What is a 401(k)?
A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan offered by many employers to their employees. Typically, employees can fund their 401(k) plans through automatic payroll withholding. Employers can opt to make matching contributions up to a certain percentage.
For instance, an employer may offer to match dollar for dollar up to 4%. So, let’s say that an employee elects to fund their account with 10% of his or her pre-tax income. The employee earns $60,000 per year. So, the annual employee contribution is $6,000.
The employer matches up to 4%. In this case, the employer provides $2,400 of funding at no cost to the employee. At the end of the year, the employee’s 401(k) will reflect $8,400 in deposits, even though they only funded $6,000 of that.
The employer can decide whether they’d like to match and, if so, how much. If you’re a cash-strapped business, you can elect to provide a 401(k) option without matching now and offer fund matching at a later date. Matching is also a tool that you can use to recruit employees. Just know that it’s an option, but it’s not required to start your small business 401(k) program.
Furthermore, not only do 401(k)s act as a form of retirement planning, they can also act as a form of tax relief. Employees can generally elect to fund traditionally or as a Roth. Under traditional funding, the employee makes pre-tax contributions. The contributions lower the individual’s taxable income.
While beneficial in the short-term, employees will have to pay taxes on the money when they make a withdrawal. If the employee is in a low tax bracket now than they will be at retirement, it could cost them in the long run.
If an employee elects to make Roth contributions, the contributions are made post-tax. Then, the only thing you have to pay money on is interest earnings. If you expect to be in a higher tax bracket later in life, then you may want to consider the tax benefits that a Roth 401(k) offers. However, most people will be in a lower income bracket after retirement since they will not hold a job.
The final important thing to consider is what’s known as “vesting.” Vesting is when employees will have ownership over their entire 401(k) plan — both the amount that they have contributed and the funds that your business has matched. If the employee is 100% vested, they own complete control over the funds in the 401(k), including what the employer contributed. Employees always own the contributions they’ve made but don’t own employer contributions until the 401(k) is 100% vested.
If the percentage is anything less than 100%, then the employer holds a portion of the fund. Typically, the longer an employee is at a company, the more vested he or she becomes. For instance, imagine an employee who is 50% vested and has contributed $10,000 while the company has matched $2,000. The employee leaves. The employee can roll over the $10,000 principal he or she contributed along with $1,000 of the employer contributions (or the 50% that was vested).