Occasionally, Consumerism Commentary readers send in questions about handling their finances. I am not a financial planner, so I have no certification claiming I’m qualified to give financial advice. I am not an investment adviser, so I certainly won’t be recommending stocks. I like the opportunity to address financial questions that other readers may be concerned about, and if I have an opinion or two on the matter, I’d be happy to share.
Readers may disagree with my opinion, or they may agree. Addressing these questions is also an opportunity to instigate discussions. As with any advice you may receive, it’s always good to check with a professional beforehand, particularly if the decision could have significant effects on your financial condition.
Here is a question I received from Steve:
I’m 24 years old and I haven’t started any retirement savings, but I know I need to start. My company offers a 401k benefit but does not offer any match. I was wondering, would this 401k’s tax benefits still be worth taking advantage of over other retirement investment vehicles? Would a Roth IRA be wiser? Or something else?
There are two primary tax benefits to investing in a 401(k) plan. You contributions and earnings grow tax-free until you retire, and your contributions can be deducted from your income for tax purposes if your income is low enough. I describe and explain the 401(k) contribution limits here.
Taxes are a distant second next to the best benefit of most 401(k) plans: matching contributions from your employer. Employers can structure the matching contributions in a variety of forms. One of the most common is for your employer to match 100% of your contribution up to a certain percent of your salary. For every dollar you take out of your paycheck to invest in your 401(k), your employer might also contribute a dollar of its own money. This is an immediate 100% return, much better than what you can expect from any of your investments. If your employer matches your contributions, find a way — any way — to contribute to your 401(k) at least enough to take advantage of the maximum matching benefit. Don’t turn down free money.
The choice to invest in a 401(k) gets more difficult when there is no matching contribution from your employer. At that point, your 401(k) becomes just another tax-advantaged investment account. Unless your 401(k) gives you access to low-cost investments, this account should no longer be a priority. Most 401(k) plans include fund choices that are not as inexpensive as choices you can find elsewhere, like at Vanguard or Fidelity. Low costs correlate to better investment results over long periods of time, and at age 24, this particular reader could be waiting many decades before accessing this money.
You can compare costs by reading the prospectuses for the investment choices in your 401(k) and comparing the expense ratios and other fees with similar funds managed by Vanguard.
Without an employer match, consider maximizing your IRA before contributing to your 401(k). A traditional IRA offers the same tax benefits as a 401(k), and a Roth IRA forgoes the tax deduction for your contributions today for a tax deduction in retirement. That’s a good choice if you expect that you’re in a lower tax bracket today than you will be in retirement. Considering the economy today, it’s probably a good bet that all taxes will be higher in thirty or forty years as the country struggles to pay its expenses, but you never know without a crystal ball.
While your investment choices in your 401(k) are limited, you can invest in almost anything in your IRA, depending on how you open the account. Your investments in IRAs are subject to an annual limit. If you have a strong enough cash flow to schedule your IRA investments throughout the year to the maximum and still have free cash flow, then you should consider investing what you can in a 401(k) without an employer’s matching contribution if your income isn’t above the maximum for taking advantage of the tax deduction. Otherwise, just invest using a taxable (regular, non-retirement) brokerage account. You can name the account “For Retirement” and leave it alone for forty years.
I wish I had been thinking like Steve when I was 24. I’m not sure I knew about the existence of 401(k) plans when I was that age. My employer didn’t offer a 403(b) plan — the non-profit version of the 401(k) — until the following year or two, and my cash flow was so tight, there was no matching contribution, and the investments were so expensive I just laughed. My only investment was in the form of a recently-converted UTMA or UGMA invested with what was probably savings bonds I received as gifts as a kid.
In reality, just making any choice for investing is better than making no choice. Whether you invest in a 401(k), IRA, or taxable account, just the act of putting money aside for retirement puts you ahead of half of all Americans in taking steps to ensure you have a stronger future.
Do you agree or disagree with the strategy outlined above? Share your thoughts on what you might do if your employer were not to offer a matching contribution on your 401(k).
Published or updated May 18, 2012.