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Wondering How Much to Contribute to Your 401(k)? 8 Things to Consider

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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It’s easy to overlook the details of your 401(k) plan when you start a new job — there’s the excitement of learning the ropes, bringing in a fatter paycheck and finding the quiet bathroom.

Unfortunately, neglecting your 401(k) contributions can have a serious effect on your future. That’s because the money you invest early in your career has decades to grow, so even the most modest contributions can become an impressive nest egg with compound interest.

Even if you’re aware that you need to contribute to your 401(k), it can be tough to decide how much, especially if you have competing financial priorities. Here are eight factors to consider when deciding how much to contribute to your 401(k).

1. Know the IRS limits on 401(k) contributions

Your 401(k) plan is a tax-deferred retirement account, which means you deduct your contributions from your annual income at tax time. This also is described as funding your account with pre-tax dollars.

Since Uncle Sam won’t immediately see any taxes on the money you set aside, the IRS sets 401(k) contribution limits to prevent individuals from using their 401(k) accounts as vehicles to dodge taxes on large sums of money. In 2019, the employee contribution limit is $19,000 for participants who are under age 50.

If you are in a position to afford a $19,000 annual contribution, you should plan to send $1,583 per month ($19,000/12 = $1,583) to your 401(k) and call it day. If you’re a mere mortal with bills to pay, you’ll need to use other strategies to maximize your 401(k) contribution.

2. Take advantage of company matching

Many employers offer to match 401(k) contributions up to a certain amount. For instance, your company might offer to match 50% of your contributions up to 6%. This means that if you contribute 6% of your salary to your 401(k), your company will put in 3%, giving you 9% in total contributions.

“Your first goal should be to contribute enough to get the company match. This can be difficult if you’re just starting out, but saving has to be a little bit painful,” explained Jim Blankenship, a certified financial planner and the principal of Blankenship Financial Planning in New Berlin, Ill.

If contributing enough to reach the full company match is unaffordable, Blankenship recommended that you increase your contribution every time you get a raise or set up an automatic increase of 0.5% or 1% every six months. That will help you ease into contributing enough to get the match without feeling the bite all at once.

Another important thing to remember is that your employer’s contributions on your behalf don’t count toward your $19,000 contribution limit. Your employer may contribute as much as $37,000 to your 401(k) in 2019.

3. Contribution goals should not be static

It’s not a good idea to adopt a “set it and forget it” attitude when it comes to your contributions. “Your goals should evolve over time. Even if your initial goal is to get the full company match, you shouldn’t rest on your laurels once you get there,” warned Blankenship.

He recommended that you eventually max out the annual IRS contribution limits or put aside 20% of your annual salary — whichever is feasible. For instance, a worker earning $35,000 per year probably will not be able to afford the $19,000 401(k) contribution limit. However, setting aside $7,000 per year may be an achievable goal.

4. Make sure you understand vesting

While the company match is an excellent perk, it’s important to remember that the matching amount is not necessarily yours the moment it appears in your account. You will have to wait to be vested before you can consider that money yours in retirement.

In many cases, vesting is graduated over time. For instance, you might be vested in 20% of your company’s match after one year, 40% after two years and so on until you are 100% vested after five years of employment.

If you separate from the company prior to becoming 100% vested, then you will lose the nonvested amount. Unfortunately, this is true whether you quit, get fired or get laid off. The good news is that your own contributions are completely vested, so any money you personally put away is yours to keep no matter what happens to the company match or your employment status with the company.

5. 401(k) contributions are pre-tax

While you crunch the numbers to determine how much you can contribute to your retirement account, don’t forget that your take-home pay will not be reduced by the full amount of your contribution. Since your contribution is taken from your pre-tax salary, contributions effectively lower your annual salary, which means your tax withholding for each paycheck also will go down. So for each $100 you contribute to your 401(k), you’ll see less than $100 deducted from your take-home pay.

6. 401(k) vs. debt vs. emergency fund: how to prioritize

Most people have a number of competing financial needs, making it difficult to understand how to prioritize where your money goes. Should you build your emergency fund, focus on maxing out your 401(k) contributions or pay down debt to avoid losing money on high interest rates?

“Your top priority should be building an emergency fund of three to six months’ worth of unavoidable expenses,” said Blankenship. “Unavoidable expenses means true bare-bones minimum: rent or mortgage, car payment, utilities and groceries. You don’t need to recreate your usual monthly spending, just the amount you would need to get by.”

Once that is in place, Blankenship recommended paying the minimum amount on your debt to prioritize getting the company match on your 401(k). Credit card debt or other high-interest debt should take priority over student loan debt; however, you can work on paying down your debt while contributing to your retirement account.

7. Review the details of your 401(k) plan

How much you contribute to your employer 401(k) may depend on how good the plan is. Blankenship recommended looking at the portfolios offered by your 401(k) to determine if it’s a good low-cost investing environment for your money.

“You should educate yourself on what makes for a good diversified portfolio, and there are a number of resources online that will help you do an analysis of your potential portfolio,” he said. In particular, Blankenship recommended Yahoo Finance.

Blankenship also recommended opening an individual retirement account (IRA) if your 401(k) isn’t up to snuff. You should keep contributing to your 401(k) up to your company match; however, any contributions beyond that should go toward your IRA to take advantage of lower fees or a more diversified portfolio.

8. Determine your desired retirement age

It can be hard to think about retirement when you’re in the thick of your career, but it’s a good idea to do some basic calculations to determine how much you will need, even if retirement is decades away.

Not only will you have a better sense of what you need to set aside to reach your goals, but thinking about what you want from your future makes those goals feel more immediate (which also makes it easier and more satisfying to save money).

The takeaway

The precise amount to send to your 401(k) will depend on a number of factors. Meeting your company match and creating savings goals that evolve over time will help ensure you have a robust retirement account when you need it.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Emily Guy Birken
Emily Guy Birken |

Emily Guy Birken is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Emily here

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Should You Pay Off Debt or Save Your Money?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

You have a regular source of income, you’re paying your bills on time and you have some extra dollars left over each month. What should you do with that extra cash?

If you don’t have debt (lucky you!), then the choice is simple — save or invest as much as possible. If you have debt, however, the choice can be a bit murkier: Should you pay off your debt first or save? Here are some things to consider when asking yourself that question.

Three times that saving your money might be smarter

1. If you don’t have an emergency savings fund

Just when you’re cruising along, life can throw some unexpected and expensive curves your way. A sudden job loss, medical bills or car repairs can pop up out of the blue, and if you don’t have the funds to pay for them, you can end up seriously in the red. To cover unexpected costs, some may resort to high-interest credit cards and loans. Those kinds of moves can dig you into a financial hole that can take years to pay your way out of.

Saving up a healthy emergency fund can protect you in instances like these. How much should you save? Experts generally suggest that you should save an amount equal to between three and six months of living expenses. Depending on your individual circumstances, however, you may need more than that. (Check out this article to figure out how much to save and where to keep it.)

2. Your employer offers matching retirement contributions

If you’re fortunate enough to work for a company that offers a retirement plan with matching contributions, then consider making that method of saving a priority.

For example, if your employer offers to match your contributions dollar-for-dollar up to 6% of your salary in a 401(k) plan, then contribute at least that much, if possible. The money can then grow in a tax-free or tax-deferred 401(k) until you withdraw it in retirement — all that compound interest can really add up over the years. If you don’t contribute up to that amount, you’re leaving free money on the table.

Note, however, that If you need to withdraw these funds early (before the age of 59 and a half and before the account is five years old) there will be penalties to pay. That makes this a better tool for long-term savings rather than for the short-term or as an emergency savings fund.

3. Your debt has a very low interest rate

Debt gets a bad rap — often for good reason — but in some cases, carrying your low-interest debt and investing or saving your funds instead may be more beneficial. For example, the current fixed interest rate for direct subsidized and unsubsidized student loans is 5.05%, and the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate is about 4.3%. The stock market, on the other hand, has gone up an average of 10% a year since 1926.

Beyond comparing interest rates, however, you also need to assess how much risk you’re willing to take and how much access to your savings that you’ll need. Of course, there are no guarantees that your investments will perform well, and paying down debt comes with zero risk. Savings accounts are a less risky saving option, but the average interest rate is often less than 1 or 2%. Other options, such as individual retirement accounts (IRAs), have restrictions on how the funds can be used outside of retirement.

Four times debt repayment may be more beneficial

1. You have high-interest debt

It’s hard to get ahead of high-interest debt, because compound interest is working against you. Credit card interest rates, for example, average between 15 and 20% — an amount which adds up quickly. If you make the minimum payment, you may not even be making a dent in the principal amount owed, and you can spend years just paying interest. Calculators like this one can help you figure out just how much interest you’ll pay and how long it will take to pay off.

If you have high-interest debt, make sure you explore all the options for paying it down, including consolidating your debt and researching balance transfer cards.

2. Your debt doesn’t offer any benefits

Though your debt is costing you in interest, you might find that some loans may offer useful perks. For example, federal student loans may offer tax benefits and even loan forgiveness programs for eligible borrowers. Similarly, there are tax write-offs for mortgages and in many cases, the money you invest in a home will pay off down the line when you sell your property.

On the other hand, the debt on the credit card you maxed out to pay for that trip to Cabo comes with no benefits — just a bunch of interest. High-interest debt with no benefits should be at the top of your pay-off priority list.

3. You want to raise your credit score

While there are many factors that go into determining your credit score, the amount of debt you carry is an important component. If you plan to buy a home or secure a loan in the near future, take a look at your debt-to-income ratio (DTI), which many lenders consider before approving you for a loan. If your DTI is high, you may want to consider paying off some debt before applying for that new loan, which may result in lower interest rates for you later.

4. Your debt stresses you out

Debt can take an emotional and physical toll on people, ranging from depression to insomnia and more. When it feels like a black cloud hanging over your head and it’s affecting your life in negative ways, it may be in your best interest to prioritize paying debt off first.

Should you pay off debt or save?

Of course, saving vs. paying off debt early doesn’t have to be an either/or situation — ideally, you can do both at the same time. If, however, a choice must be made between the two, there are many factors to consider. As with most financial moves, there are no cut-and-dry rules, and the best one for you will depend on your individual circumstances.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Julie Ryan Evans
Julie Ryan Evans |

Julie Ryan Evans is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julie here

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How to Make Money in Stocks

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews, statements or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Putting money in the market is well-worn financial advice for a reason: Investing in stocks is one of the best steps you can take toward building wealth.But how, exactly, is that wealth built? How is money earned by purchasing stock market holdings, and what can you do to maximize the gains you make from your own portfolio?

How to make money in stocks: 5 best practices

The way the stock market works — and works for you — is as simple as a high school economics class. It’s all about supply and demand, and the way those factors affect value.

Investors purchase market assets like stocks (shares of companies), which increase in value when the company does well. As the company in question makes financial progress, more investors want a piece of the action, and they’re willing to pay more for an individual share.

That means that the share you paid for has now increased in price, thanks to higher demand — which in turn means you can earn something when it comes time to sell it. (Of course, it’s also possible for stocks and other market holdings to decrease in value, which is why there’s no such thing as a risk-free investment.)

Along with the profit you can make by selling stocks, you can also earn shareholder dividends, or portions of the company’s earnings. Cash dividends are usually paid on a quarterly basis, but you might also earn dividends in the form of additional shares of stock.

Micro-mechanics of how stocks earn money aside, you likely won’t see serious growth without heeding some basic market principles and best practices. Here’s how to ensure your portfolio will do as much work for you as possible.

1. Take advantage of time

Although it’s possible to make money on the stock market in the short term, the real earning potential comes from the compound interest you earn on long-term holdings. As your assets increase in value, the total amount of money in your account grows, making room for even more capital gains. That’s how stock market earnings increase over time exponentially.

But in order to best take advantage of that exponential growth, you need to start building your portfolio as early as possible. Ideally, you’ll want to start investing as soon as you’re earning an income — perhaps by taking advantage of a company-sponsored 401(k) plan.

To see exactly how much time can affect your nest egg, let’s look at an example. Say you stashed $1,000 in your retirement account at age 20, with plans to hang up your working hat at age 70. Even if you put nothing else into the account, you’d have over $18,000 to look forward to after 50 years of growth, assuming a relatively modest 6% interest rate. But if you waited until you were 60 to make that initial deposit, you’d earn less than $800 through compound interest — which is why it’s so much harder to save for retirement if you don’t start early. Plus, all that extra cash comes at no additional effort on your part. It just requires time — so go ahead and get started!

2. Continue to invest regularly

Time is an important component of your overall portfolio growth. But even decades of compounding returns can only do so much if you don’t continue to save.

Let’s go back to our retirement example above. Only this time, instead of making a $1,000 deposit and forgetting about it, let’s say you contributed $1,000 a year — which comes out to less than $20 per week.

If you started making those annual contributions at age 20, you’d have saved about $325,000 by the time you celebrated your 70th birthday. Even if you waited until 60 to start saving, you’d wind up with about $15,000 — a far cry from the measly $1,800 you’d take out if you only made the initial deposit.

Making regular contributions doesn’t have to take much effort; you can easily automate the process through your 401(k) or brokerage account, depositing a set amount each week or pay period.

3. Set it and forget it — mostly

If you’re looking to see healthy returns on your stock market investments, just remember — you’re playing the long game.

For one thing, short-term trading lacks the tax benefits you can glean from holding onto your investments for longer. If you sell a stock before owning it for a full year, you’ll pay a higher tax rate than you would on long-term capital gains — that is, stocks you’ve held for more than a year.

While there are certain situations that do call for taking a look at your holdings, for the most part, even serious market dips reverse themselves in time. In fact, these bearish blips are regular, expected events, according to Malik S. Lee, CFP® and founder of Atlanta-based Felton & Peel Wealth Management.

So-called market corrections are healthy, he said. “It shows that the market is alive and well.” And even taking major recessions into account, the market’s performance has had an overall upward trend over the past hundred years.

4. Maintain a diverse portfolio

All investing carries risk; it’s possible for some of the companies you invest in to underperform or even fold entirely. But if you diversify your portfolio, you’ll be safeguarded against losing all of your assets when investments don’t go as planned.

By ensuring you’re invested in many different types of securities, you’ll be better prepared to weather stock market corrections. It’s unlikely that all industries and companies will suffer equally or succeed at the same level, so you can hedge your bets by buying some of everything.

5. Consider hiring professional help

Although the internet makes it relatively easy to create a well-researched DIY stock portfolio, if you’re still hesitant to put your money in the market, hiring an investment advisor can help. Even though the use of a professional can’t mitigate all risk of losses, you might feel more comfortable knowing you have an expert in your corner.

How the stock market can grow your wealth

Given the right combination of time, contribution regularity and a little bit of luck, the stock market has the potential to turn even a modest savings into an appreciable nest egg.

Ready to get started investing for yourself? Check out the following MagnifyMoney articles:

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Jamie Cattanach
Jamie Cattanach |

Jamie Cattanach is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here

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