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Should I max out my 401(k)?

What we'll cover

  • What does it mean to max out your 401(k)?

  • Pros and cons of maxing out a 401(k)

  • Quick steps to take to max out your plan

Do you have a mental list of all the things you're doing to reach your retirement goals?

  • Making and sticking to a budget? ✓

  • Investing strategically to manage risk and returns? ✓

  • Maxing out your 401(k) contributions? Well … maybe not.

A maxed out 401(k) is one more step you can take that may help you get closer to your retirement goals. If a workplace 401(k) is the centerpiece of your retirement savings plan, it's important to know how to make the most of your contribution.

What is a maxed out 401(k)?

Maxing out your 401(k) simply means making contributions up to the annual limit set by the IRS. For 2021, the maximum amount you can contribute to a 401(k) is $19,500. You can add another $6,500 in catch-up contributions if you're age 50 or older.

These limits only apply to your contributions. If your employer offers a matching contribution, different limits exist for how much an employer can add on your behalf. For 2021, the combined employee-employer contribution limit is $58,000 or $64,500 when you add in catch-up contributions.

The benefit of maxing out a 401(k)

You have one very simple reason to max out your 401(k): The more you contribute, the bigger your retirement savings may be.

Say you have two employees at the same company, both aged 25 and making $50,000 each year. Employee A contributes 10% or $5,000 of their pay to their 401(k) annually. Employee B contributes 39% of their pay, or $19,500. Both get the same employer 100% match, up to the first 6% of their salary.

Both employees invest in their plans for 40 years, earning an annual return of 7% each year. In this example, at age 65, Employee A retires with $1.66 million. That's significant retirement savings. But Employee B, who maxed out their plan each year, ends up with significantly more: $4.39 million.

This is a hypothetical example, of course. And it doesn't account for the added value of catch-up contributions. But it shows how much more you could end up with for retirement if you contribute the full amount to your 401(k) every year.

Disadvantages of maxing out a 401(k)

While it’s a great savings strategy, maxing out a 401(k) is not a realistic goal for everyone. If you're making $50,000 a year, then contributing the maximum would leave you with $30,500 to live on. That could be challenging, especially if you live in a more expensive city, have debt you're paying off or are saving for multiple goals.

On the other hand, maxing out a 401(k) may be less of a stretch for higher earners. Someone who's making $130,000 a year, for example, can accomplish this savings goal by contributing 15% of their income.

Additionally, if you’re limited in how much you save for retirement, a maxed out 401(k) could prevent you from taking advantage of other retirement investing choices, like individual retirement accounts (IRAs). Contributing to a Traditional IRA, for instance, could yield a tax break in the form of a deduction. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, allows for tax-free withdrawals in retirement. With a regular taxable brokerage account (and not an IRA), you're not bound by annual contribution limits.

Should I max out my 401(k)?

When deciding whether to max out your 401(k) or not, start by looking at your bigger financial picture. After all, retirement may be decades away for you and you may have other, more immediate financial goals that you want to prioritize. Take into consideration:

  • How much do you have saved for emergencies? Are you comfortable with the amount?

  • How much debt are you carrying? What percentage of your income goes to debt repayment each month?

  • Do you have other financial goals you're working on, such as buying a home or putting away money for your child's college expenses?

  • Does your financial plan include things like insurance, disability insurance and a will or trust?

How to max out 401(k) contributions

Having a maxed out 401(k) can help you feel more secure about your retirement future. If you're interested in maxing out your plan:

  • Examine your monthly expenses and how much those represent, as a percentage of your total income

  • Look at how much of your pay you're currently contributing to your 401(k) and how much more you would need to contribute to reach the limit

  • Go back to your budget and ask yourself if upping your contribution is possible

  • If yes, contact your 401(k) plan administrator and request an increase in your contribution rate

  • If no, take a closer look at your spending for areas you can reduce

Quick tip: If you can’t immediately contribute the maximum amount to your 401(k), you might also consider increasing your contributions by 1% each year until you reach the annual limit.

Hit your retirement savings target

Retirement may be well off in the future, but you are probably already doing several things to prepare for it. While everyone’s retirement to-do list is different, it’s worth it to consider adding “max out your 401(k)” to yours.

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