8 Critical 401(k) Questions You Need to Ask Your Employer


The 401(k) plan is one of the most popular ways for workers to build up their nest eggs for retirement. As of June 2017, 55 million Americans held an estimated $5.1 trillion in assets in 401(k) plans. Whether you're already enrolled or planning to enroll in your employer-sponsored retirement plan, there are several details that you should find out to make the most of it. Let's review some key 401(k) questions you need to ask your employer. (See also: 5 Dumb 401(k) Mistakes Smart People Make)

1. When am I eligible to make contributions?

Different plans have different rules. You shouldn't assume that the same rules from your previous workplace retirement savings plan will apply to that of your current job. Some plans may require you to wait at least six to 12 months before you can contribute to your account, while others may allow you to do so right away. In a review of 4.4 million 401(k) plans in 2016, Vanguard found 67 percent of plans offered immediate eligibility for employee contributions.

2. Do you offer a company match?

America is experiencing very low unemployment levels. In October 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national unemployment rate stood at 4.1 percent, with some states reaching even lower rates (North Dakota and Colorado recorded 2.5 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively, that same month). Looking to retain and attract talent, more and more employers match employee contributions to their retirement accounts. In Vanguard's How America Saves 2017 report, 94 percent of employers offered matching 401(k) contributions in 2016, up from 91 percent in 2013. After you find out how much of a match your workplace offers, be sure to contribute at least up to that amount. If you don't, you'll be leaving free money on the table.

3. What type of formula do you use for matching contributions?

In 2016, there were over 200 different ways in which employers matched their employee contributions, according to Vanguard. By far the most common formula (70 percent of plans) is 50 cents for every dollar up to 6 percent of your pay. Assuming that you make $50,000, this would mean that your employer would contribute up to $1,500 if you were to contribute $3,000 to your 401(k).

Here are the next two most common types of matching formulas found in the study:

  • $1.00 per dollar on first 3 percent of pay, then $0.50 per dollar on next 2 percent of pay (22 percent of plans).

  • A dollar cap, often set at $2,000 (5 percent of plans).

It's important to find out the matching formula used by your employer so that you know how much you need to contribute to your plan to maximize that match. In 2016, 44 percent of surveyed plans required a 6 to 6.99 percent employee contribution for a maximum employer match.

4. When do employer contributions become fully vested?

While all of your 401(k) contributions become fully vested immediately, funds contributed by your employer may take longer to actually become yours. Knowing the applicable vesting schedule is essential to know how much of your 401(k) you'd keep if you were to separate from your employer at any point in time.

Depending on your employer, matching contributions may be immediately yours (cliff vesting) or gradually over a period of time (graded vesting). In the Vanguard study, 47 percent of plans granted immediate ownership of employer contributions, 30 percent of plans gradually granted ownership over a five- to six-year period, and 10 percent had a three-year cliff vesting waiting period. (See also: How to Tell if Your 401(k) Is a Good or a Bad One)

5. Can I take hardship withdrawals?

In a perfect world, you would leave your 401(k) funds alone until retirement. However, life happens and it may throw you a curve ball leaving you in a major cash crunch. Some plans offer holders the ability to withdraw money early without the 10 percent IRS penalty due to hardship exemptions, such as certain medical expenses, avoiding foreclosure, and funeral and burial expenses.

Some plans may even allow you to take hardship withdrawals for less gloomy situations, such as buying your first home and paying for college expenses for yourself, your spouse, or your children. Eighty-four percent of plans offered hardship withdrawals in the Vanguard study.

6. What are my investment options?

In 2016, 96 percent of surveyed 401(k) plans designated a target-date fund as the default investment option. There are many reasons, including high expense ratios and variable return rates, why you should look beyond target-date funds and consider all funds available in your 401(k).

On average, 401(k) plans offered 17.9 funds to plan holders in 2016. Over recent years, more and more plans are offering a suite of low-cost index funds covering domestic equities, foreign equities, U.S. taxable bonds, and cash. In 2016, 57 percent of plans offered such an index "core" of funds covering at least these four asset types. Take a good look at what your 401(k) has to offer so that you can select the best funds for your unique financial goals. (See also: Bookmark This: A Step-by-Step Guide to Choosing 401(k) Investments)

7. Do you offer financial advice?

Plans may offer a wide variety of financial advice, ranging from access to a financial adviser a few times out of the year to fully-fledged management of your investments. These perks often come at a cost ranging from 0.25 to 1 percent of your account balance. Still, depending on your financial situation, getting professional advice may be worth every penny to maximize your nest egg or handle tricky tax scenarios.

Besides checking for a human financial adviser, inquire about whether or not your plan offers you robo-advisers. Often charging much lower fees than human advisers, robo-advisers can offer valuable services, including automatic portfolio rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting (selling securities that have experienced a loss to offset taxes on both gains and income). (See also: 9 Questions You Should Ask Before Hiring a Robo-Adviser)

8. Can I make Roth contributions?

If you are just starting your career, have a large upside income potential, or are expecting a big salary bump in the next few years, having the ability to make after-tax contributions to your nest egg is important. Under these scenarios, taking the tax hit early in your retirement account would make sense because you would be at a much lower tax rate now than in the future. This is why 65 percent of Vanguard 401(k) plans offered Roth 401(k) contributions in 2016. For some plan holders, a Roth 401(k) is a great way to grow contributions tax-free forever.

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