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How to Choose a Retirement Plan

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How to Choose a Retirement Plan

Are you looking to build your nest egg the smart way? 

Retirement plans offer a lot of advantages when it comes to saving your money. Every year, I use mine to avoid paying over $10,000 in taxes and get an extra $4,000 from my employer on top of what I’m contributing (more on this below).

However, retirement plans also come with a lot of rules. And it’s knowing the ins and outs of these rules that can mean the difference between a nice, early retirement (like I’m shooting for) or owing the IRS a whole lot more money than you’d probably care to part with.

Here’s how you can choose the right retirement plan for you. 

401k

401ks have become one of the most common types of retirement plans that you’ll find today. Named after the section of the IRS tax code from which it comes from, the way one works is simple: 

  • Every time you get paid, you’ll automatically contribute to your 401k before taxes are taken out of your paycheck. 
  • Those contributions get invested and have the potential to grow over time. While your savings accumulate, there are also no taxes paid on the gains you earn.
  • Finally, once you retire, you can then start making withdrawals from your 401k to use for your living expenses. Taxes will then be due at the time of withdrawal.

Basically, the IRS is giving you a free pass to skip paying taxes on your income now and delay it way into the future. To illustrate that point: If you’re in the 22% tax bracket, if you save up to the IRS maximum contribution limit of $19,500 (as of 2021), then you’ll defer approximately $4,290 in taxes.

Not a bad deal! 

Guess what? If you and your spouse have a 401k, then you can both use this strategy and save double on taxes ($8,580).

If that wasn’t reason enough, many employers also will make matching contributions to their employees’ 401k plans as a way to encourage them to participate – sometimes dollar for dollar (up to a certain limit).

For example, if your employer kicks in $4,000 per year and you invest it in a stock market index fund averaging a 10% return, then these extra contributions would have the potential to grow to $657,970 after 30 years!

There are, however, a few drawbacks to using a 401k:

  • You can’t make any withdrawals until after age 59-1/2 without paying taxes and a 10% penalty.
  • If your employer doesn’t offer a 401k, then you can’t participate in one.
  • You’re limited to only the investment options the plan administrator offers.

Between tax-deferred investment growth and employer contributions, utilizing my 401k is how I was able to grow my nest egg by over six-figures after just 5 years of participation. Trust me – it’s an opportunity you don’t want to pass up!

403b or 457b

Whereas 401k plans are designed for private-sector employees, the IRS also has two other similar plans: A 403b and 457b (both cleverly named after their corresponding section of the tax code as well).

Here’s who can contribute to each:

  • 403b – Public school teachers, ministers, and employees of tax-exempt organizations can contribute to a 403b.
  • 457b – State, local government, and some nonprofit employers.

Generally speaking, 403b and 457b plans work nearly the same as 401k plans in terms of tax-deferment, investments, and annual contribution limits.

However, when it comes to withdrawals, 457b plans do have the advantage of letting you skip the 10% penalty if you take out your money before age 59-1/2.

IRAs

Using your workplace retirement plan isn’t the only way to build your nest egg. You can also save for retirement on your own using what’s called an IRA.

IRA stands for “individual retirement account”. Similar to a 401k, an IRA lets you skip paying taxes on your contributions now and instead lets you pay them when you start making future withdrawals (after age 59-1/2). 

Not only is tax deferment a major advantage, IRAs can be opened with any financial institution of your choice and invested in almost anything you like: Mutual funds, ETF’s, stocks, precious metals … even real estate! That means paying fewer fees and giving you more control over what you can do with your money.

One big disadvantage is that you can only contribute up to $6,000 per year (as of 2021). That’s significantly less than what you can put into your 401k. There are also certain income limitations about who can participate (read the full details here).

For the majority of middle class Americans, you should be able to contribute to both a 401k and IRA. Since both my wife and I use these plans, that’s how we’re able to avoid paying so much in taxes every year. 

Roth-Style Retirement Plans

Tax deferment is great! But if you believe you’re in a lower bracket now than you will be in the future, or just afraid taxes will go up eventually, then what you need is a Roth-style plan.

Back in 1997, a senator named William Roth proposed what would become known as the Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on your contributions now (in the year that you make them) and when you retire in the future, you’ll make tax-free withdrawals.

Basically, they work the opposite of how a traditional IRA works.

Because they’ve become so popular, many 401k plans now also offer a Roth-style option. Again, consider what your future tax situation will be like before deciding if you’d like to go with this type of plan. 

Small Business Retirement Plans

If you work for yourself, for a very small company, or do any kind of side hustling, then you might also be able to participate in one of the following:

Solo 401k

A solo 401k is for business owners that have no employees (spouses excluded). 

It more or less works the same as a regular 401k plan except that you can contribute as both the employer and employee (since you’re technically both) – up to an astonishing $58,000 (as of 2021). Contributions can count as a tax deduction against your personal taxable income or business.

SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRA

SEP IRAs are for businesses with little to no employees. Similar to the Solo 401k, a SEP IRA can give you the incredible advantage of contributing as both an employer and employee (if you happen to be both). 

For the employer part, you can save up to the lesser of 25% of your compensation or $58,000 (as of 2021). That means reducing your taxable business income by as much as 25%.

SIMPLE IRA

SIMPLE IRAs are designed for companies that are too small to have a 401k plan but too big for a SEP IRA (1-100 employees). Employees are allowed to save as much as $13,500 per year (as of 2021). However, employers can also contribute on your behalf.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to building your wealth, there’s a lot of money to be made by utilizing your retirement plans as much as possible.

Between deferring your taxes, employer contributions, and potentially offsetting your business income, every dollar you contribute is working much harder for you than it normally would in a typical savings or brokerage account.

However, not all types of plans are for everyone. There are lots of rules about who can participate and how much they can contribute. The best thing you can do is to read up, ask for advice, or then decide which ones are going to best help you to achieve your financial future.

Contributor’s opinions are their own. Always do your own due diligence before investing.

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Written by DJ Whiteside

DJ writes about retirement and credit cards. He loves looking for new ways to optimize savings, build wealth, and sharing what he learns with others.

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