401(k)s Made Easy

401(k)s Made Easy

We originally wrote this article for DailyFinance, but it’s an important topic that we haven’t discussed in a while so we wanted to share. We’d love to hear any thoughts you have on 401(k)s.

There comes a time in most young professionals’ careers when they’re faced with the decision of whether to invest in a 401(k). The topic is usually brought up fleetingly during new employee orientation. Or perhaps it’s mentioned in that folder you got on your first day, the one currently collecting dust on your dresser. Either way, without realizing it, you may have already given this retirement option the cold shoulder. Or maybe you did realize it and you just don’t want to part with a percentage of your income today in exchange for the vague promise of seeing a bigger, better version of it years down the road.

Whatever the decision, that’s up to you. But before you take a solid “yes” or “no” stance on 401(k)s, let’s discuss the basics. As a wise sage once said, “An uninformed decision is no decision at all.” (Just kidding. I just made that up. But, really, it’s kind of true.)

So here are some basics for any of you riding that 401(k) fence:

What Is a 401(k)?

Glad you asked! Simply put, a 401(k) is a way for an employee (you!) to contribute money to an account, most often pre-tax. You can choose different plans and options to invest your money, and oftentimes, your company will contribute money to your plan as well.

What Is Matching?

Free money, free money, read all about it! Matching is the best thing that ever happened to your retirement savings. Many companies will match whatever contributions you make, up to a certain percentage. For instance, let’s say they match 100 percent of your contributions up to 3 percent of your income.

And let’s say you make $100,000 a year (well done!), and you contribute 3 percent, or $3,000. Your employer would match that at 100 percent, putting another $3,000 in your retirement account. So in one year, investment gains aside, your 401(k) savings would go from $3,000 to $6,000. That’s a pretty killer return.

What Is Vesting?

Vesting is the little asterisk next to the contribution matching many companies offer. Not all companies require vesting. But sometimes, if a company matches your contributions, it will require you to wait a few years before you’re fully vested. But what does that mean? (It has nothing to do with wardrobe requirements, thank goodness.) Quite simply, it means gaining full rights over your employer’s contributions to your retirement account.

Here’s an example: Let’s say your company requires you to work with them for four years before you’re fully vested. That means that if you quit before that time, you won’t be able to keep all the money they’ve contributed. (Of course, all the money you’ve contributed is yours from Day One.) But if you quit after, say, two years, you might only be able to keep 50 percent of your company’s contributions. It’s a retention tactic — and an understandable one.

What Happens to My 401(k) Contributions If I Leave My Job?

Well, you keep ’em! The question is how you keep them. One option is to cash out, although you’ll be hit with taxes, as well as a 10 percent penalty for taking the money out early. Other options are to leave the money where it is (if your employer allows) and allow it to continue to grow. You could also roll it over into your new company’s 401(k) or into an IRA. But no matter what, that money’s still yours.

Do I Have to Pay Taxes on My 401(k)?

Years down the road, when the time comes to take out your 401(k) money, you will have to pay the standard income tax on it. But you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you contribute in the year that you contribute it. In other words, if your income is $100,000 and you put $10,000 into your 401(k) this year, your taxable income come April 15 will be $90,000, not $100,000. Capisce?

Is There a Limit to How Much I Can Contribute?

Yes. As of 2015, the limit is $18,000 in a given year. However, your employer’s contributions don’t count toward that limit. The combined contribution limit for 2015 is $53,000. Remember, these contributions are tax-deferred; thus, the reason for the limit.

There are also some stipulations for those who earn more than $120,000 per year, known as Highly Compensated Employees. Basically, the highly-compensated employees of a company cannot contribute on average more than those below the threshold. Those in the HCE group can only contribute up to the average of the non-HCEs.

Why Should I Start Investing Now?

Our favorite question! The sooner you start contributing, the more money you’ll gain in the long run — all thanks to our little friend, compounding growth. With compounding growth, you’ll earn profits on both the money you put in and, over time, on the returns from your original investments. In other words, your 401(k) money starts having babies. And then those babies have babies. And the longer you give it, the more money babies there will be. The key to lots of money babies is time. So get started on that money baby family as early as you can.

So the next time your friends quiz you on 401(k)’s, you’ll get an A+. And we’ll take all credit for any popularity you gain since popularity is a little-known side effect of knowing your financial FAQs. The things we learn in a day, right? Now that all that’s cleared up, what’s stopping you from investing in a 401(k) today?

OFB Interviews: Budget SOS

OFB Interviews: Kelsey

TGIF! We have another installment of our interview series to share today. And this week, we need your help! Our guest, Kelsey Y., is having a budgeting dilemma. We really appreciate her honesty and openness in sharing her situation. We hope we can help her out today!

Tell us a little about your situation.

I’m 23 and almost 9 months into my first full-time job since graduating from college in December of 2013. Previous to this job, I was working at a local hospital in the nutrition services dept., where I was in a very casual position. Transition to my new job was hard, as I had been living paycheck to paycheck for quite some time; I saw this as normal for being in college and never felt I was really struggling. But the budget was tight. I had high hopes that since I was working full-time, I’d be making more money and would be able to budget better — but it’s been hard. I’m up $2 from my starting wage, which puts me at $15/hour. We moved right before I interviewed for this job, so a change in rent/utilities affected my budgeting as well.

I’ve found a way to make sure I break down my paychecks into bills and savings, and while it’s worked, it’s hard with my boyfriend not making as much as I am. I find myself picking up the extra errands (trust me, we only get the essentials at Target) and bills because I feel bad that he isn’t making as much. But I’m close to being a bit fed up. I really want to start putting more money towards my student loans, but it just isn’t feasible at this time. I’d really like to be able to find a budget that WORKS and that I can manage easily. I’ve tried Mint and Every Dollar, and it just hasn’t clicked yet. I want to learn how to better allocate money for groceries, ‘essentials’, gas, etc., and find a way to still enjoy the little things in life.

So what are your goals? And what’s the “why” behind each of them?

  1. Increase my savings. I want to be able to have a nest egg so that when car issues arise, I’m not strapped for cash out of my normal checking account.
  2. Start to pay down my student loans. I want this $22,000 to be out of my life as soon as possible. I want to be able to get married in the years to come, and not feel that I have all of that weighing down on me.
  3. STOP living paycheck-to-paycheck and budget in a way that works for me. I think it will help me to have a game plan that works for me.

What do you struggle with most with budgeting?

Figuring out how to allocate money for groceries/gas/etc. from paycheck-to-paycheck. I also think about how to balance the “fun” purchases — coffee dates, a lunch out every once in a while, etc.

Walk us through a regular month of income and expenses: what do you take home and where does it go?

$1823.62 is the total of my April paychecks; I’m paid hourly, so some months/paydays it can vary.


  • Rent: $343 (of $685)
  • Electric: $24–30
  • Heat: $53 (of $105 – budget billing)
  • Car Loan: $118 (only have about $500 left!)
  • CrossFit: $157.50
  • Car Ins.: $95
  • Student Loan: $40 (this is the only one I’m paying on at this time)

There’s also gas, which can range depending on when I decide to get it; a full tank is around $35, I think. Groceries are about $50/week, but that can vary based on how long we go in between visits. I have a few mail subscriptions, totaling only about $16/month.

Any final words?

Help! Haha…I just want to be able to find a way to budget that can work for me and also maybe roll over into helping my boyfriend figure out a budget for himself as well!

Thanks, Kelsey! If you have any budgeting tips/tricks/methods/secrets that have worked for you, please share them in the comments below to help Kelsey out!

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