

Goals may include thoughts of travel, moving to another country, starting your own small business, offering financial help to your family, leaving a legacy, and more.

You may also want to consider health factors, as health costs and the need for long-term care can be a big expense as you age.

4. Do You Have Debt?

It can be hard to prioritize saving if you have debt. You may want to pay off your debt as quickly as possible, then turn your attention toward saving for the future.

The reality is, though, that debt and savings are both priorities and need to be balanced. It’s not ideal to put one above the other, but rather to find ways to keep saving even small amounts as you work to get out of debt.

Then, as you pay down the money you owe — whether from credit cards or student loans or another source — you can take the cash that frees up and add that to your savings.

The Takeaway

Many people wonder how much to contribute to a 401(k). There are a number of factors that will influence your decision. First, there are the contribution limits imposed by the IRS. In 2024, the maximum contribution you can make to your 401(k) is $23,000, plus an additional $7,500 catch-up contribution if you’re 50 and up.

While few people can start their 401(k) journey by saving quite that much, it’s wise, if possible, to contribute enough to get your employer’s match early in your career, then bump up your contribution amounts at the midpoint of your career, and max out your contributions as you draw closer to retirement, if you can.

Another option is follow a common guideline and save 10% of your income beginning as soon as you can swing it. From there, you can work up to saving the max. And remember, you don’t have to limit your savings to your 401(k). You may also be able to save in other retirement vehicles, like a traditional IRA or Roth IRA.

Of course, a main determination of the amount you need to save is what your goals are for the future. By contemplating what you want and need to spend money on now, and the quality of life you’d like when you’re older, you can make the decisions that are best for you.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Help grow your nest egg with a SoFi IRA.

FAQ

How much should I contribute to my 401(k) per paycheck?

If you can, try to contribute at least enough of each paycheck to get your employer’s matching funds, if they offer a match. So if your employer matches 6% of your contributions, aim to contribute at least 6% of each paycheck.

What percent should I put in my 401(k)?

A common rule of thumb is to contribute at least 10% of your income to your 401(k) to help reach your retirement goals. Just keep in mind the annual 401(k) contribution limits so you don’t exceed them. For 2024, those limits are $23,000, plus an additional $7,500 for those 50 and up

Is 10% too much to contribute to 401(k)? What about 20%?

Contributing at least 10% to your 401(k) is a common rule of thumb to help save for retirement. If you are able to contribute 20%, it can make sense to do so. Just be sure not to exceed the annual 401(k) contribution limits of $23,000, plus an additional $7,500 for those 50 and older for 2024. The contribution limits may change each year, so be sure to check annually.


Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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.

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.

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

Investment Risk: Diversification can help reduce some investment risk. It cannot guarantee profit, or fully protect in a down market.

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What Is 401k Auto Escalation?

What Is 401(k) Auto Escalation?

One way to ensure you’re steadily working toward your retirement goals is to automate as much of the process as possible. Some employers streamline the retirement savings process for their employees with automatic enrollment, signing you up for a retirement plan unless you choose to opt out.

There are many ways to automate a 401(k) experience at every step of the way. You can have contributions taken directly from your paycheck before they ever hit your bank account and invest them right away. With automatic deductions, you’re more likely to save for your future rather than spending on immediate needs.

In some cases, you may also be able to automatically increase the amount you save. Some employers also offer a 401(k) auto escalation option that could increase your retirement savings amount as you get older. Here’s a closer look at how 401(k) auto escalation works and how it may help you on your way to your retirement goals.

401(k) Recap

A 401(k) is a defined contribution plan offered through your employer. It allows employees to contribute some of their wages directly from their paycheck. Contributions are made with pre-tax money, which may reduce taxable income in the year they are made, providing an immediate tax benefit.

In 2024, employees can contribute up to $23,000 a year to their 401(k), up from $22,500 in 2023. Those aged 50 and older can contribute an extra $7,500, bringing their potential contribution total to $30,500 in 2024 and $30,000 in 2023.

For many individuals, the goal is to eventually max out a 401(k) up to the contribution limit. Employers may offer matching funds to help encourage employees to save. Individuals should aim to contribute at least enough to meet their employer’s match, in order to get that “free money” from their employer to invest in their future.


💡 Quick Tip: Want to lower your taxable income? Start saving for retirement with a traditional IRA. The money you save each year is tax deductible (and you don’t owe any taxes until you withdraw the funds, usually in retirement).

How 401(k) Auto Escalation Works

An auto escalation is a 401(k) feature that automatically increases your contribution at regular intervals by a set amount until a preset maximum is achieved. The SECURE Act, signed into law in 2019, allows auto escalation programs to raise contributions up to 15%. Before then, the cap on default contributions was 10% for auto escalation programs.

For example, you may choose to set your auto escalation rate to raise your contributions by 1% each year. Once you hit that 15% ceiling, auto escalation will cease. However, you can still choose to increase the amount you are saving on your own beyond that point.

Recommended: Understanding the Different Types of Retirement Plans

Advantages of 401(k) Auto Escalation

When it comes to auto escalation programs, there are important factors to consider — for employees as well as for employers who sponsor the 401(k) plan.

Advantages for Employees

•   Auto escalation is one more way to automate savings for retirement, so that it is always prioritized.

•   Auto escalation may increase the amount employees save for retirement more than they would on their own.

•   Employees don’t have to remember to make or increase contributions themselves until they reach the auto escalation cap.

•   Increasing tax-deferred contributions may help reduce an employee’s tax burden.

Advantages for Sponsors

Employers who offer auto escalation may find it helps with both employee quality and retention as well as with reducing taxes.

•   Auto escalation provides a benefit that may help attract top talent.

•   It helps put employees on track to automatically save, which may increase retention and contribute to their sense of financial well-being.

•   It reduces employer payroll taxes, because escalated funds are contributed pre-tax by employees.

•   It may generate tax credits or deductions for employers. For example, matching contributions may be tax deductible.

•   As assets under management increase, 401(k) companies may offer lower administration fees or even the ability to offer additional services to participants.

Disadvantages of 401(k) Auto Escalation

While there are undoubtedly benefits to 401(k) auto escalation, there are also some potential downsides to consider.

Disadvantages for Employees

Even on autopilot, it can be important to review contributions so as to avoid these disadvantages.

•   Auto escalation may lull employees into a false sense of security. Even if they’re increasing their savings each year, if their default rate was too low to begin with, they may not be saving enough to meet their retirement goals.

•   If an employee experiences a pay freeze or hasn’t received a raise in a number of years, auto escalation will mean 401(k) contributions represent an increasingly larger proportion of take-home pay.

Disadvantages for Sponsors

Employers may want to consider these potential downsides before offering 401(k) auto escalation.

•   Auto escalation requires proper administrative oversight to ensure that each employee’s escalation amounts are correct — and it may be time-consuming and costly to fix mistakes.

•   This option may increase the need to communicate with 401(k) record keepers.

•   Auto escalation may cause employer contribution amounts to rise.



💡 Quick Tip: Did you know that opening a brokerage account typically doesn’t come with any setup costs? Often, the only requirement to open a brokerage account — aside from providing personal details — is making an initial deposit.

Is 401(k) Auto Escalation Right for You?

If your employer offers auto escalation, first determine your goals for retirement. Consider whether or not your current savings rate will help you achieve those goals and whether escalation could increase the likelihood that you will.

Also decide whether you can afford to increase your contributions. Perhaps your default rate is already set high enough that you are maxing out your retirement savings budget. In this case, auto escalation might land you in a financial bind.

However, if you have room in your budget, or you expect your income to grow each year, auto escalation may help ensure that your retirement savings continue to grow as well.

If your employer does not offer auto escalation, or you choose to opt out, consider using pay raises as an opportunity to change your 401(k) contributions yourself.

The Takeaway

A 401(k) is one of many tools available to help you save for retirement — and auto escalation can help you increase your contributions regularly without any additional thought or effort on your part.

If you’ve maxed out your 401(k) or you’re looking for a retirement account with more flexible options, you might want to consider a traditional or Roth IRA. Both types of IRA offer tax-advantaged retirement savings, and in 2024, individuals can contribute $7,000 per year across IRA accounts, with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution available to those aged 50 and older. In 2023, individuals can contribute $6,500 per year across IRA accounts, with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution available to those aged 50 and older.

Ready to invest for your retirement? It’s easy to get started when you open a traditional or Roth IRA with SoFi. SoFi doesn’t charge commissions, but other fees apply (full fee disclosure here).

Help grow your nest egg with a SoFi IRA.

FAQ

Is 401(k) auto enrollment legal?

Yes, automatic enrollment allows employers to automatically deduct 401(k) contributions from an employee’s paycheck unless they have expressly communicated that they wish to opt out of the retirement plan.

What is automatic deferral increase?

Automatic deferral increase is essentially the same as auto escalation. It automatically increases the amount that you are saving by a set amount at regular intervals.

Can a company move your 401(k) without your permission?

Your 401(k) can be moved without your permission by a former employer if the 401(k) has a balance of $5,000 or less.


Photo credit: iStock/Halfpoint

Third-Party Brand Mentions: No brands, products, or companies mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third-party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.

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.

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.

SoFi Invest®
INVESTMENTS ARE NOT FDIC INSURED • ARE NOT BANK GUARANTEED • MAY LOSE VALUE
SoFi Invest encompasses two distinct companies, with various products and services offered to investors as described below: Individual customer accounts may be subject to the terms applicable to one or more of these platforms.
1) Automated Investing and advisory services are provided by SoFi Wealth LLC, an SEC-registered investment adviser (“SoFi Wealth“). Brokerage services are provided to SoFi Wealth LLC by SoFi Securities LLC.
2) Active Investing and brokerage services are provided by SoFi Securities LLC, Member FINRA (www.finra.org)/SIPC(www.sipc.org). Clearing and custody of all securities are provided by APEX Clearing Corporation.
For additional disclosures related to the SoFi Invest platforms described above please visit SoFi.com/legal.
Neither the Investment Advisor Representatives of SoFi Wealth, nor the Registered Representatives of SoFi Securities are compensated for the sale of any product or service sold through any SoFi Invest platform.

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