Costly Mistakes with 401(k)s and How to Avoid Them


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Making sure that you handle your 401(k)s correctly, is not as easy as letting payments be automatically deducted from your wages. Here’s a look at commonly made mistakes, detailed in the article aptly named “More common 401(k) mistakes—and their consequences” from

Investing after-tax dollars before maxing out pretax opportunities. Some plans let you choose to contribute to your 401(k) on a pretax or after-tax basis, or both. The problem happens when the forms provide these choices, without giving an explanation of the different choices. Generally speaking, you always want to lower your W-2 earnings, by contributing pretax dollars first. Your W-2 won’t include the money you put in a 401(k) or other retirement savings vehicle.

Cashing out a 401(k) when you change jobs. This is a big and bad one. The IRS loves when you do this, because the withdrawal is taxable income that would otherwise sit in a 401(k) for years, possibly decades. One survey showed that as many as 28% of people between the ages of 35-65 did not know that some of their retirement distribution choices would trigger tax liabilities and penalties.

A better option: leave the 401(k) with your old employer, move it to your new employer’s plan if that is an option, or set up a rollover IRA with a bank or investment firm to transfer the 401(k). Do this very carefully: you are rolling over the money, not cashing it out. Don’t use the money when you move it—this is your best savings option for retirement.

Borrowing from the plan to pay for a big-ticket purchase. Yes, there may be a loan feature in your 401(k) plan. However, while this may be a blessing in an emergency, it is likely to be one of the most expensive loans you ever take. There are strict rules about paying back 401(k) loans and running afoul of them could create more problems. Read the fine print, before borrowing against your retirement fund. Remember, you are borrowing against your future.

Defaulting on a 401(k) loan. Don’t give yourself a loan from your 401(k), unless you understand all of the rules and penalties. Most 401(k) loans must be paid back within five years, unless the loan is used to purchase a primary residence. However, this is supposed to be a retirement savings account, not a house fund. You should also find out what happens if you quit or lose your job, while the loan is outstanding. The balance of your 401(k) account is often used to pay for the outstanding loan and you’ll be responsible for paying taxes on the withdrawal, PLUS a tax penalty for early withdrawal from the 401(k).

Thinking you’ve got plenty of time before retirement. The sooner you start saving for retirement, like when you receive your first paycheck, the better. Pay your future self, first. You can always get a loan for a home, a car or your children’s college education, but there’s no such thing as a retirement loan.

Reference: (Nov. 15, 2019) “More common 401(k) mistakes—and their consequences”


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