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What is a 401(k)?

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 already know that saving for retirement is one of the most important financial decisions you can make. But how, exactly, should you go about it?

The best way to save for retirement is to invest your money so it can go to work for you. The magic of compound interest can turn today’s spare change into tomorrow’s nest egg.

If you’re a full-time employee, chances are the most readily-accessible investment plan available to you is a company-sponsored 401(k). But what, exactly, is that alphabet-soup-sounding retirement account? And how does it work?

What is a 401(k)?

A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored investment account. It helps you save for retirement by combining the powers of time, consistency, compound interest and hefty tax benefits to help set you up for your golden years.

Like other retirement accounts, 401(k)s are available in both traditional and Roth varieties.

In a traditional 401(k), your contributions are tax-deductible (and thus reducing your total taxable income for the year), and grow tax-free until you withdraw them — at which point they are subject to regular income tax.

With a Roth 401(k), your contributions will count toward your taxable income for the year, but they are not taxed upon withdrawal.

Your employer has control over whether or not to offer a 401(k), employee participation eligibility, and at what point the funds you contribute will be fully under your ownership — a process called “vesting,” which we’ll get to later in this post.

(Psst: if your employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan, you still have some valuable savings options.)

How does a 401(k) work?

A 401(k) is funded primarily by elective contributions — the portion of your wages that is automatically deducted from your paycheck each period. You have control over how much you contribute to your 401(k), although there are limits imposed by the IRS. For 2019, you can contribute up to $19,000 of your personal income.

Once the funds are deducted from your paycheck, they’re invested in a portfolio of your choosing. You’ll have the opportunity to choose from a variety of available options — an average of eight to 12 alternatives, according to FINRA. These may include individual stocks and bonds, but mutual funds are the most common option.

Depending on where you work, you may also have access to an employer match program — and if you do, it’s a very good idea to take advantage of it to maximize your 401(k) returns. An employer match means just that: your employer will match your 401(k) contributions — dollar for dollar— up to a certain percentage, which basically means free money to put toward your retirement.

Of course, employer matches aren’t limitless. The average match hovers between 3% and 6%, according to Malik S. Lee, a Certified Financial Planner at Atlanta-based financial advisory firm Felton & Peel. Some generous employers will match paycheck contributions up to 8%, or even higher — Lee said he’s seen some Georgia universities matching as high as 10%.

No matter how much — or how little — your employer contributes, it’s well worth it to take advantage of your employer match.

Say you’re making $30,000 and putting 4% of that toward your 401(k), for a total annual contribution of $1,200. An employer match of just 1% puts an additional $300 into your 401(k), which increases your total annual contribution to $1,500.

That might not seem like much. But thanks to the exponential nature of compound interest, that extra $300 could make a big difference down the road. After 10 years of contributions and investments growing at a relatively modest 6% annual interest rate, you’d have $15,816.95 without the employer match, but $19,771.19 with it. That’s a difference of nearly $4,000!

More on employer match programs: Getting vested

Not every employer allows new hires to start contributing to their 401(k) plan as soon as they start — and those who do may not grant ownership of employer contributions immediately. Vesting, the process of earning total control of your retirement account, means your employer’s 401(k) contributions will not be taken back or forfeited upon your resignation or dismissal. Remember, vesting applies only to employer contributions. You’ll always own 100% of the funds you put into your account.

Many employers will gradually vest their employers based on the time they’ve worked for the company. For instance, you may start at 0% and achieve 20% vesting after the first six months of employment, then 40% by the end of the year, and so on.

Other employers utilize a “cliff” method of vesting, wherein employees are 0% vested for a longer period of time (such as the first two years of employment). They achieve 100% vestment after a certain threshold (say, three years).

According to the IRS, “All employees must be 100% vested by the time they attain normal retirement age under the plan or when the plan is terminated” — that is, if the employer decides to end their 401(k) program entirely.

How much can you contribute to a 401(k)?

As mentioned above, there are limits to how much you can put into your 401(k) while still enjoying the tax benefits the account offers. The IRS sets these limits annually and they change from time to time.

For example, in 2018, employees could contribute up to $18,500 of their personal income to their 401(k) plans, but that figure has been raised to $19,000 for 2019. For more information on 401(k) contribution limits, see this MagnifyMoney article.

How much should you contribute?

The answer to this question seems obvious: as much as possible. But as in all parts of our financial lives, your mileage may vary depending on your circumstances. For example, you may still be paying down high-interest debt or trying to bolster your emergency fund, either of which makes hefty retirement contributions more difficult. Getting started is the key, because the earlier you start, the more time you’ll have on your side to take advantage of compound interest.

“You always want to put something away inside your 401(k),” Lee said. “Even if you’re trying to pay down debt or build your emergency reserve.” Ideally, you’ll want to meet your employer match if it’s available — but even if not, you should still contribute what you can.

Accessing your savings: How 401(k) withdrawals work

Generally, you can’t withdraw from your 401(k) savings before the age of 59 and a half without paying an additional 10% tax penalty. The withdrawal will also be taxed as regular income at the time it is taken out of the account.

However, you’ll be required to take minimum distributions once you hit age 70 and a half, unless you own more than 5% of the company or have not yet retired.

There are several exceptions in both cases. For instance, you may be eligible for penalty-free distributions before the age of 59 and a half if you can demonstrate financial hardship or you have a qualifying disability. (See the IRS guidelines for a full details)

You will also incur the 10% penalty if you take money out to perform an indirect rollover, which we’ll go over next.

Got a new gig? 401(k)s are portable

These days most of us hold more than one job over the course of our lifetimes. Fortunately, when you get a shiny new job, your old 401(k) can come with you!

The easiest way to bring your 401(k) funds along on your career move is to ask your account custodian to initiate a direct rollover. Your funds will either be transferred directly to your new account, or the custodian will write a check made out to the new account in your benefit. In either scenario, you’ll never have direct access to the money, which means you won’t incur any penalties or taxes during the process.

You can also opt for an indirect rollover, allowing you to cash in the account and then reinvest it manually; however, this route does come with some tax-related rules and limitations. The IRS requires the administrator to withhold 20%, which means you’ll receive only 80% of the amount you see reflected in your 401(k) account balance. In order to avoid the tax penalty and make up the difference in the form of a tax credit, you’ll need to reinvest the total amount within 60 days of initiating the rollover, which means pulling a potentially significant chunk from your own pocket. Since 401(k)s are eligible to be rolled over into just about every type of retirement account available, a direct transfer is a much more sensible option.

The 401(k) is the workhorse of retirement accounts — one of the most readily-accessible and powerful financial tools in the American earner’s arsenal. If you have access to one through your employer, start taking advantage of it today. You’ll thank yourself tomorrow.

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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Wealthsimple Review 2019

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.

Wealthsimple may not be the largest robo-advisor in the U.S. — though it is the largest in Canada and made the leap south of the border in 2017 — but it should be counted among the best. It’s especially valuable for newer investors, even though its fees are higher than some rivals’. For that higher fee, clients receive a portfolio review from an actual human and an all-inclusive package without additional fees, which may cost extra at other robo-advisors. Clients also have access to socially responsible portfolios and at least one other unusual perk. Altogether, Wealthsimple is the complete package for beginners to not-so-beginners.

Visit WealthsimpleSecuredon Wealthsimple’s secure site
The bottom line: Though it’s on the expensive side, Wealthsimple delivers an investor-friendly product that’s great for newer investors.

  • Free portfolio review and no extra fees
  • Access to financial planners
  • Higher account management fee

Who should consider Wealthsimple

Wealthsimple is a great choice for investors who are looking for a few more perks from their robo-advisor and who don’t mind paying a bit more for that privilege. It’s also a solid choice for those looking to get into socially engaged investing or halal investing and those who need basic access to financial planners. In these respects, it’s a good choice for beginners who need more guidance. Finally, for those with larger accounts, Wealthsimple provides expanded access to planners as well as special airport lounge access.

Wealthsimple fees and features

Amount minimum to open account
  • $0
Management fees
  • 0.5% (less than $100K deposited)
  • 0.4% ($100K+ deposited)
Account fees (annual, transfer, inactivity)
  • $0 annual fee
  • $0 full account transfer fee
  • $0 partial account transfer fee
  • $0 inactivity fee
Account types
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • Joint taxable
  • Rollover IRA
  • Rollover Roth IRA
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • Trust
  • ETFs cover 10 asset classes.
Automatic rebalancing
Tax loss harvesting
Tax loss harvesting detailTax loss harvesting is automatically activated for Wealthsimple Black clients; it is available to all Wealthsimple clients.
Offers fractional shares
Ease of use
Mobile appiOS, Android
Customer supportPhone, Email

Strengths of Wealthsimple

  • Free portfolio review: Wealthsimple offers a free portfolio review as a way to get its foot in the door, much like FutureAdvisor does. With Wealthsimple, you provide your personal details, upload your financial statements and make an appointment with one of the company’s financial planners. The review includes an assessment not only of your investments but also of your debts and how much you’re paying for the funds or investments you currently have. It also includes plans to minimize your taxes and sets up your financial goals — so you know where you’re going. The entire process is led by a Wealthsimple financial planner, who has a fiduciary duty to act in your best interest. Even if you don’t opt for Wealthsimple, it’s a free review of your whole financial life by a professional, so it’s hard to go wrong there.
  • Expanded access to financial planners: While everyone at Wealthsimple has some access to financial planners, those enrolled in Wealthsimple Black (for accounts of more than $100,000) receive more access. This includes a formalized financial plan, which features a strategy for generating retirement income and a goals-based investing plan for retirement or for those big purchases in life. This access is one of the larger perks of the service and should be a draw for those who need this kind of planning and advice.
  • No extra fees and access to some unusual perks: Even if Wealthsimple does charge one of the higher account management fees, it doesn’t nickel-and-dime you on other fees like many other robo-advisors do. A transfer-out fee that might run you $75 at a rival is free here. And tax loss harvesting and portfolio rebalancing are included as a standard part of the management fee.Wealthsimple also allows you to purchase fractional shares, which is a nice bonus for beginning investors who may not have enough money to buy a full share of a fund with a high price tag. That ability allows you to purchase the full range of funds recommended for you and fully diversify even smaller cash deposits immediately — getting you in the game more quickly.Finally, the most unusual perk offered by Wealthsimple has nothing to do with investing. If you have more than $100,000 with the robo-advisor, you’ll become part of Wealthsimple Black, the firm’s upgraded service that offers access to more than 1,000 airline lounges in over 400 cities. If you’re a frequent traveler, that’s a nice perk.
  • Socially engaged investing: Looking to build a portfolio filled with socially responsible companies? Wealthsimple can help you do that, investing in six exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that support major socially engaged themes, such as low carbon, gender diversity and affordable housing. The company builds three types of portfolios using these investments depending on your risk tolerance: conservative, balanced and growth.Wealthsimple also offers Shariah-compliant halal investing, which is in accord with Islamic law. All investments avoid profiting from gambling, tobacco, arms or other industries that violate Islamic law. The diversified portfolio consists of 50 Stocks that have been vetted by a third-party committee of Shariah scholars. Because the portfolio is all Stocks, it’s riskier than more balanced portfolios that include Bonds (which are forbidden under the investment mandate).

Drawbacks of Wealthsimple

  • Account management fee: The account management fee — clocking in at 0.5% (less than $100K deposited) for basic accounts — is probably the biggest drawback at Wealthsimple. Basic accounts at other major rivals are around 0.25%. But it’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison, as Wealthsimple clients have some access to financial planners as well as the other free services above. And Wealthsimple manages the first $5,000 for a year for free, so that helps newer investors get started with their nest egg.Clients who deposit more than $100,000 will automatically join Wealthsimple Black, reducing their management fee to 0.4% and gaining more extensive access to a financial planner. Still, this reduced fee remains above those of rivals offering access to financial planners, including Schwab Intelligent Advisory (at 0.28% and a minimum of just $25,000) and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (0.30% and a $50,000 minimum). These options beat Wealthsimple on the minimum for the higher tier of service too.
  • Customer support: Wealthsimple provides adequate customer service, and you can call in to have your account or investing questions answered by a professional. But the hours feel somewhat limited: Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST. You also can drop Wealthsimple a line via email, but don’t expect an online chat or off-hour responses.

Is Wealthsimple safe?

Wealthsimple manages more than $2 billion in client assets, so it’s a trusted name in the industry. Client assets — which technically are held by the company’s broker, Apex Clearing, and not Wealthsimple itself — are safeguarded by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC). This ensures that in the event of a bankruptcy, customers’ assets are insured to at least $500,000 (including $250,000 in cash only). That doesn’t protect you against the market falling or other risks of investing, but it should give you peace of mind about Wealthsimple.

Final thoughts

Wealthsimple should be an attractive candidate for any new investor looking to understand how to build a portfolio. The firm provides access to its financial planners for all investors, though clients in the higher service tier will receive more extensive time with them. The free portfolio review also is a solid service for beginning investors, and those looking to build a socially engaged portfolio should consider Wealthsimple.

Beginning investors who are focused primarily on fees (and need less access to education and advice) might consider shifting to Wealthfront or Betterment. Those who need more advice and can bring more than a little coin to their accounts also might want to consider Vanguard Personal Advisor Services or Schwab Intelligent Advisory. But Wealthsimple will be a solid fit for most.

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on Wealthsimple’s secure website

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.

James F. Royal, Ph.D.
James F. Royal, Ph.D. |

James F. Royal, Ph.D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here


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YieldStreet Review 2019

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.

YieldStreet is the type of fintech company that the internet makes possible: The investment manager, founded in 2015, connects borrowers with investors in alternative assets, taking a fee from each deal it completes. These alternative investments include short-term loans that might traditionally have gone to well-connected investors, such as placements in real estate, litigation finance, and marine vessel acquisition and deconstruction.

The appeal for investors (who must be accredited) is the high yields offered on the deals, and YieldStreet has engineered financings worth more than a half-billion dollars. Also of interest is what YieldStreet claims is its investments’ low correlation to the stock market, meaning these assets won’t zag when the market does. That provides diversification away from publicly traded companies and offers greater safety to an investor’s overall portfolio.

Visit YieldStreetSecuredon YieldStreet’s secure site
The bottom line: YieldStreet provides high yields on illiquid real estate and alternative investments, albeit with high fees.

  • Clearly explains the benefits and risks of individual investments
  • Offers a variety of investment types
  • Charges pricey management fees

Who should consider YieldStreet

The prospect of high interest on a limited-term loan can be enticing, but you’re invited to the club only if you’re an accredited investor. That means you’ll need to have at least $200,000 in income for the past two years as an individual, or $300,000 if joint. Alternatively, you need at least $1 million in assets, not including your primary residence. So YieldStreet is not for casual investors who decide they want to invest in real estate loans.

Another factor: As an investor, you’ll need to analyze the prospectuses of various loans, which the company will provide you. While YieldStreet outlines many of the risks, it’s ultimately up to you to decide what to invest in, and that requires more work than simply buying an index fund and kicking back. These are illiquid investments, so if you need the money soon, you’re better off elsewhere.

YieldStreet fees and features

Amount minimum to open account
  • $10,000 (possibly higher for specific offerings)
Commission1% to 4% management fee on all offerings
Account types
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • Solo 401(k) (for small businesses)
  • Trust
Customer supportPhone, Email

Strengths of YieldStreet

  • High yields and easy-to-make investments: YieldStreet couldn’t really make it any easier, technically, to select potential investments. It’s easy to allocate a certain amount of your capital to each loan, and the prominent details of each are presented in an easy-to-read summary. You’ll read sections on the investment’s positives and negatives, and you can download further information too. It’s easy to go by what YieldStreet says, but investors will want to investigate and analyze each investment themselves.And those high yields? The company is targeting 8% to 20% annual returns, a level that would make almost any investor’s mouth water. The company projects that already-financed investments are on track for a 12.6% annual return.
  • High interest on cash account: Investors can fund their investments from the YieldStreet Wallet, which allows users — even unaccredited investors — to earn 2% on the cash in their account. It’s like an online bank account, and it’s backed by a real bank, Evolve Bank & Trust. That’s an attractive rate for investors looking to stash their cash while waiting on their next YieldStreet investment or even for average investors to stockpile their money at an above-average yield.
  • No principal loss on prior investments: YieldStreet really wants you to know upfront that investors have lost no principal on their investments. It’s one of the first things the company’s website highlights. Each investment is asset-based — that is, backed by collateral — meaning it’s supported by an asset such as real estate or a legal settlement. Collateral provides greater safety to the loans that are on offer. If a loan does go sour, YieldStreet works with the loan’s originator to recoup as much of the principal and outstanding interest as possible, potentially through legal action. While the track record has been good so far, it can turn at any time.

Drawbacks of YieldStreet

  • Pricey management fees: The company clearly outlines that it takes a 1% to 4% management fee on all offerings on its financed deals, and that isn’t cheap. For each deal, the company highlights the expected net investment return, and it would be all too easy to bury the management fee in the fine print. But it does disclose the fees on its summary page for each deal (and not in illegible legalese either), so kudos for that.Still, those fees are expensive, especially as management fees on index funds of publicly traded companies are quickly plummeting. Of course, the appeal of YieldStreet is the access to traditionally inaccessible deals, and the company is charging a premium for that access.
  • Illiquid investments: Another downside to these investments, relative to traditional stock and bond investments, is that they are tied up completely for the life of the project and are illiquid. The company clearly spells out how long each project should last, and projects may run for just a few months to several years. If you can’t keep your money in that long and need access to it, this kind of investing won’t be for you.
  • Ongoing fees: It’s not just the management fee that comes out of your account but also an ongoing fee for each investment, and this fee depends on the type of legal structure set up to house the investment. This fee pays for such things as an annual audit and filing fees with the SEC. Depending on the specific type of structure, first-year fees run $100 to $150, while subsequent years cost $30 to $70.That can be more pricey than you think and can really ding your returns, especially if you’re investing smaller amounts. For instance, if you invested the minimum in each deal — $10,000 — and earned a 9% return, a $150 fee would eat up one-sixth of your first-year interest and as much as one-twelfth of your interest in subsequent years. That’s no trivial fee, and it encourages you to invest more in each deal, which may or may not be prudent.
  • Uncertain risks and an unproven business model: The company does provide key details of each deal, a useful guide for what to watch out for and a prospectus. However, there may be further or unknown risks investors must ascertain for themselves (just as there are in publicly traded investments). That means investors in YieldStreet really need to be able to analyze these potential investments effectively and perhaps even have some background conducting such analysis. There’s no one who’s going to do this work for you, so if you’re not comfortable doing it, YieldStreet may not be for you.In addition, the quality of YieldStreet’s investments is still untested by a significant recession — remember that the company was founded in 2015 — and such a test will prove how viable this model is longer term. The returns on offer here imply high risk, and risky investments often perform poorly during tough times. Of course, this is not a prediction but something prudent investors will want to analyze for themselves.

Is YieldStreet safe?

The biggest risk at YieldStreet is the investments themselves, and that varies on a case-by-case basis. That said, the company boasts that investors have had $0 loss of principal while enjoying (or slated to enjoy) an annual return of 12.6%. Each investment fund is held in a separate company whose sole purpose is keeping the investment secure, and in the event of YieldStreet going bankrupt, a new manager could be appointed for the funds.

The company’s YieldStreet Wallet, which pays interest on cash balances, is held by the FDIC-backed Evolve Bank & Trust, meaning that any cash deposits are insured up to $250,000. None of this protection, however, means that your at-risk investments at YieldStreet won’t lose money.

Final thoughts

YieldStreet is an interesting investment offering enabled by the connective power of the internet, and it’s allowing investors and borrowers to come together in new ways. The potential for high returns is there for investors, but these returns also imply high risk. While the track record is favorable so far, YieldStreet is too young to have gone through a recession. With high-risk investments, things can change quickly, so investors should invest accordingly.

Accredited investors who find the risk and fee structure a bit too much also may turn to publicly traded stocks, where fees are moving ever lower. While such investments don’t offer the low correlation to stock markets, they offer a time-tested model and potential exposure to the world’s best businesses (and you can even invest in real estate if you want).

Open a YieldStreet accountSecured
on YieldStreet’s secure website

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.

James F. Royal, Ph.D.
James F. Royal, Ph.D. |

James F. Royal, Ph.D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here