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Investing

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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Investing

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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Investing

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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