Friday, March 04, 2005

What is a 401(K) Plan?

Believe it or not, the average American barely understands where their money is going. I know a lot of young people visit this site, most of which have been smart enough to start contributing to their 401s. But I speak to people every day who think a 401K and an IRA are the same thing, or that they can borrow from the 401 without strings attached. Try again.
Employer-sponsored retirement plans are generally grouped into two major categories: defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC). In a DB plan, the employer promises to pay a defined amount to retirees who meet certain eligibility criteria. In other words, the plan defines the benefit to be received. In its most typical form, a DB plan pays a lifetime monthly benefit to retirees who fulfill specific age and service requirements. Benefits are usually linked to the amount of service and based on final average salary. Employees can reasonably rely on a known and expected benefit level; although protection against post-separation inflation is usually limited and/or uncertain. The plan sponsor may also provide an alternative lump-sum "cash-out" of the benefit entitlement. Until relatively recent times, the DB was the dominant form of employer-sponsored retirement program. In DC plans, the plan defines the contributions that an employer can make, not the benefit that will be received at retirement. The terminating employee receives the proceeds in a current or deferred lump sum or annuity. Since the benefit is not defined, the retirement outcomes are not known in advance. In 1978, section 401k of the Internal Revenue Code authorized the use of a new type of defined contribution plan that allows for the employee to make pre-tax contributions to the plan. Employee 401k contribution are automatically deducted from their paycheck each pay period. This money is taken out before the employees paycheck is taxed. The contributions are invested at the employees direction into one or more funds provided in the plan. Employers often "match" employee contributions, but are not required to do so. While the investments grow in the employees 401k account, they do not pay any taxes on it. Courtesy of 401khelpcenter
401k plans have proven to be popular with employees for several reasons. The tax deferral is obviously the #1 seller. Others include the increased portability of this plan, employer matching contributions, and the increased control associated with self-direction of investments. Contributions to plan can come from voluntary employee salary reduction or from employer, or both. Remember that a 401 is a RETIREMENT plan--don't plan on withdrawing anytime soon--employee withdrawals before age 59 1/2 may be subject to 10% penalty. There are other ways to grow money on a TAX DEFERRED basis without being hit with penalties, like taxable brokerages. Better yet, let money accumulate TAX FREE in a whole life.

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