Morgan Stanley
  • Wealth Management
  • Apr 20, 2023

You Work Hard, Make Your 401(k) Plan Work Harder

It’s important to determine how much money you may need to save for a comfortable retirement. Here are three 401(k) plan retirement strategies to consider.

Life expectancy continues to expand, thanks to new advances in medical care and a focus on better health habits. A longer life often means more years in retirement, which could last 30 years or more.

How much money is enough for a comfortable retirement? The IRS suggests you’ll need up to 80% of your annual income today to help maintain your quality of life once you say goodbye to a regular paycheck.1 And when you consider the average benefit amount paid monthly by the Social Security Administration is $1,177, many of us may need to boost our nest egg.2

How to Help Maximize Your 401(k) Plan

One of the simplest and most effective ways to save for retirement is to contribute to your company’s 401(k) plan. A 401(k) plan allows you to defer a portion of your paycheck to your 401(k) plan retirement account each pay period automatically, while potentially reducing your tax bill for that tax year. But are you getting the most out of your 401(k) plan savings?

Here are three 401(k) plan retirement strategies to consider: 

1. Get the Match

Does your employer offer a matching contribution to your 401(k) plan? If so, find out how much you need to save to qualify for that match. The most common match formula is 50 cents for every dollar saved, up to 6% of your pay. Employees participating in a plan with this type of formula need to contribute at least 6% of their salary to their 401(k) plan to get the maximum possible employer matching contribution to their 401(k) plan.

Saving 6% of your pay in a 401(k) plan and earning a 3% employer matching contribution means you are tucking away an amount equal to 9% of your salary each pay period for retirement. For a worker earning $75,000 per year this means that employee would have a total annual 401(k) plan contribution amount of $4,500 that year, plus another $2,250 in employer matching contributions. The employer match is a powerful incentive to participate in and contribute to a 401(k) plan—essentially earning “free” money from your company—that will help you get closer to your retirement savings goal.

If your employer does not currently offer a matching contribution, it still makes sense to contribute to your plan on a regular basis for three important reasons:

  • There are tax advantages. In a traditional 401(k) plan, your contributions to a 401(k) plan are excluded from your gross income for that year, resulting in a lower taxable income for that year (although you have to pay taxes on the distributions).
  • Your money potentially grows tax-deferred. If you had earnings in a savings account or brokerage account, you would have to pay taxes on the earned interest, dividends or other income at the end of the year. With a 401(k) plan, your earnings are rolled back into the plan and are not included as income on your tax return until the year in which you withdraw assets from your 401(k) plan retirement account. As a result, your account balance has the potential to grow faster.
  • Interest on your savings compounds. This is what makes a 401(k) plan so powerful. Any interest, dividends or other income you receive within your 401(k) plan account is reinvested, so you earn income on your original principal plus additional income on the interest, dividends or other income you earn within your 401(k) plan account. Over the short term, the gains may appear small. But over time, you can experience larger results.

2. Increase Your Deferral Rate

Taking advantage of a company match helps you capture valuable contributions from your employer, but it may not be enough. Many 401(k) plan providers recommend saving at least 10% annually over the course of your career.3 But, the average 401(k) plan contribution is closer to 7%.4

If you aren’t able to save 10% to 15% of your pay at the beginning of your career, aim to gradually increase your deferral rate over time. One smart tactic is to boost your 401(k) plan deferral rate every time you get a raise or bonus. This enables you to save more without reducing your take-home pay.

Another way to consider for enhancing your savings rate is to increase your deferral rate by 1% every year. Some companies offer an automatic escalation feature that will periodically increase your savings rate with a simple click of a box, while other companies require you to manually make this change.

A good time to review your contribution amount is at the beginning of the year when you’re looking carefully at other benefits elections, such as medical and dental insurance, since the amount you put towards these benefits will have an impact on your paycheck. Another good time to revisit your contribution amount is when you receive additional compensation, whether through a raise, promotion or bonus.

3. Consider Maxing Out Your Retirement Plan Contribution

For 2023, the maximum amount you can contribute to your 401(k) plan annually is $22,500. If you’re 50 or older, you’re eligible to make “catch-up” contributions up to an additional $7,500—for a maximum possible 401(k) plan contribution of $30,000 in 2023.5

When you max out your traditional 401(k) plan contribution limit, you not only save more for retirement, but you also potentially pay less in taxes that year since your taxable income would be lower as traditional contributions to your 401(k) plan are taxed when they are withdrawn, not when they are made.

To max out your 401(k) plan contributions in 2023, you’ll first need to calculate the percentage of your annual pay that adds up to $22,500 (if you are age 49 or younger) or $30,000 (if you are 50 or older). For example, a 42-year-old worker earning $140,000 annually would need to contribute approximately 16.1% of her salary to her 401(k) plan to reach the contribution limit in 2023. Make sure to adjust your deferral rate after you receive a raise or bonus to avoid exceeding the 401(k) plan contribution limit.

Save Smart for Retirement

Whether you’re nearing retirement or just starting your career, it’s always the right time to save for the years ahead. Putting these simple 401(k) plan retirement strategies in place will help you accumulate more money for your retirement years, while helping to reduce the taxes you pay for the current year. As you consider these ideas, it’s important to work with your Financial Advisor to help ensure the strategies you put into place align with other investment decisions, so that all your assets are working together to help you achieve your short- and long-term goals.

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