How to make changes to your 401(k) contributions


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There are many reasons people change their 401(k) contributions—for some it’s due to a salary increase, for others, a change in personal finances.

For a plan participant who wants to change their contribution, they can contact their company’s 401(k) plan provider to learn how to alter their contributions and how often they are allowed to do so (it can depend on the plan).

That said, experts agree that contributing to a retirement savings plan can be an important part of financial wellness.

There are many benefits associated with contributing to a 401(k) and there are steps all employees can take to prepare for retirement successfully. To understand how to maximize this investment opportunity, it’s important to start with the basics.

Related: Are you on track for retirement? This formula will tell you

Purpose of a 401(k)

A 401(k) is a retirement account offered to employees that takes advantage of a qualified profit-sharing plan.

Employees may contribute a portion of their paycheck to the company’s 401(k) account, and employers can also contribute to each employee’s account.

The money a participant contributes to their 401(k) plan is also called an “elective salary deferral” and is not included in their taxable income. The plan distributions and earnings are taxed later on, once the participant draws from the account during retirement.

How to change 401(k) contributions

Employers typically determine how often plan participants can make changes to their 401k.

There may come a time when a plan participant needs to make changes to their 401(k) contributions.

In some cases, their budget may be tighter and they may want to lessen their contributions. Ideally though, they will be making changes to increase or max out their 401(k) contributions.

Some people might expect to be able to change 401(k) contributions any time they want. However, employers typically determine how often plan participants can make changes.

The plan provider will be able to advise participants on how often they can make changes to their contributions and what the process will look like. For employees unsure of the plan provider, the company’s human resource department can point them in the right direction.

Steps to updating 401(k) contributions

In some cases, participants can change their contributions directly through their plan provider’s website. Generally, the process of making changes to a 401(k) looks like this:

Step 1: A participant contacts their 401(k) provider to discuss how to change contributions for their particular 401(k) plan.

Step 2: The participant considers how much of their paycheck they want to contribute to their 401(k) moving forward, taking their company’s 401(k) match into consideration and contributing at least that much.

Step 3: The participant fills out any forms (online or paperwork) to confirm their new contribution.

Why contribute to a 401(k)?

Contributing to a 401(k) plan is a great way to save for retirement. The funds in a 401(k) are invested, generally in a mutual fund, and the money an individual puts into the 401(k) can grow over the years and help the participant increase their retirement savings.

For many people, this type of investment is especially easy because you can choose how much of your salary to contribute each pay period, and deductions happen automatically.

Another benefit is the potential for savings during tax season. Since the contributions an employee makes to their 401(k) plan over the course of the year aren’t included in their taxable income, that can lower their overall amount of taxable income. This, in turn, may result in an individual falling into a lower tax bracket and paying less income tax in the present.

And in the future, when they might likely be in a lower tax bracket due to retirement, they’ll pay lower taxes when they draw on the money from their 401(k) account. (Note: Withdrawing money from a 401(k) account before retirement age may lead to early withdrawal penalties.)

A perk of enrolling in a 401(k) plan is the notion of “free money” from one’s employer.

Another perk of enrolling in a 401(k) plan is the notion of “free money” from one’s employer. Some companies match a portion of their employees’ contributions—often around 50 cents to $1 for each dollar that an employee contributes.

Typically, an employer might set a maximum matching limit, such as 3% to 6% of the employee’s salary.

This matching contribution is often referred to as free money because the contribution effectively increases an employee’s income without increasing their current tax bill. It’s worth noting that an employer’s match generally vests over the course of three or four years—meaning that the employer-contributed money will accrue in the account, but an employee won’t be able to keep it if they switch jobs, unless they remain with the company for that set period of time.

Setting up recurring contributions

When it comes to setting up a 401(k), the process varies by workplace. Some companies offer automatic enrollment to employees, automatically reducing the employee’s wages by a certain amount and diverting that money to the employee’s 401(k) plan, unless the employee chooses not to have their wages contributed.

Or, an employee can choose to enroll, but to contribute a custom amount. This type of contribution is referred to as an elective deferral.

In companies that don’t offer automatic enrollment as an option, employees will need to work with their HR department and retirement plan provider to get their 401(k) set up.

Participants need to decide how much they want to contribute, may need to choose their investments, can opt to take advantage of autopilot settings, and can roll over a 401(k) from a past job into their new one.

How much to save for retirement

The Department of Labor (DOL) outlined a few best practices for investing in order to save for retirement.

It’s estimated that most Americans will need 70% to 90% of their preretirement income saved by retirement, in order to maintain their current standard of living. Doing that math can give plan participants an idea of how much they should be contributing to their 401(k).

Participants might also consider a few basic investment principles, such as diversifying retirement investments to reduce risk and improve return. These investment choices may evolve overtime depending on someone’s age, goals, and financial situation.

The DOL recommends that employees contribute all they can to their employer-sponsored 401(k) plan to take advantage of benefits like lower taxes, company contributions, and tax deferrals.

Adding alternative investments to a 401(k)

Some savers may find themselves interested in pursuing alternative investments when saving for retirement. An alternative investment takes place outside of the traditional markets of stocks, fixed-income, and cash. This method may appeal to those looking for portfolio diversification. Popular examples of alternative investments are private equity, venture capital, hedge funds, real estate, and commodities.

Self-directed 401(k)s allow participants to add alternate investments to their 401(k) portfolio. With a self-directed 401(k), the investor chooses a custodian such as a brokerage or investment firm to hold the amount of assets and execute the purchase or sale of investments on the participant’s behalf. If an employer offers a self-directed 401(k), the custodian will likely be the plan administrator.

The takeaway

For employees looking to change 401(k) contributions, the process is often as simple as reaching out to your plan provider and confirming that you’re allowed to make a change at this time.

Some companies have rules around when and how often employees can make changes to their contributions. Once you have the go-ahead to make the change, and have considered what works best for your current financial situation and your future goals, it’s generally straightforward.

A company-sponsored 401(k) plan offers many benefits—including the “free money” that comes with an employer-matching program (as long as you stay at the company until you’re fully vested).

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