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401k Basics: Understanding Contributions, Withdrawals, and Taxes

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Planning for retirement may seem like a daunting task, but it’s an essential part of ensuring your financial future remains secure.

Enter the world of 401k plans, a powerful tool that can help you accumulate wealth and navigate the complexities of retirement savings.

In this article, we’ll explore the basics of 401k plans, focusing on the different types of plans, how to contribute, rules for accessing your funds, and the tax implications for both contributions and withdrawals.

So, buckle up and get ready to embark on a journey that will empower you to take control of your retirement savings and make the most of your 401k plan contributions and withdrawals.

Introduction to 401k Basics

In simple terms, a 401k plan is a special type of savings account that helps you save money for your retirement while also reducing your taxes.

A key benefit of a 401k plan is the power of compound interest, which means your savings can grow faster over time.

This is because the returns generated by your investments are reinvested back into the account. Plus, many employers offer matching contributions, which is like getting “free money” when you participate in the plan.

It’s important to remember, though, that it can be difficult to access your 401k funds before retirement, so having an emergency fund for unexpected expenses is a good idea.

Types of 401k Plans

There are two main types of 401k plans: traditional and Roth.

With a traditional 401k, you contribute money before taxes are taken out, which lowers your taxable income for the year. The money in the account grows without being taxed, but you’ll pay taxes when you withdraw the funds during retirement.

On the other hand, a Roth 401k allows you to contribute after-tax income. While there’s no upfront tax break, the earnings in the account grow tax-free, and qualified withdrawals are not taxed.

In 2006, Roth 401k plans were introduced, giving employees more choices in their retirement planning.

Now, you can decide which type of plan is best for your financial situation and goals, taking into account factors like your current and future tax brackets.

Lastly, if you’re self-employed or run a small business without employees, you might qualify for a solo 401k plan, and Roth options are now available for Simple IRAs, SEP IRAs, and employer-sponsored retirement plans, benefiting self-employed business owners and small employers.

This type of plan offers the same tax advantages as traditional and Roth 401k plans, along with higher contribution limits and more flexibility in investment options.

Making 401k Contributions: Types, Limits, and Employer Match

As you’re investing for your retirement, a 401k plan can be an excellent vehicle to build your wealth.

There are different types of 401k plans, including traditional, safe harbor, SIMPLE, Roth, and solo, each with its own unique features.

When choosing the right plan for yourself or your company, consider factors such as the company’s needs, employees’ ages, the timeframe within which the plan will be offered, and the available budget and resources.

Employer Match

In many 401k plans, employers match employee contributions up to a certain percentage of their salary.

Employers can match student loan payments with retirement contributions, with the matched amount placed in the employee’s 401k.

This is a valuable benefit that can significantly boost your retirement savings. Some employers may even offer a dollar-for-dollar match, up to a specified limit.

To make the most of this opportunity, it’s essential to understand your employer’s match policy and contribute enough to maximize their matching contributions.

Contribution Limits

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sets a limit on the amount you can contribute to your 401k plan each year.

In 2023, the IRS increased the contribution limits by $2,000 for traditional and Roth 401ks, and by $1,500 for SIMPLE 401ks.

If you are over 50, you can contribute an additional $7,500 as a catch-up contribution. Starting in 2025, if you’re 60 to 63 your catch-up limit will be extended to an additional $10,000.

Keep in mind that these limits apply to both employee and employer contributions, and your specific plan may have additional limitations based on your employer’s policies or non-discrimination testing requirements.

Highly Compensated Employees

If you are considered a highly compensated employee (HCE), your 401k plan may limit your contribution based on the plan’s non-discrimination testing requirements.

An HCE, as defined by the IRS, is someone who owns more than 5% of the company or earns more than $150,000 a year.

Although the contribution limits for HCEs are not different from other employees, their maximum allowable contributions can be restricted based on the plan’s non-discrimination testing results.

To maximize your contributions as an HCE, work closely with your employer and plan administrator to understand your plan’s limitations and ensure compliance.

Excess Contributions and Corrective Distributions

If you inadvertently contribute more to your 401k than the IRS allows, it’s crucial to notify your plan administrator and request a corrective distribution by April 15.

Failure to request the corrective distribution may result in penalties and the need to withdraw the excess funds.

To avoid this issue, carefully track your contributions throughout the year and ensure that you do not exceed the IRS limits or any additional restrictions imposed by your specific plan.

Man reviewing 401k graphs

Withdrawal Rules, RMDs, and Penalties

Transitioning into retirement can be both exhilarating and bewildering, especially when it comes to navigating your 401k account.

But comprehending the intricacies of 401k withdrawals, required minimum distributions (RMDs), and potential penalties is crucial for a smooth financial transition later in life.

Withdrawal Rules

Withdrawing funds from your 401k account subjects you to income tax and a 10% fee unless you meet specific exceptions.

Typically, 401k participants cannot access their funds before turning 59 1/2 or becoming permanently disabled. However, certain dire circumstances, such as hardship distributions or major life events like tuition payments, home purchases, and emergency expenses, may exempt you from the penalty.

Keep in mind that even if you qualify for a penalty-free withdrawal, you’ll still owe taxes on the amount withdrawn.

Additionally, 401k vesting schedules outline the required service years for an employee to gain full ownership of their account. These schedules incentivize employee retention by mandating completion of a specific number of service years before accessing employer-contributed funds.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

Upon reaching the age specified by the SECURE Act 2.0 (depending on the year you were born: 72 for those born in 1950 or earlier, 73 for those born between 1951-1959 starting in 2023, and 75 for those born in 1960 or later starting in 2033), you must begin taking minimum distributions from your 401k account annually.

Neglecting to do so may result in steep penalties.

Filing Form 5329 and attaching a letter of explanation could potentially waive the penalty for not taking the full RMD.

It’s important to note, starting in 2023, the SECURE 2.0 Act will mandate RMDs at age 73.

Not taking RMDs from your 401k after age 73 results in a 25% penalty, and 50% before the implementation of the SECURE 2.0 Act. The SECURE 2.0 Act mitigates the excise tax rate to 25% for those who fail to withdraw the full required minimum distribution by the due date.

The RMD rules apply to all employer-sponsored retirement plans, including profit-sharing plans, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and 457(b) plans, except Roth 401(k)s and Roth 403(b)s starting in 2024, allowing for continued tax-free growth within the account.

However, individuals still employed at 73+ are exempt from taking RMDs from their employer’s 401k.

To calculate your RMD, divide the prior December 31 balance of your account by a life expectancy factor found in the Uniform Lifetime Table III or the Single Life Expectancy Table I.

For defined contribution plan participants or IRA owners who pass away after December 31, 2019, their entire account balance must be distributed within ten years to eligible beneficiaries such as heirs, children, disabled or chronically ill individuals, or someone at least ten years younger than the participant.

Taxes on 401k Withdrawals

When tapping into your 401k account, be prepared to pay income tax on the withdrawn amount.

The tax owed depends on your tax bracket and the withdrawal sum.

Remember to consider the tax implications of any 401k withdrawals, as they can significantly affect your net worth.

To sidestep the 10% penalty on early IRA withdrawals, ensure your withdrawal aligns with hardship criteria, or utilize your IRA to cover unreimbursed medical expenses, health insurance premiums, permanent disability, to satisfy an IRS levy, or for expanded penalty-free withdrawal exceptions such as $1,000 for financial emergencies and $10,000 for cases of domestic abuse.

Penalties for Early Withdrawal

Extracting funds from your 401k account before reaching 59 1/2 incurs a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to the standard income tax.

While hardship withdrawals and major life events serve as exceptions, understanding the potential penalties before making early withdrawals is vital.

For instance, if you take an early withdrawal to pay for unreimbursed medical expenses, health insurance premiums during unemployment, or to satisfy an IRS levy, you can avoid the 10% penalty. However, you will still have to pay income tax on the withdrawn amount.

The word taxes seen through a pair of glasses

Understanding Taxes on 401ks

Before you begin making contributions to your 401(k) plan, it’s important to understand the tax implications.

401(k) plans are tax-deferred, which means that you don’t pay taxes on your contributions until you withdraw the money. However, you still pay FICA taxes, which go toward Social Security and Medicare.

Your 401(k) contributions aren’t deductible on your tax return, since employers report your earnings at the end of the year, including 401(k) contributions.

When you withdraw money from a 401(k) after you retire, you’ll pay regular income tax rates and no FICA taxes. Once you start receiving Medicare or Social Security, you’ll reap the benefits of paying into these government funds.

It’s important to note that 401(k) distributions may also be taxed by state and local governments, but if you live in a state without income tax, you will not be taxed.

If you have medical expenses that aren’t covered by your insurance and exceed 7.5% of your modified adjusted gross income, your 401(k) withdrawals won’t be taxed.

Additionally, if your employer contributes to your 401(k), you don’t have to pay income taxes on the money until you begin making withdrawals.

Traditional vs. Roth 401k Tax Benefits

A traditional 401(k) plan is tax-deferred, meaning you don’t have to pay income taxes on your contributions. You only pay income taxes on your money when you withdraw it, depending on your income tax bracket.

On the other hand, Roth 401(k)s allow you to contribute money that you’ve already paid taxes on, so when you withdraw the money you won’t have to pay taxes on it. One of the biggest advantages of a Roth 401(k) is that it grows tax-free if you contribute after-tax dollars.

However, you must meet certain requirements, including the five-year aging rule and plan distribution rules, to be eligible for tax-free distributions. With a Roth 401(k), you can withdraw your contributions at any time without penalty, but the earnings must still be reported on your tax return.

401k Contribution Limits and Inflation Adjustments

The maximum amount that an employee or employer can contribute to a 401(k) plan is adjusted periodically to account for inflation.

As of 2023, the maximum amount an employee can contribute to a 401(k) plan is $20,500, and those aged 50 or older can contribute an additional $6,500.

Employers may also contribute to an employee’s 401(k) plan, up to a certain percentage of the employee’s salary.

401k Rollover Options

You may wish to keep your 401(k) with your old employer indefinitely, but if you decide to move your money to a new employer’s plan or an individual retirement account (IRA), you have two options:

– A direct rollover
– An indirect rollover.

A direct rollover involves transferring the funds directly from one account to another, without any taxes being withheld.

An indirect rollover involves receiving a distribution from your old plan and depositing the funds in your new plan or IRA within 60 days.

If you don’t make the transfer within that timeframe, you will have to pay income taxes.

It is possible to make a direct 401(k) rollover in order to avoid missing the 60-day deadline, but you must pay the full income tax on the rolled-over sum.

Unused 529 plan funds can be rolled over into a Roth IRA after 15 years without penalties, subject to annual contribution limits and a lifetime transfer limit of $35,000.

Solo 401ks for the Self-Employed

A Solo 401(k) is a retirement plan designed for self-employed individuals or businesses with no employees.

As both the employer and employee, you can make contributions to your Solo 401(k) plan.

The contribution limits for a Solo 401(k) are higher than those for traditional 401(k) plans, allowing you to save more for retirement.

Taxes on Employer Contributions

If your employer contributes to your 401(k), you don’t have to pay income taxes on the money while it’s in your account, but you will have to pay income taxes on withdrawals.

It’s important to note that employer contributions may be subject to vesting requirements, which means that you may not be able to withdraw the full amount immediately.

Strategies to Minimize Tax Burden for 401k Distributions

When taking distributions from your 401(k), it’s important to consider the tax implications.

Distributions from 401(k) plans are taxed differently depending on their type: traditional or Roth.

There are strategies to minimize the tax bite.

Lump-Sum Distribution for Those Born Before 1936

If you were born before 1936 and take your distribution as a lump sum, you may qualify for special tax treatment.

The tax owed on $90,000 will be $10,294 plus 22% of the amount over $89,450. Additional taxes may be owed if the couple’s income rises.

Net Unrealized Appreciation Treatment

Companies often reward their employees with stock and encourage them to hold these investments within 401(k)s or other retirement plans.

Such investments can qualify for net unrealized appreciation treatment, which can result in significant tax savings.

Roth 401k Withdrawal Requirements

In order to receive tax-free distributions from a Roth 401(k), your account must have sufficiently “aged” (been established) from the time you contributed, and you must be old enough to withdraw without penalties.

If you withdraw money from your Roth 401(k) for a rollover, you can avoid taxation if you deposit the money within 60 days.

Taxable Distributions From Employer Match

If you receive a distribution from your 401(k) that includes employer matching contributions, those funds are taxable.

This is because the employer match is considered taxable income, and you will be taxed on it when you make the withdrawal.


In summary, understanding the basics of 401k plans is crucial for retirees and senior-aged individuals looking to secure their financial future.

Contributing to a 401k plan, especially when your employer offers matching contributions, can greatly enhance your retirement savings.

It’s important to be aware of the rules surrounding 401k withdrawals, required minimum distributions (RMDs), taxes, and potential penalties.

Keeping things simple, remember that you can generally access your 401k funds without penalties once you turn 59 1/2 or if you become permanently disabled.

Starting at age 72, you’ll need to take a minimum amount from your 401k each year, known as RMDs.

To make the most of your retirement savings, we recommend talking to a financial advisor who can guide you in choosing the right type of 401k plan and help you navigate the complexities of retirement planning.

By following this advice and staying informed, you can confidently embrace your golden years with a sense of financial security and peace of mind.